My l’esprit de l’escalier and Croatian literature abroad

"Should I be firm and show attitude, or rather go with the soft, constructive approach? I chose the second, and I made a grave mistake."

January and February marked a celebration of the third anniversary of a valuable international volunteer project: a journal dedicated to literary translation going under the unexpectedly mathematical name of Asymptote. Literary evenings and panels were organized in London, New York, Boston and Zagreb on this occasion (the birthday party lasts throughout April as well, venturing to Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Sydney).

This text, however, is all about the Zagreb party: the capital of Croatia is one of the editorial cities, and that is where a well-envisaged and logically structured round table on literature took place. The topic was highly important and very interesting: translating Croatian literature and launching it in foreign markets. The participants of the round table to be sitting at the rectangular desk in the Bogdan Ogrizović library were supposed to represent the important links in the literary chain. First, a publisher and editor-at-large was invited to share his thoughts on the global interest in literature from Croatia, or the lack thereof. He was to say what the visible manifestations of that interest are and what the obstacles and opportunities Croatian authors face abroad are. An author who has been there, done that, and maybe even got the T-shirt was, logically, the next to join in: chosen for the occasion was Robert Perišić, the author of Our Man in Iraq, the novel which has conquered the hearts of Jonathan Franzen and American fiction charts. And last but, I so hoped, not least, a translator was supposed to sit there and complement the publisher’s and the author’s perspectives. I was very grateful to the Croatian editor-at-large and the moderator of the panel for their invitation, as I am always grateful to all those who recognize that translators are not just those people who “copy” the source text into the target language, but are also perfectly able to talk about that particular piece of literature and put it into a broader context.

It all sounded excitingly interesting, and serious enough for me to engage in a serious set of preparations. My first task was to read Perišić’s novel in Croatian. Having read it, I was glad that it would be the topic of our discussion. I liked the plot and the story: it is witty, unpretentious, with solid narrative footing, a true urban novel unhappily, but hilariously, married to its uncanny rurality. It is a generational, post-postwar story, abundant with tragicomical everyday details and anecdotes from political, social and media milieus. In addition to this typically Croatian faction and fiction, I thought, the novel has strong universality: it plays with the idea that reality is a media construct and offers an outsider’s perspective to the war in Iraq. There is also an unusually usual love story that is supposed to act as a catalyst, but turns into a filter. A perfect balance between universal and specific, with solid links between those spheres, sounded like a decent foundation for American success, and I could hardly wait to see what our (Australian) man in Berlin, translator Will Firth, made out of this Croatian, yet glocal story.

At first reading, the translation was all right. At second reading, also okay, but nothing more than that. It is meticulously done and consistent, both of which are commendable, but in a way that empties the source text of its unique spirit. The authorial signature remains recognizable to some extent, but the depth to which the text is rooted in a typically Croatian, regional context has been neutralized, even undone.

At this point in my reading, the panel has yet to happen. I am still thinking about things to say, deconstructing the principal premises of the translation processes and their final results. At this point in my reading, I am both theoretically and practically aware that translation is a negotiation and a compromise in which, as Umberto Eco put it, both sides have to renounce something in order to gain something else, at mutual satisfaction, because you cannot have it all. So when I claim that the English translation of Perišić’s novel nullifies the local and the specific of the source by translating those elements into their close or distant equivalents in the target language and culture, that is a descriptive, rather than a judgmental, statement. Our Man in Iraq is a textbook example of one of the two translation methods in use since the early 19th century, which is also a favorite in English-speaking countries: domestication in relation to the target language. The philosophy behind the method is simple: we will let the readers be, and bring the author to them, in a way that they can grasp without too much musing and too many lengthy footnotes. And that is a legitimate way to do it, especially if consistently pulled together. But by no means is it the only way.

And it is so fantastic that it is not the only way, and wonderful that there are layers to be revealed and options to be competently and vividly discussed—I was so looking forward to it. I expected a tasty discussion, made of a pinch of theory, a cup or two of translation practice and a whole bowl of referencing to what the author and the publisher would have to say, exultant about the opportunity to make the translation process visible. But it did not turn out quite the way I expected.

What with translation

But let us start from the end. In the quiet words of the moderator, this was a metapanel. Which meant that the conclusion was not so much about what was said as was about the amount of time and space the individual speakers were given. It was only right, or at least expected, that most of the questions would be directed to the author. The publisher also had a whole lot to say and repeatedly referred back—and forth—to the writer, while the translator patiently sat and waited for her turn. And thought to herself, what do you make of this, huh, Mr. Lawrence Venuti? Maybe you were not so clever after all! You’d better rethink your idea of hiding the act of translation, and especially your claim that good translations mean the total disappearance of translator. Because, here I am!

