So, a couple days ago I come across this tweet in Italian with a link to a video that looks like a trailer for a thriller movie, a movie about Dan Brown’s translators locked up in some infernal underground bunker - “the hell of literary translation revealed in all its horror”:
At first I think it’s a joke, but no, I look up the story later when I have more time and indeed by then I do find some more references in English, in a blog and in the media:
Notice something about all these stories? The emphasis on how awful it must have been for the translators, the easy wordplay on the hellish/inferno idea, and yeah, that scary reference to “Berlusconi’s Bunker” will make you wonder what the hell (eh) was going on.
Mondadori building by Oscar Niemeyer - Photo by Ferdinando Scianna for Magnum Photos
The “bunker” in question is simply the basement area in the headquarters of the Italian publishers, Mondadori. The whole building is a very impressive work of architecture, built in the 1970s by the late Brasilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. Here’s some quick info and here a bit more background of how it came about - in Italian and English (scroll down for the English version).
If you’re in Milan you’d have to go a bit out of your way to visit it as it’s not in the city. I never visited it but have often driven past it, just last month in fact, and it never fails to impress you in its majesty - it looks like sort of a cross between a temple and a military building. I can sure understand how tempting it must have been to call its basement a bunker (especially if you’re being confined in it all day without internet or mobiles).
Now, Mondadori is the biggest publishing company in Italy, it has a long history, and, ah, yes, like many other big things in the 80’s in Italy, it did end up being bought by the corporate and financial group that belongs to the Berlusconi family (an acquisition that involved a major fight in court and fines for bribery) - but calling its headquarters “Berlusconi’s bunker” is a wee bit disingenous to say the least. Those are the headquarters of the publishing company belonging to the group, not his private residence (lord knows far more objectionable things went on in his private residence, nevermind in his public office, than locking translators up!).
It’s also a little bit unfair, to the translators themselves, to ignore the actual content of the original source stories, the article in the Italian tv magazine (also belonging to Mondadori) and the related interviews with translators - sure, it’s all self-promotional, the publishers themselves pushed the “secret bunker” and “no contact with the world while working” angles to make it sound all like a thrilling operation, but the translators interviewed are all (predictably) quite happy about their experience, and presumably not just because they’re being asked to talk about it on behalf of the publishers, but perhaps because - here’s a shocking supposition, I know - they must have signed a very good contract and got paid really nicely to accept those terms and conditions. (Not to mention having their names and work associated with such a successful publishing franchise.)
I mean we’re not talking about temporary workers locked up by Amazon in some sweatshop-like isolated facility. We’re talking about top linguists signed up to translate the latest instalment of one of the biggest bestsellers of our times (like it or not). Surely the publishers (for a welcome change from the industry trend!) must have spared no money on translations and must have offered these “prisoners” some nice compensation in exchange for them having to work 12 hours a day for two months in the underground offices of the publisher’s building, with no internet and no mobile access during working hours to prevent any leaking of spoilers to the outside world.
Here are some actual quotes from the translators from the above-linked interviews, which I find especially interesting from the point of view of what such an experience must mean for linguists usually working from home as freelancers:
MagAxel Merz, German translator
Yes we all became friends with the other translators, we talked a lot about the plot, about some events in the book… It was an extraordinary experience, even if it meant spending Easter away from home (again).
Rainer Schumacher, German translator
It was indeed interesting to meet translators from other countries. Usually translating is a very “solitary” work. You never meet other translators. I think for us it was exciting to see how others work and also to see the real people behind the development of a book. It was something really valuable. It was incredible to see so much talent and expertise in one room, there was a lively exchange of ideas.
Carole Del Port, French translator
It was a unique and amazing opportunity. A rare opportunity to work in a group for several weeks and be in a “total immersion” in the Dan Brown universe. Since I had nothing else to worry about I could focus exclusively on my goal: the best possible translation for readers.
Being away from my family was a little difficult, but it was also an advantage, as it allowed me to devote all my time and all my concentration to this intense project. I was so focused on the translation that I didn’t think about details like my mobile phone or my little habits and I could still go out for a cigarette break! The difficult part was rather about getting used to the “confinement”, to the uninterrupted hours of work.
I had a wonderful time with other translators, everyone on the same boat! We shared information on the most difficult part of the text, which were the same for us all! I had really little time to go out and enjoy the company of the other translators because I preferred to work until late in the evening and I was rather tired at the end of the day. But I managed to have dinner sometimes with some of them (the ones staying at hotels that were closest) and we had very interesting conversations on some particular - and controversial - themes of the novel. I think I am going to stay in touch with some of the other translators.
The time outside the “bunker” was actually reduced to a minimum - breakfast, late dinners (while already mentally exhausted) and comfortable sleep!
Fabiano Morais, Brasilian translator
The hardest thing for me was not about being deprived of something but about changing routines, because as a freelance translator working from home I’m no longer used to commuting every day to work. And I must say that not being able to use the internet on the same computer where I was working at the translation, that was also a little disturbing and strange, especially at the beginning, but then I got used to it. Apart from that, everyone involved in the project was really helpful and did their best so that translators could feel at ease in the “bunker”.
The best part about this project for me has been the exchange of ideas among all translators. Even if we obviously were translating in different languages, most of the topics and challenges the book presented us with were in common. From the start, there was genuine teamwork that I believe allowed all countries and publishers involved to get better translations in all languages.
I stayed in the Navigli area which is very lively and full of restaurants and places to go out. It was a very nice experience and it’s been pleasant staying in Milan.
Fernanda Abreu, Brasilian translator
For me the biggest change has been working in the structure of a big company. As a freelancer, I’m not used to that. The huge canteen at Mondadori has been a discovery! But sure, being far from my family and friends was hard.
We had a great team [of translators], we were exchanging ideas all the time. That was the most interesting part of the experience.
Alejo Montoto, Spanish translator
It was a nice experience that happens once in a lifetime, but also very hard. No doubt the worst part was being away from my wife. And not having enough free time. Working so many hours in a “bunker” and living in hotels makes you feel a little disconnected from reality and is a bit strange… But yes, I would do it again.
Everyone [in the translators team] was very nice and talented. I really enjoyed working together and we shared some ideas on translation. I think it was useful for everyone. And we also had fun. Unfortunately I could not share a lot of free time with them. But at least we shared many meals together at the canteen.
Those are just a few excerpts quickly translated from Italian by moi (the rest of the interviews are about what things or habits they missed most, what they saw about Milan, what’s the first thing they will do when they go back home - most answer “sleep”!). It’s a pity that their own voices were actually not given enough space in the articles referencing the original story. Even if it is all for promotional purposes, it’s nice for a change to hear translators talk about their experiences, especially when working in a team.