Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2016

The Interpreter (2004), by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

The Interpreter The Interpreter is the third in Diego Marani’s novels about language and identity.  Monolingualists may be baffled if they subscribe to the view that everyone should just learn to speak the same language as everyone else (usually English), or they may for the first time get a glimpse of how crucial language is to a sense of self.  The possibility of such divergent responses is because the book is such an absurdist melange of events that the message may be lost.  I may well have misunderstood it myself…

Felix Bellamy is the boss of a European translation service, theoretically married to Irene but in reality married to his job.  He is (intentionally) the classic stereotype of a bureaucrat with no intrinsic understanding of what the organisation does, but merely interested in its smooth administration.  However, he experiences a quasi-moral epiphany when the Director of Translation and Interpreting, Günther Stauber, demands that one of the interpreters be suspended.  This polyglot interpreter, with five languages and an impressive commitment to improving them and learning more, has suddenly started whistling, hissing and clicking instead of producing intelligible translations for the consumers of the interpreting service.  He’s not fit to do his job.

The interpreter tells Felix that the languages have ‘re-formed’ in his brain to create a new one (or a very old one from the dawn of time).  He is excited by this, and doesn’t want to be ‘cured’.  Like any good modern bureaucrat Felix goes through the motions of suggesting medical help, recommending the clinic of a neurologist called Dr Barnung.  But by definition, Felix is a problem-solver; the interpreter is a recurring and unrepentant problem; and the pragmatic solution to the problem is to pension off the interpreter.  Which Felix does without much of a qualm.

What little attention Felix has to this matter is diverted by the departure of his discontented wife Irene.  He forgets all about the interpreter – until suddenly he too begins to suffer uncontrollable attacks of gobbledygook.  Alarmed, he seeks medical help, of a most unusual kind.  At the clinic of Dr Barnung, he is forbidden to speak his mother-tongue ( French) and is dosed with an intensive language course of Rumanian.  In the common areas of the clinic, everyone speaks German, which Felix can’t speak – but he understands it,  because it was his father’s language, used only in the home for disciplinary purposes by his authoritarian parent.  One of the other patients, Roxana sneaks into his room at night not for any hanky-panky but to hear him speak her mother-tongue Rumanian because Dr Barnung has forbidden her to speak it.  This is risky behaviour because infractions of the clinic rules are punished by isolation and forced enrolment in a course of learning some obscure language from one of the far corners of the globe.

Up to this point, the plot-line is coherent in a bizarre kind of way, but when Felix escapes from the clinic and becomes a man wanted for murder and armed robbery, the novel morphs into a sort of thriller and the absurdist elements go into overdrive.  Marani mocks the zealous authorities and open borders of Europe with Felix taking on a Bonnie-and-Clyde persona along with an amenable woman called Magda.  Eluding capture all over northern Europe, he survives gangsters, an organ-harvesting racket, a penitent mogul with a death-wish, and narwhals.  And all the while he is subject to the same attacks of whistling, hissing and clicking…

To be honest, I found the ending a little lame, and droll though it is, I thought that the novel’s morph into thriller diluted the ideas about language and identity.  Nevertheless, the book had me thinking about Europe and its multiplicity of languages, and about Marani’s confronting suggestion that each language you learn takes something from the others that you know.  When Felix wanders the streets of Odessa not understanding a word of what is said around him, he thinks of the interpreter:

… who could take possession of any language in no time at all, speak it like an impostor, as though it were his own.  And I knew he didn’t just learn them, repeating them and imitating their forms – he sucked them into his monstrous memory, pillaged them as bees do flowers, leaving them apparently intact but in fact drained of all blood. I thought of Irene, bewitched by who knows what words and lost forever; of Roxana, bereft of her mother tongue, prisoner of a silence which was destroying her mind.  In my pursuit of the interpreter, I was running the same risks.  I saw that he took something away from each language he learned, some vital quintessence which his greed snuffed out for good; that the voice of whole peoples was being muffled, deadened at his passing, their languages impoverished and castrated, and that the whole world was now scored by an invisible silence which that diabolical being was covertly digging out ever more deeply with his unwholesome wanderings.  (p. 112)

