Elizabeth Bryer is a writer and translator. She is an editor at Brow Books, and was previously the inaugural translations editor of The Lifted Brow for two years.
From Here On, Monsters (2019) is her debut work of literary fiction. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Lifted Brow, Seizure, Meanjin, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books, among many others.
In 2017 Elizabeth received the prestigious PEN America/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests. Her translations of fiction by Carlos Yushimito, Claudia Salazar Jiménez, Aleksandra Lun and María Jose Ferrada have appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Words without Borders, Asymptote and Nashville Review.
ASTRID: Elizabeth Bryer is a translator and novelist. She was The Lifted Brow's and inaugural translations editor, and she has translated from Spanish Claudia Salazar Jimenez's 'Blood of the Dawn' and Aleksandra Lun's 'The Palimpests', for which she received a PEN Heim grant from PEN America. Her first novel written in English is From Here On, Monsters.
Welcome Elizabeth to The Garret.
ELIZABETH: Thanks for having me.
ASTRID: Your novel From Here On, Monsters is, among other things, a fictional exploration of art, literature and translation. I am looking forward to talking to you about it, but before we get into your novel I'd actually like to talk to you about the art of translation, which I find fascinating.
First off, what languages are you fluent in?
ELIZABETH: So I speak Spanish and English, that's all. So, there there are some translators who do speak multiple languages, but quite a few will just specialise in one language. So that's my case. I keep thinking I should learn another language, but I've been a bit lazy so far.
ASTRID: I don't think being fluent enough to translate full length novels from Spanish into English is lazy at all. How did you learn Spanish? Have you lived in Spain?
ELIZABETH: I have actually lived in Spain. I did a semester of uni there, but that's not where I learnt Spanish. So, I lived in Peru for a year as an 18 year old, and I go back there at least once a year. So that's kind of that's where it began. I did an exchange - so I learnt Spanish as a result of being in Peru - as opposed to going there specifically to learn Spanish. So yeah, one of those happy accidents.
ASTRID: Now to translate a novel, what is the fluency required the fluency required?
ELIZABETH: I don't know. Are we ever fluent in our native tongues? I feel like I'm learning about English all the time as well. But it is a specific skill. So, you can be fluent in a language but then not necessarily love or be able to translate. So they are two very different things. Yeah, I mean I speak Spanish at home. So my partner is Peruvian and we speak Spanish to each other. So certainly in that way... Yeah. I mean I'm very comfortable in Spanish.
ASTRID: You translate from Spanish into English. Would you ever or could you ever do it the other way?
ELIZABETH: So I guess after translating Aleksandra Lun, her book 'The Palimpest', she's a Polish author - or Polish born author, as she likes to be called - and she actually writes in Spanish. So, it's not something that I've ever wanted to do. I feel like that creative... you know, I do do my creative work in English, but I guess since translating her I've become more open to the idea. So who knows. I mean I haven't done that at all, but maybe one day.
ASTRID: I'd like you to talk to me about the ethics of translations and of being a translator.
ELIZABETH: That's a really big topic. Anything particularly?
ASTRID: It is a big topic! I guess, you know, you are translating novels, and novels are inherently a creative work, and possibly a very personal work of an author, and when you are translating into a different language in every sentence you have multiple choices of vocab and syntax. What are the ethical responsibilities that you may have to the original author? And also to the new readers in an entirely new market or country?
ELIZABETH: Yeah. So I guess I'd start by saying that the first... I guess the first thing to be aware of working in English is that English is a global and a global dominant language, which obviously is really gross.
ASTRID: Yes, correct.
ELIZABETH: But it also means that there are a whole lot of people who are excluded, for example from the publishing industry. So, if you're working in a language other than English there can sometimes be pressure that one might put on on oneself to to write in English. So I feel like translation can be a great way of encouraging literature in all different languages, especially when we do have this situation that we can't dismantle overnight of one language really dominating the publishing industry worldwide.
But having said that, I think it's also really important to think about who and which texts get translated into English. And translators can play a role in this. I mean obviously publishers get to play the ultimate role, but in terms of choosing work, you know, women are really underrepresented. You know, I think... I saw an image recently where people were nominated for the International Booker, and it was something like I can't remember exactly but it was maybe 85 per cent Europe. So, if you're working in a language that's not Indo-European, wonderful. I'm not. I'm working in an Indo- European language that's also, you know, quite dominant due to a similar history of colonisation. But then where are those books coming from? Can you looks outside the kind of typical publishing strongholds? Can you look outside? Yeah, a lot of work gets published from Spain, for example, into English. But what about different countries in Latin America? I feel like that's the first place to start.
ASTRID: And the two novels that you have translated, they were South American authors?
