At the Abu Dhabi Book Fair a few years back, I was asked to give a presentation on publishing translated literature. Knowing that for publishers who publish for the entire Arabic speaking world, or indeed the entire English-speaking world, a publisher that focuses on the ‘small’ languages of the Balkans would seem to have an impossible job on their hands, I wanted to show an example of how something of quality from a so-called ‘small language’ could be accepted – and indeed loved – by a global audience.
If the tech had worked, the listeners to my presentation would have taken their seats to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, a much loved classic in many people’s books, and even for those who aren’t fans, a song which could certainly be considered global cultural coinage. The story goes back in the 1950s, the Croatian singer and composer, Ivo Robić, composed a song called “Ta ljetna noć” (That Summer Night) and sent it to a festival in former Yugoslavia, where it was rejected. He later shared that song with producer Bert Kaempfert who later ‘rewrote’ it as Strangers in the Night for Sinatra.
Woolf famously bemoaned the fictional fate of Shakespeare’s sister – a poet more talented than the bard whose life and talent was wasted because she was ostracised and never allowed to flourish artistically – in order to illustrate how much we lose when we do not allow plurality and equality in the creative world. How many local Shakespeares will we never hear about because the industry is too greedy to invest in translation or too closed-minded to look for talent outside the narrow confines of our language?
(Catherine the Great and the Small By Olja Knežević, Translated by Paula Gordon & Ellen Elias-Bursac)
In an age where the authentic voice of experience is valued more than ever, why can we find so few books where ‘indigenous’ authors speak about the issues in their own countries? If you want to read about the war of the 1990s in Bosnia, turn to the work of Faruk Šehić or Alma Lazarevska. If you are going on holiday to the Dalmatian or Montenegrin coast, buy a copy of Olja Savičević’s Farewell, Cowboy (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) or Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small (Translated by Paula Gordon & Ellen Elias-Bursac). If you want to see the Balkans laughing at themselves (and us!), then purchase Alek Popov’s hysterical Mission London (translated by Charles de M Gill).
(Susan Curtis is Founder of Istros Books)