We’ve published two Italian books at Open Letter—Aracoeli by Elsa Morante, translated by William Weaver, and more recently, This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated by Elizabeth Harris.
Since we’ve already posted about Weaver today, it only seems appropriate that we should write up this interview between Aaron Westerman and Elizabeth Harris.
AARON WESTERMAN: What’s your particular process like and is it ever difficult to separate the way you feel about a piece when you read it from the actual work of translating it for another audience?
ELIZABETH HARRIS: My process of translating is ridiculously slow and perhaps reflects the fact that I don’t earn my living at translating. Up until only a few years ago, I didn’t have any deadlines, either, because I’d chosen the works and had no publishers for them (this was the case with the Rigoni Stern and also with Mozzi’s This Is the Garden). So I could take my time. And I definitely did. Now I actually have a contract for the Tabucchi and a deadline, but I’m still very slow. A good workday for me will be an eight-hour session starting at around eight in the morning. I’ll take a look back at what I translated in the previous few days, do some revising of that, and then move on to the new material (this is with a novel; if I’m translating a story, I’ll start from the beginning of the story before moving on to new work). I might translate two pages or so a day. This is too slow—I know it. But what I come up with isn’t rough; it’s worked and reworked, has gone through numerous drafts. And then, of course, I revise it yet again when I get started the next day, as I ease myself back into the book. Perhaps it would be better to get through a very rough draft—skip over the tough stuff, just keep going, and then go back. But for me the real pleasure of translating is finding a voice for the work and really laboring over the nuances of the sentences, and creating the piece’s characters, its imagery, and so on. If I were to rush through in a very rough draft, I just wouldn’t get the same pleasure out of the work—I don’t think I could work that way, and lucky for me, I don’t have to.
As for the second part of your question about reading the text versus translating it, I think you might be asking if I sometimes read something that I don’t like but have to translate anyway; the answer, so far, is no. I have had the experience, however, of reading things that have disturbed me and then translating them: disgusting moments in a text, sad passages—I recently translated the suicide of a character. My goal with these passages is to recreate the upsetting experience that’s there in the original. Is that upsetting for me? Absolutely. But it’s exciting, too, and tremendously moving.
Your question has got me thinking about how translators approach reading the original text. I’ve heard some translators say that they don’t read a work ahead of time; they read it as they translate, perhaps because they find there’s a freshness to the prose if they’re discovering it along the way. Other translators read a book carefully ahead of time, take notes, get through to the end so they know how the entire book informs all its parts. I think I might fall somewhere in between. I read the book I’m going to translate ahead of time, but, honestly, until I’m translating the book, I’m not really reading it at all. Let me explain. Some say that translation is the closest form of reading. But the act of translating, of writing a text as you read a text, is much more than reading. It involves going over every last nuance of the original, down to the punctuation. It’s more like swallowing the book. I don’t feel that I really know a book until I’m actually translating it. I might know what happens in the work, the basics of the plot and character, but I only discover the book, its voice, its music, its characters, its meaning, as I’m creating the book in English.
[. . .]
AARON WESTERMAN: Mozzi’s writing has been described as “crisp and straightforward” (Kirkus). Did his particular style and use of language help or hinder the translation process in any way?
ELIZABETH HARRIS: That Kirkus Review quote is something to linger on. The reviewer attributes this “crisp and straightforward” style to Mozzi. But the collection is in English, and I’m the one who wrote it in English. So the style isn’t Mozzi’s. It’s my interpretation of Mozzi. I took what I found in the Italian and interpreted it, created a style in English. Really, when a reviewer comments on style in a translated book, he or she shouldn’t just refer to the author; that author has been interpreted and rewritten by a translator, so the “style” is now the work of two authors: the original writer and the translator. As for your question: Mozzi’s original style is what made me want to translate the book in the first place. Did his style hinder the translation process? His style was challenging because it was so beautiful and precise, and so I wanted to get it right. I hope I did.
Along with about, well, everyone else in the northeast, I’m snowed into my apartment today, so instead of answering the phones at Open Letter (HA! no one ever calls us), I’m at home, working on our forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, and, as a break of sorts, I thought I’d put together our monthly list of books worth checking out. (For past versions, including one with a rant about my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind group, just click here.)
For the past few years, every December/January, we’ve been posting a series of “Best of the Year!” podcasts—on fiction, on nonfiction, on movies, on music (my personal favorite podcast)—along with resolutions about what Open Letter/Three Percent/me personally would like to accomplish in the forthcoming year. (See last year’s post in which my number 1 resolution was to “Drink more mimosas!” Speaking of, it is a snow day, I do have some left over booze . . . )
Over the next few weeks, we’ll probably maybe get right back on that. I hesitate only because I’ve read around about 10 million year end lists over the past few weeks, each of which was, by necessity, incomplete and incapable of addressing its incompleteness and the biases underpinning that. (I even read this article about Largehearted Boy’s “List of Year End Lists.”) Thanks to Facebook and the success of all those awful click-driven, shitty websites named in this article on The Year We Broke the Internet, social media exposes us every moment of every day to absurd list after absurd list.
