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Bosnian authors Alen Mešković and Faruk Šehić are coming to London this week! Come meet them at the Impossible Territory panel series on 6th June at 18:00 as part of the UCL Festival of Culture and do not miss the launch of their books Ukulele Jam and Under Pressure on 7th June at 18:30 at the Yunus Emre Enstitüsü. The events are free, but registration is required. Remember to book your place here (Impossible Territory) and here (book launch).

While waiting to meet the authors themselves on Thursday, we have interviewed the translators of Alen Mešković’s Ukulele Jam and Faruk Šehić’s Under Pressure to gain an insight into the world of translation from so-called ‘smaller’ languages and learn more about these two fascinating books.

Today, translator Paul Russell Garrett answers our questions about his experience of translating Ukulele Jam from Danish. Mešković’s novel tells the story of a Bosnian teenager, named Miki, and his family, who are fleeing their home during the Balkan war.

“…There is a youthful innocence that is uniquely captured in Ukulele Jam, broken up by the outbursts of humour and maturity that teenagers often surprise adults with.” - The translator Paul Russell Garrett on Ukulele Jam
The translator Paul Russell Garrett. Photo credit: Camila França Photography


Can you describe Ukulele Jam, its content, style and form, in a few sentences?

Ukulele Jam centres on the daily activities of a teenager living in a refugee camp, with war raging in the not so distant background. The war is constantly discussed in letters, phone calls and at family reunions, but through the bulk of the story, the reader follows Miki on his quest to find new friends, music, and of course, girls. There is a youthful innocence that is uniquely captured in Ukulele Jam, broken up by the outbursts of humour and maturity that teenagers often surprise adults with.”

Do you have any favourite passages from the book?

“One of the chapters that I translated early on in the process, simply titled ‘Sweden’, is still fixed in my mind. Miki’s friends at the refugee camp are leaving one by one, a number of them granted asylum by Sweden. He daydreams about Sweden and of moving there with his older brother, even though he has absolutely no idea what Sweden is like, to him it’s just the knob at the top of the globe. But when his friend mentions music libraries in one of his letters, Miki’s mind is made up. Of course this leads to arguments with his parents, who have no interest in moving even further away from their home. A teenager’s simple desires versus the practicalities of adulthood.”

Ukulele Jam by Alen Mešković (Seren Books, 2018). Front cover.


“Literature has a vital role to play in ensuring society remembers its past atrocities and hopefully learns from them.” - The translator Paul Russell Garrett


Did you have any difficulties translating this book? In particular, did you face any challenges related to the cultural specificity of the story and the author's experience?

“I’ve met up with Alen a few times in Denmark, and we’ve had a great rapport from the get-go. I recall thinking once about how much I had in common with Alen, but of course I’d never lived in a war zone and hadn’t been forced to flee my homeland. But Alen and I connected on a human level, which is one of the things I think is so powerful about Ukulele Jam–it allows people who have never experienced the horrors of war or genocide to connect and relate with a character who has. Literature has a vital role to play in ensuring society remembers its past atrocities and hopefully learns from them.”

What languages do you translate from and how did you become a translator?

“I translate from Danish and Norwegian, and occasionally dabble with Swedish poetry. When I finished my degree in Scandinavian Studies, I had no idea what to do, and so I continued working odd jobs until one day, on a jaunt to Copenhagen, I stumbled upon a play script and decided I wanted to translate it. Things kind of fell into place, and within an incredibly short space of time, I was translating entire novels! It was completely unexpected and unplanned, but now it feels like it was always meant to be.”

What is your experience of translating from so-called 'smaller' languages?

“Smaller languages are often represented by cultural institutions that work to widen the reach of the literature from the various countries. Not only do they support the publication and promotion of books translated from their languages, they also provide translators with the opportunity for grants, cultural excursions and career development. Denmark and Norway are particularly good at this, and I hate to think what would have become of me and my Scandinavian Studies degree if these options had not been available.”


We kindly thank the translator Paul Russell Garrett for his contribution to our blog. 


More about the translator:
Paul Russell Garrett works from Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, translating fiction, theatre and poetry into English. Translations include Lars Mytting's The Sixteen Trees of the Somme (long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award 2019), Christina Hesselholdt's Companions, as well as her forthcoming novel, Vivian, a fictionalised account of the life of enigmatic American street photographer, Vivian Maier. Paul also mentors emerging theatre translators, teaches Danish and plays handball in his spare time.

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