The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Hope Campbell Gustafson

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Last year, Hope Campbell Gustafson translated excerpts of Italian writer Marco Lodoli’s Isole (2010) and Nuove Isole (2014) for a book, Islands—New Islands, which we edited together for Fontanella Press. Subtitled “A Vagabond Guide to Rome,” Marco’s vignettes assemble the city out of quick glimpses into past and present with a voice ranging from the playful to the poetic. Our collaboration meant that I spent a lot of time reading Hope’s translations, pairing them alongside images, and reflecting upon their cadence.

Guided by the rhythm of Marco’s Italian, Hope maintained his long, associative sentences, leaving occasional phrases in Italian when she felt it was important. I’ve learned a lot from Hope about the idea of translation as participating in a kind of linguistic resistance and the ability of “foreign” words in English texts to push against readerly expectation. I can attest to the careful eye Hope applies to her work, and to her conviction in supporting less-represented Italian authors.

Hope’s approach towards translation is, in part, the direct result of her intimate collaboration with Somali-Italian writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah. Her translation of Ubah’s Il Comandante del Fiume is a postcolonial coming-of-age story about Yabar, an eighteen-year-old Somali-Italian, coming to terms with his identity. Fans of Hope and Ubah can look forward to the publication of the book in English, forthcoming from Indiana University Press as part of their Global African Voices Series, later this year.

The below conversation took place virtually: our gesticulations were frequently frozen as the internet connection dropped. During our talk, Hope remarked upon the importance of recreating the soundscape and mood of a text within her translations. At a time when travel is so restricted, to be reminded that in translation we might travel to a different tonal space offers some solace.

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The Rumpus: You are a frequent, close collaborator with Somali-Italian writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah. Will you tell me how you first became interested in postcolonial literature and got to know Ubah? 

Hope Campbell Gustafson: I’d been interested in the relationship between Italy and East Africa for some time, and come from the city in the US with the largest Somali population, Minneapolis, where I’d spoken Italian with some older Somalis during a high school job as a cashier at the food coop. I got connected with Ubah completely by coincidence; a classmate in graduate school commissioned a piece by her for our literary journal, and I was the only Italian translator. It’d be a dream to one day host Ubah in Minneapolis, to do a reading there together.

Rumpus: You’ve recently had a story, “Dance of the Oryx,” published on Juxta Press, which you’ve translated from Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s novella.

Campbell Gustafson: Yes, Juxta is a beautiful, young press publishing in both English and Italian. They created a little series called “Words for Portraits.” Four writers chose a portrait to inspire them, and Ubah’s portrait is a collage by a Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu. The piece is called Homeward Born. Ubah ended up writing a novella, which Juxta printed in a very sweet edition, and what has been published in English is my translated excerpt of Ubah’s novella. The story is set between Africa and Europe, and you don’t really know when or where it takes place. It’s about a female warrior who gets discovered by a white man in Somalia. She and her travel companion are taken to be part of a colonial exhibition, akin to a human zoo… There was apparently one in Marseille and Naples, and they brought people from colonized territories and put them in little villages to recreate what they thought these places looked like, as a spectacle. In Ubah’s story, the people who are being exhibited escaped and then joined a circus…

Rumpus: You mentioned that the story itself is inspired by the collage portrait by Wangechi Mutu, but I noticed that there are different photographs alongside (your) English translation. Were you involved in choosing the images, Madonna Mia Proteggemmi, by Faith47 which appear alongside your translation?

Campbell Gustafson: Yes, Ubah actually chose these images. Faith47 is a South African street artist. I don’t actually know where these murals are in Rome, and I’m so curious about that. Those images are intended to reflect the dangerous passage taken by stowaways to promised lands, which is a nice connection to the text.

Rumpus: You and Ubah have a very special, personal relationship. I’m curious about whether or not your approach to your work and your actual translation process has changed as you’ve gotten to know her better.

Campbell Gustafson: It’s very collaborative, and we really trust each other. Ubah sends me drafts and asks me what I think while she’s working. She recently asked me to translate a letter for English PEN, and I noted some things for the translation, and then she went back and changed the original. It’s a constant back and forth. The novel that I translated, Il comandante del fiume, was also a very collaborative process. At her original, Italian publisher 66thand2nd, her editor was a white Italian man who took advantage of her and basically changed the book in front of her. He was wrongly assuming that Italian was her second language. Ubah has now gone back through the book, with me, and addressed those changes anew. One reason that it’s so exciting that this book will be published again in English is because she’s made a lot of changes to make the book closer to the original, to her pre-edited form. I should add that this is all with the publisher’s consent; the previous editor has since been fired.

Rumpus: Will the original, Italian text come out again in this version, in a way that greater reflects Ubah’s original intent?

Campbell Gustafson: Yes, if there’s a reprinting, the publisher has said that’s what they would do. We’ve made small edits to the text to return it to her original intentions. These edits ultimately make the text more direct, more active. Ubah has strong feelings about certain words, and really cares about sound and flow. During our Art Omi residency—I had a full draft of the book at that point—Ubah read out loud the Italian and I made changes to my English. That is definitely something we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have a close relationship. She pointed out things that were important to her that I may have missed.

Rumpus: Is that something that you do in your revision process, reading sentences out loud?

