January 10th, 2011 / 6:27 am

A Conversation on Literary Translation with Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Harris contributed a brief comment to one of Lily Hoang’s posts. Her name was familiar to me because I had been reading Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2010, for which she contributed a translation of Giulio Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read.” I hoped for once not to miss the opportunity to engage an interesting visitor in a conversation that might be interesting to HTMLGiant readers. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her work as a literary translator, and about the broader culture of literary translation in the United States.

Harris teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. She has translated fiction by Mario Rigoni Stern and Fabio Stassi, and she is currently translating Giulio Mozzi’s story collection, Questo e’ il giardino (This is the Garden) and Marco Candida’s novel, Il diario dei sogni (Dream Diary). Her translations appear or are forthcoming in various journals, like Words Without Borders, The Literary Review, Agni Magazine, The Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review. Her translation of Candida appears in Best European Fiction 2011.

How did you get involved in literary translation?

I slipped into translation accidently. I studied Italian in college and loved it and kept studying it after I finished college and was working as a cook in St. Paul. I just kept taking classes in Italian. Then, I was preparing to go to Johns Hopkins for creative writing and everyone had to take a language exam; I translated Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo all summer long, got very distracted/excited by it and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could find a place to study THIS?” Hopkins at that time had only an MA in creative writing, so while I was there, I also started applying for MFAs and found the Univ. of Arkansas. On its brochure, Arkansas advertised an MFA in literary translation. Bells went off. I went to Arkansas and got two MFAs, one in fiction-writing, the other in literary translation.

Who were your teachers?

I would say that all my creative-writing teachers have contributed greatly to my developing as a translator. I’ve studied with some great teachers. John Barth, Madison Smartt Bell at Hopkins. Jim Whitehead, Skip Hays, Joanne Meschery at Arkansas. I’ve taken my understanding of the story, of character, plot, voice, style, point of view, and brought this to my translation. It’s a real advantage. Many people go into fiction translation through their expertise in a foreign language, but they don’t necessarily know how to write fiction in English, and that can be a real problem.

I had two very important teachers in translation: Miller Williams, who founded the literary translation program at Arkansas, and then my mentor, John DuVal, who still teaches at Arkansas. John is my translation father; he’s taught me, scolded me, encouraged me. He’s one of my dear friends and I still ask him to read my translations at times, and God bless him, he’s still willing to read them. He’s just a great teacher.

The final teachers involved in my becoming a translator are my language teachers. I’ve had many great Italian teachers, starting at the Univ. of Minnesota, where I originally fell in love with Italian (I majored in Art History and studied Italian for this). Since that time, I’ve studied at the Middlebury Language Schools at Middlebury College, an incredible program for language study. I’ve also worked very closely with Louise Rozier at the Univ. of Arkansas. She has been another very important teacher for me. We work closely now; Louise checks my Italian when I translate, and I read her English translations of other works and give her feedback.

What kinds of aesthetic, theoretical, or procedural ideas did they have about the task of translation?

Miller Williams is a poet; his real emphasis in teaching translation was how to refine the English version, making a work of art in English. John DuVal also worked very carefully with the English version, but he’d rein his students in more, pull them back to the original text. Both Miller and John were incredibly astute at recognizing problem passages in a translation, even if they didn’t know the original language (we had students in workshop translating from Russian, Arabic, Icelandic, German, Spanish, and so on).

In an MFA program in translation, you get less of a theoretical approach. It’s about making art. We did study theory and had to take a qualifying exam from a reading list at the end of our program. The issues that might come up in Comp. Lit. programs concerning English as a colonizing language, co-opting the original—these sorts of ideas just didn’t enter into my studies. With John especially, though, we considered pretty carefully how to let the original language seep into the English version. Both Miller and John often suggested applying a “patina” to the translation, leaving a flavor of the original in the English version. This can be done in a number of ways but especially by preserving names, “Paolo” instead of “Paul,” for instance, or “Monte Zebio” instead of “Mount Zebio.”

What did the journey from student to practitioner look like? Did you accept all your teachers’ ideas about translation, or did your work or reading cause you to get a little bit of distance on some of those ideas?

I did accept my teachers’ ideas about translation, but of course with workshops, you never take everything that others suggest; you take what works and let the rest go.

Since my time as a student, I’ve found myself getting ever closer to the original as I translate. When I was a student, I think I relied too heavily on my own writing skills, if that makes sense. So I mentioned earlier that people coming to translation through their language training might be at a disadvantage; well, so are writers, if they can’t get past their own style or sensibilities. The more that I’ve translated, the more I’ve worked to capture the rhythms of the original; I don’t want to iron out the original in my English version. I need to recognize a writer’s idiosyncrasies, what makes that writer’s style and voice. Of course I also don’t want to make a text clunky as a result of clinging too tightly to the original; it’s a balancing act. But I’ve increasingly put more trust in the author I’m translating.

