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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Saša Stanišić & Damion Searls

"I started working on [the book] in 2016 when my grandmother was showing the first serious signs of dementia. While trying to keep up with her disappearing and tricky memories I wanted to create an archive of sorts, in which her life was told in stories."
Portraits of Saša Stanišić and Damion Searls
Left: Saša Stanišić, photo by Katja Sämann; Right: Damion Searls, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Where You Come From came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Saša Stanišić (SS): I can say a couple of things about the original project. I started working on it in 2016 when my grandmother was showing the first serious signs of dementia. While trying to keep up with her disappearing and tricky memories I wanted to create an archive of sorts, in which her life was told in stories. Soon, I realized that the “true” stories are as relevant and interesting to her (and me) as the ones her brain was tricking her into believing were real.

Approximately at the same time, all over the world, we could see the right-wing and fascist parties come to more and more power, joining parliaments and even proposing policies from their agenda. This agenda still includes the archaic, narrow-minded definition of race as the worth of a human being. Origin too plays a crucial role in their understanding of life as a battle between “us” and “them”—based on the coincidence of birthplace.

I myself am a child of mixed “ethnicities” and have lived in so many different places, or—as you often hear—in different “cultures.” So while revisiting my grandmother’s memories, I started revisiting my own, looking for moments in my biography that could maybe define the person I am today.

The book lies at the crossroads of these two paths: the biographically based story of my life and my family’s, and the story of my grandmother’s destiny through two wars into the abyss of not knowing where her home is anymore.

Damion Searls (DS): My answer to this question is so much more pedestrian that I’m embarrassed to give it! (Approached by an agent and publisher, blah blah blah.) But I will say something about the germ of the translation, which was in fact the very first thing I contributed. The original German publisher was using the placeholder title Origins in their English publicity material, and I said no, free advice here: you can’t call an autobiographical novel Origins in English, it’s a terrible title. Once I got into the book itself, that became more and more clear: an “origin,” or one’s “origins,” is fixed, an X on a map, one checkbox checked off among a list of others—the whole point of Saša’s title is that where you come from is the start of a journey, a dynamic process, which will take you to different places and turn you into a different person in unpredictable ways. And in fact that’s what the title means in German. Where You Come From isn’t a looser translation of the title, it’s a more faithful one. And I suppose you might say that where I come from is the source of the book’s English title, and all the rest of the words in it too. (Except poskok.)

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

SS: I really enjoy working closely with all my translators. They are of course reading everything very closely and tend to find mistakes, logical problems, etc. So that gives me the chance to “repair” the text for each translation. These updated versions I discuss with any new translator so that he or she always has the most accurate text.

Since I speak English I could dive even deeper into our translation together with Damion. Especially in the first half of the book, I sometimes even tried to rephrase whole paragraphs to make them “better”—not the translation, but the text itself. The translation was already impressive. I don’t know whether I have succeeded, but Where You Come From feels a bit like “Herkunft 2.0”—an improved and updated text.

DS: Having an author who interferes with—sorry, “contributes to”—the English translation can sometimes be a mixed blessing, but Saša’s suggestions and corrections were excellent. He really did make it better! The main new aspect of the book that came out in my translation process—I don’t know how this happened in the translations into other languages—was that so much it is bicultural or even bilingual, either moving between Bosnian and German, or, later, between German and English. When the young non-German-speaker is learning German vocabulary words, or speaking ungrammatically while the adult narrator jokes about the child’s mistakes using similar fake-mistakes in his prose; when the teenager shows off his English and pretends he’s from Boston, not Bosnia; when various key memories are tied to Bosnian words; even when his high-school crush is named Rike (pronounced “Rika,” short for “Frederike”) but an American reader might likely pronounce it as “rike”-rhymes-with-“bike,” especially since they meet over a painting of a bike: all these navigations have to happen differently in translation than in the original.

WWB: Saša and Damion: This novel is about a boy and his mother fleeing war in Yugoslavia in 1992 and settling in Germany. Review after review has exalted its humor, which, for a novel that grapples with “unbelonging,” as one review put it, might not seem like an obvious choice. (Not that humor, or wit, ever require justification.) Saša, can you talk about the decision to approach this story from that perspective?

SS: An overwhelming amount of my fondest memories of the war in Yugoslavia and of our time as refugees in Germany revolve around playing games, listening to music or dancing, being together as family, being silly, laughing. If we had that, we had hope. If we had music when everything else was serious, we had sanity. When someone made a joke in midst of explosions, we were alive. When we were together, we were strong.

So, as much tragedy as there can be and that needs to be told in a story of hardships and losses and precarity, leaving out all these sparks of hope, life, and sanity would have simply made Where You Come From a less truthful piece of literature. 

WWB: Damion: Translating humor or wit often poses particular challenges, given how crucial local references and locutions can be to humor’s success. This work has also been described as ranging from “chronicle to prose poem to folk tale.” Can you tell us a bit about translating this shapeshifting work?

DS: Local references can be important: really they’re a special case of joke-teller and reader sharing a frame of reference. But I’m not Bosnian-German and I think the jokes are funny, so there’s no reason why the translation’s American or English readers can’t find them funny too. What is even more key to humor than references is pacing, and even though word order and sentence rhythms work differently in different languages, I can still try to make the pacing funny in English. A punch line needs to read as a punch line.

As for following the shifts in the book’s shape, that’s the kind of thing that I think is easier for a translator than people often assume. I just have to follow what the author is doing. I mean obviously I’m not going to rewrite the folktales or the choose-your-own-adventure section to make them more normal and boring, right? As long as I stay out of the author’s way, the shapeshifting aspects of a book will work out fine in translation.