Campbell Gustafson: Absolutely. I used to just do it in the English translation, but now I sometimes do it sentence to sentence. Reading out loud in both Italian and English helps to approximate the soundscape, the feeling of language. That feeling is obviously not direct; you can’t have the same alliteration or assonance with the same words, for example. You can, however, find a way to try to approximate the sound somewhere nearby.

Rumpus: Italian has a specific sentence structure that we don’t have in English. Do you find yourself trying to stick closer to that way of structuring sentences?

Campbell Gustafson: Ubah works to decolonize the language. Her Italian is a non-standard Italian, especially in the more lyrical sections. This is partially because she wants to bring the feel of Somali storytelling and oral narration into her work. She also seamlessly weaves in Somali words and phrases, often without explanation or gloss, and always without italics. This could be potentially alienating for readers, and is therefore a form of resistance. There’s a part of the book where the main character, a young Roman boy, goes to London to visit some Somali family members. In that section, there are all these macaronic conversations where characters are speaking in Italian, Somali, and English, though not always correctly, within the same sentence. Let me find an example… here: when Yabar’s uncle picks him up at the airport he says, “We go guriga. Everybody, habaryar, Maxamed, Muuse, tutti, is there!” and a bit later, “Tutto abbosto? Do you want to watch a movie?” when “tutto a posto?” would be the correct way to say or write “all good?”

Rumpus: That must have been challenging, since you were translating multiple languages.

Campbell Gustafson: In the end, my solution was to keep these sentences as they are.

Rumpus: We worked together on a project called Islands—New Islands: A Vagabond Guide to Rome, which paired archival images from the American Academy in Rome alongside your beautiful translations of Marco Lodoli’s book Isole. Early in our collaboration, you mentioned wanting to translate pieces in the same places Marco describes within the original text. I wanted to ask you what you think about that idea now, of that kind of physical pairing.

Campbell Gustafson: Well, I love that idea! It’s definitely romantic and I do feel drawn to texts that are very grounded physically in space, in place. I want the reader to be conscious of the fact that they are reading about an Italian location in an originally Italian-language book. More generally, I do believe that it is important to speak and read the language that you translate, but I also believe that the translator should be culturally fluent. While working with Isole, it was absolutely helpful to have personal experience with Largo Dei Librari, for example, with the culture of eating cod and drinking white wine in that piazza. Do you remember when we used to go there? Filetti di baccalà?

Rumpus: Yes, I remember! Knowing those places obviously enhances your own experience of the work, but I was wondering if you think that experience makes it onto the page, into the text.

Campbell Gustafson: I do think my role is to know the most I can about what I’m translating. It’s not just about words, clearly. Part of the fun is having to do the research, to look up images, and read the backstory. I love going on Google Maps and seeing how one gets from one spot to another, what the streets and corners and facades look like. I enjoy and do all of that research, and it must make the translation better.

Rumpus: I also wanted to ask you about the workshop process at Iowa, and how that has impacted your approach to your work now.

Campbell Gustafson: Something about Iowa that I couldn’t wrap my head around before I started was the fact that people were translating from any language, any time period, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, in our workshops. At first, I couldn’t understand how I was going to critique someone’s text when I can’t read the original.

Rumpus: When you first told me about it, it boggled my mind. It says a lot about the approach to literary translation there, with an emphasis on the product. What do you think about that now?

Campbell Gustafson: It’s amazing what you can get from reading text on a page. You could feel the spots that were hard to work out. It’s an approach which focuses on what you have in front of you. But another thing I learned at Iowa is that you’ve got to trust your reader. In the beginning of Isole, both of us had this desire to have footnotes and explain every little piece. We all, however, have the ability to look things up, especially now. You don’t need to give the reader everything. Everyone is coming to a text, bringing their own experience and knowledge, and that’s part of it. I feel that the reader should be comfortable in being confused and being in a different place. I would want my translation to show that it’s not an original English text, that it is “foreign”… but coming to you.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you’re in a community of translators that shares that perspective?

Campbell Gustafson: Yes, I think so. It varies from text to text, of course, but you don’t want to smooth things over. For example, I would never translate a name. I generally feel like the more Italian in the text, the better—but not italicized.

Rumpus: Could you speak to me a little bit about upcoming work? I believe you’re currently collaborating with another translator, Aaron Robertson?

Campbell Gustafson: Yes, I’m really excited to work with Aaron. Aaron and I sought each other out, and we said we’re doing the same thing, we’re both translating Somali-Italian women writers, and we should be a team. We’re each other’s biggest fan, and he’s very supportive and helpful. We’ve recently begun co-translating a book that was co-written by a white Italian and a Black Italian. It’s a book about Somalia and Italy from the 1920s to the current day. It’s multimodal, it includes different voices, letters, and historical documents. We’re figuring out what our collaboration will look like, how to split up the text and edit each other’s work.

Rumpus: I will definitely be staying tuned for that; that sounds like an exciting collaboration. I also wanted to mention Aaron’s piece in Words Without Borders, which you sent me. I found it helpful and refreshing to read an article that had a proposed solution embedded within the piece—that publishers need more Black translator friends as a means to facilitate wider institutional transformation. I really appreciated how directly his address was in that piece, and highly recommend it.

Campbell Gustafson: Absolutely!

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Photograph of Hope Campbell Gustafson by Gemma Doll-Grossman.


Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →