TRANSLATION Mati Colarossi

This month's regular series on the translation of books for young people brings you an interview with Mati Colarossi, who translates from Italian to English. Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci wrote a book of fables? 

How did you become interested in Italian?

It’s funny and sad in a way, because although I was born in Italy, I moved to Canada with my family at a very young age, and refused to speak Italian. Being “different” from other kids in school was distressing. It was a time when migrants were not two cultures (the old and the new), but neither, depending on who was judging you.   

I finished high school at just 17 and wanted to work for a year before going to university. When I told my parents, my father had a fit: for him it meant I would never go back to school and get a degree. I was young and stupid, and thought that I knew how to convince him, so I said he should either let me go to work, or go to Italy a year. Next thing I knew I was on a plane. I cried the whole way. Nine hours. To this day I wonder what the lady next to me on the plane imagined was happening to me. I remember thinking “I’m being deported”; it is a word I would never, ever use lightly today, given the current, tragic situation in many countries.

I’m quite talkative, but I didn’t open my mouth for a whole year in Italy. When I tried to say something in Italian people would laugh, or correct me smugly, and that shut me up pretty quickly. The only books I found in English were romance novels sold for beach-goers, and books in Italian were beyond my comprehension. But I soaked up the Italian words and the culture around me for a whole year. I stored them without knowing I was doing so. 

When I went home to Canada, I removed that totally negative experience – or so it seemed to me at the time – and went on to study drama at university. Italy and the Italian language was something I only started missing after a year or so. I took some Italian courses in university and realised that I had a lot more Italian in my head than I thought, and that I loved it; so I switched departments. It was so easy to fall head over heels in love with Italian literature. After my degree, I moved to Italy to improve my Italian before going back to university, and I have been living in Tuscany ever since.

Matilda Colarossi in Venice

How did you become a translator?

Although years of life in Tuscany, a Florentine husband, and three children have made me completely bilingual, I only started translating after taking a translation course at the age of forty. I hadn’t really thought about it before. I’ve always loved reading and writing, but I just never thought about translating. Translation is after all, an art, and I had no knowledge of that art, or if I was capable of performing it. 

After the course, I started doing academic and commercial translations and have been doing them ever since. It was only after I took a writing course in Florence that I started translating literature.
There is a magic about children’s books that makes me feel eight years old again.

What made you want to translate for children/young adults?

When my kids were very little I was a stay-at-home mother, and I read. I read a lot. I think that’s all I ever did: I read to my own kids, and I read to children in libraries and schools. There is a magic about children’s books that makes me feel eight years old again. Children’s books can be like poetry. Anyone who has read out loud to a child knows that: Children’s books are very respectful of rhythm. They flow off the page. You never stumble over long and clumsy sentences in good children’s books. That’s the beauty and challenge of translating them. 

How did this translation "find" you?

I would say that Leonardo and I found each other. I was reading to children in a library and had run out of fables. My Saturday routine with the children was a morning of reading, and then drawing, colouring, painting, or making origami, depending on the age group. We’d done lots of Tuscan and Italian fables, but I needed something a bit shorter for the younger groups. That’s how I found Leonardo’s fables. I didn’t even know he wrote fables, let alone that he wrote them in his famous codices. I found the fact amazing.

What were the hardest parts to translate? Was there anything you wished you could ask Leonardo? 

That’s a wonderful question! But by saying the “hardest parts”, you seem to imply that there were easy parts, and I can’t seem to remember those! Leonardo’s fables are all different: some are polished, some are just lines thrown together with very little punctuation, some lack verbs, and some are so short you have to wonder what sparked his need to write them down while studying anatomy or architecture or whatever else he was working on. Some fables are almost identical to fables found elsewhere; and there are fables that are the introduction to unfinished stories.
A lot of research went into every word. 
I started by translating the longer ones – the ones that seemed to be complete – for my blog, and at the time I kept very close to the original. A lot of research went into every word. I used dictionaries, of course, but I also grilled the elderly Tuscans in my town: they were a great help. As the difficulties with the actual words lessened, I could concentrate more on the meaning. To do that, I read everything I could find about the genius and his life, his art and his problems with the world around him. 

