Elizabeth Harris Talks Translation
Elizabeth Harris has translated fiction by Mario Rigoni Stern, Fabio Stassi, and Marco Candida, among others. Her translation of Giulio Mozzi’s story collection Questo è il giardino (This Is the Garden) will be published by Open Letter Books in 2014; the individual stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her translation of Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” appears in Dalkey Archive’s annual anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and her translation of an excerpt of Candida’s Dream Diary appears in Best European Fiction 2011. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota.
First off, let me say what an honor it is to have been asked to help judge this competition, which provides one of the largest prizes in the US to my kind (to translators) and which also, by dividing this ten thousand dollar prize equally between the author and the translator, emphasizes the place of the translator as something like a “second author “of the work.
But how to discuss this second author? What I as a judge have to work with is an enormous pile of more than three-hundred books in English with two names (well, sometimes two names) on the cover. One of my initial quandaries in this judging (besides that enormous pile of books) was how I’d determine the quality of that second author’s efforts, how I’d evaluate the translator’s contribution, without looking at the original books. Honestly, I’m still working this out.
Oh, I can tell when something is badly translated, and I don’t need the original to do it—I can spot the clumsy pawing of an ineffectual translation a mile off because I’ve done so much clumsy pawing of my own. It’s the other kind of translation—the good kind—that’s hard to talk about. But I’ll give it a try with a couple of the books I’ve admired so far.
First, there’s Sondra Silverston’s translation of Between Friends, by Amos Oz. Silverston, in my view, has done a masterful job of handling voice in these interconnected stories about life on a 1950s kibbutz; we’re swept into this quiet, lonely world that’s at times funny, at times awful, from the very first, beautifully phrased line, “On our kibbutz, Kibbutz Yekhat, there lived a man, Azi Provizor, a short fifty-five-year-old bachelor who had a habit of blinking.” Of course the line is originally Oz’s, but Silverston has recognized and interpreted what was in his sentence and then created this wonderful, musical sentence of her own, with its side-stepping quality leading at last to an aging bachelor, and his charming “habit of blinking.” There isn’t a sentence in the collection that doesn’t have this sort of control, and the stories are quite varied, too, from different points of view, with different nuances of voice apparent throughout. I’m sure Oz’s original was a joy to work with and a great challenge, too—translating spare, quiet prose might be the most challenging of all, since there’s nothing to hide behind. That the prose seems effortless and clean is no doubt the result of Silverston’s sensitivity to the original and is also, no doubt, the result of a whole lot of hard work.
Finding the voice (or voices) of a piece of fiction is one of my great joys. I don’t know about other translators, but I actually feel like I can’t continue in a translation until I’ve wrestled with and gotten hold of an author’s voice in English. I very much admire Heather Cleary’s translation of The Dark by Sergio Chejfec because of this novel’s complicated, challenging voice, which I think she’s done a terrific job of capturing.
Here we have a very interior story, a distant narrative voice, as an educated, middle-class man recalls his past relationship with Delia, a young factory worker that he may have loved and whose child he fathered. What I was struck by especially in the novel was the level of abstraction I found—when I encounter abstraction as I translate, I feel like groaning; it is incredibly hard to render in English without sounding stilted and clumsy. But there is nothing clumsy about how Cleary handles abstraction here. Consider the gorgeous opening lines of the novel:
It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us. We retain something immaterial, similar to that something retained by geography, also immaterial. And yet, though it remains unaltered, geography is the measure of change. Just as happens with the temperature of a body, the trace it retains of its former heat allows it to continue being itself, yet this trace marks a difference. Bodies are and are not; they are at once more and less than.
I can only imagine how much work Cleary put into these lines; the opening of a novel is so important and to be faced with all of this abstract reflection besides!
In the case of the Chejfec, I did take a peek at the Spanish, and just as I thought, Cleary was true to what was there in terms of meaning and sentence structure, yet she also created something new in the English that was extremely effective. Consider the first two lines in the Spanish:
Siempre me ha inquietado que la geografia no cambie pese al tiempo, pese a nuestros cambios y los cambios que se producen en ella. Conservamos algo immaterial, equivalente a lo que conserva la geografía, también inmaterial.
My (very) rough translation of this would be:
It has always worried me that geography does not change despite time, despite our changes and the changes that are produced in it. We conserve something immaterial, equivalent to that which conserves geography, also immaterial.
I’m very impressed with that first line in Cleary’s translation, what she’s done to control a potentially flat sentence, by incorporating the repetition of “with” (“with time” and “with the changes”) instead of the repetition of a rather awkward-sounding “despite” (“despite time” and “despite our changes…”), and then echoing this “with” again, at the end of the sentence, with the rhythmically sensitive “within it, within us.” Here, Cleary got the sense of Chejfec’s words, but the sound of her ending and her use of repetition are much more effective for the English. That Cleary chose to break that first sentence down with that final brief phrase (“within us”) is perhaps also speaking to Chejfec’s second sentence that makes use of this technique, with the small additional phrase at the end, “también inmaterial.” She also very wisely reversed “nuestros cambios” and “los cambios que se producen en ella” in her first sentence so that she doesn’t both begin and end her first line with a pitiful little “it.” My own fumbling explanations don’t do the opening lines of the translation justice; they are beautiful, and they are Cleary’s.
Ultimately, I don’t know if Oz/Silverston’s Between Friends and Chejfec/Cleary’s The Dark will make my long list or not. I like both books very much, but I also have an enormous pile of books to get through. In any case, I’m very impressed with the work of the two translators, who have made the complicated, challenging voices of the original authors seem so effortless in English.