If you’re into contemporary literature from the Balkans you probably have come across his name several times. Will Firth has translated dozens of books into English. He was born in Australia and now lives in Berlin. Balkan Stories has talked to Will about his work, contemporary Balkan literature and why some books get translated and published abroad and some don’t.
Balkan Stories: How to call the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and/or its official successors is a tricky question. Will, you have translated a few dozen books written by authors from former Yugoslavia and your name is frequently listed on the covers of the books you’ve translated. How do you go about it as someone who makes a living working with this language or languages respectively? Do translators have a name they use for the language?
Will Firth: I can only speak for myself here; other translators will have their own take on the issue. Frankly, I find it ridiculous to have multiple names for what is *one* language. Other polycentric languages like Arabic, English, French and Spanish don’t fuss around like this, to my knowledge. I personally like to use the term Serbo-Croat or Serbo-Croatian. Ideally it would be nice to avoid all ethnic/national designations and call the language ‘Central South Slavic’, Shtokavian or something like that, but those are notions that only linguists understand in the West. Then there are the bureaucratic acronyms BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) and BCMS (to include the Montenegrin variant), which are gaining ground, although I find them a bit stiff. In practice, however, I have little say in the matter. I go along with the stupid tendency of using particularistic labels because the organisational arrangements behind translation projects often dictate the nomenclature, e.g. if Croatia’s ministry of culture is providing the funds, it will insist on the credit saying Translated from the Croatian by... This is farcical, to my mind, but I think it’s the dominant terminological ‘solution’ with literary translations.
How would you describe literature in former Yugoslavia? There are a number of 20th century classics most people would consider to be part of a common cultural heritage and whom most people wouldn’t attribute to a specific ethnic or national tradition. (This goes even for Ivo Andrić about whose heritage there is a bit of nationalist bickering.) But how about contemporary literature? Would you say it is still part of a more or less mutually shared culture? Or has it diversified and nationalized after the war to a point where one must refer to it as say genuinely Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian literature that differs from the others in form and content?
W.F.: I’m not an expert on comparative literature and find it rather difficult to generalise and compare. My priority is to be faithful to the authors I translate, so to an extent maybe I can’t see the wood for the trees. One thing that has struck me over the years is the popularity of magical realism among writers from these countries. Also, novels and short stories tend to have a greater degree of social and historical contextualisation but less character development than Anglo-American writing. These are just some impressions of mine. I also think that literature in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia still has a lot in common in terms of form and content.
What would you consider to be the biggest challenge in translating a BCS or Macedonian text into English?
W.F.: There are a number of big challenges. It can be difficult to accommodate Balkan-specific historical and cultural detail without resorting to footnotes. Jokes and wordplay are notoriously hard to translate and often demand a recasting of the image so as to express the emotional valence with suitable terms in English, although that’s probably true of all translations. But the main challenge for me is something more ‘technical’: reworking the texture of tenses in a text. The verb systems of English and Serbo-Croat, for example, have little in common. And even when the two languages have a tense with a similar function and meaning, the actual usage can be very different. Take the historical present (also called dramatic present or narrative): many writers in Serbo-Croat and Macedonian use it in order to make a description of past events sound livelier. We can do this in English too – I’m walking home the other day, and all of a sudden this guy comes up – but it soon becomes tedious or can leave you wondering if it really is the genuine present tense, and the danger of disorientation means that the historical present is rarely an option for long passages in English. Mostly I institute the past tense for past events in because I find that too much historical present in English sounds strained. So making a text work in this respect is probably the biggest challenge for me.
An impression I have been getting for years is that there is a surprisingly small number of books from ex-YU authors that get published in German or English translation if compared to say Scandinavian literature. Why do you think that’s the case?
W.F.: That’s a good question. I guess it’s a mixture of ignorance and disinterest, perhaps stemming from entrenched prejudices about the Balkans, and perhaps also due to many people’s contact with people from these countries being mainly with ‘guest workers’, so they find it hard to imagine that quality culture can come from those countries… I don’t understand exactly why.
In your experience: What kind of literature from ex-YU countries is the most likely to be published in another language? Does it have to do with the books’ topoi, is it how well the books have sold on their home markets? Or does it also have to do with what country the author is from?
W.F.: Young authors who are able to travel and have a good knowledge of English (or another major Western language) are most likely to have their books published. Having some thematic link to the West, or to a mainstream international phenomenon, or catering to stereotypes about Eastern Europe is also a big plus. By design or coincidence, Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergović was so successful because of the title and the fact that Sarajevo was constantly in the world news in the early to mid 1990s. I don’t mean to be negative about Jergović’s book; it’s a good book, but its title proved most fortuitous. If books sell well on their home markets or the author wins a major domestic or regional prize, the chances of publication in the West are somewhat greater. But there are many, many good writers and books that are neglected because they don’t meet the unspoken criteria.
How does this work in general? Do you get approached by future publishers who ask you to translate a book or do you get to choose a book you have come across one way or another and to suggest it to a publisher?
W.F.: As I become established in my line of work, I am increasingly being approached by prospective publishers. I’m always glad when this happens, but it’s still more the exception than the rule. I should mention that I worked together closely with the specialist publisher Istros Books in London from 2011-15 and was able to propose a number of books myself, which the publisher generally accepted. That was great, and we did ten books together in the period I mentioned. Unfortunately, the main mechanism is still that of me preparing a sample translation and synopsis of a book (sometimes paid for, but often pro bono on my own initiative) and then searching for a publisher. I find this frustrating because I get a lot of rejections. Also, Balkan authors frequently approach me and ask me to do a sample translation and synopsis of one of their books, but the wage differential between our countries is so large that they can rarely afford to pay what I ask, so in most cases I can’t help them.