What I discovered, or think I discovered, is that Leonardo probably wrote the fables for himself. I believe they were ideas that came to him as he observed the world. I say this because Leonardo was a fine musician and singer: he could cantar a mente (as his biographer Vasari says), that is to say, improvise songs; but the fables are, in my opinion, not musical. They concentrate more on the content than the style. Maybe he thought he would go back and complete them later. I don’t know, but this led to another problem: how could I adapt the fables for children?
Leonardo probably wrote the fables for himself.
The solution? I "interpreted" Leonardo's fables. I kept the soul and changed the body (Pascoli). This, I believe, was the most difficult and interesting part of the process. I removed many of the harsh words; I made the animals speak, in conversations that were only suggested in the original; I made many of the protagonists female (there are far too few in children’s literature even today!); I introduced rhyme when I could; I eliminated references I thought kids wouldn't understand.

One example of this is the story about the thrushes and the owl. In the original, Leonardo ends the fable by stating that what happens to the thrushes (who are happy to lose their severe king, but only end up dying at the hands of the new king) is a warning to those who are happy to see their country invaded by foreign armies who they believe will free them, only to lose both their freedom and their lives to the invaders. Instead, I end the fable with the chirping of the thrushes. “Oh!” they piped, “The old king ruled over us, but the new king has ruined us!” 

Now, was Leonardo talking about Ludovico Sforza and the French invasion of 1499 that forced Sforza to leave Milan? I believe he was, but we will probably never know, and, most importantly, English-speaking children would not understand. 

Now for your second question about what I would ask Leonardo: every fable I translated came with a hundred questions. 

  • Was he "The flea who wanted more and got nothing"? or "The humble snow who bowed her head and achieved greatness?" 
  • Who was he thinking of when he wrote "The conceited cedar"? and who just happened by his shop when he wrote "The impatient falcon"? 
  • Who was the rod of steel that sparked his great genius, as in the "The flint and the rod of steel"? 

But more than anything else I would really like to ask him is if he was "The rock that disliked his solitary life and went looking for fame." Would Leonardo, perhaps, after years spent in the most famous courts of Europe, have liked to return to the tranquility of a life he had left behind? There is so much sorrow in this line:

In vain, he looked up at the peaceful, solitary place he had once occupied and sighed.

Have you ever translated a book you didn't like?

No, I have been lucky; but I also haven’t translated all the books I really, really like!

In my experience poetry is the best reading for kids.

What would you love to translate?

I would really love to translate the poems and rhymes of Gianni Rodari. I believe his poems would benefit the world today, and I think they should finally find a place on English bookshelves. They speak of justice and equality, brotherhood and acceptance, and they always, always rhyme. It’s a game I could do all day every day. It’s the most fun a translator can have, I believe, even though sometimes a lot is lost – poetic devices, mostly. Sometimes you just have to distance yourself from the text to actually capture the meaning of the text. You’re always trying to strike a balance between what must be kept and what can be lost.

In my experience poetry is the best reading for kids: it teaches them rhyme and rhythm, like music; and the structure allows them enough breathing space, which helps them gain confidence when reading. I believe it’s perfect for all readers, but especially those with difficulties.
A translator is always trying to strike a balance between what must be kept and what can be lost.

What other translators do you admire?

I have always read so much that I must certainly admire thousands of translators. But I most appreciate a text that doesn’t yell "this is a translation". I don’t like to hear an "accent", if we can call it that, because it wouldn’t be the author’s, it would be ours. Translation can be a bit like watching a film after reading the book: in movies, the protagonists are never the way I imagined them. In bad translations the voice is never the way I imagined it. I like to think translators are like ferrymen: we carry the author across a river that is the linguistic barrier. And so it is important not to become Charon. A bad translation can mean the death of a book.

[More about the book Leonardo da Vinci: fables and legends, can be found at MutatuMPublishing.]


Matilda Colarossi is a translator, blogger, and teacher. She was recently a finalist in the Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation (2019) with a translation of the Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda.

Her work can be found on Asymptote, LunchTicket, Ilanot Review, Sakura Review , Poetry International, and on Academia.

Mati's blog: paralleltexts 
Follow Mati on Twitter: @MatildaColaros1


  1. Great post, but I liked the most is "How did you become a translator?". It's so interesting to read this part in the post.

  2. Thanks for the article. My name is Olivia, I'm the same
    was born in Italy but moved to Manchester with his family at a very young age and refused to speak Italian. But soon I returned to Rome. Although, when I visit friends in Manchester, I rent a car for the entire visit. I usually rent a car at the airport from a trusted company. I can share valuable advice on where to rent a car.


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