Tag Archives: Ellen Elias-Bursać

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

In the final instalment of my mini-series of interviews about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small, I talk to translators Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paula Gordon about the importance of translating this book, its challenges and its joys.

Catch up on my interviews with author Olja Knežević and publisher Susan Curtis, and order Catherine the Great and the Small directly from Istros Books here.

How did you come to this book, and why is it significant that it will now reach an English-language audience?

Ellen Elias-Bursać: I was approached by Diana Matulić of the Corto Agency, asking if I would consider translating the novel, which had won the VBZ novel of the year award. As soon as I read the first few chapters, I saw that the novel had promise and would be wonderful to work on, but I was overwhelmed with other commitments at the time. I proposed collaborating with Paula Gordon: she is an excellent translator and has had experience translating Montenegrin writers in the past, which I have not had. The thought of collaborating with Paula made it possible for me to take on the project.

Paula Gordon: This might well be the first novel by a contemporary woman author from Montenegro to be translated and published in English. I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does. And not only the individuality of the heroine, but of every woman and girl who crosses the page and at every age and stage of life. It acknowledges our fantasies and even fulfils them in its pages, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences of getting what we wish for.

Where do you perceive your responsibilities to lie when you translate? Do you prioritise the “foreign-ness” of the original text or aim to bring the text closer to English-language readers in your translation choices?

EE-B: My responsibilities when I translate lie first with the author/text. Of course the reader is always part of my reading, because I’m a reader. In this case there were two of us reading together. My first step is to understand the nuances in the novel, the voices, the emotional intensity, the humour, the tragedy, and find ways to feel them clearly enough to articulate them.

PG: I don’t have a hard and fast rule on fealty, it depends on what I’m working on. In the case of Catherine the Great and the Small, my loyalty changed over the translation process. When I started, I was focused on the text – on bringing out the meaning, what’s happening in the story. Once we had a draft, attention shifted to making sure our understanding of the text matched the intention of the author. Finally, no matter how attached one is to a turn of phrase or thinks it expresses the meaning of the original text in just the right way, if readers don’t get it, then we have to adjust. So when editing the translation, we kept the reader in mind. Not only in terms of meaning, but also how the text flows – we don’t want to bring the story to a halt because of our insistence on a description of, for instance, the smell of a wild plum that grows nowhere else but in a specific village on the Montenegrin coast.

What were the greatest challenges of translating Catherine the Great and the Small? Did the translation of context – specifically the glimpses into the troubled recent past of the Balkans – have an impact on you, or pose any particular challenges?

EE-B: We decided to leave references to politicians and historical events in the translation and then see how to communicate them. In some cases we added a word or two to clarify the reference, such as referring to the name Podgorica as the city’s ‘new old name’. We also decided readers might find an afterword handy in which we could provide an explanation in greater depth of some of the more arcane references. Hence, in the afterword, we explain the change of name of Montenegro’s capital city from Titograd, in the first part of the novel, to Podgorica in the second part. But in general, my approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance. I see it as my job to translate the cultural references that are in the novel with either internal glosses or explanations in the afterword (I don’t like footnotes in translations of fiction), and it’s the editor’s job, once he or she has the translation before them, to decide whether some of the cultural references are, perhaps, too local to be of interest to a reader of the translation.

PG: The most challenging parts of the book for me to translate were the descriptive passages that referred to times gone by and the “party scene” in the hair salon, where everyone has an attitude and a motive, not always voiced. The descriptive passages are full of nostalgia and emotion, but they are also very specific. The author could use just a few words, mention certain specific ubiquitous items from the time period to evoke a feeling in her readers. But for readers who never experienced a town square farmers’ market in 1980s Yugoslavia, we have to strike a balance between wanting the reader to have a clear picture of the scene but also wanting to retain that hazy veil of nostalgia.

I found the context of Montenegro and Serbia on the brink of war fascinating. This book sheds light on what that time looked like from a woman about my age, someone not involved or interested in politics. The most affecting parts of the book for me were not war-related. They were scenes in which I put myself in Katarina’s shoes in order to understand and express in English her physical experience and emotional state.

What are the challenges of translating a text so rooted in a culture that may be unfamiliar to many English-language readers?

EE-B: As this novel moves back and forth between England and Montenegro, and part of it is about bringing Katarina’s children for the first time to see the country where their parents are from, the narrative includes many explanations of cultural differences. Indeed, the protagonist’s position in between these two worlds means that she has a heightened awareness of these differences and is constantly negotiating her way back and forth among them. This made the need to explain these points less of a challenge than it might be in some novels. As far as syntactical differences go, a great deal is implicit in inflected languages like Montenegrin. The relationships of the parts of the sentence are made clear through the grammatical endings, while these same relationships need to be made explicit in English where we organize our syntactic material through word order. In Montenegrin, for instance, you can have a sentence in which you have the actions of two women or two men described—one the subject and the other the object of the sentence—and, using only pronouns, you’ll be able to tell which of the women or men is the doer of the action and which is the recipient of the action, because the case each pronoun is in will tell you who is doing what to whom. In English one of these women or men will have to be referred to by name or you’ll be lost.

