Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Literary Translator Paula Gordon
LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?
PG: I translate from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian into English. I’m mostly attracted to plays, short stories and vignettes, and personal essay/memoir. I think I’m attracted to first-person writing and direct speech because I learned the language on the street, as it were, working and hanging out with friends in Bosnia, observing and listening to people as they went about their business, and watching Bosnian TV and movies from the region.
LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?
PG: My deep background is in theater—it’s what I did all through high school and college and in my first career (I was a stage manager, technician, production manager, technical director, and lighting designer). I didn’t consciously seek out literary translation, or translation at all for that matter, but once I had gained some proficiency in Bosnian, friends from my theater days started asking me to edit their translations. Eventually I realized that the English texts would be better if they wrote in their native language and I translated with their help. My first translations were essays about young artists written by curators of exhibitions for the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), and then I began working with my friends at the Sarajevo Film Festival on their catalogs and promotional material (I was also doing production work for them—they were the reason I was in Bosnia in the first place). I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see that working with authors like this—they refined and revised their original texts as we worked on the translations—is rare, and a valuable experience for a beginning translator.
Soon after I started translating, the SCCA started producing videos, and they asked me to translate subtitles. As these video artists “graduated” to making films, they asked me to translate subtitles for festival submissions. I also translated subtitles for some independent media organizations.
But even though I started out as an aspiring literary translator in the late 1990s, I still feel like a beginner, because after moving back to the United States in 2002, I pretty much stopped pursuing literary translation, concentrating instead on medical translation. It was only at the end of 2013, when a playwright whose work I had translated ten years earlier asked if I would like to translate his latest play, that I realized how much I missed it.
LC: What do you love most and least about this work?
PG: I love everything about it, but what I love most is the collaborative process. That is also what I loved about working in theater.
I enjoy the give and take of translating a work of personal import to the author. I put it that way because the text doesn’t have to be a work of art to be the basis of a satisfying collaboration—what’s important is the author’s investment in communicating through the work, in achieving a specific effect.
For instance, I just finished editing an NIH grant for a researcher, and although it was neither a translation nor a literary text, our working method was similar to that of the “old days” when I was translating art criticism. Along with the drafts passed back and forth were tutorials, mini history lessons, and personal asides. But now, instead of talking about the history of visual expression in the former Yugoslavia and how the new crop of artists is “changing the artistic paradigm” (yes, a direct quote), we were talking about the history of dental examination techniques and how the proposed research would change the paradigm of dental health care (from “drilling and filling” to early caries detection and preventive care, in case you’re interested).
Where was I? Collaboration is possible because I’ve been translating works of living authors who have so far been willing to engage in conversation, or at least answer questions and give opinions. It’s gratifying to have an author tell me she likes my work, and this more than makes up for the times she points out something that I didn’t understand or express clearly. As well, sometimes what seems like a simple question about a character’s intention or the shape of a utensil will lead to a longer conversation in which both of us share something—or discover something—about ourselves.
Still, there are plenty of challenges. The biggest challenge is translation itself. I often underestimate how hard a translation will be. I feel like I totally get it when I read it in Croatian or Montenegrin—but then I sit down to translate and get stuck on the very first word.
A new challenge that I have yet to overcome is “placing” my translations. Until now, my translations have been commissions—plans to publish were in place before I was brought in. Now I’m in a position where I’m translating on spec: Either I have been asked by an author or have asked an author if I could translate a work. So it is mainly up to me to get the translation published or produced. I try to keep in mind that publishers are in business to publish, producers need new work, grantors want to give money away . . . so, at least in theory, they will be glad to hear from me. They want my work to be good and perhaps they will even help me improve the translation or give me a hint about what kind of work they’re really interested in. That’s what I keep telling myself.
LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?
PG: On the front burner is a play by Ljubomir Đurković, a Montenegrin playwright and poet. The play is Medea (original: Medeja), the third in a trilogy he calls The Greeks. I translated an earlier play of his in 2003, but at that time I was not in contact with him directly—I was hired by the theater producing the play and we had a go-between to ask/answer questions. So I was bowled over when he wrote me last December to tell me how much he liked my translation and to ask if I would be willing to translate his latest play.
Medea retells the story of Jason and Medea in the modern language of mergers and acquisitions. The characters end up in the same place in the end (most of them poisoned), but how they get there is very different from the story we learned in school. It’s a comedy right up until its inevitable tragic ending. What really sets it apart for me is the absence of any settings or stage directions. I was into the third scene before I noticed—the dialog is so specific and alive that I was seeing the action unfold as I read.
Because the playwright initiated the translation himself, without any plans for publication, I suggested we apply for a grant to cover my fee, and it happened that the PEN/Heim grant had been extended, with the deadline three weeks away. We had a kind of “Are you in? I’m in!” moment, and what followed was a whirlwind of writing and editing and translating. Although we didn’t get the grant, applying was totally worth the effort—the intensity of the project quickly stripped away all formalities and allowed us to communicate simply and directly.
The play is now translated. Đurković likes it, readers like it, and the next step is getting a reading so that I can hear the translation, get feedback from actors, and revise it as necessary. The goal is a full production and print publication. I’m looking forward to translating more of his writing.
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