Saša Stanišić & Damion Searls Where You Come From is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Where You Come From came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Saša Stanišić (SS): I can say a couple of things about the original project. I started working on it in 2016 when my grandmother was showing the first serious signs of dementia. While trying to keep up with her disappearing and tricky memories I wanted to create an archive of sorts, in which her life was told in stories. Soon, I realized that the “true” stories are as relevant and interesting to her (and me) as the ones her brain was tricking her into believing were real.

Approximately at the same time, all over the world, we could see the right-wing and fascist parties come to more and more power, joining parliaments and even proposing policies from their agenda. This agenda still includes the archaic, narrow-minded definition of race as the worth of a human being. Origin too plays a crucial role in their understanding of life as a battle between “us” and “them”—based on the coincidence of birthplace.

I myself am a child of mixed “ethnicities” and have lived in so many different places, or—as you often hear—in different “cultures.” So while revisiting my grandmother’s memories, I started revisiting my own, looking for moments in my biography that could maybe define the person I am today.

The book lies at the crossroads of these two paths: the biographically based story of my life and my family’s, and the story of my grandmother’s destiny through two wars into the abyss of not knowing where her home is anymore.

Damion Searls (DS): My answer to this question is so much more pedestrian that I’m embarrassed to give it! (Approached by an agent and publisher, blah blah blah.) But I will say something about the germ of the translation, which was in fact the very first thing I contributed. The original German publisher was using the placeholder title Origins in their English publicity material, and I said no, free advice here: you can’t call an autobiographical novel Origins in English, it’s a terrible title. Once I got into the book itself, that became more and more clear: an “origin,” or one’s “origins,” is fixed, an X on a map, one checkbox checked off among a list of others—the whole point of Saša’s title is that where you come from is the start of a journey, a dynamic process, which will take you to different places and turn you into a different person in unpredictable ways. And in fact that’s what the title means in German. Where You Come From isn’t a looser translation of the title, it’s a more faithful one. And I suppose you might say that where I come from is the source of the book’s English title, and all the rest of the words in it too. (Except poskok.)

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

SS: I really enjoy working closely with all my translators. They are of course reading everything very closely and tend to find mistakes, logical problems, etc. So that gives me the chance to “repair” the text for each translation. These updated versions I discuss with any new translator so that he or she always has the most accurate text.

Since I speak English I could dive even deeper into our translation together with Damion. Especially in the first half of the book, I sometimes even tried to rephrase whole paragraphs to make them “better”—not the translation, but the text itself. The translation was already impressive. I don’t know whether I have succeeded, but Where You Come From feels a bit like “Herkunft 2.0”—an improved and updated text.

DS: Having an author who interferes with—sorry, “contributes to”—the English translation can sometimes be a mixed blessing, but Saša’s suggestions and corrections were excellent. He really did make it better! The main new aspect of the book that came out in my translation process—I don’t know how this happened in the translations into other languages—was that so much it is bicultural or even bilingual, either moving between Bosnian and German, or, later, between German and English. When the young non-German-speaker is learning German vocabulary words, or speaking ungrammatically while the adult narrator jokes about the child’s mistakes using similar fake-mistakes in his prose; when the teenager shows off his English and pretends he’s from Boston, not Bosnia; when various key memories are tied to Bosnian words; even when his high-school crush is named Rike (pronounced “Rika,” short for “Frederike”) but an American reader might likely pronounce it as “rike”-rhymes-with-“bike,” especially since they meet over a painting of a bike: all these navigations have to happen differently in translation than in the original.

WWB: Saša and Damion: This novel is about a boy and his mother fleeing war in Yugoslavia in 1992 and settling in Germany. Review after review has exalted its humor, which, for a novel that grapples with “unbelonging,” as one review put it, might not seem like an obvious choice. (Not that humor, or wit, ever require justification.) Saša, can you talk about the decision to approach this story from that perspective?

SS: An overwhelming amount of my fondest memories of the war in Yugoslavia and of our time as refugees in Germany revolve around playing games, listening to music or dancing, being together as family, being silly, laughing. If we had that, we had hope. If we had music when everything else was serious, we had sanity. When someone made a joke in midst of explosions, we were alive. When we were together, we were strong.

So, as much tragedy as there can be and that needs to be told in a story of hardships and losses and precarity, leaving out all these sparks of hope, life, and sanity would have simply made Where You Come From a less truthful piece of literature. 

WWB: Damion: Translating humor or wit often poses particular challenges, given how crucial local references and locutions can be to humor’s success. This work has also been described as ranging from “chronicle to prose poem to folk tale.” Can you tell us a bit about translating this shapeshifting work?

DS: Local references can be important: really they’re a special case of joke-teller and reader sharing a frame of reference. But I’m not Bosnian-German and I think the jokes are funny, so there’s no reason why the translation’s American or English readers can’t find them funny too. What is even more key to humor than references is pacing, and even though word order and sentence rhythms work differently in different languages, I can still try to make the pacing funny in English. A punch line needs to read as a punch line.

As for following the shifts in the book’s shape, that’s the kind of thing that I think is easier for a translator than people often assume. I just have to follow what the author is doing. I mean obviously I’m not going to rewrite the folktales or the choose-your-own-adventure section to make them more normal and boring, right? As long as I stay out of the author’s way, the shapeshifting aspects of a book will work out fine in translation.

Saša Stanišić & Damion Searls Where You Come From is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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