PG: This book depicts a time of transition from a closed culture to a more open one. The characters themselves, right at this time – late 1970s into the 1990s – are living through changes in their culture brought about by more interaction with the West and by the West seeping into their everyday life: television, music, film, travel, books. But I think that all readers are capable of making the leap into the world of a novel, whether it is based on true events or is science-fiction fantasy. In a book like this, I think our job is to keep the reader engaged and in that world, with only as much explanation as is absolutely necessary.

Did you have any contact with Olja Knežević while you were translating, and how did you approach the co-translation?

EE-B: Olja was an enthusiastic participant in the process, but Paula and I worked to resolve absolutely everything we could on our own before we went to Olja for clarification. Paula translated the rough draft, and then I went through and edited her translation. Then we went through the whole book, reading it to each other for three hours a day for a week, and discussing every twist and turn of the narrative. Paula has the sharpest editorial eye I have ever witnessed in action and I’m humbled and grateful at the quantity of issues she spotted which I didn’t notice.

PG: Regarding our approach to co-translation, Ellen suggested that I produce the initial draft and that she would edit. This worked with our schedules early in the process. We knew that we would send the drafts back and forth and that in the end we would read the translation aloud (an idea Ellen credits to translator Daniel Hahn). And we did just that. I sent her a translated section, and I continued translating while she reviewed my work. When she sent her edits back to me, I was able to spot patterns in her changes and I kept those in mind as I moved forward in the initial draft. In hindsight, I felt much freer to put my stamp on the translation than I would have with the roles reversed. Given the chasm between Ellen’s level of experience and my own, I believe I would have followed Ellen’s lead and interpretation had she originated the text, and I don’t know that I would have been as creative with my editing input as I felt empowered to be in the translation.

Did you deliberately give the characters distinctive voices that meshed vulgarity with a more formal register? Do they speak like this in the original, or was it a choice regarding their characterisation in the translation?

EE-B: The original has a great richness of voice, humour, cadence, intonation, colloquial usage. Some of the characters are cranky elderly people, others are small children, or young adults steeped in the drug scene in pre-war Belgrade, and they all have distinct ways of speaking. We chose to bring a like variety and richness to the English. We translators often say that if a joke, or quirk, or cadence can’t readily be replicated at exactly the same moment in the narrative, the point is to find somewhere else where something along those lines will work. This breathes life into the characters and keep the narrative vital and engaging.

PG: The characters in this novel are fully formed, and the way they speak in Montenegrin or Serbian, or English in the case of the children born in the UK, oozes personality. The decisions in this regard were taken with the goal of bringing the characters to life in English, to be as true to them as possible. Vulgarity and formality are part of everyday expression in the lands of this novel, and the characters’ manner of speaking reflects this. In giving voice to Granny, for instance, it helps that I know a few women of her generation, including a “city grandma,” who used to surprise me with the vehemence of her opinions and the language she used to express them, all the while performing the formal rituals of  hospitality. In the novel, these slips into vulgarity, or intentional provocations, provide glimpses into the inner lives of the characters, and it’s to Olja’s credit that she gives such depth to the characters – they seem to exist in the world of the novel apart from their contributions to the plot.

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small

It’s my great privilege to bring you the second instalment in my three-part interview series about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small. Today author Olja Knežević talks about her book and its journey to publication in English with Istros Books (translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać). Catherine the Great and the Small is published TODAY, and you can find out more, or purchase it, here.

You self-published your previous book (Milena & Other Social Reforms) in English; did this help to circulate your work in the English-language context? How has it been different working with translators and an English-language publisher?  

Olja Knežević: Milena & Other Social Reforms was my first novel, published in 2011, and what an unusual path it had! It was originally written in English, obviously not my native tongue, because I developed it from a 20,000 word dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in London. The dissertation won Overall Prize as the best MA dissertation that year, and I went on, wind in my sails, to write the whole novel in English, from the point of view of Milena, a rebellious young Montenegrin, who had to escape to London to save her life. I was hoping to find a UK publisher. It was taking time, so in 2011 I gave in to the pleas from Montenegro, my home-country, to publish that novel there, but in Montenegrin, of course, so I had it translated into my own native tongue by someone for a modest fee. It was published by the only publisher who was independent from Montenegrin Government, because Milena is a politically engaged novel, inspired by a true story. I knew that the book would have to travel just by word-of-mouth publicity, but it seemed enough at the time. It was sold out in three weeks after its release, and is still selling. Milena has found her place in the world, an underground place, so befitting for the type of character she is. I decided to put the English language version online, and just leave it there, to find its own path.

