Resurrecting the Dead: Translator Will Firth on Unearthing Balkan Classics

In a world dominated by a handful of powers, "minor" literatures help us think outside the box.

In our current globalized state, translated literatures are at the forefront of creating cross-cultural dialogues and paving the path for a richer and more diverse literary landscape. There remain, however, distinct inconsistencies in the publication, marketing, and distribution between national literatures that enjoy moderate international renown, and those that are sadly compartmentalized and neglected. In this impassioned and forceful essay by translator Will Firth, who specializes in Balkan literature, a much-needed spotlight is shone upon the overlooked classics of the Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian canon, additionally turning our attentions to the failures of a literature market that privileges predictable profits over unfamiliar brilliance.

Few regions are as fraught with historical rifts and discontinuities as the Balkans, and, given their degree of cultural and linguistic “otherness” compared to the English-speaking world, it is no wonder that the reception of literature from the Balkans is patchy. The francophone world performs somewhat better in this regard, and some countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and Turkey) have been remarkably consistent in accompanying Balkan literatures through translation.

In this short essay, I will outline my experience of discovering and translating neglected classics from the two languages from which I primarily work, Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian (aka “the language with many names”: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian).

To begin with the opposite pole—the limelight: my impression is that young authors from the Balkans who have a good knowledge of English and/or are able to travel to book fairs and festivals 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, Miljenko Jergović’s impressive 1994 book of short stories, Sarajevo Marlboro, was so successful largely because of the title—Sarajevo was constantly a subject of global news in the first half of the nineties.

Writers who win major international prizes can also fall into fortune: the awarding of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature to Ivo Andrić (1892–1975) helped ensure that all his major works, and many of his lesser-known ones, be translated into English, whereas Andrić’s peers Miloš Crnjanski (1893–1977) and Miroslav Krleža (1893–1981), who also left lasting imprints on the literature of the Serbo-Croatian region, have arguably languished to a certain extent in Andrić’s shadow. The vagaries of reception can be absurd for good writers who fall below the lofty threshold of fame and narrowly perceived relevance. 

As a translator, I find it very convenient when publishers offer me work, and I rarely decline a proposed project. But I am also attracted to the challenge of translating neglected classics. Locating such works and pitching them to publishers was an important way of generating projects—and income—when I was finding my path as a literary translator. Over time, this “necessity” has developed into more of a passion. Part of my motivation is wanting to get brilliant, overlooked works of literature out into English, but in addition to this “positive” passion, I am also driven by the “negative” urge to redress the profound disinterest in Balkan literature. The degree of ignorance I see every day in the Anglosphere is a distinct source of motivation for me.

In this regard, I have experienced three successes over the past decade. Firstly, I co-translated the seminal novel Pirey by Macedonian author Petre M. Andreevski (1934–2006), which was originally published in 1980. Considered to be one of most significant works written in Macedonian during the twentieth century, Pirey is probably the most widely read and loved book in Macedonia, although it is a sad story. The novel follows the lives of a peasant couple from Macedonia, who are torn apart by the Balkan Wars (1912–13) and World War I. Andreevski’s prose is rich, ironic, and heavily vernacular. I was introduced to the book by my Macedonian-Australian fellow translator Mirjana Simjanovska, and, in 2009, our English version was published by the enterprising small press Pollitecon in Sydney.

The second book I would like to mention is a significant Yugoslav/Croatian literary travelogue by the abovementioned Miroslav Krleža, Journey to Russia. Published in 1926, this compelling hybrid of travelogue, personal memoir, and political essay describes a sojourn by the author in the early Soviet Union during the winter of 1924–25. Some consider it the best piece of travel writing in Serbo-Croatian. I discovered the book thanks to the recommendation of two well-known European literary figures, Ilma Rakusa and Miljenko Jergović. My translation was published on the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017 by Sandorf in Zagreb, and we remain in search for a publisher in the US or UK to do a larger, well-marketed English edition.

Thirdly, I recently finished a draft translation of the seven hundred-page Novel of London (1971) by the previously mentioned Miloš Crnjanski. This is one of the main works of twentieth-century Yugoslav/Serbian literary modernism. The novel follows an aging Russian émigré, Nikolai Repnin, as he attempts to make a life in the British capital in the 1940s. It paints a stark portrait of the war-battered city through the eyes of a person living in a constant state of rejection and alienation. Born a Russian noble in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, the protagonist is reduced to eking out a living from odd jobs in the huge city, whose buildings, monuments, citizens, and customs he portrays with fascination. Repnin is beset by memories of home but has no opportunity of making a home in the new environment. The themes of identity and migration remain deeply relevant today when we consider the position of the “Windrush generation” in the UK, “Dreamers” in the USA, or the millions of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa who have reached Europe in the last few years alone. The book is to be published by Diálogos in New Orleans in the lead-up to the London Book Fair in March 2020. This will be the first English edition, almost five decades after the publication of the original.

It is a great privilege to have discovered these books and seen the translations through to fruition.