ELIZABETH: So I've translated five novels now, well translating a fifth. So I've translated four, three of those were Latin American authors. One was this Polish one, but she's writing about writing in a non native tongue, which is a really interesting topic, and it's politically very interesting. She actually she wouldn't like me using that word political, so I won't.
ASTRID: I'm fascinated by translations, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you, Elizabeth. I almost had an alternative career as a classicist.
ELIZABETH: Oh? Fascinating.
ASTRID: The Roman Republic 1st century B.C. was my specialty, which is like the bastion of the old white male canon. And I am kind of glad that I decided not to stay there in my ivory tower for the rest of my life. However, I do keep up to date with all of the different translations that tend to come along, you know, every couple of years at least once a decade, of all the old classics redone and translated for, you know, a new zeitgeist, a new generation, if you will. And so from that relatively strange background I would like to ask a possibly wildly inappropriate question, but do you think it is easier to translate someone when they're dead?
ELIZABETH: I've never actually done that. So... I wouldn't imagine so, there are I know where you're coming from, because there are some translators who get quite... possessive is too strong a word, but they've put a lot of creative input into the translation and they obviously have a really great command of their mother tongue, which they're usually translating into but not always, and then sometimes with authors with some knowledge of that language, they will come in and want to make changes.
But I actually find that process really really beautiful and rewarding, and it's so great to get to talk to each other about different decisions, to work through, 'Okay, why did I make this choice that may have somehow been a little bit subconscious? Was it a question of rhythm? What else is going on here that's not strictly this word equates to that?' So I find that really rewarding, and so I would say that I would prefer to translate authors who are living because then it leads to this kind of dialogue. And also gives them more control over what is being published in English when you get that conversation going.
ASTRID: You've obviously just published a novel in English. Would you ever translate your own novel into Spanish to sell into a different market?
ELIZABETH: No way!
ELIZABETH: Because... So, translation is such an involved and creative task and... I just wouldn't do it, because first of all Spanish is not my native language. So you would prefer usually - and this is not always the case - but you would prefer someone who is a native speaker to be translating - but also just... I mean, there's the opportunity for that extra interpretation, extra dose of creativity, so why not be open to that? That would be a dream, if someone ever translated this.
ASTRID: That is an interesting observation, and I want to come back to what you just said about creativity. I asked the same question to Vicki Laveau-Harvie, who in 2019 won The Stella Prize for her memoir The Erratics. And she's from Canada and she has always been bilingual as far as I can tell, as far as I know, and she definitely wants to be the one to translate her work into French, which makes sense if she's always been bilingual, but she doesn't want anyone to have that story. Now this is a personal memoir, so I guess she's attached to it in a different way. Yours is a work of literary fiction, but going back to what you said about creativity, you would... tell me about why translation is a creative process? I suspect some people think that it's purely you know word for word.
ELIZABETH: I guess because - and this is part of why I love it as well - it's distinct from writing in that it is creativity in a very focused way. So, you're constantly thinking about things like character, you know, story, themes, but the way you're thinking about them is through this kind of prism of okay, how do I represent those through the word choices I make? So, you get to focus so very closely on the language, but in a way that's... you're still thinking about all those things, but I guess that they're there and so you're interpreting those things, and then trying to ensure that they're conveyed through the language that you use. So it is a lot more than just, you know, looking up a word in the dictionary or something like that. The voice is very important.
ASTRID: Can a translation be better than the original?
ELIZABETH: I just love lots of versions of things. I don't know. Like what does better mean? Like translator me says no, author me says yes of course.
ASTRID: You know, I've set myself a personal challenge. Because C.S. Lewis, who of course wrote the Narnia Chronicles, in his spare time he translated Virgil's Aeneid, because, you know, that's what you do.
ELIZABETH: That's what you do in your spare time.
ASTRID: And I have actually translated the first three books of the Aeneid, and over the course of my life I would like to have said that I've got my own translation. No one will ever read it. But the point is it's such a wonderful exercise to take someone's work, a work of the canon, and just to kind of... By translating every word, by translating every sentence, you understand it intimately in a way that you don't when you read it.
ELIZABETH: You do. But also, and I mean given that it's of the canon, you get to mess with it, right?
ELIZABETH: I wouldn't say that about... I'm careful who I say that to or in what circumstances. But if it's canon, got for it.
ASTRID: It's 2000 years dead. I mean you can do whatever you want with it, which is why I actually asked the question about what's it like to translate the work of a living or dead author.
Now, for Australian writers who are lucky enough to find their works of either non-fiction or fiction published in Australia and then taken up in overseas markets and potentially translated, how can those writers tell if they've got a good translation or not?
