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Catch up on VCU Alumnus John Edmonds' latest adventure

John Edmonds (English ‘82) is a translator, interpreter, editor, copywriter and teacher in Italy. He caught the travel bug early in life and has been a wanderlust adventurer throughout his adulthood having lived in Richmond, Milan and Ravenna.
john edmonds standing on a glacier

Right: John Edmonds on the Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata in New Zealand

Edmonds' career allows him to work alongside influential authors, acclaimed artists and large corporations. In addition to his work as a translator, he has authored several books and collaborated on meaningful passion projects, such as his work with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Public Library Foundation.

We are delighted by the opportunity to connect with John to gain valuable insights about his expansive career and latest exploits.

How did your experience at VCU inform your career path?

The scholarship I won at VCU to study at the University for Foreigners in Perugia one summer clinched my decision to move back to Ravenna after graduation. It helped me perfect my Italian and laid the groundwork for my career as a translator. My service at The Commonwealth Times taught me best what there is to know about writing, editing and publication. My senior mini-theses in English and history were the springboard for my first published book, “Where Scarlett Never Fell,” a collection of short pieces about the Hotel Jefferson where I worked as a front desk clerk back in the '70s.

book cover for 'where scarlett never fell' by zuani
Edmonds' senior mini-theses in English and history were the springboard for his first published book, “Where Scarlett Never Fell,” a collection of short pieces about the Hotel Jefferson where he worked as a front desk clerk in the '70s.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? What are you passionate about?

I was born across from the Virginia Historical Society here in Richmond, into an old Virginia family. I grew up here quietly grounded in my heritage with a very clear idea of where I came from and deep-rooted values. At 14 I discovered Italy on a Latin Club trip and realized immediately I wanted to go back. In my senior year of high school, I was awarded a foreign exchange scholarship and lived with an Italian family in Ravenna, Italy for a year. I studied fresco painting and Byzantine mosaic at the Academy of Fine Arts there and had the most fun you can have.

After I graduated from VCU with studies in communication arts and design and English, I bought a one-way ticket and returned to Ravenna where I lived for four years. At that point, a small provincial Italian town did not provide much in the way of career opportunities, so I moved to Milan where I now live. However, the cultural heritage that I acquired in Ravenna and its surrounding region of Romagna became an essential part of my identity; I chose the name Zvanì, the Romagnol dialect version of Giovanni/John, for my nom de plume.

One of my great passions is conversation. I find it attains its acme at a dinner party where I am a guest or I am hosting, because I delight in cooking regional Italian fare from Sicily to Piemonte. I love all kinds of opera and I schedule my calendar around my subscription at the La Scala Opera House. I went to the Spoleto Festivals for years in both Spoleto and Charleston, and the only thing more satisfying than a music festival is … a good dinner party.

Currently the lion’s share of my time, energy and enthusiasm goes to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Public Library Foundation. I have been president and chairman since it was founded in 2010, and 10 years on we are building the regional library in Parksley. This project has been engrossing and holistic: it involves the constant evolutions in libraries’ purposes in society today, from providing information for everyone, to food for children and daytime shelter for the homeless; local, state and national politics; architecture, finance and civil engineering; raising money through people from every walk of life with a kaleidoscope of perspectives. I have found no deeper satisfaction than creating something that benefits everyone in a community. I have learned we have to make the entire process enjoyable for everyone, because that is the foundation of teamwork and success: fun. A library is more than just books.

cartoon boy gives a cat a bath in a tub
Illustration from "The Little Journal of Johnny Storm"

Tell us about your experience as a literary translator in Italy.

The vast majority of my work is commercial: Fiat’s annual report, the operating manual for the Milan Stock Exchange when the London FTSE bought it out, and bales of market research. Commercial work is a constant learning experience and pays very well but I have had significant experiences in the literary field.

Back in the 1980s I met Fernanda Pivano, the foremost literary Italian translator in her lifetime: her books ranged from Edgar Lee Masters to Bret Easton Ellis. She let me work on part of her book “Amici Scrittori (Writer Friends)” about her career; she was married to Italian designer Ettore Sottsass and they knew just about all the stars and planets in the Anglo literary galaxy of the time: Ernest Hemingway and Chet Baker, Ezra Pound and Jack Kerouac, Alice B. Toklas and Richard Wright, to name a very few. I translated the chapters about her encounters with William Faulkner for the Mississippi Quarterly. This helped me get my foot into the door of Italian publishing houses.
I translated Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s introduction to a book on Mexican cartoonist Abel Quesada, and started working for major publishers Longanesi, Feltrinelli and Adelphi. I translated abstracts of the Italian books they presented at the principal European book fairs in Frankfurt and Turin. They then asked me to edit books written in English for Feltrinelli that were then published in Italian (I only translate into English).

john edmonds and a guide riding on top of an elephant in jaipur
John Edmonds and guide astride an elephant in Jaipur

The most fascinating project was Elena Cheah’s “An Orchestra Beyond Borders.” This book comprises myriad interviews with the musicians of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian culturalist Edward Said. This youth orchestra’s purpose is to bring together musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Spain and the U.S. in order to promote understanding between Palestinians and Jews through rehearsal and performance. I also edited Simonetta Agnello Hornby’s novel “There’s Nothing Wrong with Lucy,” a courtroom procedural based on a true story about a man accused of abusing his preschool-aged daughter.

I am currently working on the English translation of Italian author Vamba’s “The Little Journal of Johnny Storm,” the fictional diary of a pestiferous nine-year-old living near Florence at the turn of the 20th century. Johnny drives off an unwanted fiancé, nearly drowns, ruins a dancing party for his three teenage sisters, runs away from home and sets up a circus by dressing up a series of farmyard animals. He creates consternation in just about everyone who meets him but Little Johnny does it all in the name of Truth and Justice. The illustrations are as hilarious as the text.

Has traveling influenced the way you react to your own home and community?

Travelling has made me appreciate all my different homes: Richmond, Ravenna and Milan. Richmond has always had been one of the most gracious communities I have experienced. Our beautifully groomed metropolitan area offers more cultural, sports and educational opportunities than most places I have been. Nothing compares to the food in Ravenna, or the business opportunities of Milan. Traveling for me is about broadening my mind with places and people that I don’t know. Travelling makes me appreciate everything more.

What books do you recommend?

book covers for 'history: a novel' by elsa morante, 'the alexandria quartet' by lawrence durrell, and 'the elective affinities' by johann wolfgang von goethe
  • All of Geoffrey Chaucer from “Canterbury Tales” to “Troilus and Cressida”
  • “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas père
  • “Senilitá” by Italo Svevo
  • “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell
  • “Hadrian’s Memoirs” by Marguerite Yourcenar
  • “The Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante
  • “The Elective Affinities” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • “Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son” by Philp Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield
  • “History: A Novel” by Elsa Morante
  • “The Glass Bead Game“ by Hermann Hesse

What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?

Work for a newspaper or a magazine or a newsletter where you edit other people’s work and they edit yours. The best work you can write gets published and people read it. That’s why we aspire to authorship: to be read.

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