Elizabeth Harris Tells Us Why Translation Makes All the Difference

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.

When a fiction translator really knows her job, the resulting book in English—if the original author is good enough—shines. You might have a spectacular work of fiction in the original, but if the translator isn’t up to it, that book will be lackluster in English. The translation, people will say, is clumsy, because it’s noticeably bad. The translator who has truly done her job shouldn’t be noticed. Gustave Flaubert (as translated by Francis Steegmuller) insisted that authors should be “like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Such is the fate of good translators as well.

As we approach our selection process for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award, I’m finding that there are some books in the mix that truly shine. They were no doubt glorious in the original, and—due to their translators’ abilities as writers—they are glorious in the English as well. And in these wonderful books, paradoxically, the translators’ skills as writers have made them disappear as writers. The books now seem to be original works in English, as if an author has magically moved from her own language to English, without missing a beat. Many of these fantastic books have already been mentioned by other judges, but I thought I might emphasize a few here and applaud their ever-present, invisible translators.

The first is Steven Hartman’s translation from the Swedish of Sleet, by Stig Dagerman, a beautiful collection of short stories (David R. Godine, Publisher). Alice McDermott, in her preface to the collection, speaks of Dagerman as rivaling Joyce “in his ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…he tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.” Hartman has captured Dagerman’s sensitivity to the child’s and others’ points of view so beautifully in his translations—the narrative distances involved, the narrative voice—as to be rendered unnoticeable. What we are left with are quiet, humane, and often heart-wrenching stories, Hartman’s interpretation of Dagerman’s art.

Another book that I found to be astoundingly beautiful in English is Jeffrey Gray’s translation from Spanish of The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Yale University Press). Many of the BTBA judges have praised this surprising, imagistic novel that takes place in Tangier and wanders between two characters, a shepherd dreaming of Spain and “of riches to come” and a Columbian tourist stranded in Morocco; it is a book mysteriously (and wonderfully) held together by an owl passing from hand to hand until it finally escapes, leaving us with a final startling image of the bird hiding in a dark attic. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles and we can see this in his startling imagery and spare prose (Bowles even translated some of his earlier books); Rey Rosa’s style is widely praised: it is “precise, mythic” (Raphaëlle Rérolle) and this book in particular is “inhabited both by poetry and by silence” (Luis Alonso Girgado). This is the kind of book that could easily collapse under the weight of a plodding translation, but that is not the case here: Gray is keenly sensitive to the effects of the original as he interprets Rey Rosa’s pure style—including his silences—and his imagery. I am sure Gray’s work must have been endless to obtain that purity in the English. The sparest of prose shows the effects of translation even more: one misstep is glaring.

There are a number of other books under consideration for this year’s award that I’ve found to have spectacular translations, but I’ll only mention them here: Juliet Winter Carpenter’s incredibly clean, beautiful translation from Japanese of A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (Other Press); Don Bartlett’s creation of narrative voice in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two (Archipelago Books). The extremely complicated, gorgeous sentences of Ottilie Mulzet’s translation from Hungarian of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below from New Directions (see a great interview with Mulzet at The Quarterly Conversation with BTBA judge Scott Esposito that shows just how complicated and challenging this book was to translate).

I’ll end here on another one of my favorites so far from this year’s selections, Sean Cotter’s translation from Romanian of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing (Archipelago Books). I remember when Cotter was first offered this book; we were at the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, and he told me he’d just been approached by Jill Schoolman of Archipelago about translating Cărtărescu. The look on his face said it all: excitement—such a great opportunity for a translator, this incredible novel-memoir that’s considered one of the most important of contemporary Romanian literature—and mixed with that excitement: fear of taking on such a daunting task. But from the original, Cotter has created a great a book in English, a journey through childhood and hospitalization, a “kaleidoscope world” as described on the book jacket, of “hallucinatory Bucharest” as told by a deeply sympathetic, vital narrator, a character that Cotter interpreted, created in English. Carla Bariez, a poet and translator from Romanian, had this to say about Cotter’s translation in her review of the book for Words Without Borders: “Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter.” She goes on to talk about “the linguistic pyrotechnics” of the book that might become “overwhelming” in a work that is “deeply philosophical,” but to her, “nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation…” Cotter’s sensitivity to language and to what he has interpreted as Cărtărescu’s intentions in his book are what have given us these “linguistic pyrotechnics” in English.

