Roger James Elsgood talks to Aleksandar Gatalica about literary translation and his recent book ‘The Great War’

In the second of his Today Translations audio interviews, Roger James Elsgood talks to Aleksandar Gatalica about literary translation and his recent book “The Great War”.
Aleksandar Gatalica is a Serbian writer, editor, music critic and broadcaster. He is also a translator specialising in works written in ancient Greek. Aleksandar Gatalica’s own work has been translated into more than ten languages.

His 2012 novel “The Great War”, translated from the Serbian by Will Firth and published in the UK by Istros Books is the final book of a trilogy dedicated to the twentieth century. After “The Century” and “The Invisible” comes “The Great War” in which readers are presented with a novel covering four years that changed the world. Following the stories of over seventy characters, on all warring sides, Gatalica depicts the destinies of winners and losers, generals and opera singers, soldiers and spies. It is a book that takes a major historic event as means to tell many individual, personal stories, all with strange confluences and surprising collisions.

Full interview:

Interview transcript:

Roger: Welcome to the Today Translation interview. I’m Roger James Elsgood, and I am with the Serbian writer, critic and translator Aleksandar Gatalica. Aleksandar Gatalica is the author of five published novels including “The Lines of Life”, “The Invisible” and his most recent work “The Great War”, which is being published in the UK in November 2014.

Aleksandar, let’s begin by asking about your work as a translator: you’ve published translations of Aeschylus’ “Promethius Bound”, Sophocle’s “King Oedipus” and several plays of Euripides amongst much else. Would you agree that Ancient Greek, being a non-evolving language, gives a translator more security than when working with living languages that constantly update and revise themselves?

Aleksandar: First of all, you must understand when you are in contact with the Greek language, you are in contact with the deepest foundation- not just of European languages, but with the European culture as well. And, if you know the Greek language and you are in touch with that culture, you understand not just the Greek and the Latin culture and language, but you are in a position to understand the whole European culture, and it is very good to know Greek and Latin language and far more if you are a translator.

You have to go deep into the play, into each verse, into each word, and deeply understand the Greeks period to the way of thinking. This is very important- not just for a translating job but for a writing job. I call myself usually the advocate of Europe, there some Serbian language in twenty ten, twenty first century. I learnt from him [Euripides] very much, he was a great artist. He knew how to manipulate the emotion of his audience, he knew how to approach what is the spectators were expecting of him and of his play. It is very important to learn how to communicate with your readers, even twenty-five centuries after Euripides. He is extremely modern, even now.

Roger: So with the nature of the language, one wouldn’t dare to call Ancient Greek a dead language, but it doesn’t have those kinds of updatings that living languages have in terms of idiom expression, new words, reconstructions of the language structure. Have you had experience of translating from languages other than Ancient Greek?

Aleksandar: No. Actually I have translated just from the Ancient Greek language.

Roger: But as a writer, your work has been translated –

Aleksandar: Actually, I speak not just English. But with the Italian language, Modern Greek language and even the German language, knowing the Greek and the Latin language means that it is not a problem to learn more languages- more modern languages- they are in the European group of languages and in this, there is the same fundament for all European languages.

Roger: So as a writer command of several languages, do you require yourself to translate your work, for example, say into Italian, or would you give that to a translator who has specific reference to translating from one language to another?

Aleksandar: Yes, it is important to know several languages, and when I translate from Greek, I use a translation or I look up the translation of my colleague’s translations from Italian, from German, from even Russian language, and compare how they solve similar situations. I think it is obvious that languages are connected; the whole potion of Roman languages are connected with the Latin language, of course, and grew up from the model of Latin language. Most of the European languages are connected within the European base; the base of Greek and Latin language. Hungarian and Finnish language and the Lectonian language are not from same group – they are from Hungarian groups of languages.

Roger: So would you say that translating from within the language group has less risk and problems than from translating from one language group to another? Is that where difficulties might arise?

Aleksandar: Certainly. When you translate from a modern language- either from English to Italian, from French to English, or whatever- any modern language, it is a bit easier than to translate from Greek and Latin, because if you translate from Greek a play like Euripides’ – which are twenty-six centuries old- you feel like translating not just the play, not just the piece of literature, but like you should translate, if I may say, the monument. You must treat each verse as a monumental verse, and be very careful about the situation and thought of what you do in your own language when you translate from Greek, if I say in my case, into Serbian.

