Interview with Celia Hawkesworth – translator of Balkan literature

Dr. Celia Hawkesworth is one of the pivotal translators of literature from the former Yugoslavia, and is the author of Ivo Andrić: Bridge between East and West and Zagreb: a cultural history. She equally chairs the British Scholarship Trust.


How did you become involved in translation and particularly the work of Ivo Andrić?

My association with the language began with family holidays in Yugoslavia, mostly on islands in Dalmatia, starting in 1955. After studying Russian and French at Cambridge, I lived for a year in Belgrade and followed this up with an MPhil in Serbo-Croat at The School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of University College London. I was appointed lecturer there in 1971. I was always more drawn to literature than language itself and there were always writers and works I wanted to share with a wider readership. Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 so he was someone I wanted to read very early on. His Bridge on the Drina was one of the first novels I struggled through while learning the language. I have always found him an exceptionally wise and balanced voice. A revelation to me, while working on the translation of Bosnian Chronicle with Bogdan Rakić and examining every word closely, was how funny Andrić can be. It is not the first thing that strikes one about his work, but it is there in the irony that colours his picture of the world. Last year I was given the challenge of translating Omer Pasha Latas for New York Review Books. I am working on this now.


You write in your book that he was bridge between East and West. How big a role did the concept of the bridge play in Andrić’s life?

Growing up as he did in a Catholic family near the border with Serbia, living first in Bosnia, then briefly in Zagreb before settling in Belgrade with a job in the diplomatic service, he would have been acutely aware of divisions between peoples at every level. He experienced the First World War at a very early age and this no doubt coloured his whole outlook. The lands that went to make up Yugoslavia after WW1 had been divided for centuries between the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires. He was fundamentally committed to the idea of Yugoslavia as a unifying principle, a way of reconciling divided peoples. It seems natural that he should have focused on the idea of a bridge as a unifying principle, again on all levels.


Did he himself have a favourite bridge? He wrote most eloquently about both the splendid Ottoman bridge over the Drina in the little town of Višegrad where The Bridge over the Drina is set. The novel contains many reflections on the nature and value of bridges and ends of course with the acute pain of seeing it blown up, the span no longer able to fulfill its purpose of connecting. This image recurs in some of his reflective pieces as encapsulating the trauma of war. The other bridge that lives vividly in his work is the subject of a short story ‘The Bridge on the Žepa. If you have space, I would like to include a paragraph from that story, published in my edited collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories.

‘Over there, in Bosnia, the bridge shone in the sun and glistened in the moonlight, taking men and cattle from one bank to the other. Little by little the circle of dug earth and scattered things that surrounds every new construction, disappeared: people carried off and the water swept away broken stakes, pieces of scaffolding and the rest of the timber, and the rains washed off the traces of stone-dressing. But the landscape could not accept the bridge nor could the bridge accept the landscape. Seen from the side, the bold span of its white arch always looked isolated and lonely and took the traveller by surprise like a strange thought, gone astray and caught among the crags, in the wilderness.’


How did you personally feel about the wars in the 1990s after having spent so much of your life wrapped in Yugoslavia and its culture?

It was an extremely painful experience and I belong to a generation that finds it hard not still to see the map of Yugoslavia underlying the present state borders. In the course of the wars I met large numbers of young people, students, anxious to continue their studies in the countries where they had taken refuge. The majority of them were as taken by surprise by the whole nationalist enterprise that had split the country apart as I was. They had grown up as Yugoslavs and were used to sharing that space with people with different cultural traditions.


Did the Balkan wars have an influence on how you translate now?

Only in the sense that I would avoid translating any work that promoted an extreme nationalist view of any kind. My focus now is entirely on fiction, but soon after the war I did translate some volumes of essays and political comment critical of the nationalist enterprise:


Sometimes, translation of words is the easiest. What about the feel of the language, its delivery and its tone? Is that more difficult?

A translator of fiction must always have that second element in mind. It is both more difficult and more rewarding. The translator has to immerse her or himself in the feeling of a given sentence, making it their own. But the task and the difficulty do not end there: the translator must then find ways of ‘bridging’ the gaps between the two languages in order to try to make a different cultural context accessible to readers in the target language.


Translators and interpreters hold the key to other cultures, offering a look into another world. That is a great deal of power. Any advice for up and coming translators and interpreters and their responsibility?

It is indeed a considerable responsibility. My only advice would be, following on from the previous question, that translators must be faithful to the meaning of the text, but also ready to move away from the original syntax in order to remake that meaning in the new language.




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