What all three of these “retro-pioneering” projects had in common was that it was a continually uphill struggle to find a publisher. Established presses of translated literature declined one after another with depressing predictability. All three projects were ultimately accepted by small ventures after searches lasting several months—or years. Two of them were even single-person publishers, with vision and good will outweighing their financial resources. Another consistently difficult issue was organizing remuneration for the translator(s): two of the three projects involved a shoestring budget and substantial self-exploitation by the translators, editors, and publishers. The large Crnjanski novel, at least, has received reasonably decent funding from the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Information. Finally, obtaining permission from the rights-holders was not always an easy process, and although it was the publishers who signed the agreement in each case, facilitating the process was part and parcel of each project, and decidedly the least pleasant aspect.

But why is this effort to get significant books out to English readers necessary in the first place? The answer is that the large publishers who could and should be interested are too oriented toward what they expect will sell well, which militates against them choosing books by dead authors, who obviously cannot be invited to book fairs and other promotional events. This is compounded by negative perceptions of the Balkans (falsely stereotyped as backward, uncultured, perpetually at strife) or sheer ignorance as to the existence of quality literature there, and also by the simple fact that few publishers have editors on staff who can read Serbo-Croatian, a “small” language of only about twenty million speakers, not to mention Macedonian with its even smaller two million! All these factors compound to form a vicious circle. In this context, the endeavors of devoted translators are all the more important; there are still many works to be rediscovered and gaps to be filled.

In this vein of sustaining eastern European literature and unearthing neglected classics from obscurity, I’ve recently been looking into two more projects of important works:

Heaven and Earth is the working title for a lesser-known novel by Petre M. Andreevski (Nebeska Timjanovna). First published in 1988, this historical novel deals with the tempestuous life of a woman from northern Greece—a member of the oppressed Slavic-Macedonian minority—who takes part in the Greek Civil War (1946–49) on the side of the Communists. After Tito’s split with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia’s border is sealed off for the pro-Moscow Communists in Greece, including even wounded combatants. As a result, many of them, including the protagonist, Nebeska, seek refuge in socialist Albania. There, she is arrested as an ideologically suspicious element and deported for interrogation to the USSR, which is the beginning of an odyssey through prisons and labor camps. During Khrushchev’s thaw, Nebeska is finally allowed to leave the USSR and travels to Yugoslavia, where she searches for her ten-year-old son, whom she had to leave in an orphanage in Macedonia in her years as a guerrilla. The novel ends with the bittersweet perspective of mother and son building a future together in Yugoslavia. Written in the author’s characteristic style of lean, ironic language punctuated by more poignant and poetic passages, Heaven and Earth presents a chapter of twentieth-century history that is little known in the West. The novel is based on biographical interviews that the author conducted with a female veteran of the Greek Civil War, and strikes me as particularly authentic.

In Russian, a novella by one of my favorite writers, Konstantin Paustovsky (1892–1968) is also a work worthy of the public’s attention. The Black Gulf (Kara-Bugaz, 1932) is a socialist-realist adventure story about the exploration of the eastern Caspian coast and the development of the salt industry in the hostile environment of what is now Turkmenistan. Paustovsky, unfortunately, is not very well known in the English-speaking world. An English translation of the novella was published by Hyperion Press in 1977, but I think it should be republished, and perhaps retranslated into fresher, more contemporary English, because it is a fine example of socialist-realist literature, in a double sense: it faithfully reflects the spirit of the times and official Soviet cultural policy, but it does this without being outright propagandistic. The following assessment, by Ukrainian writer Vitali Vitaliev, is most apt:

[Paustovsky] did idealise the construction site, the locals and the whole scenario of having the desert transformed by the desalinated water produced by the plant. But his idealisation was not along the lines of socialist realism – on the contrary: it was fairytalelike and therefore largely apolitical. No wonder the subsequent eponymous feature film, scripted by Paustovsky, was banned by Stalin himself and shelved by the Soviet state censorship.

In a sentiment that I’m sure all translators can relate to, even the brief discussion of these works brings on a fresh flush of excitement; there is too much good literature out there to be complacent. It is hard to generalize about the relevance of Balkan literature, given the diversity within southeastern Europe itself, yet it would be fair to say that all these literatures bear a trace of Byzantine and Ottoman heritage, while also being receptive to European and global trends. They often reflect the experience of Communism (sometimes humorously, like Slavenka Drakulić’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed), reveal the existential challenges of system-change and migration, and—overtly or subtextually—manifest the rich geopolitical perspective of being located at a major crossroads. In a world dominated by a handful of great powers with their own orthodoxies and ways of seeing, “minor” literatures can deliver fresh and exciting works that help us think outside the box. It is vital that they be sustained, both in the original languages and in translation.

Will Firth was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991, he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a translator of literature and the humanities (from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croatian). His best-received translations of recent years have been Robert Perišić’s Our Man in Iraq, Andrej Nikolaidis’s Till Kingdom Come, and Faruk Šehić’s Quiet Flows the Una. See


Read more about Balkan literature on the Asymptote blog: