Award-winning writer immerses herself in a literary art form that enriches how people view the world


Amy Halvorson

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Award-winning writer immerses herself in a literary art form that enriches how people view the world

People are always searching for their passions, and once found, they look for ways to incorporate those passions into their lives.

A lucky few are able to make a career out of their passions. Elizabeth Harris is one.

Harris, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Dakota, has found success in the realm of literary translation, winning the 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome) for Mario Rigoni Stern's Giacomo's Seasons, a Banff International Centre Translation Residency (Banff, Canada), and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Prize from the PEN American Center (New York) for Antonio Tabucchi's Tristano Dies.

Harris's literary translation tale started in college. As an undergraduate, her major was not creative writing; it was art history. She found herself particularly interested in medieval Italian art, and she was also very interested in the Italian language. She studied Italian all of the time and loved everything about it, so she pursued it, even after graduation.

Eventually, Harris earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota, a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and two Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Arkansas, one in creative writing and the other in literary translation.

"Things kept rolling along and came together," Harris said.

Her first attempt at translation was a work written by Italo Calvino. That's all it took. Once she started translating his stories, it was over. She had fallen in love with literary translation.

Harris says that what many people do not realize is that translation is a form of creative writing. The translator/writer, who is creating a work of art, must be knowledgeable about the subject matter. To translate an author's work, the translator must play the part of the author and become the author, in a manner of speaking, she said.

Harris also has a background in fiction writing, and most of the classes she teaches at UND are about fiction.

"Both [writing fiction and translating fiction] come with tremendous challenges," Harris said.

But in the end, she prefers translating fiction, as it combines her two loves: Italian literature and fiction writing. "It's the perfect marriage for me," she said.

Harris describes her steps in translating by starting with a quick overview of the book and trying to figure out its voice as she begins to translate. It's painstaking work. She says she may get two pages done in a day, but that is if she is doing really well. She starts each new day by reworking the previous day's translation and then moving on.

Once finished, Harris admits that she feels a bit lost and sad, as her favorite part is the actual translating of the book. When Harris is translating she gets "swept away and consumed by it."

In addition to the four books that she has translated or is in the process of translating, Harris has more than 30 published translations of stories, novel excerpts and commentaries on translation in various journals, such as The Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Words Without Borders, AGNI magazine, The Kenyon Review, and The Missouri Review. Her translations also have appeared twice in the anthology Best European Fiction (Dalkey Archive Press), with work by Giulio Mozzi (2010) and Marco Candida (2011).

Harris currently is working under a contract with Archipelago Books.

Harris is particularly proud of her translation of Mozzi's story collection, This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), a book in which she felt that she really grew as a translator. She believes that she was able to recreate his rhythms and phrases and capture his voice in English.

There are multiple routes by which a translator may be paired with a particular book to translate. The translator may choose a book she would like to translate, or the publishing house might approach the translator and ask her to translate a book. In Harris's case, she was able to choose her first two books, and then Archipelago Books requested that she do the second two.

"It is important to have the right translator for the book," she said.

Harris says people don't always realize how much of the translator is in the book. They often don't realize that someone spent considerable time translating the book and put part of themselves into its translation. So people often do not always give appropriate credit to the translators, she said.

Harris feels that literary translation is a great aspect of the humanities: It's an art form that brings literature from one culture to another and enriches how people view the world.

Harris says she is grateful that UND has embraced her work in translation.

Amy Halvorson University & Public Affairs student writer

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