Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paula Gordon

What I love about translating the languages of this region is the richness of expression and playful use of language by native speakers.

Paula Gordon is a freelance editor and translator of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin based in Delaware. She has lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working in the nonprofit sector as a translator, and on the staff of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Her translation of Ilija Đurović’s “Pod čistom podu” (“Across the Clean Floor”), in our Winter 2018 issue, is the very first translation from the Montenegrin to appear in Asymptote. 

In her translator’s introduction, Gordon writes: “Many stories [by Đurović], but particularly this one, stand out for what remains unsaid as much as for what is spoken or described. “Across the Clean Floor” is told in the first person, but the narrator speaks tersely and dispassionately, leaving it to readers (should we be so inclined) to provide the backstory. It is as if we are observing a night in the life of this couple through a telephoto lens, or perhaps through a keyhole.”

Our interviews editor, Claire Jacobson, conducted this interview with Gordon.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note, you talk about realizing that you were “filling in the gaps” in the narrative in English, and making changes (such as the tense) to your draft as a result. Where did you find yourself over-interpreting by translating, and how did you bring the piece back to its natural ambiguity?

Paula Gordon (PG): Interestingly, when I look back over my various drafts, I don’t find much proof in the text of what I said in my translator’s note. The biggest revision was in changing past tense to present fairly early on (and I tracked those changes, so I guess I wasn’t certain whether that would work or not).

I did, however, find a list of potential titles: On the clean floor, on a clean floor, regarding a clean floor, on a clean slate, on a blank slate, on neutral ground, on the very floor, from the ground up, from scratch. As you can see, I was thinking about this as a story of a couple starting over in their relationship, with the clean floor representing a clean start, or an attempt to scrub away some stain in their relationship. When I asked the author if the title phrase had some idiomatic meaning in Montenegrin, and what he thought of the title “Clean Slate,” he totally burst my bubble. He told me that he simply decided to use the last three words of the story as the title, and that the phrase had no special meaning.

Further, his answer was curious to me in that he also seemed to have been merely an observer of this scene, saying that this urge to clean was probably (he said probably) some sort of manifestation—in his words, a “symptom” of this woman’s psychological make-up. That’s what she did, she started to clean an already clean floor, and in the end the narrator joins her and they clean it together. “Quite simply, at a loss for words, and burdened by who knows what, they scrub a clean floor.”

It was his answer that caused me to reconsider the narrative I had created in my head, what each exchange meant, what their history was, what their future would be. I was put in mind of times when I’ve gone to the zoo and heard parents trying to explain animal behavior in human terms to their children. And I’ve wondered, can’t you just let them be and not try to make sense of it? I realized that that’s what I had been doing with this story. And that it was not for me to say why these two people were saying and doing these things, but to present the actions as the author did and let the reader observe and ask their own questions, maybe create their own narrative or alternate narratives.

The one place I intentionally embraced ambiguity is when the narrator comes back from the store and the woman takes the hair dye out of the bag. In the original, she says, “I’ll need your help when I finish this,” before taking the dye from the bag. I didn’t know if she was referring to needing his help in dyeing her hair or in moving the furniture back into place after she finished cleaning the floor. I wasn’t getting that in English with the sentences as written, and so I transposed the order, so that in English, she puts the dye on the table and then speaks. Now it’s not clear whether “I’ll need your help when I finish this” refers to the preceding action of putting the dye on the table with the remains of the food or the following gesture indicating the room. Because the gesture indicating the room could also go with the next thing she says, “It seeped in everywhere.”

CJ: This text is one that almost leaves the reader with more questions than answers. What are some of the questions you had while translating it and how did you resolve them enough to come up with an English rendering?

PG: At the practical level, there were a couple of continuity issues in the original that I asked the author permission to correct: one was that the narrator went out to the balcony with a bottle and came back in with a glass. Another was the order of events coming back in—I asked if the narrator could come back inside before he sees her fingertips blue in the water because it seemed unlikely, at least in my mind’s eye, that he would be able to see such detail from the distance I imagined between them. But I know that’s not what you’re asking about!

In fact, the story itself is straightforward and matter-of-fact and the translation mirrors that. I had to resist the temptation to embellish, especially after I got the first draft on paper. In many translations, the questions revolve around making sure that all the nuances and implicit meanings present in the original are present in the translation. In this story, I asked the opposite—have I put anything in that is not there in the original?

At the level of the story, I still have questions. But after being freed (by the author) of needing to know anything about this couple’s past or even their motivations in the present, I began to see it as a story of acceptance, commitment, and solidarity. Because the author is a young man, I first pictured a young couple acting this out, but lately I have pictured a middle-aged couple in these roles, and a spry old couple. How touching the last scene would be of him considering the outline of her face, something he might have been doing for the past fifty years.

CJ: You also translate Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. What is distinctive about Montenegrin as its own language, as opposed to a dialect of Serbo-Croatian? What are some unique challenges you have encountered in translating between Montenegrin and English?

PG: How much time do you have? Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian are in the family of South Slavic languages (this family also includes Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Slovenian). The standard forms of each are mutually intelligible, and each is indigenous—that is, unlike American English, which was imported to the continent fully formed along with the first English settlers in the seventeenth century, these South Slavic languages developed into their current forms in place, over hundreds of years, starting from around the 6th century. This is not to say that the languages developed in isolation (far from it!), just that each can be traced back to its autochthonous roots (I have waited decades for an opportunity to use that term in a sentence).

For an overview of the development of the languages, I suggest the background section of “A Handbook of Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian,” by Wayles Browne and Theresa Alt (available here) and the section on dialects, which can be found by searching within the document for “5. Dialects.” Yes, we have no Montenegrin in the title of this work, but it is discussed within. I don’t know if the title would be different today, but this grammar was published in 2004, before Serbia and Montenegro split into two countries and Montenegro declared its official language as Montenegrin.

There is an active and decades-old debate about the status of these languages and their relationships with one another—language or dialect, and which one is subsumed in another. I am not an academic linguist, so I cannot answer this question scientifically, but here’s how I reconcile opposing views. The question of dialect versus language is as much a sociolinguistic and political question as it is a question of linguistics. I respect the assertion of linguists who say that all four “languages” are actually variants of a single language. The problem arises when you ask, so what is this single language called? Because there is no common name for this common language.

If we accept the linguists’ determination that the four variants are not only mutually intelligible but also distinct enough to be considered variants (even I, a non-native speaker, can distinguish their features in speech and writing), then I think it’s practical and fair to recognize each as a language and to allow each to be called by a different name. The political history of the countries involved makes blanket use of any of the previous names unacceptable to citizens of one country or another. The current shorthand is some form of the initialism, BCS or BCSM.

At a practical level, translators and interpreters must have a way to identify the languages they work in. Similar to the way we distinguish American English from UK English when discussing target language with a client (as in, “I translate into American English only, so if you need this document in UK English, I must decline the job”)—we need a way to designate target audience in, um, BCSM. The point being that if the target language is off, the message will not be received as intended.

In my view, the linguistic and political realities are irreconcilable, at least at present, so I take what I see as a practical approach. I have tended to follow the lead of native speakers as to what to call the language. I was an early adopter of “Bosnian”—which is the language I learned, despite it being called Serbo-Croatian at the time—and it was clear to me when I started translating Montenegrin authors that it would not only be respectful, but practical, to use that name to distinguish it from Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian.

To finally get to your question: What I love about translating the languages of this region, and especially Bosnian and Montenegrin, is the richness of expression and playful use of language by native speakers, and this applies regardless of economic class and educational level. The very feature that in my opinion makes the language-variant question so intractable—phonetic spelling—is a source of linguistic innovation and wordplay and joy. Linguistic influences include, aside from languages spoken in neighboring countries, Arabic, English (multiple variants), German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish. The mix and saturation of these linguistic influences varies from country to country and from region to region within each country.

Ilija Đurović, in “Pod čistom podu,” writes in an idiom that I am familiar with from living in Bosnia, casual standard speech with all manner of loan words incorporated along with words of Slavic origin. Jastuk (“cushion,” Turkish), fotelj (“armchair,” French), kauč (“couch,” English), kasa (“cash register,” Italian), farba (“[hair] color,” German), uniforma (“uniform” [translated as apron], Latin)—to be honest, until I began answering this question, I hadn’t given this much thought.

