Translating my father’s dark side.

What I have learned translating to Italian

“When the Body Says No” by Dr. Gabor Maté, MD

In 2018 I read an outstanding book about the connection between repressed painful emotions and chronic diseases. Following an impulse sparked by my family and personal situation, I decided to propose myself as a translator to the first Italian publishing house who would be willing to publish it.
Now that the job is done, I decided to share my experience with the general English-speaking public through a couple of posts on Medium.
This first one deals with the scientific side of the book and shortly recollects my experience as a translator.
A second story, to appear later, will detail more existential considerations which emerged by gradually blending the great insights in the book with my personal inquiries about human freedom, destiny and the problem of their reconciliation.

Childhood trauma

Though I have always been an introvert, though I have always manifested a keen taste for self observation and though my parents were always very supportive of my aspirations, my father and I never did much talking about almost anything which was not related to strictly practical matters. He was not the talkative type and deeper dialogue was to be searched on my mother’s side. This is not to say that he was not introspective in his own way. But his type of introspection characterises people tending to brood over and exaggerate negative circumstances. All the people who had been close to him at least since he was a boy knew all too well that this was the result of childhood events he had never taken a chance to confront.

Born the illegitimate child of a clandestine affair between a wealthy trader’s son and a destitute house waitress, dad did not enjoy a nurturing rearing. After my biological grandfather was ordered by his family (and did abide) not to marry my grandmother on the grounds of social class prejudice, she wreaked a petty lifelong vengeance on him by representing his persona in her son’s eyes as a selfish womaniser and an unscrupulous individual who had never given a damn about his child, leaving her in trouble without too much ado right from the moment he heard about her pregnancy.
Actually, as everybody else -except for my father- knew all the time, my grandfather never gave up neither on searching for updates about his son nor on making sure that he was carrying along well with his life, even after he eventually married another woman, all the way until his death.

There was my young father-to-be, doomed to emotional loneliness before he was even born, a gloomy mother more focused on her resentment for her bygone partner (and who knows on how many other emotional distresses in her earlier life), with no ability to tune in with her child, nobody else to ever listen to him, to offer nurturing care…and without a fair chance to confront his father himself and try to form some kind of bond with him, to let his own vision of him emerge from experience without anybody else meddling in it.
As I was told by my mother, so much was the resentment grandma had seeded into her son’s mind that one evening dad and she came back home by car and my grandpa was there, seeking his chance to speak to his 10 year old boy for the first time. But his son kept sitting on the passenger’s seat without even raising his eyes from the comic book in his hands.
Later on, a younger sister arrived from another liaison of grandma’s and, as early as he made it into adolescence, dad was expected to contribute his share to his family financial needs. In the light of such a story -you bet…one of way too many- it doesn’t actually sound so strange if he did not exhibit any ability to openly confront whomever on emotional matters.

His personality featured also another salient trait which is paramount to the present discussion: he was almost absolutely unable to say no to anybody asking him for help. He was always identifying with other people’s problems, listening to them and helping them out however he could…just as he had been forced to do in his original family.

As I found out after he passed away, tenths of people received money from him over the years; some of them were helped several times, despite not returning the previous lendings. Some relative even tricked him in this respect, exploiting his deep rooted respect for his mother’s family. He never sake vengeance, which I think is a good thing, but he never learned the lesson either. From time to time, I am still learning about someone he used to help. That went on until the very last months of his life.

Pressed by my mother, he finally tried to get his chance to meet grandpa, shortly after I was born…too bad that a fatal heart attack had been a few months earlier than him.

