Interview with Nico Lorenzutti, part 1

Over the next three weeks we’ll be hearing from Nico Lorenzutti of ROH Press, an independent publisher specializing in English translations of Emilio Salgari’s books.

Tell us a little about ROH Press.
ROH Press is an independent publishing house that I started in 2007. We publish the first ever English translations of Emilio Salgari’s work, an Italian adventure writer who’s been popular for over a century. He’s kind of a combination of Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, historical fiction, fast-paced action and a bit of travelogue. We have 8 titles in print at the moment, in paperback, and will soon be expanding to ebooks.

Why Emilio Salgari? What’s your personal interest in his works?
I grew up in two cultures. My parents, displaced by the Second World War, immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and their families remained behind in Italy. It was important to my parents that their children keep the mother tongue, so we would go back to Italy every four years or so. I spoke Italian at home of course and my grandmother often sent me books. At first they were children’s picture books to help me learn the language, then, as I became older, she sent some of her favourite stories from her youth: Robin Hood, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But the novels I enjoyed most were the pirate tales of Emilio Salgari that featured Sandokan, a Bornean pirate known as the Tiger of Malaysia, and the Black Corsair, an Italian nobleman turned pirate to avenge the murder of his brothers. Those novels were filled with adventure and I reread them several times in my youth. The stories had been popular in my family for generations. My father and uncle had read them during their childhoods, as did my cousins in Italy. As a kid I’d look for them in libraries in Canada, but I never found them in English.

It wasn’t until much later, when I decided to translate Salgari’s books that I discovered the impact he had had on popular culture. His adventure novels were the first to be read widely in a newly unified Italy, many of his tales were adapted for the silver screen and he’s considered the grandfather of the Spaghetti Western. You’d be hard pressed to find an Italian author or director that hadn’t read his works as a child, and his fame was not limited to Italy. He was translated into 7 languages; four of his novels were included in Julia Eccleshare’s 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and Carlos Fuentes went so far as to say that without Emilio Salgari, “there would be no Italian, French, Spanish, or Latin American Literature.” A great many writers owe their early love of books to this man and yet he is almost completely unknown in North America. A pity, as in many ways Salgari was ahead of his time. His books were filled with heroes from a variety of cultures, often battling against western domination; his women captained ships, ran guns to rebels, donned armour and fought in battles. At a time when women couldn’t vote and most European nations were building empires, his tales and characters provided a different outlook, a different point of view. Even when I read them as a child, 80 years after they were first written, they were hard to put down.

What motivated you to start doing all this?
I was backpacking with a friend in South East Asia in 1995. We had both finished three-year contracts working as ESL teachers in Japan and this was our goodbye tour of Asia before we went home and got ‘real jobs’. One night, in some city in China, we had dinner with a group of travellers we had met at a hostel and over the course of the meal talk turned to what we planned to do with our lives once we finished our trips. The Europeans were telling us how difficult it was for them to get a job back home and one of the Spanish women said that she was considering learning Archaic Chinese, there were only six people in the world that could read it at the time, so she’d have a niche. Thinking about that conversation over the next few days, I thought about starting my own business. I had always liked Salgari’s works, had always looked for them in English as a kid and never found them. So I decided to translate them myself, compared to learning ancient pictograms how hard could it be? The books had been popular in Italy for over a century, so they were sure to be a hit in North America. Sandokan had been made into one of Italy’s most popular TV miniseries of all time. How could I fail? All I needed was a good dictionary and the books I had left at my parent’s house. Yup, I was that naive.

More from Nico next week! In the meantime, enjoy these links he thoughtfully provided:

Black Corsair video
Sandokan video
Salgari doc in Italian with English subtitles

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One Comment

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Nico, an interesting read and I’m looking forward to the next instalments.

    In addition to the usual children’s books (Dahl, Twain, Tolkien), I remember a German book that a family friend lent me called It wasn’t well known to English schoolboys of my generation, which gave the dusty old hardback some extra magic.

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