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.
In response to the incredibly lame GoodReads Choice Awards (and yes, I’m totally voting for Jodi Picoult in the fiction category), Typographical Era launched their own Translation Award:
It all started when I asked a simple question on Twitter yesterday. Why in the HELL do the GoodReads Choice Awards not have a category dedicated to allowing users to vote for their favorite literary translation of the year? There are twenty categories. TWENTY. Yet translations are completely ignored. Thus the first ever Typographical Translation Award is born. Lovers of international fiction, this is your chance to be speak up and be heard! You tell us, what was the best translation published in 2013? Here’s how it works:
I’ve started the ball rolling by officially nominating 20 titles that appeared in English translation in the United States for the first time in 2013. Some of these we’ve reviewed on the site, others we have not. While no list can ever be all encompassing, I’ve done my best to select quality works spanning a wide variety of publishers, languages, countries, and subject matter. In the interest of fairness, I’ve linked each title below directly to its publisher’s informational page and NOT, where applicable, to our review. I’ve also included an “other” field as part of the poll where you can write-in a vote for your favorite novel if it didn’t make the list. Any write-ins that are received will automatically be added to the poll so that others can vote for them as well. I reserve the right to remove a title if it doesn’t qualify as an original work that was published in 2013. Confused about what’s eligible? Three Percent’s translation database is a great resource.
Voting is limited to one per IP address. The polls will close on the evening of November 28th at which time I’ll reveal the results and the top 8 titles will move on to a final round of voting, with your overall champion being crowned on December 19th.
Below you’ll find the entire list of 20 nominated titles, but really, you should only be voting for one of these two books:
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
But if you insist on voting for something that wasn’t published by Open Letter, here’s the rest of the nominated titles:
All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leao, translated from the Portuguese by Zoe Perry
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Cold Sea Stories by Pawel Huelle, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones
Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
The Whispering Muse by Sjon, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the French by Jane Aitken
The Infatuations by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichmann, translated from the Norwegian by Michael Meigs
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
The Devil’s Workshop by Jachym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
The Black Lake by Hella Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
The Jew Car by Franz Fuhmann, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Kafka’s Hat by Patrice Martin, translated from the Dutch by Chantrell Bilodeau
The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .