On Translation as an Interpretive Art: A Conversation with Translator Elizabeth Bryer

Elizabeth Bryer is a writer and translator whose debut novel, From Here On, Monsters, was published by Picador Australia in 2019. Her translation of Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests, out now with Godine, was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant from PEN America. Recent and forthcoming translations include José Luis de Juan’s Napoleon’s Beekeeper (Giramondo) and María José Ferrada’s Kramp (Tin House). She was inaugural translations editor of TLB Society Inc.’s flagship quarterly, The Lifted Brow, and is still hanging around at Brow Books.


For me The Palimpsests is not only the story of an Eastern-European undergoing Bartlebian therapy in order to strip away his knowledge of all languages except for Polish; it is also the story an Australian-born writer coming into contact with a Polish-born writer on the streets of Barcelona through a book, written the old fashioned way. In a world where English as a language has become common currency, I often overlook the existence of knowledge and ideas present in languages apart from English. In The Palimpsests, Czeslaw Przęśnicki, the story’s protagonist, suffers in an asylum in Belgium for writing a book in an Antarctic language not native to him.

Over email, I interviewed Bryer, and we talked about navigating this increasingly globalized world as a speaker of multiple languages. We talked about the challenges and opportunities in being able to access information in both English and Spanish.


Manisha Anil Rita: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a translator?

Elizabeth Bryer: It’s a boring answer, but a truthful one: scaring up enough work to survive. I recently had the huge pleasure and relief of signing a contract for a future translation while working on a current one. If I ever get to a place where this is the rule rather than the exception, I will thank my lucky stars.

MAR: Can you tell me the story of how you went from enjoying a recommendation from a bookseller in Barcelona to translating the book he gave you in English?

EB: When I visited La Central del Raval in Barcelona, I was looking for something to workshop at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, which I had the great fortune of attending thanks to grants from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust and Copyright Agency Career Fund. But I never expected to fall as hard for a book as I did for The Palimpsests: I found myself laughing from the first page, and marveling at Lun’s brilliance and imagination on every other. I was in awe of the way she could giftwrap the outrageous story in the seemingly impossible combination of a light touch and a serious intent, in terms of what The Palimpsests achieves and alludes to both as a work of literature and as a commentary on problematic social phenomena.

So, falling in love with The Palimpsests felt serendipitous, especially when the bookseller had spoken about it with such reverence (his other recommendations, while excellent books, didn’t grab me in the same way).

I had a fantastic workshop experience thanks to our leader, the brilliant and inspiring Esther Allen, and to the other participants who fast became friends. Esther mentioned the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, so I applied for that, and another participant, poet and translator Julia Leverone, encouraged me to submit the excerpt to Asymptote (she was U.S. assistant editor at the time).

Two years later, editor Ally Findley from Godine saw another of my translation samples. While that book wasn’t quite right for Godine, she said she was struck by my translation (she called it “delicate and precise, so minimal yet impactful,” which just about made me jump for joy!), and she asked if I had any other projects that might suit their list. She loved The Palimpsests, and passed it on to the associate publisher, and finally to David Godine himself.

MAR: I imagine as a writer yourself, you probably have your individual approach to writing novels. Is there a process you go through with an author before agreeing to work with them in order to find common (creative) ground?

EB: Not creatively speaking, no. Much of the negotiation and creative discussion comes once there is a draft, if the author has the time and inclination. It can be an incredibly rewarding and fruitful stage of the process, in part because translation is otherwise quite solitary work. It can be a lot of fun to geek out over certain turns of phrase or the subtle differences in word connotations and usage, as well as the intertextual echoes that those words might hold. In a bilingual dictionary, a word X in one language might be listed as word Y in another, but the constellation of meanings that each of them represents never overlap entirely. And I find that sentence rhythm comes up a lot in those creative discussions, too.

But out of solidarity with fellow translators, when first approaching an author what I am very careful to check is that no other translator is already working with them, either on this book or any other. I also make sure to let the author know that if they would like me to try to find a publisher for their work, ultimately the publisher will decide who is the best translator for the job. Most authors can’t assess the quality of the translation, so I think any other arrangement would be unfair, especially because of the imbalance of power that comes with translating into English.

MAR: Sometimes the trick to making literary work relatable is to sprinkle cultural references within a story and The Palimpsests does just that on a global level (like with Inspector Rex, Spinoza, Nicanor Parra, and so on). Who do you visualize the audience of this translated edition to be?

EB: Did Inspector Rex get airtime in in the U.S.? During my childhood, in a region of Australia that the census classes as “remote rural,” my brother and I sometimes watched a subtitled version of Inspector Rex on SBS. (We found so many scenes hilarious, but were they supposed to be? Was it a kids’ show, and were kids in Austria more credulous than we were? We could never work it out.) Anyway, I love that the show was part of my childhood in a remote corner of another hemisphere, and that this meant I shared a cultural reference not only with Austrian kids, but also with Czesław Przęśnicki, the narrator of the book I ended up translating years later.

As for the audience of the translation: people who love literature and who are tickled by the novel’s peculiar humor. Readers who love exacting prose. Fans of Witold Gombrowicz, for the absurd and anti-nationalist elements. Readers curious about exophonic writers. People who care about globalization and immigration, and that worrying corollary, nativism.

