Feature Article

  • It all started with a fairy tale

    Federico Andornino - Editorial Director de Weidenfeld & Nicolson

    One of my very first memories connected to the act of reading is my mother sitting next to my bed – I am four or five years old – reading aloud an English version of Red Riding Hood. At the time I remember feeling slightly confused: why was my Italian mother speaking in a language I didn’t recognise? Little did I know it would become one of the defining moments of my life.

    My mother is now retired, but she spent over 40 years teaching English to teenagers. She fell in love with the English language when she was a teenager herself, attending the local state secondary school in her small town. She was so passionate about the language of her heroes – the Beatles – that she started a campaign to convince her parents to send her off to England for the summer to practise and perfect her skills. My grandfather was not particularly in love with the idea of sending a very young woman to a foreign land on her own, living with a family they didn’t know: these were the early ‘70s and the world was not quite as small as it is now. Still, my mother was nothing but determined and she managed to persuade him; she then spent two months working in a factory, saving for the trip.

    That summer – spent in a suburb of Brighton – transformed my mother’s life and instilled in her the idea that one day she would do the same to other people: hence her career as a teacher and the reading of English fairy tales to her children.

    What my mother couldn’t have predicted, however, is that her Brighton visit would kickstart a process that would lead one of her sons to leave her behind (an Italian mother’s worst nightmare) to move to the country of her teenage dreams. More than that, I doubt she realised how her reading to me in a language other than my own signalled the beginning of a career in international literature.

    Growing up, I too became enamoured with all things English, but I also pursued my love for my own country’s literary history. I went on to study Italian literature both for my undergraduate and master’s degree, ending up writing a final dissertation on Dante, which is as Italian as it gets. But all along I kept nurturing my passion for the English language: I would sit exams in early summer and then spent three weeks in an English-speaking country, staying with local host families in places like Dublin (Ireland), Edinburgh (Scotland), Vancouver (Canada) and... ...Woking (England).

    When I left university, I suddenly realised I could bring these two strands of my education together; and not just that: I could work in an industry that proactively promoted the interaction and exchange between cultures. My first job in translated literature was at Rizzoli, one of Italy’s largest publishers (now part of the Mondadori group). I stayed there as a junior editor for almost two years and it was like being a child in a candy store: we were tasked with selecting, acquiring and publishing some of the best writers in the world, across a whole range of genres, from commercial thrillers to Pulitzer Prize winners and beyond. We had literary scouts in every part of the world – UK, USA, Spain and Latin America, France, Scandinavia, China – and they sent us often extraordinary writing. I remember discovering Jaume Cabré’s Confessions for the first time as we were preparing the Italian edition for publication: it was a revelation that filled me all over again with the astonished wonder of great literature.

    Moving to London to continue my career made for an interesting change. In a way I had achieved my dream – working in editorial in my ‘adoptive’ country – but it also posed a new challenge. My first editorial position was for a brilliant new imprint which would become a real force over the coming years – but translations were not on the agenda. I remember going to a breakfast meeting with our division’s CEO soon after I started my job: it was a regular occurrence, a way for senior management to get to know new starters. One of the questions he asked was what we would like to change about the company; I said I would love to see more translated fiction on our lists: at the time – I’ll be honest – it felt like a distant dream.

    It took me a few years to start acquiring projects from languages other than English, mostly because I had to build a new infrastructure of contacts from scratch – we could only rely on literary scouts from the US – while also engaging in a slow but firm battle to present international fiction as commercially viable.

    The help of international institutions and British booksellers devoted to introducing readers to new voices made all the difference. Being able to give our finance department the good news that some of the translations costs would be covered by a grant, or shore up orders and find retail space for some of our projects helped make those books a success, but also change my colleagues’ perspective of what constituted a ‘successful’ book. It was a lot of hard (and occasionally quite frustrating) work but in some ways, it was even more rewarding than publishing books written in English. Despite its history of exploration and colonial occupation – or perhaps because of it – the UK is an oddly insular place when it comes to literature in translation: all you have to do is walk into a bookshop to see the huge difference between what is sold here and what gets attention and space in the rest of Europe. Things are – slowly – moving in the right direction, again thanks to international institutions and some fierce indie publishers, and it feels good to be able to contribute to that movement, especially in the age of Brexit.

    It turned out to be a good move career-wise, too and I am now part of an imprint that prides itself on its openness to works of literature from around the world. One of the founders of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, George Weidenfeld, was an Austrian refugee during World War II and he remained committed to publishing the very best of fiction and non- fiction – no matter the language – throughout his life. That’s how we have come to publish authors like Carlos Ruiz Zafon – who has sadly recently passed away – and David Trueba among many others in languages ranging from Italian to French, German, Norwegian, Polish and Russian.

    Working on these books also provides me with a small but important dose of power. Part of my mission is to recruit new members to our cohort of translation fans and I am in the unique position of doing so by hiring first-time translator to work on my books. It’s probably one of the things I love the most about my job: seeing people like Alex Valente (whose first translated novel was Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me?? which I commissioned in my previous job) and Rahul Bery (first time translator for David Trueba’s Rolling Field which I have just published) go on to become respected and sought-after translators, it’s something that makes me very proud. I’m also a vocal champion when it comes to hiring new talent for our companies: one of the main obstacles to having more translated literature on our shelves is the lack of language diversity in the workforce. Having new starters who speak a foreign language makes fighting the battle a lot easier as it normalises what is sometimes still seen as a quirky passion project, rather than a good business opportunity.

    In a way, I feel like I have come full circle. I realised, writing this piece, that the fairy tale my mother read to me must have been a translation itself: a quick search on Google confirmed that Little Red Riding Hood is in fact ‘a European fairy tale whose origins can be traced back to the 10th century to several European folk tales, including one from Italy called The False Grandmother.’ How serendipitous that my mum should choose that – a tale translated centuries ago from a European language into English – to introduce me to her life-long passion.

    I didn’t realise this at the time – I was too busy feeling slightly baffled by it all – but it was an act of cultural mediation I was destined to replicate in my own professional life.