The first question thrown at me sounded something like this: Is there any interest in Croatian literature outside Croatia and what is the role of translators in it? What I said second—but in fact needed to point out first—was that, if we looked beyond the war and its aftermath as omnivalid Croatian ticket to foreign markets, it depends on the extent to which that particular piece of Croatian literature tackles globally or generally known contexts and subjects. Layering is an advantage, as well as major topics in attractive packagings. But what I said first and should not have—at least not first—was that there were these two ominous methods, foreignization and domestication, and that Our Man in Iraq clearly was an example of the second one. After that statement, everything else coming from me was relegated to a position of secondary importance.

What I wanted to achieve by introducing this small theoretical gem was to encourage a dialogue with the author on the use of dialect, on choice of register, about all that is lost and gained in translation. But it did not seem to be my day. Not only did the discussion fail to happen, but my comment was taken as negative criticism, rather than my interpretation of the given text, and it provoked an exceptionally defensive reaction from the author. He seemed offended by my claim that the world of his novel, as published in America, is only one of the best of possible worlds. Or at least he was taken aback in a way that he felt he needed to defend both the translator and his translation. As the discussion progressed, it became clearer and clearer that the author did not consider translation per se a valid topic of conversation. The couple of times he actually mentioned it, it was to note that a) it is an obstacle to your success in the foreign market if you do not have a translation, and b) translations cost money, and money is scarce.

This is where I realized something, and I also managed to point it out during the discussion: for some authors, and potentially for some other players on this literary (battle)field, translation and translating exist only as objects and are talked about solely in passive constructions. The author writes, actively, the publisher publishes, also in active voice, and what do you do then? You have the text translated. When the necessary and expensive and, oh, so long-lasting evil of the passive translation is finally done, what you have in your hands is a faithful English replica of your Croatian book, and you only need to sell it further.

When I asked him what his cooperation with his translator was like, Robert Perišič replied that “the guy had loads of questions,” which left me with a strong impression of a one-sided communication, or at least a one-way perspective. There were some other instances that made me realize that the author attached mimetic superpowers to translation, and superpowers, as we all know, are not to be discussed. That is why he did not lose much speech over the languages into which the novel was translated—when asked what those languages were, he said, English, German and some other “minor languages.” By minor, he had Bulgarian, the language of his first translation, in mind. 

Illusion in conclusion

The general deduction from the panel is brimming with modal verbs and conditional sentences. It should, it must, if this—then that, provided that this or that, which we know in advance that it probably will not. When it comes to launching Croatian literature abroad, the situation is no different from the state of affairs in tourism and other random attempts to save the Croatian economy. The solution is always to prolong the season and work every day in solid and well-established teams with a long-term plan in mind, rather than those two peak summer months only, with teams of seasonal workers who collectively drop from the moon. Publishers struggle every day to survive in their non-lucrative business, and for them things are good as long as they are not worse. What matters to authors is that all sentences are in place and number, and it also would not be bad, as we have heard from Mr. Perišić, if translators translated a text or two they liked of their own accord and offered it to the author and the publisher.

But translating the text is not equivalent to selling the text. Translation is creation and re-creation, and every living author should be included in it, or at least take it seriously. We translators write the text again, together with you, Mr Perišić. And you have every reason to be nervous about the result, which will go into the world under your name. All sentences in place and number notwithstanding.

At some point in Our Man in Iraq, the main character-narrator expresses his doubts about the possibility of overcoming the language barrier. Explaining to himself and the reader why he did not follow in the footsteps of all those who fled Croatia and lived elsewere, he says: “I didn’t feel like waitering, dishwashing, sleeping in sheds and mangling their languages as I tried unsuccessfully to be witty in them.” That sentence stayed with me because it felt like, possibly, maybe, the author was talking through his narrator. But as it turned out later, I fell into the (auto)biographical trap.

In addition to my postponed wisdom in the form of the text you are reading, some postponed feelings also remain. I keep thinking about this situation when I was, for a completely trivial reason, stopped by an already infuriated traffic policeman. While I was pulling out my driver IDs, I reviewed possible strategies: Should I be firm and show attitude, or rather go with the soft, constructive approach? I chose the second, and I made a grave mistake, both in the car and at the panel. As my approach had not impressed the police officer, it did not make an impression on the author either… nor did my arguments make him think. But there are more authors out there, and translators, and those interested in the topic. And this text is for you.


Read the complete text, published in Croatian on Gradska knjižnica Rijekahere.

And check out photos from “Croatian Literature Abroad,” Asymptote’s Zagreb event, featuring Anda Bukvić, Robert Perišić, Seid Serdarević, and Vinko Zgaga.


Anda Bukvić works in Zagreb as a translator, interpreter and subtitler from English and German. She contributes to various Croatian webzines and journals. She graduated from the faculty of humanities and social sciences in Zagreb, where she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Diaries of German Women Authors Around the Year 1800. Her current translation project is a novel by Croatian-born German author Marica Bodrožić, Das Gedächtnis der Libellen.