MAR: As a bilingual writer, do you ever find yourself at a loss for words or have too many ways to say something, especially with a book like The Palimpsests, which makes references to authors who themselves spoke multiple languages and therefore come from different contexts? How do you handle moments like that?

EB: I’m bilingual and a writer, but I’m not a bilingual writer in the usual sense—I haven’t written a literary text in Spanish. And you’re right; I do sometimes find myself at a loss for words, but, strangely enough, most of the time I notice it when I’m speaking my first language, English, especially when tired. (I had a visit from a midwife the other day, and, sleep deprived as I was, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to say something my newborn was doing. I said “chanchito” to my partner, whose first language is Spanish, who filled in the English word—“burp”—for me. It’s so silly! But it happens all the time. And I should mention that “chanchito” is Peruvian Spanish; I’m not sure Spanish speakers elsewhere would have had any idea what I meant!)

As for too many ways to say something: every translator experiences this, I think, in that the act of translation is all about decision making, and sometimes it’s agonizing. This turn of phrase or that turn of phrase? This word order or that word order? This word or that word? One sentence or two? This sentence structure or that one? You always remember the decisions where an alternative came really close. No two translators would ever make the same choices for a given passage, which I think speaks to the creativity of the process, to the fact that it’s best thought of as an interpretative art.

And where it gets really interesting, I think, is in the moments when you would prefer one choice but opt for another to bring the phrase in line with your strategy for the project as a whole. I think I mentioned in my translator note for The Palimpsests that I preferred the gentle comedy of “we certainly had hang-ups” for “acomplejados seguro que sí,” but I’d decided to reflect the narrator’s familiarity with psychobabble, so ended up translating the phrase as “we certainly had complexes” to maintain the overall tone. A strategy is what makes a translation hang together as a whole, what gives it coherence. It’s why translators can get frustrated when some reviewers cherry-pick translation choices and critique them, without attempting to determine what strategy might have led the translator to choose those words.

MAR: While reading, I related most to Przęśnicki’s constant back-and-forth between his desire to write in Antarctic, a language foreign to him, and the subsequent disillusionment from the experience of writing Wampir, his first failed novel for which he is being punished at an asylum. He jumps between the privilege of being able to speak multiple languages and the price he has to pay for being able to. Would you say it’s a suitable metaphor for the current debate around who countries keep out and who they allow in?

EB: Most definitely!

MAR: As someone who speaks and engages on a literary level with two languages, what are some of the things available to you that may not available to readers who speak only one language?

EB: I imagine it makes me more attuned to the interplay of form and content (not that these can really be separated). In other words, how is the text evoking certain responses from me, as a reader? I might be more inclined to wonder at this, and also to marvel at literary effects that seem especially language bound, and to try to imagine ways of recreating them in the other language. It’s not that other readers wouldn’t do this, just that I’m probably more inclined to.

MAR: What do you make of the idea that for a literary piece of work to achieve fame or worldwide acceptance, it has to wind up in English, as with this novel?

EB: I think it’s awful, especially when English-language publishing is so myopic (it’s a great irony that those of us who find ourselves at the center of power structures so often have the most provincial tastes—out of hubris, I guess, or lethargy).

But knowing that this is the case can be energizing, in that it can encourage writers, translators, publishers, editors, and reviewers to do what we can to bring more work into English. And this must include ceding the floor for tastemakers from non-white, -cis-het, -middle-class backgrounds, which of course diversifies the decisions that are made about what gets published, as well as changing how those works are published (/translated/edited/reviewed).

Yet, I can imagine a bleaker alternative: a world in which literature must be written in English to achieve worldwide acceptance. This is where translation is so important: it offers the prospect of literature continuing to be written and read and loved in other languages and literary traditions without sacrificing the possibility of appearing in English and thus the possibility of achieving worldwide fame.

Of course, this is not to say everything should be translated into English. There are contexts where the desire for new knowledge and for fresh input into the literary system can be a continuation of the rapacious Western colonial project, dressed up in a friendlier guise.

MAR: I know this is your second book translation project, and you mentioned in a prior interview how you’ve become hooked to literary translation. I want to end by asking you what the most exciting aspect of being a translator looks like?

EB: Well, it’s the second project I translated, but the fourth of my translations to be published because, in contrast to the usual order of things, the invaluable PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant meant I could complete the entire translation before a publisher was on board.

For me, the most exciting aspect of translation is the energized focus of the flow state that happens after much initial trial and error, when you get a tingling feeling that tells you you’re finally nailing the voice (a fallacy—only with lots of revision can you truly make the voice alive on the page—but a useful one, all the same). In that flow state you’re being challenged creatively and intellectually to step up to the source text, to create a work of literature that’s just as exciting in your language, and hours can pass without your being aware of the fact. Nothing beats that feeling, and it’s what makes the sometimes agonizingly slow search for a publisher worth the time, energy and labor. The flow state of working on the translation itself when everything is clicking into place is, for me, exhilarating.


Manisha Anil Rita

Manisha Anil Rita is a storyteller and journalist. She holds an MA (New Arts Journalism, 2018) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has written for the South Side Weekly, Sixty Inches from the Center and Newcity Chicago. She tweets @Manisha_A_R.

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