the complete review Quarterly
Volume VI, Issue 2   --   May, 2005

The Englishing of Ismail Kadare
Notes of a retranslator

David Bellos

       When I was asked ten years ago by Christopher MacLehose, the literary director of The Harvill Press, to take on the translation into English from the French translation of Ismail Kadare's Dosja H, I was initially dubious in the extreme. I knew no Albanian (and even now know only the tiniest scraps of that strange and difficult tongue). I also had principles ! Enough damage can be done in one language shift to make a double shift seem like a recipe, if not for disaster, then at least for pretty thin gruel. On the other hand, the book fascinated me; as I began to read more of Kadare in French I also realized that what was being put on my plate was a writer of the first importance, with an œuvre that was wide-ranging, coherent, intricately connected… and certainly worth bringing into English as well as could be done. But why not get it translated direct ? I asked MacLehose. He raised his long arms to the heavens. If you only knew… was his mysterious and unanswerable reply.

       It so happened that at about that time I saw an episode of the BBC "Video Diaries" series set in Albania. It was a kind of video log in the first person by a country doctor, Ylli Hassani, a man so destitute that he did not even have a stethoscope for patients even more destitute than he. He had learned English exclusively from listening (illegally) to BBC radio broadcasts, and he turned out to be as well-informed about the fortunes and back-stories of Liverpool United as any authentic Scouser. At the end of the program it was revealed that as a way of recompensing the doctor for having made the documentary, the BBC had brought him to England to fulfill his wildest dream -- to go to a Liverpool versus Manchester United cup final. I rang the producers to find out if Hassani was still in the UK, and yes, he was. I contacted him and asked him if he would like to help me translate Kadare, by telling me when my version of the French departed a lot, or a little, from the Albanian original. He came to stay, we got on with the work for a day or two, and then he disappeared. I later learned that he had managed to get a proper visa and to enroll at a medical school to obtain recognized or at least recognizable qualifications, so that was the end of the two-handed idea.

       Who else knew Albanian ? In Britain, remarkably few people: a sole member of the linguistics department of my university, a couple of people at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London… But no-one that my publisher could find who was a gifted and stylish literary translator, and also willing and free to do the job. (I have subsequently learned that there are some distinguished Englishmen proficient in Albanian -- Noel Malcolm, now of All Souls College, Oxford, and Julian Pettifer, at the BBC, but I'm not at all sure they would have wanted then, or would want now, to work for the rates of pay of a literary translator… )

       I went to Paris to meet Kadare himself and to quiz him (in French) on the problems and mysteries of the text. At that time (1994) he was preparing the first volumes of the extraordinary bi-lingual Complete Works series that Fayard has now brought out as far Volume 12 (and continuing). He showed me how he was working, checking the French against the Albanian… and vice versa. Yes, he said, I do change the Albanian when I feel that the French is better. He was not at all worried about being translated from his French translations; in fact, he said, he really preferred it that way. I then learned one of the reasons why.

       Isolated, isolationist, tyrannical and mad, Enver Hoxha's Albania never signed any copyright convention. (The post-communist Albanian Republic finally signed the Berne Convention on March 6, 1994). For the bulk of Kadare's writing life, therefore, none of his works in Albanian was protected by international copyright, and were thus simultaneously free (anyone could publish a translation, anywhere, just like that) and unavailable (no self-respecting publisher could buy the rights, since there were no rights to be bought). That's why it was simply easier to trade the French versions, which were of course © Librairie Arthème Fayard (or © Éditions Albin Michel, for the first works).

       Because of the lack of copyright, the Albanians themselves had produced English-language versions of some of Kadare's works: there are editions of The General of the Dead Army, The Castle (a cut and censored version of the novel now (and originally) called Les Tambours de la Pluie), and of various of Kadare's "duty" works such as An Autobiography of the People in Verse translated into English by Albanian linguists working in Tirana (whose knowledge of the language had presumably been gained, like Ylli Hassani's, from BBC sports reports). I now have a couple of these Tirana editions: they are dreadful -- accurate, no doubt, but in a language now completely out of date, and in a style so wooden it would float. (One work was translated in the US by an American-Albanian, Arshi Pipa, but I need to learn more about this figure before making any comment on his career.)

       Kadare has long been translated into German directly from Albanian, but for that there is a good reason: a German scholar virtually invented the discipline of Albanology, and there has long been a tradition of teaching Albanian in German universities. In Holland, too, Kadare is translated directly -- but then, Dutch authorities paid two experienced translators a good salary for two years simply to go and learn Albanian in order to do the job. Britan and America have neither those traditions, nor such support for translation.

        In addition, Kadare's French texts are more than merely professional translations. The great, late Jusuf Vrioni, who has told his story in a wonderful memoir called Mondes effaces. Souvenirs d'un Européen (Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 2001) learned French in France before the Second World War. In 1945, like many exiles, he decided to return to help build a new Albania from the ashes of multiple occupation and civil war. He was promptly thrown in jail for being a member of the wrong class. During his long imprisonment, he started translating into French simply to keep his memory of civilization alive, and to stop himself going mad. It was his translation into French of The General of the Dead Army that was taken out of the country and acquired by Albin Michel, and that translation led to the Italian edition, which led to the film (starring Mastroianni)... which all led to Kadare acquiring a kind of sacred status in his own land, as just about the only Albanian heard of outside the country, apart from Enver and Nexhime Hoxha.