On the other hand, I also work with Montenegrin playwright Ljubomir Đurković, who digs much deeper into historical speech patterns and localisms and can be quite difficult to translate. It is through Đurković that I became aware of some of the features of Montenegrin that set it apart from the other three standard languages (or variants, if you will)—phonemes, word forms, and speech patterns. As well, the linguistic influences in some regions of Montenegro are different from those in central Bosnia, northern Croatia, and Serbia and share features with Croatian dialects of the Adriatic coast, stemming from the time of Diocletian and later the Republic of Venice. There are Montenegrin words in common use today that originate from Venetian, a Romance language, and which, as far as I can tell, are unique to the region (biza—dog, Lacmanin—pejorative term for person who lives in the coastal region of Montenegro, kain—basin, špag—pocket, kužina—kitchen, karinga—chair). The only dictionaries I have found them in are Petar Skok’s etymological dictionary (1974) and the Dizionario del Dialetto Veneziano by Guiseppe Boerio (1867). But before I knew any of this stuff, I had no choice but to ask the author what these words and even entire sentences meant.[i]

The takeaway is that given the rich history of the region, it useful to have in mind all the influences on the language I am translating from. Not only in the sense that I often look up words in German, French, Italian, and Turkish, but also because of the extra-linguistic meaning these loanwords sometimes carry. It’s easy to think you know what a word means because you know its meaning in the original language, but as words cross borders and are adopted and adapted, their meanings change. Sometimes they also have added nuance specifically because of where they come from—for instance, a word brought in by foreign occupiers might be used differently in a region that accepted the conditions of occupation than in a region that fought against them. I am not sure, though, that this is a challenge unique to my working languages; I think this danger exists in all languages, and I’m sure we can all think of phrases either spoken or written by unwitting non-native speakers of our own language that had unintended and unfortunate extra-linguistic meanings.

CJ: What is it like switching gears between literary translation and translating more technical things, such as public health policy reports? Which one came first for you, and how much of your translation skillset is transferable between the two types of work?

PG: I had an editing deadline this week—I work on a freelance basis with a government agency that tracks and analyzes enrollment, spending, and other trends in Medicaid and CHIP, and I am editing chapters of their March 2018 report to Congress. Editing and translating both are second (or fifth, or ninth) careers for me, and although I am tempted to say that editing came first, I think it’s more accurate to say that I developed my skills for each in tandem. There has been a kind of leapfrog effect, as I focus for a while on translation, then on editing, then translation again, etc.—the “leaps” lasting for years at a time. Not to mention that I got my start in translation by editing the translations and ESL texts of other writers before I had a firm enough grasp of the language to translate their work myself.

The skills are definitely transferable, because the goal of each is clarity of expression for the purpose of having an effect on the reader. In both cases, I am not the generator of the ideas I’m working with, and in both cases, I need to understand not only the words and grammatical structures of the original text, but also what the author wants to say. The skills I’ve had to develop that are essential for both tasks are clear writing in English, having empathy for the author (is mind-reading a measurable skill?), and—circling back around to your first question—restraint.

(I should clarify that I’m referring to editing and translating original persuasive and creative writing, which for me can be anything from science grant applications to newspaper op-eds to poetry.)

But there are transferable skills between commercial translation and editing as well, for instance, research, proofreading, and formatting skills. And because my area of interest is medicine and health care, the subject knowledge also transfers. I’ve been surprised at how this subject-area knowledge has also come in handy in literary translation. We can’t escape our bodies, after all, and plot lines often revolve around illness, accidents, sex, drugs, bureaucracies—all of which can appear in the most ordinary hospital discharge summary.

[i] (I gave a presentation on Đurković’s use of slang in 2016; presentation notes and a handout with examples are available on my blog:

Claire Jacobson is the assistant interviews editor at Asymptote. A writer and translator from Arabic based in Iowa City, Iowa, she studies Francophone literature at the University of Iowa and works as a research assistant at the International Writing Program.


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