Kaleidoscopes and Pioneers: Translating Macedonian with Christina Kramer

Writer Kathryn Tann interviews linguist Christina E. Kramer to discuss her latest translation, Fear of Barbarians by Petar Andonovski. They also discuss Kramer’s long-standing interest in language and literature, her approach to the challenge of translation, and the reason why it’s such an exciting time for Macedonian writers to be carving their paths.

Christina E. Kramer is a professor emerita in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, Canada. She has published numerous articles relating to Balkan linguistics and a Macedonian grammar (Univ. of Wisconsin Press). She has translated a number of novels. In addition to Petar Andonovski’s Fear of Barbarians, she has translated seven other novels from Macedonian and Bulgarian as well as short fiction. 

Kathryn Tann is a writer and freelancer from south Wales, currently residing in west Yorkshire. She has a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing, and works in publishing and podcasting. She has published a number of short stories online and in print, as well as some creative non-fiction. Kathryn’s work has been recognised in a handful of awards, including a recent commendation in the New Welsh Writing Awards.

Fear of Barbarians by Petar Andonovski, translated by Christina E. Kramer (Parthian, 2021)

With the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union

Christina Kramer and I meet from our separate sides of the Atlantic – in that all-too-familiar Zoom space, we all now occupy. I sit down after lunch in my tiny home-office in West Yorkshire, while she logs on after breakfast from her house in Toronto, Ontario. The conversation comes quickly, bearing lots of fruit. Here I’ve preserved and distilled the main course it takes – sharing the fascinating knowledge, opinions and questions which Christina offers as we ‘talk translation’.

KT: You’re a professor of Slavic and Balkan languages and linguistics at the University of Toronto, and a translator of Macedonian literature. What has your career in translation looked like, and how has translation engaged with and informed your academic life?

CK:  First, I am now a professor emerita – I retired in 2019. I had a wonderful career at the University of Toronto.  I became a Slavist in a period when Slavic linguistics and literature, and poetics were often very closely aligned. The disciplines later began moving apart, as theoretical linguistics began moving further and further away from the study of literature, but I was studying at a time where you could really engage with the language of literature. My master’s thesis included a three-hundred-page translation of Macedonian erotic folk stories that were all written in dialect. I never thought of myself as a literary scholar, nor did I think of myself as a translator. I translated periodically when people needed things. I never thought I had enough language, because I’m not a native speaker.

In 2000, I was coming back from the Balkans, and I was reading My Father’s Books by Luan Starova. I thought to myself, if I ever translate, I’d like to translate this. In 2007 I began translating it, and it came out in 2012. During those five years, I was mentored by other translators, I was thinking about translation, and I was working through it very slowly.

It was around the same time – in 2012 – that Christina also published a translation of Goce Smilevski’s Freud’s Sister.

These translations led to a pivot in my career. I kept doing linguistics, articles and linguistic work. But I also began translating, and I actually really liked translating novels. When I retired in 2019, I could again devote a little more time and thought to translation.

Christina starts to list off some of the exciting projects she’s been working on since retirement – and since the slower pace of the pandemic. In addition to Fear of Barbarians, she’s been translating short fiction, and become involved in a joint poetry project. ‘Lots of fun stuff,’ she says.

KT: And so I guess translation has recently become a much bigger part of your life?

CK: I would say since 2007, I have done both linguistic research and translations. Plus teaching. I loved teaching – that was a wonderful, amazing part of my academic career. But now that I’m not teaching, I am able to work on bigger linguistics projects, and I’m also able to translate. I always have a translation project going.

Penelope and Oksana, through this rich, imaginative life, had ways of living and expanding outside of their lockdowns.

KT: How did you come to translate the Fear of Barbarians?

CK: I had forgotten that I had met Peter Andonovski by chance in Macedonia. Literally – we met on the street corner outside of the Ili-Ili bookstore. I received an email from Parthian asking what I knew about the book, and, due to that earlier meeting, I had the book already. So it was a funny coincidence; I read it, and they asked if I wanted to translate it. We had just entered lockdown, so to me, translating this book was in many ways a remarkable gift. I was able to devote a whole block of undisrupted time:  I could just do it at a run. It was like having a writer’s retreat … but actually, I was locked in my own house.

KT: Well, it was almost quite a topical book to be translating, wasn’t it? There’s so much isolation in it – staying within walls – and I found when I was reading it that it felt very relevant.

CK: It’s interesting, right? We are finding new ways of communication in lock-down, a way of being outside of our locked-in selves. Penelope and Oksana, through this rich, imaginative life, had ways of living and expanding outside of their lockdowns.