How did you become Giulio Mozzi’s translator?

A few years back, I was contacted by Minna Proctor, who at that time was a guest editor for a contemporary Italian fiction issue of The Literary Review (now Minna is Editor-in-Chief at TLR). She’d gotten my name from Geoff Brock, a poet and translator of Italian poetry and fiction. She asked me to translate a story by Mozzi for TLR, “Una vita felice” or “A Happy Life.” I just loved the story. Lucky for me, Mozzi was very easy to contact through the Internet, so he answered a few questions for me about the story. By the time I’d finished, I’d decided I wanted to work with more of his fiction, and I asked his permission to translate the collection where “Una vita felice” appears. He wanted me to translate a different collection, his favorite, Questo e’ il giardino. I happily agreed.

What is your working process like, when you’re working on his work? Are you in touch with him? Is it collaborative in that way? Are you accountable to anyone for the choices you make, or do you have the freedom to proceed as you see fit?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I teach at a school that’s quite supportive of my work as a translator. The Univ. of North Dakota has provided me with funding for several trips to Italy to work with Mozzi (and also with Marco Candida, another author I’m translating). If I have any questions at all, I can contact Giulio. He’s also asked me to translate a few pieces beyond this collection; one is appearing in The Chicago Review this spring. The other is “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read,” which originally appeared in a small book tied to an art exhibit. This was a very strange project, with Carlo, an invented author, who not only wrote the story I translated but also put together an exhibit of art all in response to a Raymond Carver poem, “The Painter and the Fish.” After I translated the story, I was very curious about the whole project and went to the book launch and art opening in Piacenza where I met with Giulio.

Now to the second part of your question, accountability. The more I translate and succeed in publishing my translations, the more I realize that accountability is potentially a problem in translated work. It might be possible to be pretty sloppy as a translator and get by with it, if editors don’t read the original language (and they probably generally don’t). As I’ve mentioned, I’ve grown increasingly cautious about my work as a translator the more that I’ve come to understand this complicated art form, what Miller Williams always called “the marriage of scholarship and art.” My process of translating is extremely slow and involves my constantly referring to dictionaries and seeking help from my Italian friends. When I finish a draft of something, I go over it again and again, checking the Italian and also refining my prose. And I’m very fortunate that my former Italian professor, Louise Rozier, looks over my work as well, finding any little mistake I may have made (no matter how hard I try, I’ll always miss something!). Once I’ve made sure that my translation is accurate, I move to polishing the English in further drafts, but I’ll always go back to the Italian in the end, to make sure that each of my English sentences captures what I believe to be Mozzi’s style in each of his sentences.

The real accountability is to Giulio’s fiction, to being as true as I can to what I see in his work. That’s a lot of accountability, but it’s also a lot of freedom: my translation is my vision of Giulio’s work, my interpretation. The more that I practice the art of translating, the more I’d like to think I hold myself accountable and that I’m my toughest judge.

Have you heard from readers or, say, people who can offer you work, since “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” appeared in Best European Fiction 2010?

I haven’t received any direct work from this publication. I have a feeling, though, that my work is taken more seriously as a result. I am hoping that Mozzi’s (and my) appearance in this anthology will help with finding a home for the collection. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have another translation appear in Best European Fiction 2011, this time an excerpt from Marco Candida’s novel, Il diario dei sogni, or Dream Diary.

Does your work as a translator have any relationship with the work you do when you’re working on your own stuff? Has it changed the way you think about what you make, or what you think literature might be or do?

Translating is my “own stuff.” I haven’t written a story for several years and I honestly don’t miss it at all. I love translating. My interest in translating has very much affected my ideas about literature. I’ve grown increasingly interested in international literature and in American fiction that pushes beyond realism, Lydia Davis, for instance (who is of course a famous translator from French). I still love just a straight-forward story with good characters, though. I’ve come to appreciate more types of writing, that’s all. My interest in translating has especially affected the way I teach creative writing. The more that I read international fiction and translate, the more I see that there are no rules to writing. It just has to be good. Once my fiction students move beyond the very basics of plot and character, I have them read a lot of international fiction in my advanced classes. I want them to see what a vast world of possibilities there is in fiction- writing. I’m happy for students to write straight-ahead fiction with well developed characters, a linear plot, rising action, scenes, dialogue, and so on. But I’m also happy to see students trying to push into other forms, and I’ll try and help them as much as I can.

Is there a community of translators? Are you part of it? What is it like?

I am beginning to be a part of a community of translators. There is an organization, The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), which I’ve been a member of for a number of years. They have an annual conference, which is significantly smaller than AWP or MLA. It’s been a great place to meet other translators. My experience with translators is that they’re a fairly supportive bunch. At this conference, we drink a lot. Is that any different from any conference? But maybe after we drink, we start speaking different languages?

