This week, Italian to English translator Leah Janeczko introduces us to the award-winning Italian author Roberto Piumini and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of her forthcoming translation of one of his great classics, Glowrushes.
Bringing an Italian Classic to English-language Readers
From Rome to Rimini, from Milan to Messina, in every bookshop and school in Italy, you’re bound to find books by Roberto Piumini. An entire generation of Italians was raised with his stories and has grown up to read them to their own children. But if you’re from an English-speaking country, chances are you’ve never heard of this award-winning author. Which is a pity, because it means you’ve never seen the cook Totò Sapore escape from prison by climbing down a rope made of spaghetti, or seen chief Tou-Ema imitate with his hands the flight of the seagulls above Easter Island, or seen the young prankster Gianfino wander Tuscany with three copper pots instilled with magic. You’ve never seen any of this, because though Roberto Piumini is one of Italy’s foremost children’s authors, only a handful of his books have ever been published in English – something he and I have set about to change.
Our first step comes this December, when Pushkin Children’s Books (UK) will release my translation of his masterpiece, Glowrushes (Lo stralisco), the story of a Turkish artist who paints colorful landscapes for a boy confined by sickness to his windowless bedchambers. Praised by world-renowned expert on fairy tales Jack Zipes as “a poetic novel” and “a profound contribution to literature”, Lo stralisco, which was written in 1987 and has been widely translated, has never been published in English before.
Piumini the Author
With a degree in teaching and education, Roberto Piumini began as a middle and high school teacher and a non-verbal expression instructor. In 1976 he began to dabble in writing children’s literature, his first short story collection winning the Cento Prize, its jury chaired by famed children’s author Gianni Rodari.
Now in his seventies, Piumini has worked with dozens of Italian publishers and has written hundreds of works for readers of all ages (including adults), from novels to short stories, from poems to TV shows, from plays to picture books. He also performs his own works on stage, reads for his own audiobooks, contributes to educational magazines and textbooks, and creates original stories alongside teachers and students, using their ideas, photos and drawings as inspiration.
Considered Italy’s leading authority in the field of children’s literature, Roberto Piumini received the Gianni Rodari Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 and was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in both 2020 and 2022. This year he was president of the jury for the first edition of the prestigious Campiello Junior literary prize and is serving as President of the Scientific Organizing Committee for the 2024 IBBY International Congress in Trieste.
The challenge in translating Piumini lies in capturing the smoothness of his prose, his turns of phrase, clever wordplay, beautiful rhythm and intelligent humor. His “voice” has an actor’s versatility: it can be soft and soothing, bold and dramatic, playful and witty, or deeply poetic. He also has a passion for writing in verse, be it the story of Pinocchio retold in traditional Italian stornelli, a lighthearted nursery rhyme for toddlers, or an epic ballad paying tribute to Martin Luther King. In addition to flawless narrative structure, a hallmark of his writing is its musicality when read aloud.
His plots vary greatly, though many themes recur. He enjoys telling tales of kings and queens, quests and battles (such as the nested story about the city under siege in Glowrushes, or the knight of Alidosi setting off to find a cure for his pestilential breath). He explores and plays with history (the young poet Ugo Foscolo growing up on a Greek island ruled by the Republic of Venice; the Iron Crown disappearing days before Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy). He borrows characters from mythology and rewrites their stories as he pleases (the adventures of Ulysses; the gentle centaur Pholus; Aeneas, the first true hero of Rome). His comedy ranges from subtle to the absurd (a shortsighted but vain man buying spectacles for his feet; a bumbling saint responding to the prayers of a teetering tightrope walker). He also retells, in his own distinctive style, classic stories and folk tales by Manzoni, Shakespeare, Perrault. And there’s no lack of courtships, heartbreaks and happily-ever-afters, because Piumini loves a love story (a parachute tester smitten with three beautiful women who dwell in the clouds; the delightful tale In the Land of Andover, which won the 2020 Premio Andersen’s Baia delle Favole trophy).
Although what English language publishers often want from Italian authors is a glimpse of life in Italy, Roberto Piumini’s imagination has never stopped at national borders. He may paint us a picture of children growing up in a happy Alpine valley or a young boy and his elderly grandfather strolling through the Italian countryside, but he’ll also show us a troupe of actors roaming medieval France, a greedy Chinese emperor taxing his subjects’ shadows, a little boy carrying a jug of water through the African desert, or a young horseman fleeing the court of Genghis Khan.
In the early days of the Covid crisis, Piumini traveled the world in a different way: his March 2020 poem Is There Something in the Air?, which explained the pandemic to children, was translated into over 30 languages by volunteers around the globe, a “playful antivirus” published online by the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
As for publication of Glowrushes in English, British author Philip Pullman remarked, “I don’t think I have read anything like this before – a tale of life, death, love and beauty…” He added, “I hope this unforgettable story finds all the readers it deserves.” My heartfelt wish is that the same will soon be said about the English-language versions of far more of Roberto Piumini’s bounty of books, an Italian treasure trove just waiting to be discovered.
Roberto Piumini is represented by Alice Fornasetti of the Grandi & Associati literary agency.
Leah Janeczko, originally from Chicago, has lived in Milan since 1991 and for 25 years has been an Italian-to-English translator of fiction for all ages. Her translations of novels have been published by HarperCollins, Random House, Flatiron Books and Simon & Schuster, and for two decades she also translated comics and magazines for Disney Italy. Leah loves adapting rhymes, puns and wordplay in general. As Roberto Piumini’s trusted translator she’s working with him to find excellent homes for his books in English. Follow Leah on Twitter @fromtheitalian and read more about her here.