Translator Relay: Ellen Elias-Bursac

By Ellen Elias-Bursac

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

When I was an undergraduate, my Russian professors were so anti-Soviet that they wanted us to spend our junior year abroad studying Russian at Radio Free Europe in Munich. Instead we found a study abroad program based in Yugoslavia. One thing led to another and I lived in Croatia for the next eighteen years, working as a freelance community translator and studying at Zagreb University. In 1990, a year before the war began, I moved back with my family to the Boston area, where I'm originally from, and began translating literature from Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Much of the prose I have translated since then has been by writers, such as Dubravka Ugrešić and David Albahari, whom I got to know while I was living there.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

My most challenging untranslatables have been in the chapters narrated by Elisabeth Blake in the novel Fathers and Forefathers by Slobodan Selenić. The character is an Englishwoman who marries a Serbian law professor in the 1920s and moves with him to Belgrade. Her chapters are in the form of letters she writes to a friend in order to practice her halting Serbian. The challenge was to translate her halting Serbian so that it still sounded as if it were Serbian, but in English. As her Serbian improves, so does the English of the translation. Here is an example from her first impressions of her husband's domineering childhood nanny: "First, the Serbian that Nanka talks I only a little understand, actually hardly a single word do I understand. Stevan tells to me these are proverbs and sayings Nanka likes to express. Maybe, but I think she purposes to make me confused."

Do you have any translating rituals?

The more intensely involved I get in a translating project, the more I start going to plays and concerts. The hunger for live performance comes from a drive to draw inspiration from the performers. I admire them for the risks they are taking by appearing on stage. When spurred on by performers, I find my translating reaches further.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

The metaphor I am interested in right now is one of maps. As several writers have remarked (Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Dung Kai-Cheung), a map drawn on a scale of one-to-one would be impossible. I like to think of this imaginary map as resembling a perfect translation. Such a map, exactly the same size as what it represents, is of no use at all, just as the perfect translation—a Utopian projection—would be nowhere near as interesting as the translations we produce with their strategies and compromises. I find this a useful metaphor because it helps me pull free of the gain-loss tug-of-war and it allows the appreciation of translations precisely for their imperfection.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

After his years spent in Calgary, Alberta, and the novels he wrote about living abroad during the war, David Albahari has moved back to Belgrade and has recently written three short novels that are bizarre, electrifying, and weirdly hilarious: Ludwig, Brother, and Checkpoint. My next project is to translate the three of them together to insure that there is a unifying voice to the translation/s. While each is quite different, they intersect in intriguing ways.

Danuta's Q: Does a translator need to have a sense of humor?

Oh yes, for so many reasons. Much of the writing I have translated is about tragic, wartime subjects and I have found that many of the authors have relied on an undercurrent of humor—often very dark but humor nevertheless—to propel their narratives. And then there is the rollercoaster ride of our profession and its many tricky negotiations, the sideswipes and the elations, all of which are easier to take in stride if one holds on firmly to one's sense of humor.


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