118. Interview with Silvia Torchio, Italian translator of Jimmy Liao

In September, we interviewed Paolo Magagnin and asked him about translations of Chinese children’s books into Italian. He said we must talk to Silvia Torchio, the Italian translator of Jimmy Liao 幾米, and kindly offered to put us in touch. How could we resist?! Almost everyone who comes across Jimmy Liao’ s books wonders why they aren’t available in every language… Thank you, Paolo, and thank you Silvia, for taking the time to talk to us!

Silvia Torchio at the Translators Cafe, Bologna Children’s Bookfair (photo: Silvia Torchio)

Silvia, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
My name is Silvia Torchio and I am the official Italian translator of the Taiwanese picture book writer Jimmy Liao. Since 2016 I have also been his agent in Italy. I studied Chinese both in China and Italy at the University of Torino, where I graduated with a dissertation about the Chinese translations of Ulysses by James Joyce. I have been always interested in books and translation. I have always considered it one of the most important jobs: to be a bridge between two cultures and give people the opportunity to learn something very different, and yet not as distant and inaccessible as it may appear. For this same reason I am also a teacher of Chinese language and culture in high school.

In the past I worked in Brazil a lot and I learned and studied Portuguese, so I am also the translator and agent of a wonderful Japanese-Brazilian picture book writer: Lucia Hiratsuka, who is a master in the art of sumi-e. I met her eating breakfast during the Bologna Children Bookfair and I fell in love with the lights of his books enriched by the magic blend of Brazilian and Japanese details. I seem to be drawn to picture books!

Could you tell us about Jimmy Liao and your interest in his work?
Jimmy Liao is a renowned illustrator and picture books writer. He started working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. In 1995 he survived a battle with leukemia and after that he was determined to devote himself heart and soul to his art. Jimmy’s books have been translated into more than fifteen languages and sold around the world. They have also been adapted for theater, movies, television, and animation.

Jimmy Liao and Silvia Torchio (photo: Silvia Torchio)

His books appeal to all ages. Children can be amused by the colorful pictures that often feature adorable animals. Teenagers can feel the bitter-sweet atmosphere of leaving childhood and entering adulthood. And adults can enjoy the delicate but intense blend of melancholy and hopefulness that characterizes all his works. So, his books are for every kind of reader.

I like to say that how I started translating Jimmy Liao’s picture books in Italian is worth a Jimmy Liao story! It is full of little details and elements that typically identify his books. Especially one topic: coincidence or destiny? Ten years ago, while in Asia he was already very popular and in many western countries some of his books were already on the shelves, but not a single work had been translated into Italian.

So, how did you become Jimmy Liao’s official translator into Italian?
In 2004 I came across Jimmy Liao’s books for the first time. I was in Nanjing and on a cold afternoon in November, a friend of mine showed me one of his most famous works “Turn Left Turn Right” (translated into Italian as Incontri disincontri, by Terre di Mezzo Editore, Milan, 2017). I started to browse the book and I felt enraptured. It was like seeing myself in a mirror. I read the story, looked at the illustrations, and I felt as if the book was talking to me directly. I found in it all the feelings I had inside and somehow was not able to explain. I thought that was MY book.

But – and this is the first BUT of the story – I did not buy it. It’s very strange, I know, but true. The thought of it and the feelings that it had provoked somehow stuck inside me for many years. Six years, to be precise.

In 2010 I was in China again and I promised myself I would go and find that book. But there is another BUT in this story – the bookstore did not have it. There were many books by Jimmy Liao, but not “Turn left Turn Right”. So I started to browse other books on the shelves, and I found The Sound of Colors 地下鐵 (translated into Italian as La Voce dei Colori, by Edizioni Gruppo Abele, Turin, 2011). While I was reading, I was enraptured and touched, once again. This time, learning from previous mistakes, I immediately bought it. I left the bookstore, went to a coffee bar, and started translating it, (I still save the notebook with the draft of the very first translation, that I keep as a kind of memento.)

Then, a very mysterious and wonderful series of events (again: destiny or chance?) brought me into contact with Jimmy Liao’s publisher. From there, the story of Jimmy Liao books translated into Italian OFFICIALLY began.

This happened ten years ago. The first Italian book, the translation of Sound of Colors, was published in October 2011, and within a decade, thirteen of Jimmy Liao’s books were available in Italian – more than one a year – thanks to three different publishers (Edizioni Gruppo Abele, Camelozampa – BOP Best Children’s Publisher of the Year 2020 -, and Terre di Mezzo).

