Tomislav Kuzmanović translates between Croatian and English. His book-legnth translations into English include The Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Ferić and A Castle in Romagna (with Russell Valentino) by Igor Štiks. Into Croatian he has translated short stories, novels, and plays by Vladimir Nabokov, David Mamet, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Neill, Margaret Edson, Indra Sinha and Tim Winton. Associate Editor Alex Niemi interviewed him for M-Dash.
M—: You translate from English to Croatian, but also from Croatian into English, like the books you did for Autumn Hill Books. And we were wondering, what’s that process like? How does it feel to translate out of your native language and into a second?
Tomislav Kuzmanović: People say that you can’t translate into your non-native language, and perhaps they are right, although translators do it, especially when smaller languages and literatures are in question. There just aren’t that many translators, native speakers of this or that language, that do it. I did receive training in translation into English—I graduated from Iowa’s Translation Workshop—while I more or less taught myself to translate into Croatian, that is, outside some structured program. Not that you necessarily need a program to become a literary translator, but it definitely helps. Still, it is hard to say what the difference is or how different do they feel and why. It’s easier for me to translate into Croatian, obviously, everything is just there, it comes naturally, there’s, so to say, more freedom in translating in your native language, but when I translate into English it feels like I have accomplished more, like I have opened up the world for Croatian writers and their literature. It may sound arrogant, but that’s how it feels and perhaps that’s what all we translators are doing. I mean, how many translators from Croatian into English are there? Who would read Croatian writers? Or any other writers of a smaller culture for that matter.
Another big difference is the access to literature. Being native to the literature you are trying to translate from, you can easily see what’s new, what’s exciting and both challenging and worthwhile for your translation projects. Working in both directions gives me insight into both, the sending and receiving ends, trends and expectations in both scenes, so I can better choose what I want to translate. It’s hard to see what’s happening in literature in English, I only catch glimpses of it as there is so much of it, whereas in Croatian literature I think I have a very good idea of what’s going on because it’s small. Somehow, when I translate from Croatian, I feel the texts I choose are more representative of a specific literary moment, scene, and so on. It’s easier to choose texts in such a way when you have a good view of the whole literature. Not being native to it would not allow for such a comprehensive view.
Going back to what I said first, about the (im)possibility of translating into your non-native language: when I translate into English I know I always translate with an accent. I have an accent and anyone can immediately recognize that I’m a foreigner and, more important perhaps, that my text is originally written by a foreigner. Having an editor or just a reader who is a native speaker of English always helps, they tone the accent down. But, and I want to make this clear, I translate with an accent, I’m not trying to hide it, and I think it works because Croatian literature is small and the accent gives it something of its own, something that makes it different from literature originally written in English and perhaps makes it stand out more. I’m not sure if that’s true for translations from all kinds of languages, but perhaps it is for small languages such as my own and literatures that are known only by very specific things, prejudices even, such as war and killings and rapings and things falling apart. It gives such literatures something else. Something that perhaps goes beyond the realm of “politics” and into the realm of “poetics” or “literariness.” Of course, provided you make a good translation out of it—even if with an accent.
M—: You said that your studies started in Iowa. How did you find yourself there?
TK: Actually, it was Russell Valentino’s fault. Everything is Russell’s fault. At the time, he was working in the Slavic department at the University of Iowa. There was a lecturer exchange program of sorts in place between Croatian Ministry of Education and the University of Iowa that Russell helped start and he wanted people from Croatia to come to Iowa City and teach Croatian, i.e., Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, as the language is now called. I was selected to be the first person in the program.
Still, the translation part, to be perfectly honest, started out of boredom of sorts and an incredible series of coincidences that keeps following me in my translation endeavors until today. After the first semester of teaching in Iowa, well, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just had too much time on my hands. So I came to Russell and said, listen, do you have anything for me to do? Anything I could help you with? And he said, well, there’s this book I’m translating; and the book was A Castle in Romagna by Igor Štiks, the book Russell and I translated and published for Autumn Hill. And as far as coincidences go, Igor Štiks and I went to high school and college together and I’d known him for some ten years by the time I got to Iowa. That’s how it all started. A coincidence and almost an accident. The program in translation and everything else that followed came after that. Naturally, even before that I had been translating literature and I was always into that sort of thing. Translation wasn’t foreign to me, so to say.
But, in Croatia we never studied literary translation. We translated legal documents, newspaper articles, and that kind of crap. It was ridiculous. Looking back, it was really ridiculous. It’s not that I disrespect the work those teachers and professors did or that I think any translation that is not literary is no good; it’s just that I think this is the wrong way to get into translation. You should start with literary translation—after you’ve met all other prerequisites such as genuine love of both your own and foreign languages and literatures, reading, writing, etc.—and then move into the translation of legal documents if you choose so. You’ll be a better translator for it.
M—: Why do you think people should start with literary translation?
