A Conversation with Elizabeth Harris


Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris, Giulio Mozzi’s short story collection This is The Garden re-imagines the world as a fallen Eden and follows its inhabitants as they stumble through their personal explorations into the inner workings of life, love, work, and belief. Gracefully translated, it serves as an exciting showcase for Mozzi’s captivating storytelling power.

Recently, Ms. Harris generously agreed to answer a few questions for our readers about her translation process, her work on Mozzi’s collection, and the differences between translating short fiction and full-length novels.

AARON WESTERMAN: Who is Elizabeth Harris?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: I’m a translator of contemporary Italian fiction. I’ve translated work by Giulio Mozzi, Mario Rigoni Stern, Domenico Starnone, Marco Candida, Antonio Tabucchi, and others. My translated books include Rigoni Stern’s Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Mozzi’s This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Tabucchi’s Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). I’m also an associate professor of creative writing (fiction) at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

AARON WESTERMAN: How did you get started as a translator?

Elizabeth_HarrisELIZABETH HARRIS: I came to translation through my studies in creative writing. I had to take a language exam for my MA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and so spent the summer before my program translating Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo. I found this enormously satisfying and remember wishing at that point that I could study translation. It turns out, I could. After Hopkins, I went on for an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Arkansas, where there was also an MFA program in literary translation (directed by John DuVal). So, since I’ve never been in a particular hurry, after my MFA in fiction, I completed an MFA in literary translation, too.  For my thesis in translation, I had to find a project, and I wound up discovering a wonderful little novel by Mario Rigoni Stern, who’s from the Veneto region. The novel, Giacomo’s Seasons, is about a peasant community in the mountains of northern Italy between the world wars. I feel I really learned to translate through my work on that novel. Once I’d finished translating it, I tried to get it published, only to learn how very difficult it is to publish international literature in the US. It took me ten years and submitting the manuscript to fifty different presses before it was finally accepted at Autumn Hill Books, a small international literature press directed by Russell Valentino, who is a translator himself. Once I had a contract for the book, I decided to go back and take a look at my translation, which I’d completed years before. I was troubled by how many liberties I’d taken with Rigoni Stern’s lovely prose: as a younger translator, I’d relied too much on my facility in writing in English and had appropriated the book, I think, imposed my own style too much on my translation. It was fascinating to see how much my views of translation had changed over time; my approach as a student was no longer acceptable: the book read well in English, but I needed to get back more to the original, to trust the original author more. So I reworked the novel yet again. Maybe ten years down the line, I’ll see this work as problematic, too. Who knows? I feel like I’m still growing. So maybe, after all this talk, what I really should say is that in some ways I still feel like I’m starting as a translator…

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: What are the major differences, if any, between the way you approach translating a novel and the way you approach translating a collection of short stories?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: Well, I have to say that I’m no expert on translating story collections versus novels: so far I’ve translated one collection of stories and about two and a half novels. My experience so far, though, has been that translating novels is messy and that maybe translating story collections isn’t quite as messy simply because individual stories are shorter and have more definitive boundaries. However, good stories are often tighter and more musical than novels, so in their way, they’re just as challenging. I love translating stories and I might have more affinity for this work.  That probably goes back to my own interest in writing; I wrote stories, was always drawn to stories. When I wrote my own fiction, I always needed to understand the point of view first, the voice from which the story was being told. When I had figured that out, I could go on and tell the story. It’s not so different when I translate. I work to discover the voice of the piece, and until I have that, it’s hard to go on. With a story, getting that voice down is easier, because of course a story is shorter. In my experience so far of translating novels, it feels like I don’t fully get hold of the voice of the book until I’m about thirty or forty pages in. Then I begin to settle down and find that voice. Though, really, I do have to admit that after translating several of Mozzi’s stories, I’d settled more into his book, too…

AARON WESTERMAN: How did you first hear about This is the Garden and what ultimately made you want to become involved with translating it?

This_Is_the_GardenELIZABETH HARRIS: I heard of this collection from Mozzi himself. I was asked to translate a Mozzi story from a different collection, “Una vita felice” (“A Happy Life”), from La Felicità Terrena (Earthly Happiness); this translation was for Minna Proctor who was guest-editing a contemporary Italian fiction issue of The Literary Review (Minna is now the editor-in-chief of TLR).  I loved this story: I loved its spare style and I loved the complicated, troubled narrator. While I was translating it, I had a few questions, so I contacted Mozzi, who has a literary blog in Italy and so is very accessible. When I’d finished translating this piece for TLR, I asked Mozzi if I might translate the entire collection, La Felicità Terrena. Mozzi asked me to translate Questo è il giardino instead, which he felt was his best work. I was quite happy to translate this book, but I do hope I get the opportunity to translate other collections of his as well; I love his writing.