Catherine the Great and the Small is my fourth book, and the first one to win a big regional prize, be finally noticed and picked up by its UK publisher, Istros Books. It’s a completely different world from the one of self-translating and self-publishing; with editing, proofreading and the details of translation paid close attention to, and seriously discussed between professional team members. I think the English language version of Catherine is phenomenal, and, now, that I see how it looks when a novel is professionally translated and edited, I feel sorry for Milena.

Catherine the Great and the Small is a book about women – their emancipation, their restrictions, their relationships with each other, themselves, their country (and some pretty useless men) – do you consciously view your writing process as a feminist act?          

No, I don’t consciously, deliberately, view my writing as a feminist act. Not long ago, however, I realised that I have lived a feminist life since I was a young girl. First, of course, through my mother, who instilled in me the standpoint that a woman can desire to belong to herself first, to be ambitious, outspoken, a leader and an organiser, a proud owner of her own time to even rest, to even have fun. My mother’s actions and character have shown to me that a woman can venture into men’s territory, and remain authentic there – all this while staying married to a man’s man, who she loved passionately and fought with for equality at home on a daily basis. This has formed me, and then let me travel my own road, to make my own choices and mistakes. My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself. In there, in my consciousness, I’d find strong and interesting women, their relationships with each other, their community, their men. And I’d write down their stories, in order to keep belonging to my true self.

Catherine the Great and the Small is rooted in a particular time and place; how important was it to you to keep Montenegrin culture and recent history – and particularly the loss that came with the wars in the Balkans – at the centre of Katarina’s story?        

I was going to write about a woman whose life is parallel with mine, so, yes, it was important. She was not going to be me, but she should be like a close friend, with a similar destiny. In a way, writing about her life, I was writing down the collective memories of the country I have known. That’s why I wasn’t going to experiment with the form, because there are no novels on the subject as simple as a contemporary woman’s life, written down intimately and sincerely, from Montenegro. It has always been so inspirational for me, how we lived in a socialist community where, in what was then the Republic of Montenegro, we had this mixed Balkan and Mediterranean mentality, where everyone knew everyone, we lived outside, and felt free there, on the streets, socialising passionately, loudly, judgmentally, with candid vulnerability. Yet never in history were we institutionally free. Having been somewhat “in the middle”, we knew how things were in the West and in the East, and we liked our kind of “free.” Our women, after WW2, when they had become revered as true heroines, had equal rights, had equal pay for equal work, until the 1990s, when everything fell apart. Now, I’m not saying it was perfect. It was a one-party system, after all, but women could be optimistic that the future was going to bring more and more progressiveness in their social status. It never happened. Instead, enter the 1990s and the war. Women were pushed down the ladder. Always the first victims of war, women, because we don’t want it, but we immediately regress into being seen primarily as reproductive organs that bear and support the real heroes – men. That’s such a difficult and interesting conflict, a personal and political one, which makes for great material.

Katarina is always capable of finding the “ball of light” in the depths of misery – what message does this give for readers of your novel and why was it important to you that she should have this strength?

I’m glad you mentioned that image. That’s Katarina, her main strength. Most people don’t find the “ball of light” when they’re alone with themselves. They try, they dive into themselves, and find darkness there, or a ball of fears, so they hurry back to the surface, back to their ego, which has become a familiar mask with recognisable props and illusions. Katarina, somehow, from various reasons that I hope I managed to show in my novel, never lost the ability to believe there’s goodness at the very bottom of everything, there’s light, the wonder of life. She’ll survive anything, as long as she remembers to dive deep and find her inner strength.

Podgorica features for Katarina as a place where “untold stories” are waiting for her. How important is it to you that these stories from your home city are told – and through fiction – both in Montenegrin and in translation?         

I’m so grateful that writing down those untold stories is my calling. I also know it’s my territory. Many writers from my country, convinced that it’s such a small and unimportant country and language, and that the stories from where we are will probably never have a wider audience, turn to trends or whatever topic they think will be safer and sell better. I’ve always believed that the deeper you go into your own experiences, the more universal your writing becomes.

Katarina notes that “all of us lost our country” and that Montenegrins are encouraged to “live the lie” of strength, solidarity and a bright future – what role does fiction have in stripping bare these lies and this loss?              