I thought it would be illuminating to delve a bit more into Cotter’s technique, so I asked him for a sample of the original novel plus a “trot,” a “literal” translation of this sample. Here’s just a taste of his approach, with the opening lines of the novel:

Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Ştefan cel Mare. The window usually reflected the room’s cheap furniture—a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser and mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots, a chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped long ago. The reflected yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.

The paragraph goes on, but these opening sentences work together incredibly well, one leading rhythmically to the next, and Cotter’s seemingly slight touches have intensified the imagery and sentences’ effect.

Here is the original in Romanian:

Înainte să se construiască blocul de vizavi şi totul să devină ecranat şi irespirabil, priveam nopţi întregi Bucureştiul de la tripla fereastră panoramică a camerei mele din Ştefan cel Mare. Fereastra reflecta de obicei mobilierul sărac al încăperii, un dormitor de lemn gălbui, o toaletă cu oglindă, câteva plante, aloe şi asparagus, în ghivece de argilă, aşezate pe masă. Lustra cu abajururi de sticlă verzuie, unul dintre ele ciobit de mult timp. Spaţiul galben al camerei devenea şi mai galben adâncindu-se în uriaşa fereastră, iar eu, un adolescent ascuţit şi bolnăvicios, în pijama rufoasă şi cu un fel de vestă lăbărţată deasupra, stăteam toată după-amiaza aşezat cu fundul pe lada de la studio, privind în ochi, ca hipnotizat, reflectul meu din oglinda străvezie a ferestrei.

And here is a very rough, literal “trot”:

Before was built the block vis-avis and all became screened and unbreathable, I would look nights whole at Bucharest from the triple window panoramic of room my on Ştefan cel Mare. The window reflected usually the furnishings poor of the room, a bedroom set of yellowy wood, a toilet with mirror, some plants, aloe and asparagus, in pots of clay, sat on the table. The light fixture with shades of glass greenish, one of them chipped of much time. The space yellow of the room became and more yellow getting deep in the giant window, and I an adolescent sharpened and sickly, in pajama ragged and a kind of vest misshapen on top, stayed all afternoon sat with bottom on the chest of the bedstead, looking in eyes, like a hypnotized person, the reflection my in the mirror see-through of the window.

Already, with the very first phrase of the opening, we see Cotter facing a dilemma: a lot of information in the Romanian is introduced with a dependent clause—but the opening line of a novel has to be perfect, can’t be overly cluttered with details, which are so hard to sustain in English. Cotter’s decision to break that clause down into two dependent clauses, both introduced with a repetition of “before,” is very wise, I think, very musical, very inviting, almost hypnotic, reinforcing a dream-like atmosphere so appropriate to this book. Each sentence here shows this same level of attention. I’m especially taken with the third sentence that pulls us closer to the narrator, where we see him for the first time, how beautifully we’re led to him with an abstraction, the lovely, active phrasing here, the “yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window,” which is a long way from the what we find in the “trot,” the much flatter “yellow getting deep.” Cotter has interpreted the author’s intention with that abstraction, heightened the imagery and lyricism for his English rendition and prepared us for this important turn, the introduction of the narrator, the “I,” the “thin, sickly adolescent” staring at himself, hypnotized by his own eyes, his own frailty, reinforced by his thin, ghostly reflection not in a mirror but in a glass window. Even Cotter’s choice at the end to replace the abstract “window” with the concrete word, “glass,” creates a strong effect: the image is much more tangible as a result.

If you took any of these wonderful translations I’ve mentioned and placed them alongside the original language versions, you’d find similar choices to those that Cotter made in Blinding. These choices are everywhere in a translation; they involve every word, every punctuation mark. They’re the endless choices and techniques that the best fiction translators use to make their English versions shine as brightly as possible, as brightly as the originals, while they, the translators, turn to shadows.


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