English PEN talks to the translators of some of its award-winning books. This time we speak to Clarissa Botsford, whose translation of Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin won an award in May 2014
Here you are. That’s how they say it. Here you are. Her first American solitude. Her first night in this suburb, so like the films… She feels as though she is not herself; her name is not Hana, her name isn’t Mark. This feels like someone else’s journey. She is watching the performance of a surreal dream.
So we go as we came,
goodbye my brother sea
There is no going back. She’s been saying it for a year. If she leaves, there is no going back. At times, it sounds like a threat. At others, like a joke.
Extract from Sworn Virgin (2014) by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botford
Interview by Rebekah Murrell
On getting the story told
In her acknowledgements, author Elvira Dones specifically thanks you for your tireless persistence in seeking a publisher for Sworn Virgin. How did your relationship with this book develop and what was it about the story that you felt particularly needed to be shared?
The book was reviewed in a literary magazine I worked for at the time and I immediately went and bought it. As soon as I started reading it I recognised its potential – for translation, for film, for book group discussions. There are so many layers to the novel and they just seem to carry on multiplying. I contacted Elvira Dones through her website and she fell in love with Hana in English immediately. That encouraged me to send the sample to PEN America (I chose PEN America because Hana, the protagonist, moves to the US in the book and I felt the story would resound with the American immigrant myth). I thought no more of it until I was contacted to say the book had been awarded the PEN/Heim Translation Fund. The prize gave me the validation and therefore the determination to carry on pushing for its publication, despite several rejections. Finally, Stefan Tobler at And Other Stories – to whom I had sent the novel unsolicited in a brown envelope in the post – decided that he would take a bet on Sworn Virgin, and on Elvira Dones as a writer.
The book is written in Italian, though Dones’ native tongue is Albanian. Ismail Kadaré mentions the centuries-old link between Albanian and Italian in his foreword to the novel. Was this your first encounter with Albanian literature? Did you feel comfortable working with Italian accented with Albanian, and did you learn any of the latter?
No, I never learnt Albanian – it’s incredibly difficult! – and, apart from Kadaré, Dones is the only other Albanian writer I know. I have travelled around Albania, and walked in the mountain areas in the North, though, and absorbed the ‘feel’ of the country and its people. Most Albanians speak good Italian – Italian television was beamed over the Adriatic and Albanians under the Hoxa regime found solace in it – so the most I ever managed in Albanian was to order a coffee and say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’. I never felt it was strange translating the book from Italian because my relationship with Elvira was in Italian and because she wrote the book directly in Italian. We spoke regularly on Skype and wrote emails endlessly back and forth as I was working on the translation, and in my mind the narrative voice is Elvira’s own voice. This is the advantage, of course, of translating a contemporary author. A friend of mine has just translated Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions for Penguin Classics and she had to create her own repertoire of voices from scratch. I also identify with ‘new Italians’, being one myself. I enjoy the spontaneity and invention of writers who choose to use Italian even though it is not their mother tongue. In fact I currently have translation projects underway with two Somali Italians.
On translation as theme
The narrative focuses on the heavy cultural and linguistic differences between dialects within one language – the northern Albanians speak Gheg, and Hana is acutely aware of the different slangs that Americans use upon her arrival in her new home. Did you feel the presence of language and translation itself in the text, and what was it like responding to that as a translator?
Elvira, like Hana, had fairly recently moved to the US when I started the project, so she was able to help with the nuances of the ‘American English’ I used for the parts of the novel set in the States. And this, in its turn, is not my ‘native’ language as I was brought up and educated in the UK. The linguistic shifts in the novel are yet another layer to explore, as Caite Dolan-Leach pointed out in her fascinating review in The Quarterly Conversation: ‘In translating a text that is already so explicitly fixated on the movement between languages, the translator must do tricky work. […]In a sense, it feels like Sworn Virgin was always intended to end up in English, that Hana is finally at home in the language she has always wanted to master.’ Just as Elvira Dones wrote her novel in her adopted language – the language of the country that gave her refuge when she fled Albania – I adopted a voice for the protagonist that becomes progressively more American as she settles into, and gets more comfortable with, her new identity. Dolan-Leach concludes that ‘there is a sense of relief in reading Botsford’s translation, in the feeling that Hana has been rendered into the world of English that she has been painfully moving toward all along.’ I don’t think I could ever have hoped for a more sympathetic review as a translator.
On cultural specificity
The strange rituals of life dictated by the rules of the Kanun, the ancient legal code adhered to in parts of rural northern Albania, are examined with the same lens as the strange rituals of gender/womanhood in contemporary Western society. Though the story is as culturally specific as the tradition of sworn virgins, do you think Dones intended the book to be universally relatable? How did this affect the way you translated the novel?
I think you’re right. Dones is equally fascinated – and let’s not forget she is a documentary maker – by rural Albanian and contemporary, urban American rituals. After all, her daughter has grown up in the US, and Elvira has personal insight into the immigrant experience. Jonida, Hana’s teenage niece, is a wonderful, exuberant character in the novel. She is what Elvira would have been had she grown up in a society which allowed her to express herself freely; she is what Hana, in the novel, unfavourably compares her pre-Mark self to; she is the yardstick by which post-Mark Hana measures her progress. The novel is universally relatable because the themes are universal: the journey from self-hatred to self-love and self-acceptance, the eternal question of whether male and female gender behaviours are inborn or the result of upbringing and cultural stereotypes, the centrality of family, the meaning of love and the extent to which it is acceptable to sacrifice one’s selfhood to it. Translating this novel was itself an act of love. For brave Hana who stops at nothing, defies everyone, even herself, and finally becomes whole. I was inside her skin, and I held her hand during her journey. That was my privilege.
In three words…
Finally, how would you describe the book in three words?
Intriguing, moving, unputdownable – or is that cheating?
Clarissa Botsford studied Italian at Cambridge and Comparative Education in London before moving to Rome, Italy. She has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education and publishing and is also a musician. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Rome University and translates contemporary Italian fiction and poetry.