Family trauma

The first diagnosis of urothelial bladder cancer struck in October 2015, when my dad was 59. Urgent and invasive surgery followed up late in November and for 18 months thereafter everything went fine...or so everybody hoped.
Then June 2017 came and the first relapse sparked the story I am telling. Some abdominal lymph nodes were under attack by cancer growth; three cycles of cisplatin-based chemotherapy ensued and the attacker seemed to have momentarily “vanished” from the PET scan (Positron Electron Tomography) in December 2017. We were in bliss and we spent a wonderful Christmas time.
In March 2018 I had already lived in Israel for 6 months, working as a postdoc in physics. It was my second postdoc and the chances to fly back to Poland, where I had spent three wonderful years and try to settle there seemed worth of serious consideration. Indeed, my dream was to teach physics and do research in the city I had fallen in love with.
It was just then that cancer showed up again in the PET scan and the awareness that such recurrent behaviour heralds nothing good started to whisper in my ear that, in the worst case event, there was a big responsibility lying in ambush for me.
My father was a successful local entrepreneur, who had led — over the span of 30 years — an originally financially distressed family company to become a robust medium-sized enterprise employing up to 60 people during the summer, generating consistent revenue for the two families in the partnership.
Unfortunately, the seasonal nature of our work, the delay in the computerisation level of the firm and the importance of long term human relationships for the successful management -among other things- of a significant pool of seasonal employees, aspects which had been exacerbated by my father’s old-school management style, would have made it financially distressing and -on the practical level- extremely risky to hire an all-year-round manager with no previous specific experience, had dad succumbed.

Despite I had gradually chosen a completely disconnected life path, I had always been by my father’s side during my summers ever since I was eleven, slowly absorbing his views and perspectives about the management of our firm. Beside that, as the oldest child in either family and the only one having a fairly significant life experience that far, the premonition of my father’s departure was slowly turning everyone else’s eyes on me. I had known this all too well ever since the first diagnosis, but I had always kept the hope alive that everything could still evolve for the better.

The picture was gloomy in those days and my mind was confused, so I was not in a mood to think deeply. Nevertheless, there was one lurking detail which was a big puzzle for me right from the start. The urothelial carcinoma was not the first cancer in my father’s life. He had used to be a chain smoker until, aged 39, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which had him quit smoking for good right off the bat. I had always thought that the connection between smoking and lung cancer was trivial to understand, but what left me baffled back in 2015 was the surgeon’s statement that this second cancer was being caused by smoking too…17 years after quitting it and successfully recovering from lung cancer !?
Mine was more of a kind of feeling that something in the picture did not sound totally plausible rather than a clear-cut certainty, but I was unable to further elaborate on it, mainly because of my emotional involvement.

As I would discover, what was feeling so unclear was the conflation of correlation and causation, which apparently still fails to be appreciated by orthodox allopathic medicine when it comes to the causes of chronic diseases; most likely, the missing factor at play, i.e. the subversion of the immune system caused by hidden stress, does not lend itself to the Descartian mentality of our medicine and our society. Mind and body are way more interconnected than we are accustomed to think, as I would appreciate after meeting Dr. Maté’s book.

Correlation vs causation, a crucial difference.

I believe that an excursus clarifying the difference between the concepts of causation and correlation for the lay person is in order. For our purposes, rigorous mathematical definitions are less important than some straightforward examples.
Generally speaking, if we let A and B be two given events, causation of B by A means that event B invariably follows event A. So every time event A does happen, B will follow for sure.
To stay in context, let me me give one medical example. If people happen to have the muscular dystrophy gene, they can be positive that they will suffer from the disease at some point in their lives, unless they accidentally die before the first symptoms appear. This is because muscular dystrophy is a purely genetic disease. So the muscular dystrophy gene actually causes muscular dystrophy.

Correlation is way milder. It means that two events A and B tend to happen together. A typical instance of correlation is when multiple factors must simultaneously concur for something to happen, i.e. when the cause can be split into several components which can happen independently.
For instance, assume for a moment that we do not know the laws of thermodynamics. We could imagine to run an experiment consisting of warming up water up to 100 Celsius degrees in a lot of places on Earth, with varying environmental conditions of which we keep track of. We would then notice that there exists a very strong tendency of water to boil at 100 degrees. Perhaps this happens often in the collected data set, say 90% of the times. Given our ignorance, a 90% correlation would be all we could say.
Later on, with the laws of thermodynamics finally understood, we would see that water always boils at 100 degrees if, at the same time, the air pressure equals 1 atmosphere. We would then notice than in that 90% of cases in our experiment we had warmed water up with air pressure being equal to just1 atmosphere.
Let us put this another way: the cause of water boiling is 100 degrees AND 1 atm air pressure; neither of these is sufficient by itself; so both are only correlated with the boiling phenomenon.