How closely do you usually work with the authors?
W.F.: I consider myself a communicative translator and I develop a close working relationship with most of my authors. I like to discuss things – even when I’m almost certain what my solution is going to be – because there are often ambiguities in the original or multiple translation options in English, so having certainty about the author’s intentions is important to me. Almost all of my authors have appreciated this cooperation: it’s a pleasure for them to know that someone is reading their work so closely. Sometimes the questions I ask show up mistakes or inadequacies in the original that they’d like to redress in future editions. Occasionally we’ll disagree about a particular point, and then there are no rules as to who prevails – them, me, or the editor at the end. I’ve only translated a small number of books by deceased authors, and it was a shame not to be able to get to know them!
An admittedly personal question: How many books do you have to translate per year to make ends meet?
W.F.: About three, depending on the length. Usually I also squeeze in a few document translations and other small jobs along the way to help make ends meet.
How long does it take an undoubtedly seasoned translator to finish a translation?
W.F.: Arguably a translation is never finished. It would be lovely to take one’s time and really try to polish a translation, but the pressure of having to earn a living rules out such perfectionism. I usually have to do a good solid job and then send the translation to the client, even if I’m not 100% happy. To answer the question directly: the turnover time depends on the complexity of the author’s writing and above all on the length. The longest book I’ve translated to date, The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica from Serbia, had 414 pages and took about 10 months of very intensive work (50-60 hours a week).
What are you currently working on?
W.F.: I’m getting towards the end of a collection of short stories by Ognjen Spahić from Montenegro. After that, I have a contract to translate a novel by the outspoken Croatian feminist Vedrana Rudan, which I’m definitely looking forward to, but it seems that I might first be fitting in Miroslav Krleža’s forgotten gem Voyage to Russia (1924), an appropriate book for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.
I would imagine that being a translator has some enormous perks. You always get to read new books by new authors. What are your favourite authors you have discovered through your work?
W.F.: My work is very poorly paid – I could earn more as a full-time burger flipper at McDonald’s. So there are allowed to be a few perks! One of the nice things in the last 2-3 years is that I’m increasingly being invited to book fairs and residencies (or me applying and being successful, which was much rarer in the past). In terms of reading, I don’t have time to read anywhere near as many books as I’d like. I often only have time to browse, to read a chapter or two and get an impression if I’d like to translate the book, and if a publisher somewhere might conceivably be interested. I’m not sure how much of a privilege this is; it’s also something I *need* to do, and despite this effort I have very little say in what gets translated and published. There are many gatekeepers in the way.
My favourite authors who I’ve discovered through my work are both from Macedonia: Rumena Bužarovska, who writes sensitive, witty short stories; and the great Macedonian literary all-rounder Petre M. Andreevski.
Now, one thing I’ve been asking myself ever since I read your CV: What gets an Australian interested in South Slavic languages? Interest in ex-YU culture and languages is unfortunately considered a bit unusual even in Vienna. I bet it couldn’t have been much different in Australia in the 70’s and 80’s. So, what was it that motivated you to learn these languages and to work in or with them?
W.F.: It’s a rather long story. I learned French and German at high school because my parents were very ‘Europhile’, which was quite unusual in Australia at the time. But I wasn’t predestined to go into languages. In fact, when I started university I enrolled in social sciences, along with German. My turn towards languages was actually something political: it began with a stint in the Australian Communist Party in the early 1980’s. The Party was fairly liberal or ‘euro-Communist’, but there was still a kind of reverence for the Soviet Union. I found this fascinating and decided to study Russian, so I dropped the social-science subjects at university. Although I left the Party after just two years and found a new ‘home’ in the anarchist movement, I stuck with Russian. (I also started learning and using Esperanto around this time – another broadly ‘political’ decision.)
I used Russian as a springboard for learning Serbo-Croat and Macedonian, which made sense given the similarity between the three languages. I imagined becoming a health-service interpreter or something like that, given the large number of Yugoslav immigrants in Australia, but then I had the good fortune of winning a scholarship to ex-Yugoslavia in 1988-89. After that I went to the USSR in 1989-90 to improve my Russian. After that I moved to Berlin, where I’ve been based ever since. Despite doing a lot of work with Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, Russian remained my first Slavic language until around 2005. That year marked a sea change for me: I was invited to a seminar in Munich for young literary translators from Serbo-Croat, and I also started getting a lot of Macedonian-to-English translation work from the UN Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Since then I’ve been heading ever deeper into South Slavic linguistic territory and my Russian-related activates have dwindled. When work for ICTY fizzled out in 2008 and I needed a major new source of translation work, I took the plunge and went into literary translation in a big way – I wanted/needed large projects, and this seemed feasible at the time. I’ve long been fond of literature as a reader, especially poetry and short stories, but I’m a relative latecomer to literary translation. I actually see myself more as a philologist in an old-fashioned sense: I’m very interested in comparative grammar, phonetics and lexicography, as well as the geography and history of the countries whose languages I translate. For me, literature is embedded in that context. I’m happy to admit this because I think broad interests and a good general knowledge provide a firm foundation for the multifaceted challenge of translating complex modern fiction. In any case: it’s quite a few twists, turns and coincidences that have got me to where I am today!
Find out more about Will and the books he has translated on his homepage.