‘I can’t imagine writing without translation’: An Interview with Livia Franchini

by Thea Hawlin

Livia Franchini is a writer and translator from Tuscany, Italy. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Quietus, Visual Verse, Hotel, Funhouse, the White Review, Minima&Moralia and Nuovi Argomenti among others. In 2016 she co-founded CORDA, a journal about friendship in the time of new borders. In 2017 she joined the organising board for the first edition of FILL, Festival of Italian Literature in London – where she lives and is working on her first novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. I spoke to her after the inaugural festival about teamwork, translation, and tearing down borders.

At a time in which new borders and divisions are becoming an every day reality the founding of the Festival of Italian Literature in London feels like a potent symbol of the kind of collaborative work we need in the arts to counter the challenges of the world at large. How did you originally get involved with the festival and how would you describe your role?

I was brought on board by my friend, the author and translator Claudia Durastanti, in the late spring of 2017. She’d been working on FILL for several months and thought I could bring something valuable to the organising board, as an Italian-born writer and translator who works primarily in/towards English. Claudia herself was born in the U.S. and moved to Italy as a child; she now writes and translates primarily in/towards Italian. Because our experiences sort of mirror one another, we’ve had many conversations about the difficulties involved in attempting to reconcile the two halves (to put it simply) of our combined Italo/Anglophone identities.

At worst, bilingualism can feel immensely frustrating – a sort of lingering incompleteness that can be really incapacitating for a writer, because you never feel quite in control of any one language. At best though, straddling two languages and cultures can generate new productive space for political thought and action in writing. This notion is very much at the root of the FILL project, so I was hugely grateful to be brought on board. I tried to act as a bridge with the U.K. literary world – contacting and liaising with British guests where needed. I also directed ‘Il cielo in una stanza/This World We Live In’, an intratranslated poetic production featuring bilingual poets Simon Barraclough, Maria Borio, Alessandro Burbank, Marzia D’Amico and Chrissy Williams. [A little excerpt can be found online here]

It feels special to now have a proper Italian literature ‘festival’ as opposed to a one-off reading or talk established in London, what do you think are the special qualities of having formed a ‘festival’? 

I think the festival format adds a social dimension that just isn’t quite there when you go to a one-off reading or talk. It allows for people to feel part of a shared experience: at a festival, you cross paths with the same people several times, start recognising faces, end up having a drink with someone you’ve just met during one of the breaks between acts... You get to feel like you’re part of a community, sharing similar interests and values with the people that surround you: that’s why so many people will tell you they go to festivals ‘for the experience’.

Whether one buys into this when it comes to large mainstream events, I think it is certainly a good place to start for a small grassroots festival that’s trying to open up a productive space for intercultural conversation. The fact that FILL was a festival allowed for the specific cultural identity it was backing to exist for two whole days; two days in which each of us could simply be, hanging as we do in the balance between ‘Italianness’ and ‘Britishness’, without being asked to account for it. Being able to inhabit that space felt like a huge privilege – and I think it was a great comfort for many of us.

Do you think the format was advantageous in any way with regard to showcasing the work? The programme had an impressive range of talks, performances and topics. 

Yes, I really think so. It was such a packed and diverse programme, and such a lovely community vibe, that most of the people who came for one of the panels ended up staying for a couple others.

You've got an impressive amount of experience when it comes to organising literary events, readings etc what were the specific challenges of putting together this festival together? I feel like anything from the line up to ticket systems could have posed issues . . . What was it like working with the other organisers? Was there anyone in particular you were excited to be working with? 

Everything you mentioned could and did pose issues! But we were really lucky to able to count on a really great team, which really made the difference. I really want to stress this precisely because I have been working in events for so long and I know how time-consuming all the little tasks are, especially when you’re understaffed or working alone, or perhaps unable to count on much financial support. Personally it was a relief to be able to take direction from others, but I think Marco Mancassola, who initially came up with the idea for FILL must’ve slept a maximum of four hours per night in the six months leading up to the festival. I know Claudia and Marco Magini who joined him as co-coordinators from the very beginning have been in similar positions, too. Things pile up.

Luckily more and more people, with different relevant qualifications, joined us along the way. By the time the festival kicked off we could count on a 20-strong team, which meant that each of us could take on sizeable but manageable workloads. I was actually really touched by the amount of effort everyone has put in – something that sparks from that feeling of belonging I mentioned earlier, I think. Teamwork tends to work out when there’s enthusiasm and a willingness to collaborate… but I actually think for us both enthusiasm and willingness sprung out of perceiving ourselves as a team.

For that reason I wouldn’t want to pick favourites: getting to know everyone as part of a collective sharing the same ethos has been the most precious feeling. It’s been lovely because now things are a little quieter there is more time to build on individual relationships among us, starting from that foundation of community. This feels really reassuring to me, and isn’t something I’d experienced so strongly in London before.

What was the most rewarding part from your point of view?

Discovering that a very private, very lonely feeling of displacement could actually turn into a productive conversation involving 1500 people. I remember thinking, repeatedly and gloriously: 1500 people care!

Do you have any favourite memories from the festival? We’re still hearing amazing things about the poetry performances.

It’s really hard to pick any specific moments, because I was running around so much to try and catch everything. My memories of the two days are very fragmented in places, but I don’t really mind it, it seems kind of fitting in a way. Certainly it felt quite emotional to see the poetry performance ‘Il cielo in una stanza/This World We Live In’ come together for the first time during rehearsals on the day, after the five poets had been working together remotely for 3 months. Something that Sara Taylor [author of The Lauras] said during one of the panel discussions also stuck with me as a sort of epigraph for FILL: ‘Writers don't write people, they write characters and characters have their individuality and commonality. It is that commonality that writers should appeal to.’