There are cases when correlation can be mistaken for causation. To build on the same example, we could have been clumsy in our experiment, boiling water with air pressure equal to 1 atmosphere everywhere, i.e. we could have omitted sampling over the most general spectrum of conditions. We would conclude that a temperature of 100 Celsius degrees causes water to boil by itself.
This is what is called selection bias, an apparent discovery of a too general relationship due to a sloppy sampling of the conditions in which we run the experiment. So much for examples.

Correlation is clearly useful when we do not possess a complete knowledge of a system, either because the exact laws it obeys are unknown or because of its sheer complexity, which makes otherwise well understood laws computationally unmanageable.
The latter is the case of the human body, an extremely complex biological system. Though we are unaware of the exact laws governing each and every chronic disease, medical research has inferred plenty of correlations over time and cancers are among the most studied diseases, for obvious reasons.
So, for instance, we know that the incidence of breast cancer is mildly correlated with three genes, lung cancer is strongly correlated with smoking and so on…the real point is that genetic predisposition and smoking are far from being the full story ! Far from everyone with genetic predisposition to breast cancer actually gets it !
Smokers are surely way more at risk for lung cancer (this is unquestionable). In up-to-date statistics, this means that a lot of people who are regularly diagnosed with lung cancer have been consistent smokers (about 80 percent of diagnosed women and 90 percent of diagnosed men), but not all of them! Indeed, some people do get lung cancer without having ever smoked or inhaled somebody else’s smoke. On the other hand, some people who have smoked all their lives exactly the same brands and amounts of cigarettes per day as lung cancer patients do until diagnosis (and some of them even afterwards !!!) die after longer lives for completely unrelated reasons.
I cannot possible imagine neater examples of the difference between clear-cut causes and hazier correlations in the medical field !
Some other factor beside genes and smoking MUST be involved.

Meeting Dr. Maté’s perspective

In March 2018, shortly after my father’s second relapse, I listened to the London Real podcast episode “Why You are Addicted” featuring Dr. Gabor Maté, a Hungarian born Jewish physician who became a naturalised Canadian doctor specialising in palliative care, ADHD and addiction treatment. He played the latter role right on the frontline, serving as a doctor in the facility for the housing and caring of hard drug addicts provided by the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver Downtown Eastside, one of the most addiction-stricken areas in North America, and he was distilling the essence of his experience in that podcast.
I clearly remember being struck by his statement that, though the psychological underpinnings of addiction and vulnerability to chronic diseases are different (yes: psychological !), the existential roots of the two conditions are in both cases childhood trauma and a subsequently emotionally miserable life.
Dr. Maté clearly states that this is irrespective of whether traumas are clearly identifiable, distressful events which should not have happened -e.g. sexual abuses or losses of family members- or they are rather the lack of something that should have happened, for instance attuned primal cares from nurturing adults which we all so desperately need as human beings, as it was the case for my father.
To me, Dr. Maté’s main point sounded so reasonable and well grounded that it sparked my interest to look further into the subject and I immediately purchased his earlier book, “When the Body Says No. The Cost of Hidden Stress.”

What followed was a refreshing unfolding of first quality scientific evidence blended with plenty of reassuring common sense and moving anecdotes.
Gabor’s key idea is simple to state: childhood trauma creates the basis for ineffective emotional coping styles in the child; as time goes by, these seeds may grow into a personality tending to live in an over-stressed mode, fettering the underlying pain with the chains of workaholism, addiction, excessive niceness and the like. All of these coping styles have one thing in common, the inability to say “No!”…”No!” to the behaviours automatically triggered by the mechanisms which allowed the child to face emotional pain and later became the core of the personality; “No!” to the demands the person perceives that others are rightfully placing on her, be it more work, more effort to please people, more sacrifice for family and loved ones and no space for herself, more putting up with the behaviour of an abusive partner or with society’s ever growing demands.
For each and every patient, the area of life in which he or she is unable to say no may be different, but the inability to put some appropriate boundary is definitely deficient in all of them.

It just so happens, as people (including physicians) have actually known for centuries, that a person’s emotional coping style is not separated from her physiology. Emotions are processed by brain structures which, parallel to the display of emotions, also control the release into the body of powerful chemicals which are not neutral for the organism’s health in the long term.
As a matter of fact, psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology is a blooming science unveiling the complex connections of our immune system with the functioning of our glands and nervous system, which must thus be understood as a whole, rather than as unrelated entities.

Scientific rigour is no stranger to a trained physicist, even more so when some implicit assumptions of a respectable science as western medicine are being challenged to such a great extent: we are accustomed to a Descartian mentality which sees emotions as accidents mainly unrelated to physiology; beside that, I am no stranger myself to the benefits of medical practice.
When I was 22, a few days before getting my undergraduate degree, my left eye went blind. I had been struck by juvenile cataract and I own to then state-of-the-art ocular surgery if I can still see quite well…I had not forgotten this while I was reading “When the Body says No”.

As it turns out, ailments such as viral or bacterial infections, broken bones, localised physical traumas and the like have very different natures than the so called chronic diseases, i.e. the bunch of conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS known in North America as Lou Gehrig’s disease), irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and so on, where the immune system is impaired by processes which either weaken it to the point it cannot fight a threat or even turn it against the host organism.
No “orthodox” physician can convincingly explain the genesis of such conditions. What I mean by orthodox in this context has nothing to do with belonging to a specific school of thought. It rather defines the tendency to dismiss stress and emotional problems as contributing factors to chronic diseases, period.
I wish anybody reading these lines stopped for a few seconds and tried to recall when it was the last time a doctor they (or people they are close to) consulted for any symptoms beyond trivial asked them about anything affecting their personal lives such as stresses or emotional problems they were facing. That is enough to get the essence of this definition.

This is where the central idea in Dr. Maté’s book really strikes a chord, because it proposes a refreshing perspective about the genesis of chronic diseases, backed up by tenths of first quality scientific studies.
The reading opened my eyes about the life situations of so many people I had met and heard about over the course of my life, as most of us have.
After appreciating the complex interconnections of our emotions and immune systems, chronic conditions and long term stress cannot any longer be seen just as mere misfortunes vaguely ascribable to “genetic predisposition plus bad luck”, as medical orthodoxy tends to classify them.
The histories of disease presented in the book, which feature also such famous characters as the baseball player Lou Gehrig and the cosmologist Stephen Hawking (ALS), the cello prodigy child Jacqueline du Pré (MS) and the comedian Gilda Radner (ovarian cancer), U.S. president Ronal Reagan (Alzheimer) and former mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani (prostate cancer), could invariably be interpreted as the consequence of an inadequate rearing in their early years, which predisposed them to emotionally hollow existences, each one in its own way.
What this precisely means is left to discover for people who will read the book, for this piece will be long enough even without trying to deal with such a touchy subject.

Suddenly, the refrain “It is always the best people who have to leave first.” started to sound as a social misunderstanding of what mother Nature has established as our emotional duty as human beings. Suddenly, the element missing from my father’s life picture fit in and my vision was cleared.

I’ll just quote Dr. Maté:

“Nature’s ultimate goal is to foster the growth of the individual from absolute dependence to independence -or, more exactly, to the interdependence of mature adults living in a community. (…) Anything that interferes with that natural agenda threatens the organism’s chances for long term survival.”

What about selection bias ?

In light of our discussion above, one could sensibly argue that the claim of the book must be checked for selection bias (see above). In principle, the author and the studies he cites could all have focused on people who have suffered from both chronic diseases and emotional deprivations during their lives, neglecting those who have suffered from just one of the two, because all the quoted investigators and the author himself wanted their pre-existing belief to be proven right, so that they set up their experiments and bibliographical research in such a way as to be proven right. This is admittedly a subtle issue, which I confronted myself at first; what follows is my take about it.

First of all I should further clarify that the claim is that not all the people who are emotionally traumatised end up getting chronic disease, but all the people who get chronic diseases were traumatised. In other words, emotional trauma is a necessary condition for chronic disease, but -luckily- it is not sufficient. The human evolutionary potential is quite impressive and, even in the presence of powerful emotional stressors during childhood, a subsequent fortunate combination of helpful circumstances over the course of life and the desire to overcome what the individual has come to acknowledge as painful limits of her personality can help to successfully regain a reasonable connection with her deepest emotions, at least to a sufficient extent as to develop into a psychologically differentiated adults, which unloads the immune system from the unnecessary burden of the chemicals continuously released int the body by perennial stress.

The issue of checking the converse, i.e. whether all people who get chronically sick were actually traumatised and, as a consequence, emotionally incompetent, is equally important from the scientific point of view and really interested people should certainly cross-check this, if skeptical.
The first way to do this is to directly read the research papers the book quotes; I found both the “Cvrenka study” about (among other things) lung cancer and the “Nun Study” about Alzheimer to be beyond convincing.

A second possibility to check for selection bias, which is less academic but way more instructive in my opinion, is to first carefully read the book in order to get a clear mental picture of hidden stress and the salient personality traits of people who have suffered it lifelong; after this idea is clearly outlined, readers should take the time to look closely enough at the life stories of those they know who have been stricken by chronic diseases.
Hard as it may be, for sure it will convince everybody that the inability to prioritise one’s own deepest needs, instead of systematically putting others’ expectations and hopes in the first place, is actually deficient in these patients.
As far as my personal check has gone so far, I am absolutely positive about the absence of any selection bias whatsoever.

What was particularly mind blowing for me -because of my father’s history- was the already mentioned Cvrenka study about the relationship between the repression of rage and the incidence of lethal diseases.
Cvrenka is a small town in the former Yugoslavia which used to feature a high mortality rate and a relatively stable population. Because of its blue collar character, people who settled there when they got a factory job were very unlikely to be found anywhere else ten years later, which is the time the study spanned. Roughly 1400 people participated in the study, their general health was assessed at the beginning and, 10 years later, they underwent a follow-up test to check for diseases which had supervened in the meanwhile, either through a visit or by means of their death certificate.
What was found is that the single greatest risk factor for lethal diseases was an over-rational attitude towards life’s adversities, especially for cancer !
All the people in the Cvrenka study who got lung cancer and died from it had been smokers; but other participating people with totally analogous smoking habits had not gotten cancer. Most crucially, they never got it if they did not repress rage, an attitude measured by the experimenters through a specific 109 item questionnaire administered at the beginning of the study. I will say it again: if smokers could manifest rage in a liberating way when it arose, the likelihood to get lung cancer was 40 times lower.

Given that it is established that cancerous cells, when they set off to reproduce, must be killed by the immune system before their proliferation takes over, turning into a diagnosable cancer, I wonder who could still argue, after pondering this, that a healthy relationship with our emotions bears no correspondence with the proper functioning of our immune system.

There is no question that justifying the tobacco industry on such grounds would be foolish. They have known for decades how negative the impact of their business is and I have nothing to add about it.
Indeed, my focus of this study is dictated by my perceived experience with smoking: painful as my father’s emotional life was and despite I find Gabor’s thesis to be practically unquestionable, I still feel that, without the toxins brought into my dad’s body for so long by his vice, he could at least have lived longer, for urothelial bladder cancer has a documented tendency to show up quite frequently in a person who has survived lung cancer and has been a chain smoker.

The translator’s loneliness

I have translated the book during the second half of 2018, completing my job on December 1st, three days before my father’s death.
The cancer did not respond to neither chemotherapy nor, later on, to immunotherapy and we watched dad wear out over the last four months. When I returned home for good from Israel, it was October 15th and he still drove to the airport to pick me up, though he was already being treated for pain. A couple of weeks later, he was not leaving home any longer.
A few days before passing away, he told me, my mother and my sister at his bedside: “I leave you the business I have built over the course of 30 years, but don’t carry it as a personal burden: you all should work to enjoy yourselves. Life is more important.” That only came at the end of 30 years of self-effacing, restless effort to make our company grow bigger and stronger at the cost of his own peace of mind and health.
Close to nobody ever realised that this was dad’s best strategy to prevent himself to stay alone with his mind and its painful contents.

