Guest post by Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic

Guest post by Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic

Today I am pleased to introduce guest blogger Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic. I met Aleksandra on Twitter this past spring and was immediately intrigued by her work in comparative stylistics regarding the translations of Ivo Andric‘s novels. She has graciously written not one, but several posts that I will be publishing here over the next few months.

My Translation Philosophy

When we speak about translation, we can consider theoretical and practical aspects of its important issues. In essence, the theory of translation isn’t very useful for interpreters and translators. Translation theory can have aesthetic, literary, linguistic and theoretical significance. Theorists are interested in questions such as: what is literature, what are special characteristics of language in novels and poems, what exactly it means “to understand the text” and so on.

The answers to these questions can be various and can indirectly affect the work of translators. But these answers usually don’t have any practical use. Interpreters often say that the most important impulse when they have actual text in front of them is the one when the brain enters the so-called “translation phase”. At that point they no longer look around, they do not explore, and they stop asking questions. They quickly, sometimes rapidly, respond to the text as vivid, sensuous language matter.

In my opinion, translation is a craft that cannot be learned only from books, but also from experience that comes with years of apprenticeship and practice. I must say I have a little philosophy which appeals to old-fashioned intuition. According to it, there are few things which are essential in the literary translation process: understanding the author’s ideas and feelings, sensitive response and complex language receptivity. I admit that this sounds mystical, but during translation mystique is transformed into real, empirical fact. Knowledge as a craft can sound mysterious, but literary translation is more than an ability to understand text, much more than having a basic knowledge of language and a willingness to use it.

Literary translation provides a good opportunity for a translator to reveal something new, simply by following the author’s thoughts. Working like that can be a great relief because of the release of a creative spasm. The translator should not criticize the writer, should not perform any selection, because every thought must be translated, even if it is nonsense. He need not worry about the stupidity of that thought, even at that point any strange word construction should be taken as seriously as the author himself. During translation, the translator does not judge, he is open to every idea that can cross the author’s mind.

It can be said that a literary translator is in fact an actor. He understands the character, but he has to put aside his private prejudice and attitudes. A good actor must know how to act everything and to make sure that his performance in a poor play looks good. And a good literary translator should be able to improve the weakness of the text, but that’s not his obligation. His goal is to translate the full text, not just what he thinks is enough to translate, neglecting what he may consider as irrelevant. It is not always possible to discover what the author’s intention was: to provide information or to provoke an aesthetic experience. Therefore, the translator must serve the author, stand behind him trying not to miss any of his ideas.

From all this we can conclude that there is no speculation in literary translation. In addition to the language that a translator understands, he must feel the spirit of language. How? For me, simple knowledge of Serbian or any other foreign language is only the beginning. The next thing is capturing the tone of the sentences in the target language. Of course, this requires knowledge of the full scale of possible tones — in literature and everyday language — in order to discover whether it is subtle literary speech that absorbed the vitality of the living language itself or hidden wisdom from national legacy. The translator needs to determine the border between classical literary language and simple everyday expression, the line between artificial and natural.

Therefore, everything I’ve mentioned implies that a translator automatically aligns with the text. Not with what the text tells us, but primarily with how the text “speaks” to us. Therefore, translators are the best readers. Neither song nor story nor book can be translated after only one reading. A text must be read word by word, sentence by sentence, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, and only by doing that can the translator reveal the full meaning of text which he will restore in another language again word by word, verse by verse and so on.

Do you have your own translation philosophy? How is it different from or similar to mine?

My name is Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic and I live in Belgrade, Serbia. I graduated from the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade, Department of Linguistic Science. I’m currently working on my MA thesis in comparative linguistics and translation theory. My main area of research is translation theory and comparative stylistics, especially Serbian-English and vice versa. My other fields of interests are pragmatics, semantics and computational linguistics. I am a linguistics teacher at IBO. I also work as a freelance translator and proofreader in Serbian and English. You can find me at my blog and on Twitter.[/author_info]
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Buffer this pageEmail this to someone


  1. Dear Lisa,

    Thank you for this opportunity. It was a great pleasure writing this post for your blog. I’m looking forward to hear some other opinions and thoughts on literary translations… :-)

  2. Hi Aleksandra,

    I think your philosophy really shows how deeply involved in a text the literary translator needs to be in order to do it justice in translation. Ideally also you’d be able to communicate freely with the author to get help in understanding their point of view.

    I think you show how reading extensively (and critically) in both languages is really necessary if you want to translate literature. In order to understand the array of possible tones the author could be using in their language, like you said, and also in your own language, in order to start building ideas about how stories are constructed and what meaning there may be behind the author’s word choice, and other stylistic choices. (Of course, if you have a degree in literature, this part may come more easily to you.)

    I do read extensively in my own language, but less so in my foreign languages. Also, I rarely read *critically* in my own language, but now I see how helpful it would be for doing literary translation.

  3. Hi Aleksandra,
    I do agree with you completely since I have been doing so in all texts I translated. in fact, a translator is more than a reader as a translator needs to read the text properly in two languages in order to present it well to readers of the translated language whereas a reader needs just to read it in the language written. Therefore, a translator, particularly, a literary translator needs to be emotionally, linguistically as well as psychologically involved in the text in order to comprehend it better, and consequently present it properly to readers. In my opinion, it’s absolutely essential to translators to be fully aware of the two languages’ culture, traditions as well as literature.

  4. Dear Katherine,

    Thank you for your comment! I completely agree with you that communication between author and translator can be very useful for both of them. And yes, reading in both languages is crucial for translator getting to know author’s specific language structure. Degree from literature can be helpful, but it’s important to know that it’s not condicio sine qua non. You wouldn’t believe number of literature students who tend to learn about novels and poems from only from other critical essays. They don’t even try to give their own thought and maybe disagree with what they read.

    During my work I was trying so hard to read everything “critically”, so now I have a problem with just enjoying a good story. :-) Anyhow, reading in any language is always a good stylistic exercise, so keep on reading.

  5. Dear Mohammad,

    I’m so glad that you found time to leave a comment. I think you got the point. It’s very important for every translator to understand differences between two languages and their speakers cultural heritage.

    “Therefore, a translator, particularly, a literary translator needs to be emotionally, linguistically as well as psychologically involved in the text in order to comprehend it better, and consequently present it properly to readers.” You said it all! That’s the essence of literary translation. :-)

  6. I missed this post when it was first published – it’s great to see someone from Serbia featured here. Hope we get a chance to meet sometime!

    This is an interesting topic. Just to add to this great article – literary translation, I believe, is a field which should continue to be reserved for the select few translators with the necessary literary skills. In languages where it is possible, the translator should be a proven author in her/his own right. This is more difficult with a language like Serbian, where translators working from Serbian into native English are few and far between, never mind ones with literary talents of their own (though I like to think that I know of one or two – *he coughed conspicuously :)*).

    I also like to have the author available to me if at all possible (it helps if they are alive, of course!) to answer queries regarding the text – there will ALWAYS be things in the text that remain unclear and if the author is not available to clarify “what the writer wanted to say” (as we say in Serbian) then the judgement call is left to the translator.

    All in all, literary translation is quite a different kettle of fish from the day-to-day translation we normally do, but I enjoy it and see it as a great challenge. Regrettably, opportunities to translate Serbian literature into English are fairly rare – we are occasionally contacted by hopeful authors, but when we explain the time and cost involved, and that they really need to have a foreign publishing deal in place beforehand to even have a chance, they usually give up…

    Novi Sad, Serbia

  7. Dear Mark,

    First of all, thank you for your comment. I completely agree with everything you said. The best thing for translator is to maintain contact with author during translation process, so he can clarify any doubt he has. As you said, the problem is when author isn’t alive or translator can’t manage to make contact with him/her. In my second post on this blog (about rhythm in translation) I wrote that translator can (and should) find that piece she/he translates at the moment, translated into another language the translator also knows. It it very useful and can make you feel like the fellow translator is sitting near you so you can “use” his language and literature knowledge.

    There are a lot of problems in translating Serbian literature to another language, not so much because of the language barriers but because of money and administration problems with foreign publishers. On the other hand, we have really lame translations of famous Serbian novels, like Edward Lovett’s translation “The Bridge on the Drina”. I don’t know if you have read it, but, unfortunately, you can conclude from first few pages that translator didn’t understand cultural heritage of Bosnian people that author wanted to depict in this historical novel. really bad news is that there are no other English translations of this novel, so if anyone wants to read Andric in English he is sentenced to this single bad version.

    Novi Sad is not so far from Belgrade, we should definitely meet and continue this conversation.



  1. Weekly favorites (Aug 29-Sep 4) | Adventures in Freelance Translation - [...] Region, or Language Selector Creating Culturally Customized Content for Website Translation My Translation Philosophy Localizing language in the brain…
  2. a culture of language and thought » Blog Archive » Guest Post by Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic - [...] you haven’t already, do check out previous guest posts by Aleksandra on her Translation Philosophy and Rhythm in [...]
  3. Intralingo - [...] previous guest posts (on philosophy, rhythm and poetry) I wrote mostly about the translation of poetry. But if you…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *