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.
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