I was driven into being a translator by the belief that the book could do something for him. As it was becoming clear that it was too late, the idea that it might help somebody else kept me pushing through…and I got lucky !
I found a small and independent editor in Mrs. Anita Molino’s publishing house “Il Leone Verde”. I proposed with some pre-translated chapters in an email I sent with little expectations and I got a positive reply! Mrs. Molino has joined the attempt of spreading the perspective of mind-body unity to the Italian public, which still knows Maté’s work too little, and I am so grateful to her !
We have managed to sell roughly 100 copies in our venue through the summer. As I am writing these lines, it’s January 19th 2020 and, after several failed attempts, I have managed to present the book for the very first time 10 days ago in a small meeting in a café of my native village. I estimated that roughly 35 people were there.
It was a pleasant surprise to see quite everybody staying tuned with me right to the end of my talk.

So what do I mean by “translator’s loneliness” ? Translating a fine book is no trivial task, as I found out soon after diving into my endeavour.
The key point is that, since two languages are never in one-to-one correspondence with each other, the translator of a book is often forced to let go of something he does perceive as meaningful. Some words may require a periphrasis for their meaning to unfold in the target language, but this implies a loss of immediacy. Or the other way around, as one can retain some immediacy but lose the precise original meaning.
It is always up to the translator to choose what goes and what stays.

Let me illustrate this by discussing one single example which I will use to briefly touch on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (a.k.a. ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), one of the most gruelling chronic conditions. In fact, it seems to be so closely associated with a specific form of emotional incompetence that electromyography operators at the Cleveland Clinic -an internationally renowned center for ALS- were reported to guess with close to 100 percent accuracy whether patients they examine on a daily basis do indeed have ALS on the grounds of the short chats they have with them during the examination, without any need for further scrutiny (electromyography is the first test people suspected of ALS must take). It appears that such accurate “diagnoses” are usually framed in such sentences as “This patient cannot have ALS. He is not nice enough.”

In the chapter on ALS, significantly titled “Buried alive”, Maté reports his conversation with Laura, an ALS and breast cancer patient. At the time of the interview, this woman owns a bed and breakfast and a booking request from a habitual customer has just been filed while her housekeeper is on holiday in Europe. As thoroughly detailed, for ALS patients saying no to other people’s requests is an utter taboo: as we said, this is generally true for all people with chronic diseases in some areas of life, but ALS patients are at the very extreme of the spectrum, just as their disease is a sort fo climax of chronic conditions. Laura is no exception: she takes the reservation and insists that, despite her problems walking around and moving, she would still prepare a proper breakfast for the girl.
When mentioning her upcoming guest, she calls her a corporate guest.

Here’s a short excerpt from the book: all italic is mine, bold italic denotes the person speaking and is not in the original text:

Laura: “They are repeats and I enjoy seeing them. And next week we have one repeat coming who’s been here a dozen times, a corporate guest.”
Gabor: “How about saying,” I suggest, “Dear corporate guest: I have this condition that makes life very difficult for me. I am not up to the work involved in looking after people.”
Laura: “I could say that. But the gal is coming, and I really enjoy her. She knows my condition, and she says, ‘I’ll clean up my own room, and I’ll get a bowl of cereal in the morning.’ That’s what they all say, but I can’t let them do that. Because I’ve never served a bowl of cereal for breakfast.”
Gabor: “You still wouldn’t be serving one. They’d be serving it themselves.” Hearty laughter.
Laura: “You make it sound so simple. I’d have to take a course, or maybe get some counselling with you.”

Now the translation “problem”: the word “corporate”, which refers to anything having to do with large companies or corporations, has no Italian equivalent. We could say that is it a linguistic outgrow of Anglo-Saxon culture, in which the importance and social perception of big corporations are so strong that English has a designated word for them. Laura is clearly using the word with a touch of respect for her guest’s position, which compounds with her baseline personality into making it impossible for her to reject her reservation request.
On the other hand, Maté repeats the expression “corporate guest” in his reply with a touch of compassionate irony for her interviewee’s overt deference, for no host in this world would really address a guest in such a way !

In an ideal world the translator would preserve all of the following: the meaning of “corporate guest”, Laura’s perception of her guest, Maté’s slight irony and the immediacy of the English expression.
As outlined above, immediacy is lost as soon as one keeps the first three things, because no such single word with the same meaning as corporate exists in Italian.
A first option is to translate “corporate guest” with “ospite aziendale”, accepting the loss of the specific reference to a very big company, as the Italian word ”aziendale” simply means “related to a firm”, no matter how big the firm is.
A second option is to ditch the precise meaning, perhaps by translating “corporate guest” to Italian with “pezzo grosso”, roughly the equivalent of “big shot”, thus preserving immediacy but clearly losing some context.
What had me finally go for the first option was the feeling that the latter translation would offset the proper balance of meanings, making Laura’s perception of her guest come across as too coarse, which would not suit her gentle and delicate personality.