It’s true, of course, up to a point.  My adventures in translation are limited, but language is never bereft of culture, and that’s sometimes what’s lost in translation.  I remember once hearing an Australian reporter quiz an Indonesian politician about the death of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands: where there any hard feelings, he asked through an interpreter, about the colonial past and the bitter war of independence, over which she had presided?  The politician fended this off smoothly,  but clearly audible beneath the translation for Australian viewers was his use of the third person pronoun ‘dia’ instead of ‘beliau’ to refer to the queen.  The Indonesian language doesn’t differentiate personal pronouns by gender – ‘dia’ can mean either ‘he’ or ‘she’.  Indonesia is an hierarchical society and its language differentiates by social status.  This politician had, for his domestic Indonesian audience, shown his contempt for the dead queen through his purposeful rejection of the pronoun ‘beliau’ –  the form Indonesians might have expected him to use to show great respect for the person being talked about.  But the interpreter’s translation into the anodyne ‘she’ missed the connotations of this entirely, the translation stripping the language of its subtle capacity to, in this case, insult and probably amuse.  

As this incident shows, learning the subtleties of another language can impact on the use of mother-tongue.  For me, bukan beliau! i.e. ‘not the pronoun for a respected person!’ is a shorthand way of saying ‘phew, that’s an insult but the person doesn’t know it!’ without having to relate the incident all over again.  My mother-tongue lacks the precision of Indonesian to convey this idea.  I find this is often true with French as well which is why English has appropriated so many words as its own: rendezvous and je ne regrette rien for example.  Yes, they mean meeting and I regret nothing but they have connotations not expressed in the English, n’est-ce pas?

However, I should say that the translation of this novel by Judith Landry is excellent.  She won an award for her translation of New Finnish Grammar, the first in this series of Diego’s novels about language and identity, and IMO the pick of the bunch, though The Last of the Vostayachs was very good too.  (Find all my reviews of these two and Marani’s God’s Dog here).

Now, you lucky readers, it just so happens that I have a spare copy of The Interpreter to give away…


Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round about the middle of March.

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).  So make sure you follow this blog here or on Twitter so that you know you have won!

Author: Diego Marani
Title: The Interpreter
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
Publisher: Text Publishing 2016, first published 2004
ISBN: 9781925240245
Review and giveaway copies courtesy of Text Publishing

If you don’t win the giveaway, you can always buy a copy from Fishpond: The Interpreter

(NB Commission on Fishpond sales referred by this blog is what pays the postage costs of giveaways as well as the cost of having none of those annoying ads that seem to be on blogs everywhere these days.  See my transparency statement for more info.)


  1. Ach! I’ve read Marani’s two prior books and would love to get this one but alas, it’s not here yet. I really think the Commonwealth countries get better treatment from their publishers.


    • I get frustrated by the availability in other countries too. It’s even worse now that Amazon has its own Australian site because it doesn’t carry everything that’s on the American site, which we now can’t use any more. Sometimes if I can’t get it through Fishpond (an Australian online bookstore) I can bypass this by using the Book Depository, but they’re about to set up shop here in Australia too, and that will be the end of that…


  2. I’d happily read another Marani, Lisa, so I’ll register my interest. I’ve only read the one, which I did enjoy immensely. His fascination with things linguistic is appealing for we literature nerds!


  3. Interested!


    • Hello Aaron, welcome, and good luck!


  4. A new author for me so I will put my entry in. Thanks Lisa :)


  5. I loved The Last of the Vostiaks, but was disappointed by God’s Dog – to use your word, a bit lame. But put my name down too.


  6. Thanks Jeni and ‘Gert’, will do:)


  7. I wonder what Marani’s colleagues think of his portrayal of the bureaucrats- maybe a bit too close to the truth to be comfortable?


    • Maybe. But perhaps most of them would regard it as a strength to be focussed on the admin rather than the purpose: that kind of managerialism is commonplace all over the world now and employers see it as flexibility and adaptability … which in a climate of endless restructuring and closing of one department only to open another, is a necessary life skill.


  8. I loved ‘New Finnish Grammar’, but I thought ‘The Last of the Vostyachs’ didn’t quite live up to that, and the more farcical elements were to blame (which makes me a little hesitant to try this one!). That’s partly why I never got around to trying ‘God’s Dog’ too…


    • Well, you might not like this one then. But *smile* if you’ve won it in a giveaway, you won’t mind so much!


  9. I’m interested in the book, I have never anything by this author


  10. oh, wow, this sounds good!!


  11. […] people who read my reviews right to the end, I posted a sneak giveaway competition at the bottom of my review of Diego Marani’s the Interpreter, courtesy of Text […]


  12. […] The Interpreter, by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry […]


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