The art of translation, bi-lingual life, a trailblazing female artist, and the early Renaissance: translator Natalia Iacobelli
Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet art history translator and picture book biographer Natalia Iacobelli.
Note: I've gotten several requests for a piece on translators. I'm glad I was able to do a deeper dive with Natalia this time.
Although you were born in the United States, you grew up in a household where Italian was spoken regularly. Did you find your bi-lingual life was a help or a hindrance, or both?
My bilingual upbringing has been tremendously advantageous. It has made me more adaptable and provided me a sense of empathy towards other cultures. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized what a gift it is to grow up speaking another language. Today, it’s the reason I’m able to do what I do. Understanding the cultural nuances of both languages is essential to translation.
It is said that the young mind is more easily amenable to other languages. You’re teaching your children to be fluent in Italian. Did it seem natural growing up to be able to express yourself in more than one language?
|Natalia and family|
You’ve translated three volumes of art history, theory and criticism. What **drew** you to art?
I grew up spending summers in my family’s hometown in Italy. My father is an art enthusiast and would take us to countless museums and historic sites. While I may have found those excursions painfully tedious as a child, they would go on to shape my interests later in life. In college, I majored in art history and in graduate school, my master’s thesis was on Sandro Botticelli’s Divine Comedy. Today, I translate almost exclusively within the field of art.
Your interview with The Mitten was published almost two years ago. How has your life changed in the intervening years?
I’ve translated a number of art monographs and catalogues over the past two years. Last year I translated the catalogue for an exhibition held at a 16th century Cloister in Naples, Italy, which was a wonderful experience. Outside of Italy, I’ve worked with art galleries in Berlin and Lisbon. I’ve also begun writing for DailyArt Magazine, which I’m very excited about.
In the previous interview, you said you would “scrutinize” an English translation to determine how you might translate it differently. You called that a “translator’s guilty pleasure.” To a novice, it would seem at first glance that translation would be more of a mathematical formula: Italian word = English word. What does translating really entail?
Translation is so much more than a formula! Anyone who has read two translations of the same text will know that. A translator’s job is to convey subtleties and fill in lexical gaps without veering off too far from the original text. Each and every word you read in a translated book was carefully considered by its translator, whose mission it is to find the most effective way to preserve meaning and transmit it to a new audience through a different set of idioms. A bad translation can be catastrophic—hence the traduttore, traditore adage. Perhaps reaching perfect accuracy is unattainable, but we can’t ignore the fact that translation breaks cultural barriers, which is a necessity in our increasingly globalized world.
Do you do much traveling?
|In Florence, Italy|
Your most recent translation, Art and Posthistory, was published August 9 of last year. How long did the translation process take? Was there a lot of back and forth between the continents?
I’ve translated Demetrio’s work for over a decade now. We’ve established a very comfortable work relationship in which he allows me as much liberty as needed to interpret his ideas while remaining faithful to the original text. Whenever I’m in doubt, I can count on him to elucidate. All in all, the translation took a few months, followed by a bit of back and forth to tie up loose ends with Demetrio and the editors at Columbia University Press.
You said you’d like to use your art history background to craft a non-fiction children’s book. Have you made any progress?
Yes! I recently sold my first manuscript—a picture book biography about a trailblazing female artist—to Reycraft Books. It’s slated to be released in 2026, and I couldn’t be more excited to bring this little-known historic figure to life.
Ideally, what would be your message to young readers about art and its place in their world?
I want young readers to know the therapeutic power of art (both practiced and studied) and its wonderous ability to transcend time. I would also love for young people to feel comfortable in museums, and for the museum space to not be approached as stuffy and elitist as it has been traditionally.
I absolutely have a passion for the visual. While I’m not an artist, I do have an inherent need for creative expression, and I’ve found my niche in writing about art.
What art period or movement speaks most directly to you?
The early Renaissance has my heart, particularly Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna. It’s that shift in art history from the abstract to the natural that really interests me.
What is your current (or favorite) Work In Progress?
I’m currently working on a few artsy creative nonfiction picture books. I’d have to say my favorite is the story of a wildly imaginative and talented female painter, told with a magical spin.
What do you wish more people understood about the art of translation?
|All books that Natalia translated|
Just that—that it’s an art. A translator walks a fine line between conveying the nuances of the source language and making a text culturally relevant in the target language. Italian is a verbose and lyrical language, while English is more factual and no frills. Oftentimes, I find myself breaking down a single Italian sentence into three sentences in English. I also wish more people realized that a translated book is a work of collaboration. The translator and the author are in constant exchange. The translator’s role is frequently overlooked, when, in reality, she holds the key to the literatures of other cultures and nations.
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