Actually my job goes beyond translating and managing the contacts between the publishers. I was enraptured by these books and I was sure that this could happen to many other people. I just had to lead the way to the reader, show and introduce the books and let every reader find their path of reading, feeling, experiencing…

Right from the start, I set up a fan page on Facebook, with the name “Jimmy’s Friends”. I thought that it was good to create a community. I was sure that other people like me, after knowing his books, would also wish to share the beauty. And they did.

In cooperation with the publishers, I started to contact libraries, festivals, bookstores, schools and universities, proposing a cultural event, not just a simple book presentation, but to provide the means for a full immersion, cultural and emotional, into the books. To introduce the books from different points of view, I invited popular illustrators, authors, and academics to come and talk about the works.

You have been working with Jimmy Liao for ten years now. Could you tell us more about him, and about your work with him and his books?
Jimmy Liao is a wonderful person. I know that I am clearly partial, but I think that many other people would say the same if they had the opportunity to know him. He is very kind and empathic. When he is in Taiwan I don’t have any contact with him, because he has a super efficient, reliable and friendly editor and assistant, who also travels with him when he is invited abroad. Liao describes himself as a clerk of art, because he works six days a week, from 8,30 a.m. to 6 p.m. He has a very precise routine and all the publishing and operational issues are managed by his staff.

I met him for the first time in 2015 in Cagliari (Sardinia) when he was invited to the Festival Tuttestorie. We worked a lot to make that possible and those days are unforgettable. He was really impressed by the warmth of Italy, so much so that he came again in 2018, this time to the north of Italy for a tour that I organized with the cooperation of the three publishers and the Bologna Children’s Bookfair. It was really great: and once again he was so surprised by the wonderful welcome he received from his readers. Every event was nice, crowded and especially touching.

I was very touched when somehow to thank me for the job I had done, he recommended me to the Department of European Languages and Cultures of the National Chengchi University 國立政治大學 in Taipei for a conference about translation. He was the guest and I was one of the speakers. So, in 2019, I went to Taiwan and I had the terrific opportunity to tell my story and talk about my work in front of him and translation specialists.

Could you tell us about the process of translating Jimmy Liao’s books?
I would like to focus on one particular aspect: what does it mean to translate a PICTURE BOOK; from Chinese to Italian? The crucial thing about picture books is the balance between images and words; they totally depend on each other. So, when I translate I need to be very attentive to the illustrations as well as the meaning of the words. The images influence the meaning and give boundaries to the text. This is especially true for an author like Jimmy Liao, who worked in an advertising company for twelve years and is very mindful of the importance of the layout as a channel of communication beyond words.

Italian sentences are much longer than Chinese phrases , so in many cases, I had to adjust or amend my first attempt at translation, even if it was good, because it was too long and there was no room on the page, or because I needed to respect the special layout, as we can see in this example from Abbracci (Hugs):

Abbracci (Hugs) (EGA Publisher, 2014)

As for cultural differences and elements that are unknown in Italy, translating a picture book is not the same as translating a novel. For instance, picture books rarely have footnotes, and you have to conform not only to the illustrations and layout, but also to the colors. So sometimes, to keep the rhythm of imagination and be loyal to colors and details, it is necessary to find new solutions, and this is the most difficult, but also the most creative, part of this work.

Ultimately, a strong community around Jimmy Liao’s books has been built and it needs constant nurturing. I am happy about what has been achieved, but – fortunately – there is still much work to be done.

What can we look forward to next?
In 2020 A Fish, one of the first books by Jimmy Liao that smiled at me, was published in Italian as Librero come un pesce:

Libero come un pesce (A Fish) (Terre di Mezzo Editore, 2020) ISBN 9788861896499

The animation adapted from this book won the Special Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival:

A Fish With a Smile 微笑的魚 – the animation adapted from Jimmy Liao’s book A Fish

Jimmy’s very first book “Secrets in the Woods” (1998) – will be published in Italian as I Segreti della Foresta in 2021 and readers will also be able to enjoy his most recent book, “Touching and Talking” 頭碰頭說說話 which was greatly influenced by the present global situation.

And, recently, I’ve been working with a colleague on a project about new picture books from China, especially from Taiwan. We are still at the initial stage of the project, so it’s too early to talk about it, but I really hope to step forward very soon.

Follow Silvia Torchio and Jimmy Liao in Italian



1 thought on “118. Interview with Silvia Torchio, Italian translator of Jimmy Liao

  1. Pingback: January Web Round-up – World Kid Lit

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