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.
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.
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .