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In Conversation with James Sutherland-Smith

Posted by Arc, 14th January 2014

To celebrate the publication of Dinner with Fish & Mirrors I asked one of the translators, James Sutherland-Smith, about the process he undertook with the book. This is a companion post to Ivana Milankov's short essay published last week.

You say you first met Ivana when she was working as a translator, what was it about her work that prompted you to want to translate her?

I was invited every year to a Serbian Writers' Association event called the "The International Meeting of Writers in Belgrade." In 2002 when I started going it had fallen somewhat from the giddy heights of the 1970s and 1980s when the likes of Ginsberg and Brodsky attended to a rather defensive assembly of writers from surrounding countries with the occasional wanderer from Western Europe, North America, Asia (usually writers in exile) Australia and Africa. We had to recite two or three poems which would then be read by a more-or-less famous Serbian actress both in specialist readings and in the final reading to our peers and the general public (if there was any.) Ivana was invariably tasked at short notice with producing presentable translations of the English language poets and possibly others. After a couple of years I had managed to track down a couple of translations of her work and was struck by the originality of her work. By this time my reading of Serbian had improved a little although my spoken Serbian was and is wretched. The book length translations of contemporary Serbian poets that I was familiar with was confined to the Anne Pennington versions of Vasko Popa, Francis Jones's translations of Ivan Lalić and Charles Simic's versions of Aleksandr Ristović and Radmila Lazić. The Simic translations were more recent and seemed to present an image of Serbia as a deracinated culture where masculine earthiness and female sexuality underlay the refinements of a Lalić or the modernism of a Popa. Moreover, I felt that Simic's translations made little attempt to replicate the musicality of the originals. For example, there Lazić's work is highly musical, but you wouldn't guess so from the translations.

Consequently, I felt that a translation of Ivana's work would redress the image of contemporary Serbian poetry implied in Simic's translations as Ivana's work, like much of Serbian poetry, still finds vitality in the classical and Renaissance traditions of other Mediterranean countries. Serbian has a literary tradition as old its English counterpart.
A second redress came in the foregrounding of a contemporary woman poet. Ivana was employed as a translating skivvy by a Writers' Association dominated by males. I had had much the same experience in Slovakia with the first anthology of contemporary Slovak poets in English, Not Waiting for Miracles, where I was presented with only male poets to translate in the first instance and had to insist on women poets. It was perhaps no coincidence that one of the women poets grudgingly given to me and my co-translator was famous for a poem of a sexual explicitness similar to that of Lazi?. It is as if the women poets are only allowed visibility if they tickle the male fancy.

I have to confess that Ivana's tiny waif-like presence and one or two things I learnt about various kinds of skullduggery in the Serbian Writers' Association probably stirred a wholly unnecessary chivalrous impulse in me.

There is an erotic element in Ivana's work, but it is only a thread in the weave of her work. Her adoption of different personae is more fascinating particularly in the Hadrian poems.

What lay behind the decision to present the Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet rather than Latin?

At first I presented the originals in Latin script so as to make it easier for readers coming to Serbian for the first time, but then the publishers wondered why I had done this and pointed out it might lead to confusion with Ivana being identified as a Croatian poet. So we went back to Vuk Karadzić's version of the Cyrillic alphabet. It will probably save Ivana some embarrassment from Serbian nationalist writers and critics.

How did you come to work with Zorica as co-translator?

Originally, I tried to work with another woman poet, a Serbian, but there was considerable misunderstanding of what our respective roles would be and a willful refusal to accept the facts of life in Anglo-Saxon publishing. I failed to convince her that contracts and payment would be in royalties not an honorarium and that manuscripts had to be produced before publishers would show an interest in a poet virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. So the work stopped after a few poems

However, by that I had re-established contact with Zorica. She had been a teacher at the Military Academy in Belgrade where I had an office, but had left. I think in 2006 I ran into her in the British Council and she asked if I would give her some conversation practice. Eventually I asked her if she would be interested in the either translating Ivana or Miodrag Pavlović with me and she expressed an interest in Ivana's work.

I had asked Ivana to make a selection which I photocopied and gave to Zorica and the translation proceeded in four or five batches with exchanges at the end of each batch.

At the end of your introduction you mention that Zorica did much more than present you with a line-by-line translation, can you describe your collaboration further?

Zorica, like many Serbs with degrees in English Philology has excellent written English, so there were few language problems with base translations. She produced line-by-line translations where my task was to adjust for better rhythm and produce a sharper word choice. Zorica would question my editing and this was the most fruitful aspect of the process as I had to justify my work or accede to Zorica's instinct for English. Ivana herself intervened in the translation process solving a punctuation dilemma that we had and insisting the last word in "Cleopatra's Last Speech" should be "dark." I was keen on "black" but I wasn't going to argue.

As you say, there is a tentativeness to Ivana's work, an exploration of what is and isn't. What impact does this fluidity have on your process of translation, the choices made?

I'm a firm believer in trying to keep as close to the original as possible without producing a translationese version. Sometimes I can import a new idiom or style of phrasing as a result, but I like the translation to be an accurate mimesis in English of the original. Ivana writes a flexible free verse in lucid sentences which cohere with one another. Her fluidity emerges in her varying line lengths and shifts in imagery and register and this is the difficult element to capture.

What did you find the most difficult aspect of translating Ivana's work?

Having a great co-translator made it a matter of trying to make out the meaning of poems where the shifts were highly complex as in "Letter to a Provincial Governor" and wondering if I had mired myself in misunderstanding. But in an English contemporary literary culture, where there are poets such John Ashbery and Geoffrey Hill, Ivana is very clear.

There used to be an idea that Slavic language poets were very difficult to translate into English, a prejudice reinforced by some dire translations from Russian, for example Donald Davie's execrable versions of Pasternak's Zhivago poems. However, Slavic languages are no more difficult than Latin, bearing in mind that many of them have case systems based on a Latin model. Ivana's poems sound lovely in the original

What affect, do you think, has translating it had on your own writing?

The work of Ján Ondruš (1932 -200) was a source for a sequence of poems in my last collection, but usually I'm attracted to poets who do what I don't do. Ivana's varying line lengths fascinate me because they work so well. If they were mine I'd even them out as I tend to write with a definite measure in mind.

What other projects linked with Serbia do you have in mind?

Salt Publications will publish the Selected Poems of Miodrag Pavlović in 2014. I translated them with a young Serbian, Nenad Aleksić, who was working at the British Council and the translation process was special as Miodrag sat down with us and went through the translations word by word.