Are you satisfied with your work as a translator? Are you doing the things you want to be doing? What kinds of aspirations do you have, as a translator?

I am excited by my progress in developing as a translator. After fifteen years of working at this, I finally feel like I’m beginning to know what I’m doing—but of course, as soon as I get confident, I’ll make a ridiculous mistake. It’s one of the reasons I like translating: it keeps me humble. There are just too many ways to screw up.

These days, my reputation seems to be growing a bit. I’ve developed a relationship with the on-line international literary journal, Words Without Borders, and that’s been tremendous. The editors there are extremely supportive; WWB is a great venue. One of the things I really like about WWB is that they also ask me to write little pieces on the work I’ve translated. I can’t emphasize enough how nice it is for a journal to want to hear my voice; with translation, the translator is a disappearing act; if she’s done her job, then it seems like the only one you’re reading is the author. Of course, that’s a fiction. But readers seldom think about the fact that when they’re reading a translated work, they’re reading two authors’ work, not one.

Like any writer, I want publications, especially books. With translating, this is particularly challenging. Apparently only 3% of all books published in the US are translated—the literary website, Three Percent, I believe has done a count of how many works of fiction and poetry this actually breaks down to, and it’s not good, a few hundred books a year, maybe. That makes the odds of getting a translated book published very, very small. I recently had a novel I translated accepted for publication, and I think it’s a miracle. Besides the problems of breaking into the American publishing market, there’s also the problem of foreign rights. Most foreign publishers aren’t going to give a translator the rights to a work, so you might translate something while someone else is translating the same book. This has actually happened to me. It’s very disheartening to put your love into creating something and then learn that someone else has translated the work already. It’s awful. My real hope is that publishing houses will start to come to me with projects. I have been approached already, but not for books I want to translate: I’ve been offered a history book, a book on jazz, other things. But I’m not interested in translating just anything; I’m interested in translating fiction—good fiction. What I’m hoping will happen is that a great literary press will start to use me as its regular translator.

Are you satisfied with the state of translation as an art and/or craft in the United States?

I would imagine you’ve gathered from my answers that I’m not remotely satisfied with how translation is viewed in the US. First off, international literature is barely read and the big houses generally won’t publish it unless the books are mass-market or classics. Most international fiction is published at smaller presses that are dedicated to promoting challenging, often non-commercial literature, places like Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago Books, Autumn Hill. Then, as an art form, translation is terribly misunderstood. I don’t want to be a whiner about it, but I find myself having to fight for recognition for my work. (Okay: the secret’s out; this is what we really talk about at our ALTA conference, while we drink…) As I already said, if you’ve done your job, you disappear and the reader is left with a good book in English that has the author’s name on it (and sometimes the translator’s, too, but sometimes not). Reviewers seldom discuss the translation, and if they do, it’s mostly of poetry. Fiction translation will get a line like, “The translation read smoothly,” if the translator is mentioned at all. There’s little discussion of the artistry of fiction translation. There is a growing theoretical discussion of literary translation, which includes prose translation, but the artistry of fiction translation isn’t addressed that much and is barely recognized in the world of outside readers.

A few years back, the New York Times Literary Supplement ran an issue on International literature, which included mention of a book by Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile, I think, and the reviewer made a comment on Bolaño’s incredible style in one particular sentence, referring to the English. Of course this “style” was also the work of the translator, Chris Andrews, who wrote the actual English sentence the reviewer was discussing, a sentence based on his interpretation of Bolaño’s original Spanish sentence. To talk about a translated work, you really can’t discuss it as the work of a single author; it has two authors once it’s translated, the original author, and then the “lesser” author, if you will, the translator, whose hand, whose vision is everywhere in the translated text. There’s simply no avoiding it. But this is seldom realized by anyone, unless that person has done some translating herself or is very informed about international literature. So it’s an odd art form, one that doesn’t get the recognition that writers are often hungry for. That’s okay, though. For the most part. As long as I’m translating something I like, I’m pretty happy.

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  1. Th


  2. RH

      Thanks for posting this, Kyle. Insightful.

  3. Scott mcclanahan


  4. Elizabeth Harris

      Thanks again, Kyle, for asking me to talk about translation.


  5. Trh


  6. Anonymous


  7. Mom

      Liz, this by itself is fascinating, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know bupkiss about translating. Thanks for directing me to it.

  8. Anonymous


  9. Serena Gobbo

      Lovely conversation! I will translate it for my blog, ok?

  10. Conversazione con Elizabeth Harris sulla traduzione letteraria | librini

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  11. Elizabeth Harris

       Ciao, Serena. Ho appena letto la tua traduzione. Grazie. Sono contenta.


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