How do you think we can continue to raise the profile of translated works and the work of other languages? 

I think about this all the time and it makes me feel bad for having ‘neglected’ Italian as a creative language (although this just happened after a few years living in London and was never a deliberate decision on my part). English is such a hegemonic language: it’s a brilliant tool for communicating across cultures, of course, but at the same time, it is dangerous to assume it can represent a unique and universal exchange code. This assumption effectively turns language into a tool for power, wielded against those who have a limited use of it. Recently I was selected as one of the Italian writers-in-residence for CELA, a new scheme supported by the European Union, aimed at fostering linguistic diversity in European publishing. Each of the CELA writers sees their work translated in all five partner languages: Dutch/Flemish, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

This way, their writing can be circulated across Europe without having to pass through English, as is often the case otherwise. An author who writes in English never needs to worry about that: their work is immediately available everywhere. It really goes to show the central role of the English language and consequently, the power of its literary market. This kind of power should come with responsibilities, such as making an effort to push writing from different backgrounds in English-speaking countries. Granting access into English to literary works that have started life in different language really poses an industry-wide challenge to the UK/US publishing system – one that I try to rise to, in my own editorial and production work. Certainly, publishing works in translation entails a degree of financial risk, which a lot of large presses are unwilling to take. And yet, some of the most interesting work in the UK is currently being put out by independent publishers who are willing to take the plunge: Tilted Axis, Test Centre, Fitzcarraldo and Silver Press to name a few.

What are you currently reading? / Whose writing excites you right now? (In Italian and/or English!)

Funnily enough I’m in the middle of two big pop sagas, one in Italian and one in English: I’m reading Year of the Flood, the second book in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy, and La Noia by Alberto Moravia, which follows from Gli Indifferenti. Both feel oddly relevant to the present moment. I’ve been dipping in and out of Khairani Barokka’s wonderful first poetry collection Rope and I received small white monkeys by Sophie Collins in the post just today: both are hugely important books that everyone should read. I have also been sharing work with Dizz Tate, Simone Atangana Bekono and Serena Braida for a number of months, which feels like a big privilege, because these women write the kind of things I want to read in the world. And I’m desperate to get my paws on Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure and Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, out next Spring.

We also hear you're currently working on a novel. It feels like a blunt question to ask if translation has changed or influenced the way you approach your own writing, but could I ask how you think it might have changed the way you work or impacted on the way you think about writing in general? 

Big question, because the way I perceive this is very obvious, yet I find it really difficult to talk about (although I think it will be immediately grasped by anyone with a mixed cultural identity). Maybe the best way I can explain this is with an anecdote from last September, when I was in Bruxelles for the first instalment of the CELA project. Each of us writers was introduced to their translators, which was a strange and wonderful experience. During a brief interview with my Romanian translator she hard-pressed me to choose between being a writer and a translator, and in full honesty I had to pick translator, because I can’t imagine writing without translation. To me, writing is translation. Having access to two languages means being constantly aware of their artificiality and their boundaries, which can be frustrating, but also makes you pay the necessary attention and patience to the workings of language. I am completely convinced that my awareness of translation practice made me a better, more careful, more generous writer.

Yet another one of your achievements is founding the journal CORDA, which has been described as ‘about friendship in the time of new borders.’ Could you tell us a little more about that? 

CORDA is a multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual art magazine that my friend Sean Haughton and I started in response to the 2016 EU referendum in the UK. Sean and I had met while volunteering at a co-operatively run social centre in South London called DIY Space for London, where we took shelter after the referendum results. Being able to process that shock as part of a larger radical community provided much needed relief and reassurance, and we wanted to find a way to extend this mutual solidarity beyond our immediate circle. CORDA was born of a need to take immediate action against current events, and in support of artists, writers and creative communities that do not identify with the current climate of division and rising nationalism. The response to our call for submission was overwhelming: our first issue featured over 40 artists, poets and writers from all over the world and 10 different languages. We’re hoping to include even more in our next issue.

You’ve lived in London for some time now, the literary ‘scene’ for magazines, readings, events, festivals etc seems more vibrant every day (at least in my eyes especially now that I’ve moved away from it!) do you think part of this recent surge is down to the way the world is right now? (That feels again like a mute question but I hope you know what I mean!)

You’re right, there is some really great stuff happening right now. A recent highlight for me has been ‘The Complete Works Diversity in UK Poetry’ conference which took place at Goldsmiths, a few weeks back – what a line-up! However, I am very suspicious of stances proclaiming that art gets better during darker times – rather, I think our times highlight an ever-pressing need to pay much-overdue attention to the work that marginalised writers have been producing for years, despite being constantly side-lined by mainstream publishing.

If you could have changed one thing about the festival what would it have been? Do you have any plans for the next one? What do you think the next year will hold in store (both personally and for the festival)?

For this edition we’ve had to think on our feet, which means that sometimes practical issues stood in the way of some of the things we wanted to achieve. The good news is that we’ve been discussing how to make the festival bigger and better since, well, the week after the festival (although we may have shared a few bottles of wine, too). We’re already looking at ways to extend the range of our talks, and strengthen our ties with the London literary community. As for my own work, I’m working on an edit of the novel with help from my lovely agent Zoe Ross and I’m off to Madrid to study Creative Writing Didactics at Escuela de Escritores in January. Oh and CORDA is taking submissions! Send us your work!