On Amateurish Translation

in Musings by

This article was originally going to be the publication of two new translations of Vesna Parun’s poetry, because I was unable to secure the rights to publish these pieces in time what follows instead is more of a thought piece on the position and predicament of translating. Vesna Parun was a Croatian poet who was most active in the second half of the 20th Century and only passed away in 2010. Her work primarily dealt with gender politics, resistance to authoritarianism, and love in all its tumultuous forms. Parun was also a keen satirist and a celebrated translator, there is then some irony that her own work has remained hitherto untranslated in English.

My first encounter with Parun’s work was at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in 2016 when I attended a one-woman show, which addressed her life and works. The actress on stage performed predominantly in Croatian, with a translation projected over her head onto the rear wall of the church in which it was staged. Her work is almost Joycean at times and its fluidity and depth is not something easily grappled with in subtitles that fade away before one barely has the chance to wrestle with their meaning. Poetry tends to be something which sits conveniently on the page before you, with no restrictions on the time within which it can be viewed, and with the possibility for the reader to return to and revisit the page at their leisure. Looking for translations of her work afterwards I was met with only the occasional snippet appearing in a blogpost or quoted in an article. It felt like a dead-end.

There is, however, one collection of her work which has been translated into French, La Pluie Maudite (1991), and in this edition the original text and its translation alternate page by page. My French is not as good as I would like it to be, but it’s more than enough to slowly pick through a poem and that I did. When I first moved to Copenhagen in July I had very little to do, as I had two months before class started and my social life was far from bustling, and so I set to work translating this little collection into English. I recognise that my method was far from professional and that my rendering of her work is a thousand miles from the original text, but what mattered to me was that this was as close as I could get to her works until someone more suited for the task would get around to it.

I used a Croatian-English dictionary to translate each individual word of the original text, giving me a helpful pile of ungrammatical and garbled nonsense. Then I would read through the French a couple of times, and scribble in a translation between the lines. I would leave it a couple of days, and then go back to try to polish it. Now I’m left with a little pile of A5 pages where I have draft translations of most of the poems in this collection scrawled in biro. I occasionally check my own translations with friends, who are more fluent in either of the two source languages, and then they scribble amendments and notes to my own work – and so the process continues.

Michael de Certeau has a concept that I have always liked, that “making do” whilst operating with limited resources is a form of production that should be more widely appreciated, rather than an obsession with finished and perfect products. This is meant to come from an understanding that by setting the standard for the significance of achievements too high we risk erasing the creative and myriad ways in which humans innovate and tumble through an otherwise rigid world.

Unfortunately it’s already difficult enough for a writer to be published and circulated in their mother tongue, in so many cases it seems wholly improbable that a writer might cross into another language. In short then, and not just because it serves my own ends, I think there should be more room for amateur translation, for haphazard grasping for meaning, for dragging something across the barriers that language structures.

Equally, I firmly believe that the differences we find between translations yield an exciting and fertile ground for exploring an author – perhaps to be understood in the same way one compares how two directors might so differently stage a play. This is then an acknowledgement that translation is an art rather than a science, and like all arts it must incorporate a spectrum of approaches, which vary so wildly in technique, application, and precision. From this then should come recognition of the role of ‘piracy’ in the landscape of translation. This could be in the form of films being poorly subtitled or dubbed by their fans so that they might reach a wider audience, as is such a prominent feature of anime circulation. Equally, it might be that a zine contains an unauthorised translation of a short story or poem that might not otherwise have been circulated.

I understand that this approach of encouraging DIY translators might be constructed as misguided vandalism by some, or that perhaps a writer might feel that they had been done a disservice if their greatest works were churned through Google Translate – but I am decidedly in favour of vigilante behaviour when it comes to broadening the arts. I feel that glimpsing something new through a muddy lens is a prime case for “making do” – for in this it is understood that the translation and dissemination of works is a process which is constantly refined, revisited and built upon in perpetuity. Let the amateurs and the vandals take the first steps and maybe something beautiful will sprout from that.


An anthology of some of Vesna Parun’s poetry is due to be published in September 2018,translated  (very professionally) by Dasha C. Nisula.

Simon's background is in American history and postcolonial studies. He wrote his dissertation on pirates, the extreme-Right, and the weaponization of historical memory. He now studies migration and displacement at Copenhagen University. Favourite topics: Eastern European and Antipodean literatures, zine making, modernism, and sentimental trash.

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