The political power of translation

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Chenxin Jiang, in lithub, on bringing the stories of the Syrian refugees into English

When Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees in August 2015, I happened to be spending the summer in Berlin. For days, I did little but watch the news and read about Syrian families and other refugees streaming into German train stations. A year later, I moved to Berlin, keen to do whatever I could in the volunteer effort to welcome refugees. I signed up for a knitting club for Germans and refugees—but as a novice, I was more trouble than help for the organizers. I made a desultory effort to learn Arabic from a Living Language book. Before long, I grew busier with archival work and books to translate, and my store of enthusiasm dwindled. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Berlin alone, so what could any one person do? It never occurred to me that my work as a literary translator—from Italian, among other languages, into English—might have anything to do with the political causes about which I cared so deeply.

Then I received an email from an editor: would I like to translate a book written by an Italian doctor running a clinic on the island of Lampedusa, on the frontline of the humanitarian effort to rescue refugees on the dangerous sea route to Europe? Before I’d even had time to read the whole book, I said yes. And when I did read Tears of Salt, I was even more excited by the prospect of translating it. Together with co-author Lidia Tilotta, the Lampedusan doctor Pietro Bartolo recounts the stories of the refugees he’s rescued: families separated and reunited, women pregnant from rape, tragic accidents at sea.

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