ELIZABETH: That's something that I often think about when I'm approaching authors. So, when I've found a book that I really love and I approach - if the author doesn't have an agent, for example, and I approach the author and say, 'Look, I'd love to look for a publisher for this', I'm always really careful to say to that author the publisher will decide who the translator is. Because I think it's really important in the sense that the author doesn't know. I mean, the author can't know. And so there needs to be someone outside that relationship who can make a judgment, who can get several samples done and say, 'Okay we think that this one best represents the voice for these reasons'.
ASTRID: So what do you think Australian readers and writers should know or should consider about foreign works translated into English?
ELIZABETH: What should they know or consider?
ASTRID: Aside from to read them.
ELIZABETH: Aside from to read them. Well, I guess just that... I mean, there is this research saying how reading fiction creates more empathy, right? So I feel like that has to be the case when that fiction comes from outside the particular world view that we've kind of been socialised into having. And it's also I feel like for writers and readers or writers who are also readers, reading in translation or having translations is a really great way of kind of reinvigorating the local literary ecosystem. It has this power to kind of bring something new into that ecosystem. So, I feel like I mean there's no downside really. What's the downside?
ASTRID: I don't think there's a downside. I guess I ask you a leading question.
ASTRID: Now moving to your novel, your first work of creative literary fiction From Here On, Monsters. I got very excited when I saw your title, because I am a certain type of person who has spent a lot of time in old books written by dead people and I thought 'Is that 'here be monsters', like what you used to put on a map?' And it is, and you explain that in the book. So can you please explain that for our listeners?
ELIZABETH: Can I explain that for listeners? Okay so, I guess with the title I was thinking about signalling how translation is choice. It's made up of so many choices, and so 'here be monsters' has come to us from Latin, it is a translation from Latin but it has kind of become fossilized in the language so that we think of it as an original, whereas really it's not an original, it is a translation. And I feel like one, translation has that power, but two, I did one to to signal that kind of choice, as well as it being a metaphor for contemporary times and all that kind of thing, and relation to old maps and...
ASTRID: And everything that you actually talk about in the book.
Now, a key part of your novel is about translation. The character of Jon gives several beautiful descriptions of his process when he is translating the codex that features prominently in the work. Does, you know, do those passages reflect your experience of translating?
ELIZABETH: They do. But having said that, translators and translation scholars are very guilty of using all different metaphors to describe translation and then going actually that doesn't really work. So yeah, for whatever reasons, for some reason it's kind of this activity that does get described a lot through metaphor. So I was also thinking a little bit of that, and especially... I think Jon changes his mind halfway through. He decides it's one thing and then halfway through he's kind of like actually it's more like this, and really that was something that happened to me in the process. So, I described it in one way, you know, a year or two later looking at a new draft I was like actually it's not really like that it's more like these other things. It's always changing, and if you look at translation studies literature you'll see that there have been all of these changes with people trying to describe that process that you and I know.
ASTRID: So in the in your novel you discuss the history of famous translations, including Galland's translation of 1001 Nights. And in that case, because he realised the original didn't actually have 1001 tales in it, he started to add stuff including the story of Sinbad the Sailor. And I wanted to ask you, although we are in a different millennia talking about translation, how often does a translator just kind of start adding or changing?
ELIZABETH: I feel like that is quite a unique case, and there are all kinds of problems in that in terms of the culture that he was part of and the culture that he was translating from. But it's still a really attractive idea of this kind of freeing yourself of the shackles of the source texts and going, 'Okay I'm just gonna go off on my own happy little journey over here'. How often does it happen? I don't... It doesn't... I wouldn't say that it happens often, but there is certainly an editorial process that happens in translation, so that can sometimes lead to changes.
And actually, there's this really interesting translation scholar called Karen Emmerich who wrote this book called Translation and the Making of Originals, and that's all about how translation has this way of sort of fixing texts. And she doesn't mean fixing as in making better, but fixing is in making concrete. So often there are many different originals to choose from. So, an author might have made all of these updates, there might be conversations with the author where it's not actually in the book but all this author says, 'Hey, I actually want to add this chapter', and somehow that formalisation that comes with the process of translation means that it is a different text, and also that it becomes a kind of standard, not because it's in English, just because it's gone through that process of dialogue with a really close reader, with another creative mind. So yeah, it happens, not to that extent but yes it does happen.
ASTRID: Just a quick question. How long does it - I mean obviously it depends on the word length - but how long would it take you to translate a novel? A year.
ELIZABETH: I like to translate about... the absolute most I can do, if it's relatively straightforward, is about 6000 words a week. But then I'll need a month or two at the end of that to go over it again, that sort of very rough first draft is the 6000 words. So it depends how long the novel is.
ASTRID: Fair enough. Back to your novel From Here On, Monsters. It is literary fiction and it expressly deals with several contemporary themes - not just translation, which I get obsessed about - including the power of words to change our society, immigration and asylum seekers and how the words we choose to describe asylum seekers actually changes how a country or society deals with their presence. When writing, did you decide on topics beforehand the themes that you wanted to address or did it all naturally evolve in your story?
