Giles Watson, 1954–2015

Lots of you will have noticed that the English language version of was impeccable. Quick off the mark, incisive, idiomatic. Why? Because it doesn’t use Google Translate and it doesn’t work with amateurs. Those English translations were by Giles Watson, one of the best professionals around, who loved two languages and two countries, Italy and the UK. Yes, the English was impeccable. I’m using the past tense because Giles has died. Out of the blue, on a summer Sunday by the sea. Gone at just sixty years of age. He was born in Scotland, in 1954, and in 1976 he graduated with honours in modern and medieval languages from Cambridge University. Once he got to Italy, he found Grazia, Udine and Friuli. He chose to stay and, in his own way, he was married to all three.

We got to know one another in early 1990. By letter. My first book, Inglesi, had been on sale for just a few days when I received a very meticulous letter, covering many sheets of paper and listing a long series of inaccuracies and small errors. I was aghast: ‘This chap’s taken my book apart,’ I thought, but I was mistaken. At the end of the letter, just before signing off, he wrote: “That said, Inglesi is the best thing I’ve read about Great Britain in a long time.” I looked him up in the phone book and called him: “Here’s the thing, Watson: the next book I write, I’ll send you a draft, so you can correct it before and not after.” Which is what we did.

Ci siamo conosciuti all’inizio del 1990. Per posta. Il mio primo libro, «Inglesi», era uscito da pochi giorni quando ho ricevuto una lettera meticolosa, di molti fogli, che elencava una lunga serie di piccoli errori e imprecisioni. Ho pensato, affranto: questo mi ha demolito il libro. Mi sbagliavo. Alla fine, prima delle firma, scriveva: «Detto ciò, “Inglesi” è la cosa migliore sulla Gran Bretagna che io abbia letto da molto tempo». Ho cercato il numero di telefono, l’ho chiamato: «Senta Watson, facciamo una cosa: il prossimo libro glielo mando in bozza, così le correzioni le fa prima, non dopo». Così è stato.

Giles turned out to be essential in the drafting of L’inglese. Lezioni semiserie (1992, 1997). We became friends and he became my translator. I have him to thank for the success of Ciao America! (2002) and La Bella Figura (2006) in the USA. More than one critic commented: “The texts don’t read like translations!” And it’s true. Giles knew me so well that his English spoke for me. How did he manage that? He knew that a good translator has to be intuitive. He understood that translating isn’t about swapping words around, it’s about revealing their meaning. For The Economist (1996–2003), Financial Times (2010–11) and The New York Times (2013–) my pieces are written directly in English, but I’d often send him the articles for a good polish. Back they came, perfectly sparkling. Every now and again we’d have heated debate about a sentence or a word. He always came out on top: he was better than me. I’d read and think, ‘Now, why isn’t my writing that good?’

When decided to translate editorials and various articles on a daily basis (, I was asked for a name. That was easy: the name was Giles Watson. The canny Scot from Friuli added another ritual – Corriere della Sera – to a few others that had become a fundamental part of his life: the sea of Grado, the mushrooms of Tarvisio, the wines of Friuli, and of the latter he was both a true connoisseur and a worldwide endorser. He was never short of job offers, including from US publishers. His reply was always “No, thanks. I have Corriere, the Collio whites, and an author who’s also a friend.” Today that author, that friend, wants to thank you, Giles, for making everything so straightforward, and not just in English. Elementary, my dear Watson.

 27 July 2015 (modifica il 27 luglio 2015 | 11:52)

Per «The Economist» (1996-2003), «Financial Times» (2010-2011) e “New York Times” (2013-) scrivo in inglese. Ma spesso gli mandavo i pezzi per una lucidatina. Tornavano scintillanti. Ogni tanto discutevamo animatamente per una frase o una parola. Vinceva lui: era più bravo di me. Leggevo e pensavo: no, io non scrivo così bene.

Quando ha deciso di tradurre ogni giorno gli editoriali e alcuni servizi ( mi ha chiesto un suggerimento. È stato facile: ho suggerito Giles Watson. Il geniale scozzese del Friuli ha aggiunto una nuova abitudine - il Corriere della Sera - alle altre, tutte irrinunciabili: il mare di Grado, i funghi al Tarvisio, i vini del Friuli, di cui era maestro e ambasciatore nel mondo. Riceveva molte proposte di lavoro, anche dagli editori americani. Rispondeva: no grazie, ho il Corriere, i bianchi del Collio e un autore che è diventato mio amico. Questo autore, e questo amico, oggi lo ringrazia. Giles, in inglese e non solo, rendeva tutto semplice. Elementare, Watson.

 Beppe Severgnini, 27 luglio 2015