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10 Questions for Alex Valente

I love my nonno very much. That's Italian for "grandpa." I love Italian too. One of my two languages that, for reasons beyond my control, is my only language: the one, the survivor.

Anyway, I love Italian. And I'm getting to know it, and to know it I write it: I carefully trace the letters of each new word I learn on any scrap of paper I can get my hands on.
—From "That's Life, Honey," by Gabriella Kuruvilla, Translated by Jamie Richards and Alex Valente, Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
The very first one was the werewolf transformation scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! In elementary school, in Italy, we were asked to bring a scene from a book to our final exam, and that was my favourite at the time – it just happened to be in the ‘wrong’ language, so I co-translated it with my mother; the official translation by Beatrice Masini came out shortly after, but still too late for my exam.

I believe my first fully intentional work was my undergraduate thesis: a complete translation of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s L’Allegria poetry collection.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This one is hard, as it changes with every text I work on, obviously. I like checking and reading through the influences of my authors to get a sense of their voice in the new language, but I don’t think I’ve found my voice quite yet, just multiple early drafts of it. Especially when I write my own material, I notice some Italianness in my English syntax, and try grasping at the latter when using the former, especially when it comes to vocabulary. I try reading and absorbing as many contemporary voices as possible, especially nonfiction and poetry, and any new writing from marginalised writers and communities within all language landscapes where I lurk – if that helps answering the question at all.

As for translators who inspire me, however, I have always been a big fan of Yasmina Melaouah (Daniel Pennac’s Italian translator) and Ken Liu (one of the biggest names in Chinese specfic translation) and am truly impressed by the work of my colleagues Ginny Tapley Takemori, Deborah Smith, Rosalind Harvey, Lawrence Schimel, Katy Derbyshire, and Jamie Richards.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been or still am a cleaner, a waiter, a social media manager, a language teacher, a university tutor and workshop leader, editor, scare actor, Transformers specific news site administrator, dog walker, charity shop staffer and comics festivals volunteer. My business card just says ‘freelancer’.

What did you want to be when you were young?
An artichoke. Because young half-Italian me found that word to be the easier alternative to ‘architect’. I then entertained biodiversity and evolution, classical languages researcher, and ‘English teacher in Italian high schools’. Let’s say I got sidetracked into translation via sociolinguistics (through university), but still kept the language interest going.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
As I said in my influences above, I like keeping up to date with contemporary voices in the languages I read, and there’s a severe lack of current Italian voices (both in Italy and abroad) that describe experiences outside of the established canons of education systems and post-WWII neorealism. Kuruvilla, Scego, Wadia, but also any of the names selected by Jhumpa Lahiri in her recent Italian Short Stories; those are the writers we should be championing in translation and within the Italian literary scene, as a counter-narrative to the predominantly male, predominantly white, marketing department pushed and rushed book series.

When I found out Jamie was also working (more successfully) on similar texts, and had one story by Kuruvilla published already, we decided to combine our efforts.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I can’t think of anything for this, but I was quite amused by the fact that three of my latest books have been set in or around Milan, and the same two shops appear in all of them – meaning that some very different stories could easily have crossed paths while waiting to pay for freshly baked goods.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
It may be telling of my age and generation, but I tend to have lo-fi anime beats and chillhop if I really need to focus (usually during the editing process). During the first draft of a translation, on the other hand, I can multitask, and listen to bookish, horror, and RPG podcasts too, without too much distraction.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I have never had a cleaner flat than when I’ve had to crunch for a deadline. It’s an unfortunate tradition, but it has definitely become a recurring one over time. ‘The place is so clean! Oh, do you have a new deadline..?’ is something I’ve heard several times now.

What are you working on currently?
I have a couple of books due out this summer in the UK (plus one in the US, I’m told), and most of the work on those is done. I’m working on a handful of samples and partial translations, all Italian to English, focusing on the new precarious European realities for people with multiple cultural identities.

I’m also always helping out friends and acquaintances in the independent Italian comics (self)publishing world, mostly with English proofreading and copyediting of collections of webcomics getting ready for their print editions.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished two books: Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, which absolutely terrified me – I would love to see it published and widely read outside of Canada, be it in translation or just wider anglophone circulation; the other is a non-fiction critical companion to translation from a very specific angle: Il Corpo del Testo: Elementi di traduzione transfemminista queer, by Laura Fontanella.

I’m now about to start Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, succinctly described as ‘lesbian necromancers in space’. I can’t wait.


ALEX VALENTE is a half-Yorkshire, half-Tuscan award-winning literary translator and teacher. He holds a PhD in literary translation from the University of East Anglia and has worked on Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me?, graphic novel Violeta: Corazon Maldito, and upcoming How to Be a Fascist: A Manual, by Michela Murgia.

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