TK: Because you start thinking. You think about what you are translating, what you are reading, what you are producing, what you are writing, whereas with a legal document it feels like you’re just focusing on the data and the ways of transferring data into another language with minimum loss. I’m saying that it’s not information on purpose, there’s information in literature, of course, but this is data or the information in literature is not data. Perhaps there’s no difference between the two, I don’t know, but the paragraphs, the numbers, the figures, and whatnot—data—that’s your primary focus here. It’s hard to explain, but in a way I feel that, with the translation of legal documents and similar stuff, there’s no to and fro, there’s no communication. Or there is, but it’s just a one-way communication, different from what you have in translation of literature. Once again, without wanting to disrespect business and legal translators, etc. for me that kind of translation feels like just typing the text in another language, a mechanical action, fixed and in a way limited with various pre-set phrases, expressions, etc. whereas with literary translation you are in fact writing, you are free to choose.
M—: So your most recent translation for Autumn Hill was The Death of the Little Match Girl. What drew you to this work? Why did you decide to translate it?
TK: After Croatia separated from Yugoslavia, well—we didn’t have novels in Croatia. The Death of the Little Match Girl was the first. I mean, it obviously wasn’t the first novel ever written, there were other novels written at the time, but this was the first novel that was widely, widely read and that brought something new and different. At the time, writers had really stopped writing novels; they wrote short stories mostly for magazines and journals, poetry, and so on. And then The Death of the Little Match Girl happened—a novel that was at the same time a huge bestseller but also great literature. It was a mark of something new happening in the country. This was a novel that removed literature from the pedestal of something unattainable and reserved only for the elites and school curricula. In a way, popular culture, film, music, literature, everyday language, everyday problems (or escape from them), etc. came together in it. It was the first “independent” Croatian novel that wasn’t in any way burdened by history, by Yugoslavia, by Serbs, by Croatians, by origins, nations, religion, whatnot. One of the blurbs on the cover says that it’s the Mediterranean Twin Peaks, which is what it is. It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy book. That’s why I picked it. It was the book that marked the decade: a sign of a new generation of writers and a new way of thinking. And perhaps most important: it wasn’t a book that could easily fit into some predetermined categories of what literature from this part of the world should look like, should talk about. And I think this was and still is important both for the Croatian culture and for any foreign culture.
And also, just to give you an idea of how small Croatia is, or how many coincidences follow my translation work, Zoran Ferić was my high school teacher. So many people I have translated I’ve been either friends with or have worked with or gone to school with or they were my teachers. Hmm, soon I will probably start translating my students as well.
M—: Do you think it helps or hinders your translation that you know so many of the people you translate?
TK: Sometimes it helps, sometimes it hinders. It depends on what the writer actually wants and how they perceive the work that I do. Some think that they can do better than I can and that just sucks. Your friends telling you you’re wrong and vice versa.
But there are some who are friends and they know what I do and they’ve seen me translate a lot of things, not just their work, but somebody else’s work—they kind of trust me. They come to me and say, listen, I have a text I would like you to translate it. Sometimes they even find the venue or place where they would like to publish it and so on. That also helps.
Another problem with translating a writer you know, especially from Croatian into English, is their expectations. I guess it’s natural for every writer to want to be read and published. And to want it all and now. They have one text in translation and immediately they say, “Let’s send this to Granta or The New Yorker.” It just doesn’t go that way. You have to build yourself as a writer, get some reputation. But sometimes these things do happen. I have published a writer named Maja Hrgovic who was relatively unknown. Actually she had only one book out in Croatia. I did a translation of her story “Zlatka” and it was picked up by Best European Fiction and then Granta took that same story and published it in their journal.
M—: What is your favorite part of translating?
TK: I make a difference between the process of translation and the act of translation. The process would be choosing the book and finding the publisher. The act of translation, an integral part of the process of translation, obviously, is when you sit down behind a computer and immerse yourself into the text. That’s when something happens. It’s mind-boggling. You’re reading one thing in one language and you start typing and it comes out in another language. And it works. Mostly, at least. There’s something magical about it. That’s what I love. People talk about their first drafts, second drafts, getting it published, they talk about the process of translation, but for me it’s about the act of reading or the act of writing, but it’s different from just doing either. It’s reading and writing at the same time.
M—: And what would be the most difficult?
TK: I could perhaps use Ted Hughes’ poetry collection Birthday Letters as an example. That poetry was… well, let’s just say I took a ten-day vacation and I didn’t go on a vacation. I stayed in the house translating from eight in the morning until ten in the evening. It was as if I couldn’t stop. Working on the translation felt good, great, but it was also exhausting. Not because of the time spent translating (although that may have had something to do with it), it was because I could feel the poet’s pain, not just the pain inside, his emotions, but this almost physical pain that became my own. It went beyond translation, beyond reading, beyond writing. Sure, he talks about Sylvia Plath’s death and their children—it’s silly to retell poems, I know, but bear with me—he talks about things like falling in love with her, their wedding, their travels, her giving birth to their first child, and you can feel the happiness in it. There’s this happiness that gets into you, that gets into me as the translator. And then there’s always death. Some demon. There’s always a gas oven turned on somewhere in those poems. I think that was the most challenging thing: dealing with the pain (mixed with adoration, happiness, joy, love, all other positive emotions), almost physical pain that seeps through those lines and enters you as a translator. Perhaps that’s just good literature, I don’t know, but good literature is what’s worth translating and reading, right?