Interview with translator Will Firth

The latest story in B O D Y’s Sunday European Fiction, the Macedonian “Artist of the Revolution” (as well as next week’s Russian story) was translated by Berlin-based translator Will Firth. Below is an interview in which Firth talks about the various languages he translates from, the difficulties of breaking into the right translating circles and some of the hassles translators have to put up with.

Literalab: What got you interested in the languages and literatures of the former Yugoslavia in the first place?

Will Firth: My first Slavic language was and still is Russian, and I used it as a springboard for studying Serbo-Croat and Macedonian in the 1980s. I’ve been making a living as a translator since 1991, but my acquaintance with the literatures of the former Yugoslavia is relatively recent. It wasn’t until about 2006 that I really decided to focus on these literatures professionally. I’ve always been interested in literature to an extent – particularly short stories and poetry – but this decision was motivated primarily by the banal desire to acquire more large translation assignments after my work with the Hague Tribunal fizzled out in 2007. Theoretically I could have gone in quite a different direction if something else had come along. The first novel I translated from Serbo-Croat was Hansenova djeca (Hansen’s Children) by Ognjen Spahić from Montenegro [whose short story “All of That” recently appeared in B O D Y].

Although I work as a translator and have a range of qualifications, I actually see myself more as a philologist in an old-fashioned sense of the word: I’m interested in things like comparative grammar, phonetics and lexicography, as well as the geography and history of the countries whose languages I translate. For me, literature is just part of that. I’m happy to admit this because I think my broad interests and good general knowledge provide a firm foundation for the multifaceted challenge of translating complex modern fiction.


Literalab: Is there a characteristic (or characteristics) that distinguish the writing from these countries from that of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe – besides their specific historical experience of the war(s) etc.? And to what degree is it possible to make distinctions between the literature of the individual countries of the former Yugoslavia?

Firth: I can’t really answer that question, not being a comparative literature specialist. My feeling is that each work of literature is fairly unique, each book is a real undertaking, and my attention as a translator – a literary chameleon – is very much focussed on doing the colour-change convincingly. Perhaps it’s a case of not seeing the wood for the trees!

Having said that, it sometimes strikes me how markedly modern novels from the countries of former Yugoslavia differ from Anglo-American literature in terms of having less character development. For example, narrators without a name are no exception! Also, novels are often deeply embedded in a cultural and historical context, which can make the books seem rich, dark and – alas – “difficult” for the average British or American reader. But I guess that’s just the way things are. I suspect these observations about ex-Yugoslav literatures are at least partly true for those of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe


Literalab: Translating from Serbo-Croat and Macedonian on the one hand and Russian on the other, does it effect your translating choices and efforts that there seem to be so many more translators from Russian and relatively few from Serbo-Croat and, I get the impression, very few from Macedonian. Or are there so many Russian writers that there is still a need for more translators?

Firth: You’re probably right about there being many more translators from Russian. Obviously it’s a much bigger language. Also, if there’s such a thing as a “translator-to-writer ratio”, I suspect Russian is well-serviced by translators and therefore a bit of a closed shop. I’m disappointed that I haven’t made much headway into translating Russian literature, which I put down mainly to not having made it into the right circles. But I haven’t given up hope.

I’ve been very lucky with Serbo-Croat. An active, specialist publisher in Britain, Istros Books, got in touch with me several years ago and since then has been commissioning me with one big translation after another. I’ve supported this by being an active “literature scout” and helping line up this work. If it hadn’t been for this fortuitous development, it might have been hard to get my foot in the Serbo-Croat door as well.


Talking of feet: Macedonian writers are generally very enthusiastic when they find out about a professional translator into English willing to champion their work and joust against the windmills of the sceptical &/or disinterested publishing world. BUT – and this is a big but – from my experience there’s scarcely been a Macedonian translation project (real or potential) where the Macedonian partners haven’t shot themselves in the foot by not paying the agreed fee, by making exotic demands of the publisher at last minute, etc., etc. Not to mention the prevalence of shoestring budgets, because usually it’s only small publishers who have the guts to publish a book translated from a language of two million speakers…

As you see, I feel it’s a fairly different ball game with each of the three languages.

Photo – Will Firth © Ben Liquete

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Categories: Afterwords


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