AARON WESTERMAN: How long did the translation take to complete and how available and involved was author Giulio Mozzi during this time?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: Since I have a fulltime job as a professor, I’ve done most of my translating during my summer breaks. I started translating the Mozzi collection in 2006, I believe, and I translated a number of the stories, “Glass,” “Cover Letter,” “Claw,” “The Apprentice,” over a couple of years while I was doing other things. Because I had so much trouble getting Rigoni Stern’s novel published, I didn’t want to make the same mistake: I translated that novel in its entirety, taking quite a while to do so, only to discover that it was very, very difficult to find a publisher. This time, I decided to refine some stories, get them published in journals, and then start trying to find a publisher for the collection before I finished the book. That, it turns out, was a much better strategy.  I was very pleased by the reception for Mozzi’s stories: they were accepted by some top journals: The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, AGNI. Once I started submitting my proposal for the entire collection, it didn’t take all that long (in book land—about a year) for Open Letter Books to express interest and then accept the manuscript for publication. So I sent the Rigoni Stern novel to fifty publishers; this time, I believe I sent the book to two publishers before Open Letter accepted it. After that, after I had a contract, I spent about another eight months completing the final stories and then reworking everything as a collection. I was on sabbatical, my first ever, and I could just sit and translate every day and give Giulio’s stories the attention they deserved. It was heaven.

Giulio has been very available while I translated his book. I met him early on about the book, when I was just getting started. Over the years, we’ve developed a friendship. Giulio has asked me to translate other work of his, including an odd little story tied to an art exhibit, “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read,” which found its way into the first volume of Dalkey Archive’s annual anthology, Best European Fiction. I also invited him to my school, where we gave a joint presentation of “Carlo” and the entire project, and Giulio then met with my graduate fiction students. They loved him. That was a great visit.

AARON WESTERMAN: What was the most difficult aspect of the translation?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: The most difficult aspect was also what I loved most about the stories: their style, their precision.

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.

AARON WESTERMAN: This is the Garden features some complex and rather quirky characters. There’s a purse snatcher who writes a letter to one of his victims explaining his process, an apprentice who can never quite manage to truly learn his chosen profession, and a woman who overcomes a complicated experience from her past thanks to a chance encounter with an angel, to name just a few. During translation, how difficult was it to stay true to all of these unique voices in a way that adhered to what feels like the collection’s overall theme of the world as a fallen paradise? Was this unifying theme always on your mind or were these pieces tackled more as individual, stand-alone stories?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: I didn’t really think about an overall meaning of the collection as I translated. I concentrated on the individual stories; I listened to the voices of those stories and tried to render them as best I could into English. As I mentioned earlier, about halfway through, I feel I settled more into Giulio’s voice, too, even while the stories themselves also have distinctive voices as tied to their main characters’ sensibilities (though of course third-person, even limited third-person, isn’t from the voice of a character). I’ve also spoken of the fact that the style of the collection is both mine and Giulio’s; I should say, I trust Giulio’s voice immensely, and in rendering that voice—his many nuanced voices in these stories—I tried to follow what was really there on the page. Because I believe so much in Giulio’s authority as a stylist, I wanted to render that style, the music of his prose, by capturing the shapes and the pacing of his sentences and paragraphs. But that doesn’t mean that I followed Giulio’s sentences word-for-word, either; my translation isn’t “literal,” if such a translation even exists. My translation is an interpretation of the original, but I hope it’s a respectful interpretation, one that’s paid close attention to and spoken to what was there in the original.

AARON WESTERMAN: What are you currently working on?

ELIZABETH HARRIS: I’m currently translating a wonderful novel by Antonio Tabucchi, Tristano muore, or Tristano Dies, which is forthcoming with Archipelago Books. I feel so lucky to be translating it! This novel is a long monologue, a story told by a character dying of gangrene of the leg, who is telling his story of his past loves and his seemingly heroic experiences during World War II to someone who is simply called “writer,” and may not actually exist. The narrator is high on morphine much of the time, and the novel is wild, filled with disjointed memories and hallucinatory images and also with citations from other literary works, so I’m having to translate all different voices, and lines from poems, novels, movies… It’s a great book, really challenging, really fun.

Thank you very much, Aaron, for your thoughtful questions.

Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris, Giulio Mozzi’s This is the Garden is published by Open Letter Books and is available wherever fine books are sold.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.