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The Seven Measures of the World: A Conversation with Gregory Conti

The Seven Measures of the World by renowned Italian physicist Piero Martin eloquently shows how the entire universe can be measured and understood using just seven units. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translator, Gregory Conti, about sharing expressions of Italian culture through translation, the challenges of scientific translation, and his two favorite passages from the book.

What inspired you to pursue a career in translation?

GC: A couple of different things. I had studied in Rome and Perugia during my university years and I came back to Perugia to live in 1985 and have been here since. So part of what attracted me to translation was the necessary translation I did for myself when I was getting to know my new home and for visiting friends and family over the years. A very important part of my approach to translation comes from my desire to share with friends and family and anglophone readers my experience of living in Italy and my interpretation of expressions of Italian culture that I find interesting and that I feel will be or should be of interest to others whose access to them is through English. Another source of inspiration was reading the translations of William Weaver, especially his Calvino translations, and thinking that would be something I’d like to do.

Tell us about your approach to translating The Seven Measures of the World, a piece of popular science. How do you balance direct translation and artistic rendering?

GC: It was a challenge, because of the quantity and precision of the scientific vocabulary and processes, and a pleasure, because Piero is such a good storyteller. For the scientific language I used the internet a lot and where I couldn’t find an answer I asked Piero, or when my answers were off base, he corrected them. For the artistic part or the storytelling, I tried to imagine myself as telling a story, or a series of stories, to a small audience of interested listeners who could have been sitting around a dinner table or participating in a seminar or perhaps a Ted Talk. So essentially, I tried to imitate Piero’s narrative voice as much as possible while taking into account that he was speaking to or writing for an Italian audience. And so sometimes I had to intervene a bit to make some of the cultural references more accessible to non-Italians who would be listening to me or reading me in English.

What was your relationship with the Piero Martin? Did you go back and forth on the translation of the book? How did you capture his voice from the original Italian?

GC: Piero and I had a very pleasant and cooperative relationship exclusively through email and perhaps a phone call or two. I sent him my chapters and he came back to me with corrections and suggestions and questions and I responded by accepting the corrections or making modifications or explaining my reasons for phrasing things in a certain way. We always came to agreement and his input improved the translation.

How did I capture his voice? Well, first let me say that I hope I actually succeeded in capturing it. I guess Piero and other bi-lingual readers will have to judge that. I believe my approach was influenced by our both being teachers, he of physics and I of English as a foreign language, which necessarily involves explaining or presenting information and ideas and concepts to people who are not, or not yet, professionals in the field. The task has a lot in common with writing or translating a book of popular science.

Compared to your other works of translation in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, what challenges or gratifications did The Seven Measures of the World present?

GC: The challenge and gratification of translating nonfiction, whether popular or not, is the opportunity to learn about a field that I have never studied before or only superficially, in this case, physics and chemistry and scientific method and the history of science and measurement, and at the same time to become an active participant in the process of helping other people to learn what I’ve been learning. With fiction and poetry the challenges and gratifications are similar but they more frequently and more intensely involve emotions and sensations and nuances of social interactions and relationships, of how things feel.    

What was your favorite passage to translate from The Seven Measures of the World?

GC: If I may, I’d like to recall two passages that I thoroughly enjoyed. The first comes right at the beginning, on page 1, where Piero writes about the Beatles performing in Hamburg in 1960. I was 12 when the Beatles came to the US in 1964 and I was lucky enough to have an older brother who gave me the ticket he had won in a dance contest to see the Beatles concert in Pittsburgh. So I felt authorized to try to convey in the passage some of the excitement about the Beatles as it was experienced by young people in the US and the UK.  The second is also about a popular entertainer, the Italian actor Paolo Villaggio and his wonderful creation Fantozzi. This was one of those challenging cultural references that I figured many anglophone readers might find puzzling so I wrote an additional short paragraph as though Piero were explaining Villaggio and Fantozzi to a foreign audience.

Piero Martin is professor of experimental physics at the University of Padua and a science writer. He carries out research on thermonuclear fusion and is chief physicist of the international DTT fusion experiment. He lives in Venice, Italy. Gregory Conti has translated over twenty-five books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives in Perugia, Italy.

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