November 24, 2011

Book review: That awful mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Hersilia Press @ 3:36 pm


That awful mess on the Via Merulana is a classic of Italian crime fiction and only recently I managed to close this terrible gap in my knowledge :-) so at risk of being considered a philistine by many experts, here are my thoughts on it.

It was published from 1946 (in serialised form) so I was prepared to contextualise the writing and the plot to its historical setting. The first 50 pages really had me in stitches: the use of the Roman dialect and the description of people is really amazing. However, despite two murders happening in the book, it is a bit of a stretch to call it a crime fiction book. It is more a snapshot (and a long one at that) of life in the Roman suburbs in the fascist period. It might spoil the plot to say that the culprit is not found, despite the best efforts of the investigators.
And the book does feel like it’s unfinished, especially in the last page.

I do appreciate the masterful use of language and its historical importance (Gadda echoes other masters of Italian literature like Belli especially in the use of dialect). However, frequently the author launches into “soliloquies” where even a native speaker is baffled at the use of words, and which do not seem to me to have much purpose except for showing off such mastery of language.

The plot really is very thin but this is perhaps a characteristic of Italian crime fiction, much more based on the insight into characters than rollercoaster action – and undoubtedly Gadda was one of the founders of this particular style.

All in all, I find it very hard to express a non-contradictory opinion: it is indeed a translator’s nightmare, and the use of language is second to none (perhaps only Umberto Eco comes close). But, perhaps because of the different historical setting, there are a lot more aspects which I value in a book: plot, consistency and flow, which seem to be somewhat lacking in this one.

November 15, 2011

Submissions now accepted!

Hersilia Press @ 5:46 pm

Hersilia Press was set up with the primary aim of publishing crime fiction in translation from Italian. However, we have recently taken the decision to expand our remit and publish crime novels with an Italian theme although written originally in English.

Therefore, Hersilia Press now accepts submissions either directly or via agents. Our requirements are very simple: please email the first chapter and a synopsis, as a word document, to

We will try to reply to all queries within two weeks. We are happy to consider simultaneous submissions but please let us know if this is the case.

Please look at the type of books we publish before making a submission: we publish crime, detective, noir in the widest sense of the term but all books have to either be set in Italy or have a strong connection with Italy (it is not enough to say that your grandmother came from Italy in the 1950s).

Please bear in mind that publishing a book involves many weeks of editing, discussing, and sometimes agonising over options. It is not something we take lightly. This is why we take pride in our personal connection and support of our authors in what they do.

We can only publish a small number of books per year, therefore please don’t feel discouraged by a rejection, as the editorial line is dictated by the personal taste of those who choose the books informed by with commercial considerations. Even if it doesn’t work for us, your book may be a perfect fit for another publisher.

Thank you. We look forward to hearing from you.

Filed under: crime fiction,submissions

November 8, 2011

The Voice in Your Head

admin @ 7:32 pm

Joan of Arc heard voices. So did the mystics, like Saint Catherine of Siena. Translators hear voices too. Or at least this translator does. Unlike Joan, whose voices were those of angels and saints, or so she claimed, and who always spoke in French, my voices are those of the writers I translate, and they always speak to me in Italian, sometimes with a sprinkling of this or that dialect.

I started thinking about hearing voices when I read a recent blog entry by writer Olivia Boler. In “Reading your stories aloud is a good thing” (, Ms. Boler points out the helpfulness of reading your work aloud, whether you are an author or a translator. While I myself do not routinely do this, I was suddenly reminded of how many times I’ve thought a translation of mine was “final”, only to then find different words coming out of my mouth when I went to read it out loud! This has happened to me even after a work has been edited and published: I take the book with me to a reading, and instead of the words on the page, other words spontaneously pop out! This seems to happen especially with dialogue, which leads me to think that spoken rhythm is different than the voice we “hear” in our heads.

Translators talk a lot about finding the right “voice” to render the soul of the original text. I like to think of it as “channeling” the author’s spirit, whether he be living or long departed. To some extent, all translators are mediums. It’s more challenging when the author is no longer alive and you cannot get to know him, sit down with him over coffee at a café in Italy or communicate directly through e-mail. As novelist Gianrico Carofiglio put it when I mentioned this to him at a recent book event in San Francisco, it’s difficult to ask questions of the deceased! Still, the translator as medium must be able to convey the message, even from the spirits of the dead.

Another challenge is the use of dialect, something which has grown more common in contemporary Italian literature since the postwar period (possibly as a reaction against the levelling of the Italian language, though that’s an entirely different subject). Where the original text is peppered with dialect, especially Sicilian, I hear a different voice: that of my nonna. Sounding out the words in my head – or even reading them aloud – I can “hear” my grandmother saying things like buonanima, God rest his soul; scemuzza, little silly, or scimunite, those silly idiots; picciridda, figghia mia, carusa bedda, various terms of endearment for little girl; ceuse, the delicious, juicy fruit from our mulberry tree; or even entire proverbs, such as “Chi lassa la strata vecchia pi la nova, sapi chiddu ca lassa, ma non sapi chiddu ca trova”, roughly equivalent to “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. But along with my nonna’s voice there is always the insistent whisper of the little figure who sits on every translator’s shoulder, persistently murmuring (muttering?) in her ear: the author’s voice, of course. Where would the translator be without him?

–Anne Milano Appel

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