Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Clarissa Botsford

Claire Jacobson speaks to Clarissa Botsford about translating excerpts from an Elvira Dones novel from Italian to English.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with Suchitra Ramachandran and Brian Bergstrom, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Clarissa Botsford in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating, publishing and is also a singer, violinist, and independent celebrant. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University. Her translations include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, 2014), Valerio Magrelli’s Condominium of the Flesh (Free Verse Editions, 2015), and excerpts of Magrelli’s Geology of a Father (Comparative Critical Studies, 2017), which received a commendation at the John Dryden Translation Competition.

Ms. Botsford’s translation of excerpts from Elvira Dones’ novel Burnt Sun was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest, featured in the most recent issue. Fiction judge David Bellos wrote, “In a different class and genre, Burnt Sun by the distinguished Albanian émigrée writer and film-maker Elvira Dones delves into the inner worlds of her compatriots forced into prostitution and exile. Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Dones’s second language, Burnt Sun is both documentary and fiction, a crafted story and a powerful exposé.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your translation of excerpts from Burnt Sun, by Elvira Dones, is both beautiful and horrifying to read. Why did you choose to translate this text, and what significance does it have to you?

Clarissa Botsford (CB): Elvira Dones, whom I met when I was translating her novel Sworn Virgin, has always said this was the novel she would most like to see in English. It’s extremely hard-hitting but also, unfortunately, extremely real: I have Dones’s word for it. Just as with Sworn Virgin, Dones had made a documentary on the subject and had spoken to these girls after winning their trust. I chose to translate it because Elvira wants it in English and because I feel they deserve a voice. We see harrowing films and docu-dramas on the subject of human trafficking (currently one of the most profitable global businesses), but what we do not always appreciate—even when we see them hawking their young bodies on the streets of our cities—is that they have a story, a family, a past. This is the significance of the novel for me.

CJ: The narrative point of view changes sporadically throughout this piece. How do you keep track of the different story lines, and what effect does this have on the novel?

CB: The narrative shifts are inextricably linked to the different story story lines you talk about. The difficulty isn’t so much in keeping track as in digesting the cruelty of the situation. There are many different girls with many different stories. Some of them are so evanescent, they literally flit in and out of the narrative, and it’s hard to give them an individual voice. As a translator I think one risk might be to give them a “choral” voice—all the victims lumped in together. But this was not the author’s intention. She gave each girl a distinct character, level of determination—whatever—which tallies in some way with their stories and with how their families treated them when they were back home before being “sold.” The hardest parts to translate are the men’s backstories, which ‘normalise’ them: they appear to be just men doing their job in order to make a living for their wives and families. The contrast between these backstories and the sexually sadistic reality of their here and now in the novel is particularly excruciating.

CJ: Were there any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities to Dones’s writing or narrative choices that gave you any difficulty?

CB: One distinctive, stylistic peculiarity in Burnt Sun is that the girls’ narratives are almost over-simplified, stripped bare of any rhetoric, and repetitive—to the point of monotony. This of course reflects their condition of stasis, trapped in their infinite today with no chance of making plans for a tomorrow. It’s really hard as a translator to take this limited vocabulary as a given, without feeling that you need somehow to add something—an adjective here, an adverb there—or an embellishment perhaps to make things sound “better.”

Another peculiarity in this book is the almost dream-like, surreal personification of the city of Tirana. The Tirana sequences appear to be interspersed at random but as you become familiar with the novel you realize they serve to break the tension, and as a reminder of “home.” They create a strong contrast with the rest of the narrative as the language is poetic and metaphorical rather than laconic and prosaic.

CJ: Can you talk a little bit about the disorientation of place and setting in the piece? (For instance, does the absence of place names mean to reflect a broader feeling of displacement among the characters who are far from home?)

CB: You are absolutely right that the lack of place names, the heart-breakingly childish use of “Here and There” and “Up and Down,” reflects a feeling of displacement. The girls literally don’t know where they are, why they are being taken from one place to another, and only reconstruct their journey afterwards. The fact that Lila, the main character, is already dead at the beginning of the novel, and we are reading her diary as she tells us her story, is a further displacement in time, rather than place. It is disorienting for us as readers, too. We are equally at a loss to understand why, after a normal day at school, a normal family member would trick a girl into taking a short trip, and then sell her to a trafficker. It makes no sense when you hear the candid voice of the girl telling the story from her point of view. The straightforward description in their individual voices of the daily torture the girls undergo, the petty power games the men play with them, their extreme nostalgia for home, one girl’s willingness to do anything to protect her child, are all elements that disorient us because they unfold in a seemingly random fashion. Ultimately what disorients us the most, perhaps, is the fact that there is no story—in the sense of plot—and no real protagonists.

CJ: Does the coexistence of Italian and Albanian language and culture come across in the original text?

CB: Albanians speak Italian because they get Italian TV. In the old days, under [Albanian dictator Enver] Hoxha, it was a glimpse of a dream world (that was unreal even in Italy) and was one of the reasons so many families truly believed their children would find a better life there. The coexistence of the two cultures was mostly unbalanced in favour of the stronger partner and mostly of a commercial nature. Albania supplied Italy with what it needed: a cheap workforce, guns, drugs, and a constant supply of fresh young girls.

The fact that Elvira Dones wrote the novel originally in Albanian and then re-wrote it in Italian may mean there is more linguistic interference than I can really judge as I don’t speak Albanian. It is also of course possible that the peculiarities of the style we talked about are partly the result of the fact that the Italian text I’m translating from is written in what is essentially a second language for Dones.

 CJ: You’ve translated another one of Elvira Dones’s novels into English, Sworn Virgin. Do you work very closely with her on your translations? What can you tell us about that experience?

CB: I don’t work closely with her while I’m translating, but I’ve always submitted my early drafts to her for her comments and corrections. With Hana/Mark in Sworn Virgin she said she could hear Hana’s voice perfectly as she read my text; it was just as she’d imagined her. That was very gratifying, of course. Luckily, Elvira has lived in the U.S. and speaks good English, so she is able to appreciate the nuances of a translation and comment on them constructively. We’ve become friends, and write to each other occasionally, encouraging one another to keep going, keep trying, keep applying, one day a publisher may decide this book is worth getting out there! I admire David Bellos tremendously, as a translator and as a writer about translating. The fact that he selected my translation of Burnt Sun is a huge honour, and I’m very grateful to have received this prize.

Claire Jacobson is the Assistant Interviews Editor at Asymptote. She studies French literature at the University of Iowa, and translates from French and Arabic.


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