This is the case also with other anecdotes about patients.
Details really matter, they can fail or help to faithfully profile a human being.
Probably my example does not sound like a big deal. You bet, it is not…well, too big. It is actually a matter of point of views. The key message would come across anyway to the general reader, but I feel that this is not the way to think of a translator’s responsibility, being one myself.

I can’t help quoting an excerpt from the novel The Immortality by Milan Kundera, where a character is speaking about Mahler’s seventh symphony, exemplifying what I mean by “loneliness” in the title of this section: insisting in an effort that only -if any- few people will appreciate,

“Everything is worked through, thought through, felt through, nothing has been left to chance, but that enormous perfection overwhelms us, it surpasses the capacity of our memory, our ability to concentrate, so that even the most fanatically attentive listener will grasp no more than one-hundredth of the symphony, and certainly it will be this one-hundredth that Mahler cared about the least.”

When the Body Says No enjoys both blessings of any excellent non-fiction book, sound arguments and fine writing. One could say that excellent books are like excellent food: fresh and genuine ingredients make them nourishing, attention to details makes them unforgettable.
I came to understand that the “translation state of mind” is not so different from cooking or from any other form of art in general, when it comes to attention to details.
Meaning nuances make the experience worth of the best reader’s highest sensitivity, if they are preserved enough in the target language, as they should, for somebody not speaking the original language has no less right to fully enjoy the beauty and depth of the message, if she has the potential to do so. Maybe the reader has such a keen sensitivity for the written word that a gut feeling during the time spent on a badly translated book will have her think “Something is not coming across quite right.” At least that was I feared all the time while attending at my task.

It is for that single, maybe just ideal reader that a translator should struggle hard, event though the book could not exist without the bulk of final users purchasing it. In this respect, working with an ideal reader in mind is the equivalent of Mahler’s obsessing over every detail of his symphony (factoring in the abysmal difference between the two of us in terms of talent !).
It is perhaps generally true that working for an ideal final user in mind is the only way that anybody attending at some creative task can finally look back and say honestly: “Fine for this one: I have given all I could give.”

A little bet I won

It is eighteen months after I first listened to Dr. Maté’s interview. I am going though my evening shift in our family business in a quiet September evening. I have no longer been a researcher for a year, my father has left this life, the responsibility of handling and dealing with employees is on me, I am tired after a long, challenging and stressful summer, the first without my father at the helm with all his precious experience.
A picture of him hangs on the wall behind the cashier’s desk. It was taken on the evening of his 60th birthday party, a few months after the bladder cancer surgery, when our hopes were still strong. His gentle and welcoming eyes glitter behind his squared, thick framed glasses, his smile engraved between his portly cheeks: it is a snapshot cut out of a family picture where we are all together and happy to see him reacting so energetically to his “bad luck”.

A man walks up to me in the semi-deserted bar around 10.00 pm and asks if the translator of “that book on diseases and emotions over there” is me. I answer positively. He is referring to the small counter display which was prepared by our company advertisers to hold a copy of the freelance pro bono translation I have accomplished.
The man goes ahead: “I bought that book for my wife some weeks ago. You were not here them. She has had scleroderma and multiple sclerosis for many years now and she is wheelchair bound. She has alreayd read the first two chapters and she has found exactly her life story pattern.”
I am taken aback, I was unprepared to such an exchange.
After a couple of seconds I put my thoughts back together and dare asking:
“You mean, Sir…did she endure severe emotional deprivations during her early years ?”
“She definitely did and she is positive that what the book says is 100% true. She feels it must be true. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk again in the future.”
I nod, I thank him respectfully for this testimony and I wish him a good night.

And now I just have to thank the reader of this article for her attention and switch off my laptop.




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Mirko Serino

Mirko Serino


A former high energy physicist, now managing my family company, interested in spirituality, complexity and investments.