Ezra Fitz is a renowned translator. Here, we asked him about his start as a translator field, his views on translation in the modern world and about his upcoming projects. We hope you enjoy it!
1. How did you get involved in the world of translation? Do you remember any books or authors who inspired you or led you to this field?
When I started my freshman year at Princeton, I was planning on majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and becoming a marine biologist. But after taking a course on Borges with James Irby, and having the translator himself tell us about what it was that he actually did, I was hooked. I read “The Circular Ruins” for the first time, and found the opening line (in both Borges’ Spanish and Irby’s English) intriguing: what could they have possibly meant by a “unanimous night”? Was it some curious way of saying that the stars aligned? If so, why not just say that? I was wrong, of course; as Professor Irby explained, Borges chose the word “unánime” for its etymological value: from the Latin “unus,” meaning “one,” and “animus,” meaning “mind.” These two concepts are, as I came to see, essential to the essence of the story itself. Many years later, Gregory Rabassa was to write in his memoir, If This Be Treason, that “translation should be the closest possible reading of the book.” That’s what Irby did with Borges, and I knew then that I didn’t want to read literature like a professor (to paraphrase a popular book by Thomas C. Foster); I wanted to read literature like a translator. Eventually, I became one myself.
2. You have translated different literature, like novels, poems, memoirs, etc. What is your favorite type of text to translate?
Poetry is the most challenging for me. I translated a novel a few years ago that quotes several poems by Luis Cernuda; instead of attempting to translate them myself, I asked a friend, Stephen Kessler—an excellent poet himself, in addition to being a renowned translator of Cernuda—if I could interpolate his translations of the poems into my own translation of the novel. But I do enjoy a good challenge, and have translated the occasional poem, as you mentioned. Memoirs can be quite fun if they’re written well in the original… I remember Juanes, the Grammy-winning rock star, writing about the time he saw UFOs from the balcony of a hotel in Geneva, which brought a smile to my face. The agent thought the publisher had taken that story out, but Juanes wanted to keep it, saying the experience had a permanent effect on his life. A curious insight into an international celebrity, to be sure! Translating journalism by people like Jorge Ramos is one of the most important jobs I’ve been entrusted with, because we live in turbulent times, and future historians will rely on first person testimony from journalists like Jorge when they assess and pass judgement on our time. I’ve also translated not just for the page but the screen; for example, the Univision/Netflix series El Chapo. For a translator, there are few things more fun—and also more challenging—than slang and cursing, and I got to do a lot of that with that show. But to answer your question, there’s nothing quite like a great, solid, literary novel: something that people will be reading (and buying!) for generations to come.
3. In your words, what is translation?
I came up with my own, personal definition of translation several years ago while visiting Epcot with my wife and her parents. After a long, hot day of enjoying the park’s internationally themed attractions, we finally settled down in the lagoonside shade to enjoy some music. A tribute band by the name of Petty Theft was cranking out tunes by classic rock group Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that’s when it struck me: being a translator is just like playing in a cover band. You may not have written the original music, but you still have to play each and every note, matching it with absolute pitch.
4. In your opinion, what role does translation play in the modern world?
That is a daunting question… about as daunting as the title of Edith Grossman’s book Why Translation Matters! I’ll attempt a (somewhat) brief answer by saying that translation enables us to learn new ways of viewing our own lives and of how they make us the kind of humans that we are. It is, as Edith wrote in her book, “crucial to our sense of ourselves as humans.” We are a naturally curious and inherently collective species, and yet at this point in our history, we are once again facing a wave of isolationism, nationalism, and tribalism that’s sweeping across the globe. Thin skinned leaders of nuclear powers lob verbal missiles at one other, and we find ourselves asking the same question that Faulkner did back in 1950: “When will I be blown up?” If we are to survive as a species, we’re going to need to communicate with one another—we’re going to need to understand other cultures, and have our own culture be understood in turn—and therein lies the role of translation: serving as a bulwark against the ever-rising tide of obliviousness and xenophobia. In a time of travel bans and border walls, translation is the hand that taps us on the shoulder, the voice that cautions us against turning our backs to information that would otherwise be streaming in from the outside. Susan Sontag, herself a great advocate for translation, once said, “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism… Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.” World literature in translation brings a taste of the culture of other nations to us, and the international media brings us the facts of our existence that will, in time, become part of our collective history. When we translate both fiction and nonfiction from other lands, we’re pushing back against the impending threat of ignorance; we’re looking for ways to help one another, as human beings, find what we have in common. As another great champion of literature in translation, Mario Vargas Llosa asserted, “When faced with the unfamiliar, with progress and change, there is a kind of insecurity that makes people want to turn to a tribal idea: the illusion of a closed community that has never existed. That mirage is what gives rise to totalitarianism and populism.” We, as translators, have the chance to dispel these illusions, to dispel these mirages. We seek out writers in other lands who speak truth to power, who exhibit what, in Spanish, is known as contrapoder. It’s a tough word to translate: it means both to stand on the opposite side of power and to confront it, and when we make these writers available in a plurality of languages, we are opening windows and letting in more light to chase away the twin specters of innocence and insensibility. When this happens, communities can reopen gates that were never truly closed, and realize once again that there was always family there in the unfamiliar. It’s a daunting task, and the stakes can be considerably high: in 2011, the translator and activist Ayşe Berktay was jailed tried for “membership in an illegal organization” because of her pro-Kurdish cultural advocacy work. PEN American Center President Peter Godwin observed that, “as a translator and as a peaceful activist, her life has been shaped by the desire to bridge cultures and convey truths that challenge official orthodoxies and histories.” When the desire to fight and to connect is greater than the instinct to fear the task at hand, translation do a great moral service to all of humanity.
5. What do you think about culture and language being an inseparable whole? what is your point of view?
The relationship between language and culture is not unlike the relationship between rap and hip hop: language is an element of culture, just as rap music is one element of the larger hip hop way of life. One thing I learned from studying Comparative Literature at Princeton is that it’s easier to identify what cultures and languages have in common than it is to identify what makes us all distinct. People eat bread all over the world, whether it’s a sandwich loaf in the US, tortillas in Mexico, naan in India or Asia, or injera in Ethiopia and Eritrea. But it’s not the same. To offer another example, it is easy to say that Robert Fagles and Emily Wilson both translated the same Odyssey, but it is much more challenging—and much more enriching—to see where their translations differ. Though stories like Cold Mountain and Omeros stem from the same Homeric roots, they are themselves vastly different trees. As Anthony Burgess one wrote, “translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” We are all part of a whole, but we are not necessarily inseparable. Translation exists in pointing out both of those facts.
6. Finally, do you have any projects planned out for the near or far future?
I always like to keep a half a dozen irons in the fire at any given time. This year, I hope to find a home for the Latin American classic María by Jorge Isaacs. The only existing translation, done in 1890, stripped the novel of nearly every reference to Judaism, making it absolutely essential that a new and uncensored translation be published. I’m also hoping to find a home for Todos los miedos by Pedro Ángel Palou… the novel revolves around a female journalist investigating government corruption in Mexico, and the ex-intelligence agent who has devoted himself to keeping her, and her investigation, alive. It’s incredibly timely and prescient, and it reads like an episode of the TV series “24.” And there is a relatively new literary agency, Kalpa, based in Paris, that represents a lot of really intriguing and imaginative Latin American authors of literary fiction… I’ve done a few samples for them in the hopes that editors in the US and UK will take notice!
Check out Ezra Fitz’s website: ezrafitz.com