KT: It’s interesting how they have to rely on other people’s testimonies and stories to know what’s going on outside of the house. And that’s sort of how we have to rely on the information that we can get from other people and from social media. It’s like Chinese whispers.

CK: Exactly.

For me, I think of translation as a scrim; we are the thing that stands between the two texts.

KT: So you mentioned that it was lovely to do it all at once without distractions and interruptions. But how did you find the process of translating? Every translator seems to have a slightly different way of approaching a text. For instance, some will start from the beginning, like the reader, and start to translate before even they know the end. Do you have a certain way of doing things, or does it depend on the project?

CK: I always do it the same way. I actually find the first stage of translation is so hard that I don’t want to know what happens. So I am that type that starts translating as a reader. The first time I’m reading the novel, I’m reading with the book by my computer, and as I’m reading in Macedonian, I’m typing in English. If I can’t think of a word, I just skip it – I put double ‘X’, or I type in the Macedonian – and I keep going. If I have a bunch of ideas of which word I might want, I throw in all the words. I’m not worried about syntax: I’m literally just reading and typing at a reading pace. I call that my transpose stage. It’s a data dump. I’m just taking some Macedonian data, and I’m dumping it into English.

I call the next stage my translation stage. Here I’m actually creating a readable English text of this book. I go back to the beginning, and I go through and make choices. Every time I’ve got those double X’s, which are problem spots, I try to solve them. This is when I’ll start contacting native speakers or start working with multiple dictionaries – I’ll start hunting down things I don’t know, researching terms – I may write to the author.

I call the next stage the transcend stage, where (one hopes) I’m taking that translation, and I’m turning it into an English work of literary merit. This involves going back through, over and over, and rethinking choices. At this stage, I’m thinking as a writer, not as a translator. I’m trying to capture what’s going on linguistically in this book in a way that creates a beautiful piece of English that’s worthy of the original. Then I work with an editor, then I read it one more time against the original to make sure I haven’t missed a line or made any mistakes – they creep in and are very embarrassing! Then, I give it to a native speaker, someone who’s worked with me on a number of things. I may ask some final questions to the author. When that final stage is done – in this case – it goes to Parthian, and their editor!

KT: Out of interest, do you ever have to make a choice between maintaining the tone of something, and translating the exact meaning of it? For instance, if a word could be translated directly, but is the wrong kind of word for that moment. Do you ever have to choose between content and atmosphere?

CK: One place it occurs is when the author uses the same word in Macedonian in two different contexts. The author has used this word with intentionality in two different contexts, and yet sometimes, the mapping of English meanings don’t map up the right way. That’s where I’ll change it. In one theory of translation, the same word should have the same translation, but languages don’t line up like that.

But sometimes, you want there to be a little texture, so the viewer of this new work of art realises that they are looking through something.

KT: I suppose you also don’t want to translate the culture out of a work, but you still need it to be understandable and relatable for someone of a different country. Is it difficult to get that balance right?

CK: The balance can be tricky, because you don’t want to bleach out meaning. Everyone has their own metaphors for what they think they’re doing in translation. For me, I think of translation as a scrim; we are the thing that stands between the two texts. And when the translations are really working, we don’t see the scrim –the light shines through, and we see the work of art uninterrupted. But sometimes, you want there to be a little texture, so the viewer of this new work of art realises that they are looking through something. So, that balance for me is a question of: how transparent, how seamless do I want this screen to be between the reader and the experience of reading?

[Fear of Barbarians] is kaleidoscopic…These stories and fragments overlap and collide, refracting in the internal mirrors.

KT: I find it really fascinating. And I – as someone who’s not bilingual or particularly good with linguistics – I find it really amazing that people can translate whole works of literature.

CK: I get to be very creative inside a box that somebody else has built.

I could have picked Christina’s brains on this process of translation until the cows come home. But I also wanted to dive a little deeper into her latest publication, Fear of Barbarians…

KT: It’s a really interesting book; it’s got a slightly strange, patchwork quality to it. What about Andonovski’s writing appealed to you? What would be your main reason for urging someone else to read it?

CK: It is kaleidoscopic.  Or – for those who know Doctor Who. It’s like a TARDIS: there’s more inside than you think there is. You have this little book that has two women telling stories in alternating chapters. It looks like it’s going to be a very simple story, but it ends up having this kaleidoscopic confusion, as if you’re spinning a kaleidoscope. These stories and fragments overlap and collide, refracting in the internal mirrors. I think that kaleidoscopic quality is what I like so much about the book. Also, they’re on this island, but the world washes ashore. World War Two has come ashore, Chernobyl has come ashore, the fall of the Berlin Wall has come ashore… People have washed up continuously – even the locals aren’t all local, they’ve come, they’ve been away, they’ve come back. So this seemingly simple structure starts spiralling out into all these different directions, as we start learning through the two women telling their stories, telling the stories of other women, and those women telling the stories of parents, lovers, children, siblings… and by the end of this little book, we know a remarkable history.

But in Macedonia, there’s an openness to experimentation and getting to write as if you’re a big language.

KT: So my next question is about Macedonian literature. Is there something special about the Macedonian literary scene, or the language, that you think should be more widely shared with other readerships, or bigger languages?

CK: Macedonian is one of the oldest and newest Slavic languages. I’m not the first one to say this. As with all Slavic languages, Macedonian has a long and complex history of dialect differentiation. But its language wasn’t codified in the 19th century, as Serbian, Bulgarian and other languages were codified in the 19th century – it had to wait until mid 20th century to be codified. So this is a language with a very old history and a very rich dialect base that wasn’t codified until the 1940s. Because of this, Macedonian literature, I’d say, is very rich and varied and experimental. Writers – because in some ways, their literary language is young – have a nimbleness and creativity. They are drawing from this rich dialect base, from borrowings and archaisms… and there’s a lot of room to be inventive. New genres are constantly being developed.

For some, there is an expectation that a small national literature needs to keep writing a story that’s about its own country, its own cities, but in Macedonia, there’s an openness to experimentation and getting to write as if you’re a big language. Why not tell a story that takes place in Greece? There’s a creative impulse to encode the world in Macedonian where it hasn’t been encoded before. It’s really new for Macedonian writers to write about the outside world: bringing the world into this language and sending it back out again. It’s pretty exciting.

KT: Wow, yeah. It’s a little bit like the Welsh language – there’s often this expectation that if you’re writing in Welsh, you’re writing about Wales, and that’s not always the case.

CK: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.

KT: So, just out of interest, does older Macedonian literature exist in a plethora of dialects and forms? And if there wasn’t a codified language, was it just constantly mutating?

CK: Well, all languages are constantly mutating. Every language is mutating, and every language is borrowing from other languages. Look at English and how so much of our vocabulary is borrowed from other languages.

KT: Yeah – English is just a patchwork of other languages!

Language is like a glacier…it moves across land, space and time, and it’s picking up, and it’s dropping. It’s history…

CK: Every language is – English just happens to take more. And when we steal from everybody, we have this vast and wonderful vocabulary because of it. Before languages were codified, there was just a lot of experimentation. There were conflicting trends.

KT: I find the study of history through language fascinating. In the UK, for instance, the language changed because of who was coming and going – through such a vast expanse of the island’s history. It’s the real thing. It’s the people’s history. I think it’s such a great way of looking at how we got here.

CK: Language is like a glacier, scraping across land. It moves across land, space and time, and it’s picking up, and it’s dropping. It’s history: from generation to generation, from mouth to ear. It’s super exciting.

For Macedonian writers writing right now – it’s just a really fertile time for them. And with Parthian doing this wonderful series, and an explosion of people wanting to read books in translation… I think this kaleidoscope of voices – and Parthian bringing these voices to the table – is just really exciting.

Here we got into some wonderful nitty-gritties of linguistics, and Christina offered me some examples from Fear of Barbarians of the kind of idiosyncrasies and differences she has to understand in order to translate the Macedonian faithfully into English. But for concision’s sake, let’s skip on to the final thing I was eager to know…

KT: So, Christina, my last question: why do you translate?

Christina laughs.

CK: It would be nice if it were something really noble… There’s a personal reason, and then there’s a societal reason.

I’ve always been interested in languages and literature. I’m interested in is how language is used in society. I’m always interested in the context of language use. Translation lets me think about language and literature. For myself, personally, translation allows me to use language to bring forth something literary. And my love of literature allows me to read and think about what’s happening linguistically. So there’s that interplay.

Also, it is a pleasure to be able to bring someone else’s story to life, a story told in a language few people study and getting to be the English voice of these authors. It is a phenomenal privilege to be able to amplify voices that couldn’t otherwise be heard: this is the way I can help do it.

Fear of Barbarians by Petar Andonovski is now available to buy from Parthian Books. It’s a short but wholly rewarding read. Now, more than ever, since speaking with the fantastic Christina Kramer, I urge you to seek out this or any other book in translation. We’re so lucky to have minds like hers bringing these literary gems to our shores, and broadening our horizons.

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