Which isn’t just annoying, but in the opinions of some (self included), pretty much a horrible thing for the world as a whole. (For more on Morozov, I highly recommend checking out this profile. And he lost 100 lbs on a rowing machine watching European art-house films? That’s the exercise regime I need to sign up for.)
But there’s something so compelling about seeing information in this way . . . It’s like numbered, or at least ordered, compilations of information tap right into the reptilian part of our brain and spew out all the morphine feelings. Jason Diamond’s ridiculous Top 10 List of Literary Snobs? I MUST HAVE IT. And hey look! I’m number 3!! WEEE!!
At the same time, we live in a world of way too much information. As awesome as this seems to techno-utopians, it’s pretty much fucking up our brains. (Obviously, that’s the scientific conclusion.) As I sit here, at my kitchen table, I have 20 tabs open on my browser—ranging from information about car batteries to Facebook to The Guardian’s ‘definitive’ list of 1000 books to read to Pitchfork’s list of upcoming albums to ESPN’s Soccer section—Spotify is playing one of the 596 tracks I pulled out as my “favorites of 2013,” to go along with the 5,000 more from 2010 onwards, and I’m staring right into my “to read” bookshelf (not to be confused with the “already read” and “probably going to die before I get there” bookshelves) that has 103 titles on it. And, no surprise, in between sentences, I’m getting my ass kicked at Words With Friends by both Tom Roberge and Steven Rosato. There’s too much going on.
None of which is news to anyone.
And like a lot of people, one of my personal resolutions for 2014 is to fuck as much of this shit as I can and live in the real world for more than 15 minutes at a time without checking Twitter for the latest witty hashtag meme (#AddAWordRuinAMovie) or international football scores. OK, that’s going too far. Football scores are still allowed.
I don’t want to just do my “old man screaming at the goddamn trees to get off his yard” rant though. The thing is, I kind of can’t live without all this stuff. Professionally. Without blog culture, I would never have “published” anything. Without email and Facebook and the rest of it, only a handful of people would ever have heard of Open Letter’s books.
What I wonder is if there’s a better, more effective way of providing readers with useful information. I started these monthly overviews because a) I wanted to pull out and highlight books that could get lost in somewhat overwhelming Translation Database and b) I wanted to make jokes.
This time of year always makes me a bit reflective . . . Not to mention that I take all of this a little too personally (result of being almost 40, having worked in this thankless business for 12-plus years, and chronic self-doubt) and get totally bummed when not a single Open Letter book shows up on the Quarterly Conversation Favorite Reads of 2013 lists. (SPOILER ALERT: All you’ll find behind that link is The Most Experimental Dalkey Archive Books and Seiobo There Below.)
For now, I’m not sure if there’s a better way to provide readers with information on forthcoming translations. My current mix of jokes and titles is probably not smarmy enough to go viral, and not smart enough to serve as a legitimate place to check for recommendations. (Surprise! Three Percent is not the Times Literary Supplement.) I’ll keep thinking about it over the course of the year though, and hopefully along the way we’ll provide some interesting recommendations. (And starting next month maybe we’ll say something about the books themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the listicle sites, it’s that content is totally and utterly irrelevant.)
And with that, I’m ready to announce Resolution #1: No More Writing about BuzzFeed/Flavorwire and the Reasons They Annoy Me. Down with lists and resolutions! Long live lists and resolutions!
The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus)
Resolution #2: Write More Reviews.
Every year I make the same promise—to do more reviewing—and then fail miserably. Out of the 112 books I read last year, I wrote reviews of what, four? Five? That’s pathetic. My goal is at least two a month, preferably three. And The Light and the Dark will be one of these.
(Although when I do review this, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that there is a LOT of bad blood between me and Quercus, over Shishkin’s work in particular. And thank god Shish got himself a new agent. Read into that all you will.)
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)
Resolution #3: Sell a Lot More Books.
So, here’s some breaking news for everyone: As of June 1st, Open Letter will be distributed by Consortium. This is fantastic news for everyone involved. This should make it easier for us to get our books into East Coast and Midwest stores (the West Coast has been doing great by us, thanks to George Carroll’s efforts), and frees up some time for us to work at promoting our books.
Aside from the practical reasons for joining up with Consortium, I’m really excited to be in with a group of great publishers like And Other Stories and BOA Editions and Copper Canyon, and Dzanc, and others. Feels like the place that we should’ve been all along . . .
Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Resolution #4: Create a Special Series for the World Cup.
George Carroll announced our forthcoming World Cup of Books at Shelf Awareness today, which means it’s definitely going to happen. I’ll be posting more specifics in the not-too-distant future, but if you’re interested in helping contribute, please let me know. (Really looking for people well-versed in the literature of the qualifying countries with fewer books available in America.)
Seeing that Croatia took out my beloved Iceland—which would’ve been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup—this seems like an appropriate book under which to announce our little contest.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland (New Directions)
Resolution #5: Read One Book from Every World Cup Qualifying Country.
Following up on #4, this seems like a great way to combine my interests in soccer and literature . . . Not sure The Guest Cat will be the book I read from Japan, but it does feature a cat and we all know that cats sell. I know there’s no way ND would ever put together a cute cat video compilation to promote this books, but, seriously, cats sell. This poster is pretty much the only reason so many students sign up for my spring class:
Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (New Directions)
Resolution #6: Make September A Thousand Forests in One Acorn Month.
This anthology—edited by Valerie Miles—features 28 Spanish-language authors, including a lot of “Big Name” writers like Fuentes, Marias, Vargas Llosa, Vila-Matas and the like, and twelve that have never before appeared in English. What’s unique about this collection is that each piece is prefaced by an interview with the author in which s/he explains why s/he chose this particular story/excerpt as a representative of his/her “aesthetic high point” and also talks about his/her influences, etc. So, for the month of September, every day we’ll run either an excerpt from one of the interviews, or a bit from a previously untranslated story. Stay tuned—this is an incredible collection and you’re going to love the shit out of these pieces.
The Interior Landscape by A. K. Ramanujan, translated from the Tamil by the author (New York Review Books)
Resolution #7: Expand My Reading Horizons.
In a little while, I’m going to post a list of all the books I read in 2013. This is kind of pointless, but since I kept track of the titles and what languages they were originally written in, I can confirm that, out of the 111 books I read last year only 27 were by authors from courtries outside of Europe and North & South America. And that includes the 16 Korean titles I read for the LTI Korea—most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. So, to be honest, less that 10% of the books I read last year were from India, the Middle East, Africa, Asian, etc. . . . That’s kind of sad. I want to do better with that this year.
1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Resolution #8: Create Some Sort of Translator Love Month.
Way back when, Erica Mena and I interviewed a bunch of translators at ALTA Pasadena (in 2009??) and posted all of these on Three Percent. As an advocate for translators, I think we really should do this more often, like, maybe in October, to correspond with the publication of A Man Between: The Life and Teachings of Michael Henry Heim, we could have a month of short interviews highlighting the most interesting and talented translators working today. You know, people like Linda Coverdale.
This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Open Letter)
Resolution #9: More Self-Promotion.
This is probably my depression talking, but it seems like for the past few years, we’ve been talking up all sorts of interesting and fantastic projects and books, but receiving very little love in return. As a result, I’m going to take extra efforts to make sure that we get a lot of info about our new books up on Three Percent and elsewhere.
Starting with this year’s first release, the short story collection, “This Is the Garden”: by Giulio Mozzi and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. It’s a great collection, and one that includes angel dong. Seriously. Come for the angel dong, and stay for the beautiful prose!
All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Griasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon (Other Press)
Resolution #10: Post at Least Once a Day.
When things get busy, it’s really easy to just skip posting for a day, which then becomes two . . . three . . . a week. Thankfully, Kaija has been keeping the site going with lots of book reviews (thanks to all of you!), but I’m going to make a dedicated effort to install a Five Day Plan mixing book posts, with industry posts, with links to other interesting articles.
The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive)
Resolution #11: Launch Open Letter After Dark.
I’m keeping most of this under wraps for now, but sometime soon, I hope we’ll have some exciting news . . .
Have a great 2014!
This month we’re giving away copies of Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and pubbing in January.
Although Mozzi’s stories have been excerpted in just about every magazine imaginable, this is the first full collection of his to be published in English. This Is the Garden won the 1993 Premio Mondello and astonished the Italian literary world for its commanding vision and the beauty of its prose. In the eight stories of this collection, we see a steady reworking of the idea of the world as a fallen Eden. Here, in Mozzi’s garden, quasi-allegorical characters seek knowledge of something beyond their shaken realities: they have all lost something and react by escaping, retreating from reality into a world, as Mozzi says, that is “fantastic, mystical, absurd.”
Or, in the words of Minna Proctor:
Gorgeously rooted in the best modernist tradition of writers like Italo Calvino and Antonio Tabucchi, Giulio Mozzi is among the most fiercely literary authors emerging from Italian literature today. These stories, which in so many different ways are about writing itself, are like rivers cutting through the northern Italian countryside—lush, limpid, exotic. Elizabeth Harris’s translation beautifully renders the noble grit of Mozzi’s distinctive voice.
If that doesn’t sell you on it, there’s also this bit of praise from Federico Fellini:
I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.
Follow the link below to enter yourself in the GR drawing.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
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