       Vrioni translated everything Kadare wrote; Kadare's French was good enough for him to be able to read and appreciate Vrioni's labors; there were also things that Vrioni could keep in the French that had to be cut or altered from the Albanian; and there were of course whole works appearing in French that never came out as books, or never came out at all, in the people's paradise of socialist Albania. I never met Vrioni: he came to France again only toward the very end of his life, to be greeted as a hero at the Assises de la traduction littéraire at Arles.

       What I had translated, then, when I produced my English version of The File on H, was something more than a book by Ismail Kadare. It was a book by Kadare co-produced by one of the strangest but most effective translation pairs of all time. Vrioni's French is fluid, spare, slightly old-fashioned ... and not quite native. It has a poetry of its own, which I cannot compare to the original, of course, but which pleases and satisfies the author of the original. It may not be an obvious way to go about things, but translation is, on occasions, like politics, the art of the possible.

       Many other English-language translators have done one or two Kadare novels, from French (Derek Coltman, Barbara Bray, Jon Rothschild, Emile Capouya) and from Albanian (Peter Constantine, John Hodgson). Their work is not to be discounted, but their multiplicity has to do in part with the contorted history of Albin Michel's and Fayard's sale of rights to English-language publishers. It is often difficult for French publishers to imagine just how hard it is for foreign fiction to get a hearing in the US and the UK, and they do not always chose well, or consistently, in signing deals. The late Emile Capouya, of New Amsterdam Books, persisted heroically in trying to get Kadare an audience in the US, but he lost a lot of money over his small publishing house; Saqi Books, in the UK, which specializes in the Orient (and includes Albania, I guess, because of the Ottoman background) teamed up with New Amsterdam for a while; but then Fayard decided to move Kadare to Morrow in the US, a quite different kind of firm which predictably dropped the author after one book, which sold pitiful quantities.

       From the early 1990s, Harvill (originally, Collins Harvill, then The Harvill Press) picked up Kadare, reprinting titles from the Saqi backlist, and commissioning new translations year by year. Harvill is just about the only British house that specializes in foreign literature, and it found a partner in due course in Arcade, in New York. That is why the bulk of Kadare's work is now with those two houses, and is translated by people who have done many other titles for them (Barbara Bray, and myself). Alas, Harvill has now been forced into the sidelines and the torch has been passed to a Scottish independent, Canongate, as far as the UK is concerned, though in the US Arcade still holds it aloft.

       Kadare's low profile in the Engish-speaking world is partly due to the fact that he speaks no English and is thus not available for speaking tours, lectures, radio and television interviews -- the kind of author-promotion which seems an essential ingredient for a prominent career as a writer nowadays. (Even an interview with the BBC last week in the wake of the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize was cancelled on grounds that a voice-over translation would make "bad radio".) But as Kadare's stint at Bard College last fall, and his "performance" at Princeton in December demonstrate, it is possible, with proper preparation, to reach an English-language audience through simultaneous interpretation. It just costs a lot !

       Jusuf Vrioni died in 2002, and a competition was held to find his successor. Four finalists were read "blind" by publisher's readers (Kadare did not even look at the submissions) and the unanimous verdict went -- not to a Frenchman, but to another and perhaps equally special Albanian, Tedi Papavrami, a concert violinist now based in Geneva. Papavrami's French is far more intricate than Vrioni's, I might say it is almost baroque, and I think the change of tone will be noticeable in The Successor, the next of Kadare's novels to appear in English (probably this fall). Kadare claims his own style in Albanian hasn't changed one bit, but he does not mind at all that his French work has been moved in the direction of greater linguistic complexity.

       My own impression is that Kadare has long understood the constraints of writing "double" -- for his Albanian readers, on the one hand, and for a world audience, on the other. He doesn't think that anything he writes in prose is "untranslatable" -- on the contrary, he thinks that what he has to say will come through in pretty much any language. He could hardly be more different in his attitude to linguistic particularity than (for example) Milan Kundera, who insists that even his original punctuation in Czech be reproduced without alteration in English translation.

       What I try to do in my twice-removed translations of Kadare from French is to respect the simplicity of the language, and at the same time to decorate it with those classical and Shakespearean associations that seem to me to hover over nearly all he writes. For Kadare is not, in any ordinary sense, a contemporary writer, that's to say a writer engaged with contemporary trends and fashions. He's a story-teller – a bard – a rhapsode, indeed, spinning yarns that are always slightly strange yet hauntingly familiar. One day, I hope, a literary translator with fluent Albanian will devote a lifetime to translating the entire œuvre over again. In the meantime, I am honored to be able to do my little bit to make this remarkable writer accessible to English speakers the world over.

© 2005 David Bellos

David Bellos has taught at the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, and, currently, Princeton. He has translated numerous works from the French, notably works by Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, and is the author of two biographies, Georges Perec. A Life in Words and Jacques Tati. His Life and Art.

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© 2005 the complete review Quarterly
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