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Translators make foreign literature accessible to readers

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Translators make foreign literature accessible to readers
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GRAND FORKS — “Gentile signorina,” the purse-snatcher wrote to his victim at the beginning of a short story that University of North Dakota professor Elizabeth Harris has translated.


He had been examining the contents of the purse, imagining what his victim is like and coming to realize he had fallen in love, she said.

“Gentile signorina” literally means “Dear Miss” in Italian and it has the impersonal feel of “Dear Sir or Madam” in English. But “Dear Miss” just isn’t used in English. So, after some agonizing, including a small debate with author Giulio Mozzi, Harris decided on “Dear signorina.”

Something, it seemed, would be lost in the translation.

Harris, who teaches creative writing full time, said translators must make thousands of decisions like that as they translate a literary work, in effect becoming “second authors.”

Steven Finney, a UND Norwegian language instructor who occasionally translates Norwegian literature, agreed: “You’re trying to recompose it, you try to make it read as though the author was a native speaker.”

He and Harris are among a handful of people in the area who translate foreign literature, and both have been honored for their work.

Harris’ translation of Mario Rigoni Stern’s book “Giacomo’s Seasons” won recognition from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her latest work is a translation of Mozzi’s collection of short stories called “This is the Garden”; she’s holding a book launch party Thursday at the North Dakota Museum of Art on campus.

Finney is still seeking a publisher for his translation of popular Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s short story “Into the Mountain,” about a man with what sounds like a fatalistic worldview and his realization of the impact that has on his nephew. The American-Scandinavian Foundation gave Finney the Translation Prize in 2010 for that work.

Balancing act

A true translation, especially for a literary work, can never be a word-for-word translation because, even if the meaning is the same, the way it feels, its effect on the reader wouldn’t be the same, according to Harris.

“When it comes to a work of literature, the effect is just as important as meaning. If you don’t have effect, you lose the meaning,” she said.

So translators must also convey the original author’s emphasis, his style and even his idiosyncrasies.

In one of Mozzi’s short stories, the narrator, an Italian law enforcement agent, is despairing of his battle against the Mob in Sicily: “It was too hard, this land, for men to live as men. Maybe this wasn’t always true but, by now, in this century, it was.”

The placement of “this land” doesn’t sound quite right in English, and a sentence that flows better would probably start with “this land was too hard,” Harris said. But it was Mozzi’s intent to break up the flow, to put emphasis on “this land,” she said, and that was how she translated it.

Finney said he considers many factors such as the style and the “texture” of the text, even the length of words and sentences. “The things I love about the story are the things I want a reader in another story to appreciate as well.”

But to consider all that often means to balance one against the other.

For example, Finney said, Norwegians have these one-syllable words called “modal adverbs” that can carry a lot of meaning and attitude. The word “jo” can, in some cases, mean something like “you and I both know,” he said, as in “Are we going to eat soon? As you and I both know, we can’t until Dad gets home.” “Jo” here implies the question was dumb and shouldn’t have been asked, he said.

But to have such a literal translation in English, he said, would obliterate the flow of the sentence as it was intended in Norwegian. He said he tries to imply the attitude of the speaker in a different way or write around it.

Differing styles

There are different ways to think of translations, according to Harris and Finney. Some try to stay as true to the source as possible, echoing the author’s meaning and style while some try to make the source, particularly a historical source such as Dante’s “Inferno,” more meaningful to the intended readership.

Harris said an example of the latter is Mary Jo Bang’s translation of “Inferno,” which includes references to the British punk band the Sex Pistols.

It makes sense for Bang to try to make “Inferno” as fresh for a modern readership as it was when Dante wrote it, Harris said. All literature of the time was in Latin, the language of the educated, she said, and Dante’s poem, written in the kind of Italian spoken on the street, must have had a stunning effect on Italian readers.

It’s less common, though, for translators to take such liberties with works that are contemporary and have never been translated into English. Harris and Finney have shown more restraint in their translations, and Harris has even traveled to Italy to talk with Mozzi to understand his writing better.

As Harris and Finney describe it, translation is arduous work that requires constant attention to detail. Not only is there a lot of research to understand the intricacies of a foreign language — perhaps there is an allusion that native      readers would get but is      lost on the translator — but there is also the need to ensure the target readership gets it as well.

Sometimes this means ignoring the author’s wishes.

Harris said she and Mozzi disagreed over “Dear signorina.” He told her American GIs used to call Italian prostitutes “signorina” after the war, so it has a negative connotation that clashed with his intended meaning. But she said he doesn’t understand the English readership as well as she does and they would never see it that way; she overrode him.

Finney, too, worried about the impact on the target readership.

His first drafts sometimes sound too foreign, he said. “You’re lost in the spell of that language.”

It takes many more drafts before that foreignness is washed out, he said, and, sometimes, more drafts to put back in idiosyncrasies of the author that accidentally got cut.

It’s a tricky balance, he said. “What I’m not trying to do is make the characters sound like they grew up in Grand Forks. But I also don’t want them to have an accent or a kind of foreignness that they don’t have in the original.”

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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