ELIZABETH: It all evolved. So, I really... Every morning I would get up and I didn't know what was coming next. The only rule I had for myself was the most I was allowed to read back was the day before's writing. allowed.
ASTRID: Oh wow.
ELIZABETH: This was just for the first draft, obviously lots more happens. But in terms of did I decide on it before I did it, no. But there were two I realised later they were kind of two I guess inspirations, one obviously Australia's decision to start doing offshore processing of asylum seekers, and also Brandis, when he did that... when he took money out of AusCo and was like, 'Okay, this is my personal slush fund', but not only that, also the responses to those things.
Because I felt like people in the arts community are really great I guess at communicating and getting a message out there. So, it got me really thinking about who gets to protest, I guess, and who has citizen privilege and therefore can speak back to these decisions and who can't. So, that I guess was in the back of my mind but it certainly wasn't... it was more of an organic process, I guess. It's all a bit mysterious isn't it when you come out the other side.
ASTRID: It is experience. You actually reminded me, the experience of reading this novel particularly in the final pages and chapters was very Orwellian, you know despairing words and was no longer having the meaning that we used to attach them to. It's quite an experience for the reader.
But going back to your writing process, you said that you get up every morning and you would only let yourself read over what you had done the day before. How many words would you know on an average day get done the day before?
ELIZABETH: Maybe about 500, something like that. But when I say day before it would be just a few hours before my day started... so I would kind of forget what that process had been. I went about my normal day afterwards. And that was first draft, later drafts needed longer, but maybe no more than four hours or something like that.
ASTRID: And how long overall did the work take you?
ELIZABETH: Four years. Almost four years, because the past few months... I started it in July of 2015. In the past few months, obviously, it's been at the printers and yeah doing all those things making it to the world.
ASTRID: So we've been talking about you as a translator and as a writer. Now obviously both of them involve you sitting down at a desk in front of a computer, but can you talk me through the different mental spaces that you have to occupy.
ELIZABETH: The different mental spaces. They are very different. I find that I can do them both in the same day, so that's really nice. I do feel like I literally have to roll out of bed and start writing, I can't talk to people or... I can eat, because otherwise I'll not be very well, but I have to start it straight away. Whereas with translation I can do it most times of the day, but better off kind of starting my day that way, you know, so maybe from 10am or something like that. They are quite different though.
ASTRID: One thing I noticed in From Here On, Monsters is - I think the only word I have for it is the delightful page layout. Can you tell listeners what you did?
ELIZABETH: What I did? So, I did a few things, not all of them made it in there. So there is I guess a text within the text. Is that what you're speaking about?
ASTRID: Yeah. And the pictures.
ELIZABETH: And the pictures. Oh, that was exciting. That was a last minute thing.
So there's a text within the text that is an old book, a codex. And so the translator in the book, Jon, decides that to be faithful to this original work, which was really involved in kind of replicating the circumstances of a previous author's or previous kind of subject's everyday world, then he therefore has to do something similar with the translation. So he decides to kind of set it in the landscape landscape format and to set it out in the same way that it has been set out.
And the other question was about... oh the the pictures in between.
ASTRID: The little monsters.
ELIZABETH: Yeah the little monsters. So, there's little monsters in between each chapter. And I was really excited that we got to space out things a little bit, because a friend, my oldest friend, so we met when we were like 2 or 3, we used to make books together as kids, and she would illustrate and I would write. So she was able to do those. There was a budget for her, which I was very excited about. And she did those for me. And she's a tattoo artist now. Jen von Klitzing. So look her up.
ASTRID: Well, she has gorgeous pictures in this book.
As a reader, it was really exciting to me to start to read and then realise that there were times when I would get a blank page or a mostly blank page with the picture, or that I had to you know hold the book on its side to read. I mean, I love words and I love books, but you know they don't have to just look the same internally every single time I buy a book or borrow a book. So it's actually quite a lovely experience to hold and go with you into that kind of creative world.
ELIZABETH: I'm glad it was a lovely experience, because I did have this thought someone is going to be annoyed with this.
ASTRID: I'm sure there is going to be someone.
ELIZABETH: But it just felt like a way to... like I'm often thinking it's a bit of a false binary like form versus content. You know, we can't really have content unless we have form. But at the same time, how can you replicate that content through form is a really interesting question, I find. So you know some things probably work better than others but I was excited to try them out.
ASTRID: So we've spoken about your career as a literary translator and also now as a novelist. What's next for you, Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH: What's next? I'm currently translating a book for Giramondo called Bonaparte's Bee Keeper. And I'm also studying. And still doing work with Brow Books. So yeah, that's what's next. More writing.
ASTRID: More writing is always a good thing. Thank you so much Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH: Thank you so much, that was really great.