“You were the hidden motive, the one for whom one got out of bed in the morning, the one from the past who was at the same time someone from the future. Something like hope, an attractive reward for the foreseeable future, that possibility that something could happen and at the same time fear of just that.”
From Clementine’s last letter to Nightingale
Our selected translated book of the month in April was Olja Savičević’s Singer in the Night, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books – a novel about life, love, and their true, deeper meanings. This is also a novel about the past, in which the present intertwines with history, and particularly that of former Yugoslavia. The translator Celia Hawkesworth has answered our questions to tell us more about the process of translating this text, the work of a talented Croatian writer who skilfully plays with memory and language.
If you’re interested in exploring the process and challenges of translation from lesser-known languages, join us on 6th and 7th June at the Impossible Territory panel series as part of the UCL Festival of Culture and at the event Remembering and Forgetting: The Bosnian War Through The Literary Lens at The Yunus Emre Enstitüsü. You can find more information on this event series here.
The translator Celia Hawkesworth
What was your journey to becoming a translator?
It was quite random: when I first went to Belgrade, on a 10-month British Council scholarship after graduating in 1964, writers and publishers were keen to have their work available in the wider world by being translated into the 'larger' European languages. To start with the simple fact that I was a native speaker and was just beginning to learn Serbo-Croat was enough for them. The fact that I had no experience of translating seemed immaterial. It was quite nerve-racking initially. Later, when I was appointed to teach Serbo-Croat at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London University, I began to feel more comfortable as I worked my way more deeply into the language and culture. I translated increasing numbers of works as my teaching career progressed and have continued since I retired.
In particular, what was your journey to becoming a translator from so-called 'smaller' languages, Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian?
From the point of view of getting work published, it was possibly more difficult as, when I started out, Yugoslavia was relatively unknown, even as a holiday destination and publishers were reluctant to take on such an unknown quantity, unless there was an obvious political dimension to it. But, there were certainly fewer already established translators than was the case with the more familiar 'larger' languages.
Is it different to translate from such languages rather than from more well-known languages such as Spanish or French, and if so, how? What specific challenges does translation from less well-known languages and cultures entail?
There is often a bit more cultural explaining to be done in the course of the translation as so much is unfamiliar. This is particularly the case with works written and set in Bosnia, with references to Turkish/Ottoman culture and its survivals in local customs and language.
Singer in the Night is a reflection on life, and also on history. Were there any passages in the original text that you thought would not be easily comprehensible to your readers including less well-known or presumably unknown references to the local history and society? If so, how did you handle them?
Some that were not essential to moving the narrative on were omitted as too obscure, for others I tried to include some minimal explanation in the text so as not to hold the reader up.
From your point of view as a translator, how would you describe the author's style and language?
One of the features of Olja Savičević 's style that gives her works their special flavour and charm in the original is the frequent use of the Split dialect. This represents a huge obstacle for the translator, which I had to try to overcome in her earlier work, Farewell, Cowboy as its use was an essential feature of the dialogue between certain characters. Singer in the Night contains a delightful mixture of styles and language, which have to be rendered differently, so challenging the translator.
This is the second book by Savičević that you translate for Istros Books. Is it a different experience to translate a book by an author you already know?
It is, and a particular pleasure, although the way she plays with styles and registers, referencing works of European literature and contemporary culture, means that the tone of this book is very different from the earlier one.
Do you have any favourite passages or quotes from Singer in the Night?
I particularly like the passages about the wild twin girls, Billy Goat and Arrow, but also the last, slightly mysterious letter that Clementine writes to Nightingale.
How does Savičević fit within Croatian literature?
She is a popular, successful writer, particularly valued for her versatility and lightness of touch in dealing with serious issues.
What is the current state of Croatian - and also Bosnian and Serbian - literature in English translation?
It is greatly helped by having a dedicated publisher in Suzi Curtis and Istros. While over the years the British reading public has become readier to consider reading translations, translated works of fiction still struggle to be noticed in the mass of books published in English every day.
We kindly thank the translator Celia Hawkesworth for her contribution to this blog.
Celia Hawkesworth taught Serbian and Croatian language and literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, from 1971 to 2002. Since retiring, with interruptions, she has been working as a freelance translator. She began translating fiction in the 1960s, and to date has published some 40 titles. She received the Dereta Book of the Year award for her translation of Ivo Andrić’s The Damned Yard and other Stories (1992); was short-listed and ‘highly commended’ for the Weidenfeld Prize for Literary Translation for Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998); and awarded the Heldt Prize for the best translation by a woman in Slavic studies 1999 for Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Culture of Lies. Recently she has been translating works by Daša Drndić: Leica Format (2014), and Belladonna (2017), runner-up in the new European Bank of Reconstruction and Development foreign fiction prize (2018), short-listed for the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize and winner of the Warwick Women in Translation Prize 2018. With Susan Curtis she translated Drndić's Doppelgänger (Istros Books, 2018), short-listed for the Republic of Consciousness prize 2019. Her translation of Omer Pasha Latas (2018), has been short-listed for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2019.