Translator Spotlight: Ellen Elias-Bursać and Sibelan Forrester

Translating literature is a bit like using silk to recreate a wool dress. Even the best translation can only be a reflection. Two award-winning literary translators featured on Underpass, Ellen Elias-Bursać and Sibelan Forrester, talked to us about what they do and why translating from small languages, such as Croatian, is so valuable.


Literary translators are students of not only language but also literature, culture, history, and writing. “One thing I love about translating literature is that it’s the closest possible reading. You really do see how (the piece) works. It’s almost like learning the magic trick of a magician,” said Forrester, who is a professor of Russian language and literature at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and is primarily known as a Russian translator, with the South Slavic languages as her secondary focus. She has won numerous awards and fellowships and was awarded the 2006 Heldt Prize for Best Translation in Slavic/East European/Eurasian Women’s Studies for Dubravka Oraić-Tolić’s American Scream/Palindrome Apocalypse.


Elias-Bursać worked as a freelance translator much of the eighteen years she lived in Zagreb. She said she first turned to literature to restore faith in her work as a translator. As a freelance translator, she worked on a vast array of documents—from reports for building highways to training materials for the Eurovision Song Contest. “I started looking to literature because it was deliberate writing...I was desperate to work on things that had actually been written carefully and intentionally,” she said. Seeking bigger projects led her to literature and books. Elias-Bursać has gone on to translate many Croatian writers and taught at Harvard University for ten years. She has won numerous honors for translation and is largely regarded as a premiere translator of Croatian.


Balancing Act

Highly crafted writing presents complex puzzles for translators. They aim to create new writing that strikes just the right balance between fluent English and a verbatim translation, but a million subjective decisions must be made along the way.


“The idea used to be that you created a new piece that was just so English it sounded like it was written by a native speaker, but I think that what we are trying to do now as a group of translators is a little bit different. We are trying to take English to the edge of what it can stand and have it still be good English. There is kind an elegance to sentences that don’t quite conform to typical knee-jerk English,” Elias-Bursać said. This means the translation won’t always feel completely natural in English.


When translating Croatian to English, word order and run-on sentences can be especially challenging. And the more skilled and careful the writer, the more difficult they can be to translate, Elias-Bursać said. “For example, sometimes I get the feeling that, for careful writers, what they end one sentence with and begin the next with is important. They are taking you on a sequence...taking you through a kind of change. So I feel responsible to try to maintain that as much as I can. It’s not always easy.”


Sometimes, equivalent English words just don’t exist. Forrester pointed to Croatian words like lijep, lijepa, etc. as nearly untranslatable. “It has a range of meanings that no one English word can convey ‘fine, handsome, beautiful, very nice,’ all of those things depending on the context,” Forrester said. Finding ways to say this in English without being repetitive can be a challenge.


In another example, Croatian and many other European languages have a habit of using adverbs in attribution of dialog. English is more likely to use simple attribution. “(In English) we don’t do a lot of ‘he explained” or ‘he said cheerfully,’  ‘he wept mournfully.’ That’s just very heavy-handed in English and that may not be what the author is after,” Elias-Bursać said. So translators have to try to make decisions that align with the original intent of the author.


Passion over Profit

There are very few highly qualified translators for small languages like Croatian, so Forrester and Elias-Bursać are frequently approached by authors. Even though they look for highly refined writing when they take on new projects, pay rates are often low when the amount of time required is taken into consideration. Personal passions and interests play a large role in their decision to take on new projects.


Forrester primarily translates from Russian and works as a full-time professor so her time for new translation projects is limited. She only takes on new Croatian translations when she is motivated by an author or a spectacular piece of writing has moved her. It was Mirjana Buljan’s compelling, unique story, and lyrical language that inspired Forrester to translate sections of the book when Buljan approached her. Serpent in Paradise presents a semi-autobiographical tale of a child growing up in the multi-ethnic and religiously varied city of Niš before the World Wars. “It shows that up until about World War II, people in these highly diverse regions got along fairly well. Not that they were blending into a melting pot. I have heard the comparison of a tossed salad,” Forrester said. “Mira also just has a real sense of what makes a good story and writes very lyrically and accessibly about everyday life.”


For the bulk of Elias-Bursać’s career she has been a full-time professional translator, so she has needed to be more liberal in her selection process. She is approached by many authors and will frequently give some time to writers even if she doesn’t translate their entire book. “I don’t want to be a gatekeeper—if I can help it. That’s not my job...People have this feeling that what I do is magic and once I translate something of theirs it’s all going to be perfect because I have had success,” she said. Rather than turn authors away when she is not interested or does not have enough time, she will often translate short excerpts they can use to find publishers. If the author can find a publisher, a different translator can do the full project.


On Underpass, Elias-Bursać translated an excerpt from Tomica Šćavina’s new book, Return of the Genius. She also translated Šćavina's book Kaleidoscope World, which is available in English as an e-book from Translating Šćavina’s work was an interesting change from the post-modernist writing she usually translates, she said. “Because Šćavina is a trained psychologist, she focuses on character and motivation.  Her characters are very alive. The language is good, she is a good writer, but it is a vehicle to express the other things,” Elias-Bursać said.


In the past, she has taken on translations for primarily personal reasons, Elias- Bursać. She is well known for translating the work of post-modern, post-Yugoslav writers such as David Albahari and Dubravka Ugrešić. Having lived in Zagreb during the 1980s with a husband who worked in publishing, Elias-Bursać knew many of the writers personally. When she returned to the United States in 1990, she wanted to champion their cause. “It was my generation—the post-modernists...I worked hard to give them a voice because I thought they deserved to be more widely read,” she said.


Forrester said she felt giving voice to small languages like Croatian is especially important work for translators. “It would be a great shame if native speakers of smaller languages had to write in a world language. It would really simplify what they were able to do and wouldn’t allow that language to continue to function in all of its richness,” she said.