Ivana Dobrakovová is based in Turin where she works as a freelance translator from French and Italian and is the translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels into Slovak. She is the author of three short story collections First Death in the Family, Toxo and Mothers and Truckers; and one novel, Bellevue.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Czechoslovakia, in Bratislava, and I grew up there as well, in a very nice residential district above the castle.
Were the members of your family big readers?
Well, my father was a mathematician, I have never seen him with a novel (although my mum told me he enjoyed Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when he was young), but my mother is still a big reader. She is also a mathematician and she doesn’t like fiction much (although she has read more novels than me); she usually reads all the biographies, books of interviews, historical books and whatever else she can grab hold of.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
I read a lot when I was little girl and during adolescence, but different things, not necessarily fiction. I went through all kinds of phases – for a while I read only fantasy, then books about movies and film-making and critiques (Hitchcock, Truffaut), then I caught Monty Python fever. This was followed by two years of reading only Franz Kafka. My mum tried to guide me, she wanted me to read more conventional books, or what was appropriate for a girl, like Gone with the Wind, or Russian classics, but I disobeyed her and just read what I wanted. I started reading fiction a great deal in my last year at university, which was a very happy time – I remember my amazement at discovering Julio Cortázar´s short stories – and the urge to copy him and try to understand how he “does” it. I started to read contemporary French literature since after school I decided to translate French authors. Ernesto Sabato’s novel On Heroes and Tombs was very important to me during my adolescence, and the section Report on the Blind was my first encounter with madness and paranoia in literature.
How come you relocated to Italy and what was the first thing you read in Italian?
I met my future husband: he is Italian. As he had a job in Turin and I could live anywhere since I am a translator, it was natural that I join him after finishing school. Admittedly, I was twenty-five years old, so I didn’t realize what it means to leave your home and go to live in another country. I found out when I had already arrived. My first book in Italian was probably Alessandro Baricco’s Silk.
How did your career as a translator come about?
I studied to become a translator and interpreter from French and English at Comenius University in Slovakia. It was clear that I could never work as an interpreter for the European union or as a legal translator. Translating fiction was a natural choice. I love literature. And at that time, I had started writing my own short stories.
In what way has translating Ferrante given your career as a translator a boost?
It was the first time that people were actually waiting for a book I was working on. I was amazed that I got letters from readers telling me how important the saga is to them. And I love working on Elena Ferrante’s novels. So far, I have spent three-and-a-half years with Elena Ferrante. It was also the first time my translations were discussed on social media: some readers praised me, others thought I could do better. It was strange because people don’t usually care much about translators. I cannot say that I had offers from other publishers or anything like that. I have stayed with the same publishing houses and am happy with them.
Do you have a theory about Ferrante’s real identity?
I don’t care that much about who Elena Ferrante is “in reality”. Her books are enough for me. Nothing changes if it is Anita Raja, or some other name which doesn’t say much to me.
A translator recreates the world of the writer in language. Since you became a writer yourself, how has each role proved beneficial to the other?
I learned to work with languages, mainly Slovak. Translating has helped me a lot. When I was a university student, I wasn’t sure about how to write. The only way to learn it is to do it: write and write and try to formulate phrases. So translating has proved to be very useful for my writing. I spend approximately four hours a day just trying to figure out how to get something down. Since I live in Italy, I am also scared by the possibility of losing Slovak. This cannot happen though, if you work all the time with the language. Without translating, I would no longer be a Slovak writer.
How do you choose your subjects?
I don’t choose my subjects, the subjects choose me . . .
Do you write every day, and do you do many drafts?
At first I used to write every day. I felt I needed to write a lot, on any subject, to learn how to construct a phrase, how to express what I had in mind, such as images or ideas. I threw a lot in the bin during this phase. Later, I wrote only when I was convinced about the idea, the story, and when there was a strong probability I would be satisfied with the end result. At the moment I don’t write at all because I have too much work: in this (school) year I have to translate five books so I have no time to write my own words. But I am not so worried about it. I don’t need to publish a new book every year. And as my writing is very intimate, personal, I don’t want to annoy readers by repeating myself. And yes, I do many drafts, I learn the text by heart. In the end, I read it over and over again to find all the mistakes, until I canʼt stand it anymore . . .
Have your books been translated into English by the same translator?
So far, only Bellevue, my novel, has been translated into English. And a short story, Rosa, in the anthology Into to Spotlight. My English translator is Julia Sherwood. She collaborates with her husband, Peter Sherwood. My condition every time a publishing house approaches me is that they do the translation as I am very happy with their work.
What does your translator need to address in terms of style, technicalities and culture, and how?
First of all, my translator needs to understand me and my writing to a large extent. The Hungarian translator of my first book didn’t understand why, in one of my short stories, I shifted from the first person singular to the second person singular, and wanted to make it either one or the other. So if you don’t understand that this was my intention, you canʼt translate my books, since I do even weirder things. My translator must capture the rhythm of obsessive thoughts, of repeated phrases; must accept that the punctuation is not often grammatically correct, that commas are missing, that a phrase is sometimes cut off in the middle, that the verb is missing, that there are a lot of toponyms, allusions to personal matters; and the characters sometimes say strange things or behave in an odd way . . . not everything is logical, and that’s not all! I wonder how they manage it all. Yet they like translating me, or so they say.
How has winning a Ján Johanides Award in the category Best Fiction by a Young Writer for First Death in the Family, being shortlisted four times for the Anasoft Litera prize, and winning the EU Prize for literature for your latest book, Mothers and Truckers, been beneficial to your career as a writer?
There were some other prizes as well! I have been very lucky, because I am not a best-selling author. Prizes give you some visibility; people discover me, they read about me in a literary magazine and I always have lots of reviews in journals, as well as interviews. Literary critics seem to like my writing. I am very grateful, as it is extremely difficult for me to travel somewhere and promote my books at book fairs or by touring. So, yes, without prizes it would be much harder for me as a writer. And there is satisfaction as well.
Your views on book publishing and translation? Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
There are too many books published nowadays in Slovakia. I try to read a lot, but you cannot follow everything. Anyone can become a writer which wasn’t the case eleven years ago when my first book came out. I was convinced that I would never manage to get my own book out in print. It seemed too prestigious, but now a lot of this prestige has been lost. I have never read an ebook. As a translator, as a writer, I have to spend hours and hours on my PC, I don’t want to look at a screen when I read. And I love paper. I know it is not ecological, but I must have the traditional printed book; to be able to turn its pages.
Do you like touring around Europe and the UK? What are the best things about touring?
Travelling for me is very, very stressful, and almost impossible to organize, in my present situation. So I am declining all offers of participating at book fairs, or presentations at the moment. In this respect I envy Elena Ferrante a little – she doesn’t need to go anywhere, doesn’t have to explain or justify herself, and nobody insists that she must come to promote her book. Then, when I am already someplace – if I decide to go – I am usually happy and glad to be there; regardless of the outcome of the presentation. This UK tour has been just fabulous, especially thanks to being in great company – with Julia Sherwood, Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk.
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
I am friends with many Slovak writers, I love to go to cafés with them, but they don’t help me to be a better writer. Everyone has figure it out for him/her-self.
Your views on success?
It is just fine as it is now. I have readers who follow me, critics are still interested in my books, I have been translated into other languages. I don’t think I would be happy being a very famous writer. It would confuse my head and I would think that I am more important than I really am; the most important thing for me is to preserve my sense of reality.
Your five favourite prose authors?
Julio Cortázar, Franz Kafka, Ernesto Sabato, Michel Houellebecq, Pavol Rankov.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I have always dreamed of meeting Franz Kafka. So it would be Prague, letʼs say, around 1900.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I hate parties. I feel awkward when I am in the company of lots of people all at the same time. I could invite five people, but separately. Who? Maybe the five writers mentioned above.
Your bedside reading?
As I am going to translate the latest Elena Ferrante novel, right now I am reading La vita bugiarda degli adulti.
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