It’s all true, the loss, the lie… Montenegro has this magic-like name, it had some stunningly heroic moments in history, and it’s a beautiful country, as if nature wanted to display, in a small space, the samples of all that she can do and say “Voila!” This is enough of pure praise from me. I don’t work for a tourist agency. In my mind’s eye, there is the image of my country chained onto a floating device and left in the rough sea to be saved only by luck. But many societies in the world are still closed, manipulative and patriarchal, and they all prefer tourist guides or pamphlet-like writing to the kind of fiction that is able to make fun of their see-through propaganda, to defy the authorities and refuse to be on their payroll.

Coming next week:

“I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does.”

“My approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance.”

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

Translating Women: the Montenegro edit. Interview with Susan Curtis, Istros Books

I’m excited today to bring you the first in a 3-part series of interviews about a new Montegrin book and its journey to publication. Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small is a tale of four Montenegrin women navigating relationships with themselves, each other, their country and some pretty disappointing men as the Balkan wars escalate. Published next week by Istros books in a co-translation by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, you can pre-order it here.

This week I’m talking to Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, about her mission and her decision to publish Catherine the Great and the Small.

Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books

Istros Books focuses on bringing into English books from a particular geographical area, but beyond that, what are your priorities in the books you commission?

Susan Curtis: I have tried to keep the number of male and female writers on our list equal and I have almost succeeded in that aim because there is only a slight male bias, which really reflects the trend in the region (though UK publishing is not immune to this either!) It seems to me that especially in terms of prizes for writing in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Montenegrin, female writers are hardly ever awarded the big national awards – Meša Selimović is a particular example. I remember when Daša Drndić was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and we were joking that she couldn’t win because the prize always went to men. I even bought her a false moustache to wear! A few years later her novel was shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize and it was again given to a male author. Daša died shortly afterwards, and since her death her reputation has grown enormously, but she never won any great literary prizes in her lifetime, either here in the UK or in her home country (Yugoslavia, then Croatia). Croatia is a prime example of a country that extols a number of male writers while neglecting its very best, in my opinion, the female authors Olja Savečević, Slavenka Drakulić, as well as Dubravka Ugrešić and Drndić. Thankfully, I have the ability to bring their works to new audiences.

How did you come across Olja Knežević’s work, and Catherine the Great and the Small in particular?

This novel is part of a cooperation between Istros Books and the Croatian publisher VBZ. For three years we received EU funding to translate the winning manuscript from VBZ’s annual ‘best unpublished novel’ award. Last year Olja was the winner, and that’s how Catherine the Great and the Small came to Istros. It was perfect because I have published two previous writers from Montenegro (Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić) and I really wanted to publish a female Montenegrin author.

What drew you to Catherine the Great and the Small, and why do you think it is important to make it accessible to English-language readers?

Catherine the Great and Small is set in Montenegro, as it once was in the Federal Republic, and as it is now, as an independent state. Throughout the novel we not only see the main character grow and change, but we also watch the environment change, witness the rise of free enterprise, the corruption and crazy politics. The energy and bravery of the narrative voice is very addictive and inspiring – and it sheds light on a part of the world that many English-language readers are still unfamiliar with.

Did the book come with translators already assigned, or did you seek them out to commission them?

The Croatian publisher VBZ organised the translation and gave me the opportunity to work with two new translators. I have known Ellen Elias-Bursać for a while, whereas Paula Gordon was a new discovery for me. It’s always an enriching experience to work with different translators and see how they each approach their art in unique and impressive ways.

Part of your mission is to bring into English “books from unfamiliar places”, and Montenegrin literature is certainly scarce in English translation. What do you think Catherine the Great and the Small brings to the Istros catalogue, and could it open up possibilities for more Montegrin literature – particularly by women writers – to make its way into English?

Montenegro is one of Europe’s smaller countries but it does a lot to promote its culture. I have twice been invited to the Podgorica Book fair and love the city and the laid back energy of the people. Women from that part of the world are so often Valkyries and we should know more about their stories and their bravery.

On your website, you state your belief that “good literature can transcend national interests and speak to us with the common voice of human experience.” One thing that struck me in Catherine the Great and the Small was the powerlessness of many of the women, and the ways in which they either overcome or succumb to this. Do you think this is culturally and contextually specific to the text or more universal?

To follow on from my previous answer, despite their intrinsic value and strength of character, so many women from the South East Europe region are marginalised or hidden behind bullish men. The female domain has traditionally been the private one, not the public, so they are only just discovering that they can have a foothold there, too. Did you know that the only poetry allowed to women for hundreds of years were the songs of mourning that they were expected to wail at funerals? I bought a collection of these ‘tużbalice’ last time I was there… I hope to translate a few one day!

Coming next week:

“My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself.”

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small.

Pre-order Catherine the Great and the Small here.