Roger: So here’s a thought: how much accommodation should a translator make for a foreign language reader? Would you say that you are a hardliner who believes that the writer’s intentions are paramount or are you more relaxed with some aspects of localisation? Where does the first duty of the translator lie- with the writer, or the reader?

Aleksandar: It is a good question which you, as a translator, ask yourself at the very beginning of each translation. You must translate precisely, but you must be the artist, also. It is not possible to translate word-to-word, but you have to find out how to give your readers (in the Serbian language) exact and precise portion of verse, thought and characters- but you must realise that it is not easy; the Greek language is as it is similar as it is not similar. It’s the same as modern languages; you must realise that the situations, the spirit and the syntax of the English language is completely different to that in Serbianso you can just imagine how different it is in Greek. It is a problem if a translator doesn’t understand his final duty- to make the beautiful piece his own language. So, you must be an artist in the last step. In the first three or four steps you must be a translator, but in the fifth step you must be must be an artist. I’ve read plenty of translations which were very good in the first four steps but not in the fifth step. We can find completely precise translations which are without spirit. This is very good for me, as a translator, but not very good for readers.

Roger: Would I be correct, just as an innocent observer, saying that you as a writer deal with many things of course with writing- one of them, possibly the most substantial, is the world of factualness- it builds up a story to be told, a narrative to be driven. But, would I be right in thinking that you as a writer are most happy when your work finds itself in the arena of the subtlety of poetry? Using a precise choice of words to encapsulate a delicate or complicated idea that can only be put together in a particular form of words- that you come up with that you’re very proud of; you think “yes, that’s exactly what I want to say at this point”- and then you hand that little jewel over to a translator, who is not going to keep it preserved in the exact way that you would have it? Or is that just too much of a fancy?

Aleksandar: No. The writer must collaborate with the translator if it is contemporary. It is not possible for Euripides to collaborate with me, but I was in a position to collaborate with Will Firth who translated “The Great War”. We were not just speaking about the words, the stories, the characters, but we spent much time speaking about the spirit of some situations- literary situations: the attitude of some characters, the irony. I saw that if the translator took the conversation with the author not just for a half hour before translating, but for months and even years- as Will Firth did with me- he can understand the writer. In my opinion, he can translate in a very good way one book into another language.

Roger: Now that that’s most interesting, I really entertain of the notion of active collaboration with one’s translator, and I naturally suumed you kind of send it off and it comes back- but you’ve been and you’ve met and conversed- you talked through things chapter by chapter, as it were. Is that your working process?

Aleksandar: Chapter to chapter, even sentence to sentence, character to character, situation to situation; It was very apprabic – we were in constant and permanent contact, so it is very important, and I found that it is the only way to make a fine translation in the end.

Roger: That’s most interesting, let’s just focus on the world’s literary and non-literary translation. Literary translation is a world removed away from literal translation. It requires a more subjective involvement by the translator, as you’ve just said. I suppose you’ve already answered this question, but it might provoke another thought. How can you be certain that the translator is on the same subjective wavelength as the writer? What have you effectively said-that it it’s a dialogue?

Aleksandar: Yes. It would be better if I could speak English language well enough to translate for myself. But this is not the situation. I find that I speak the English language quite well, but I’m not sure enough to translate my book. In most situations, you must leave another person to translate it. If you have another person, then you have to be a democrat. You must understand that he’s a person also, and that he is a reader- that the reader’s opinion is not the same as the writer’s opinion. The writer’s imagination is different to the reader’s imagination, but I imagine that during the writing process, it is not the same as you may imagine as a writer. So, you must be, as I said, a little bit of a democrat, and leave that person to finish the job in the best possible way in which he thinks it should be done.

Roger: Again with a question that you may have possibly answered: as a writer with a translator’s awareness, are you generally satisfied with the translations of your works? Do different languages pose different challenges? Do different people pose different challenges?

Aleksandar: Yes, I’m very satisfied. I’m lucky to work with very good translators with translator experience- that is very important, to be experienced in translation. I work with translators who are not bureaucrats- those who are partly artists, which it is very important- not just in English but in the French language, in German language- any language. I collaborate with very dedicated and very determined people in order to translate my books in best possible way. And, as I said to be important to me, they are artists, and they make that fifth step- the fifth step out of artistry in the end.

Roger: That’s absolutely wonderful. Aleksandar, thank you very much. It’s been so illuminating talking to you.

Aleksandar: Thank you.

Roger: Aleksandar Gatalica’s book published by Istros is available online in the UK.