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Translating Skopje: An Interview with Christina Kramer

Christina Kramer’s translation of A Spare Life is on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlist, which was announced last week.

The twenty-five books on this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) longlist showcase some of the most impressive voices in contemporary international literature and some of the best literary translators working in the field today. We were thrilled to see Two Lines Press’s A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska in the company of so many great works in translation! 

A Spare Life tells the story of Zlata and Srebra, conjoined twins growing up in communist Yugoslavia, as they transition from their desperately poor, provincial childhood to young adulthood and independence. At the same time, we witness Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to democracy. I reached out to the novel’s translator, Christina Kramer, a professor of Slavic and Balkan languages and linguistics at the University of Toronto, who was traveling in Macedonia at the time of our correspondence.

 Sarah Coolidge: What was your reaction to hearing that A Spare Life was included on the BTBA longlist?

Christina Kramer: I am currently in Macedonia, and I knew that the announcement would be made at 10:00 eastern time. At 4:00 pm local time I logged in and was absolutely thrilled to see the book on the list. I treated myself to a rakija while looking out at the Macedonian passersby and sent an email right away to Lidija and to the people who read drafts for me.

SC: You’re a professor of Slavic and Balkan languages and linguistics and have translated literature from Bulgarian and Macedonian. How many languages do you know and what first got you interested in learning and later translating from them?

CK: I never quite know what to do with the “How many languages do you know?” question. Knowing a language is such a complex enterprise. I regularly read in five or six languages for my research, I usually teach Macedonian and Russian, I can carry on basic conversations in about six, but I have taken courses in more than a dozen. I have failed to learn more languages than I have learned, but as a linguist, I know lots of things about a wide array of languages. However, I now translate only from Macedonian. It is the language in whose culture I have been most immersed, and words therefore carry context, sound, and history for me. I suppose I could translate from Bulgarian and Russian as well, but I have not spent enough time there recently to feel that I would capture the nuanced meanings of many words and expressions.

I began to study Russian as a high school student. I went to Beloit College, in Wisconsin, where I was able to begin studying a number of Balkan languages: Serbo-Croatian (as it was then termed), Bulgarian, and a semester of modern Greek. I continued to study Spanish and Russian. I had a triple major in Russian, comparative literature, and modern languages (i.e., linguistics). I went to graduate school to continue my study of Russian literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A professor there, Victor Friedman, saw the work I had done on Balkan languages and convinced me to follow my heart to the Balkans and switch from literature to linguistics. I studied a summer in Bulgaria, followed by a summer in Macedonia. I received a Fulbright scholarship and IREX fellowship to spend a year in Skopje. While I have worked mainly as a linguist, I continue to be an avid reader. The ability to combine, through translation, my deep love of linguistic intricacies with my love of reading has been a remarkable discovery.

SC: What was it about A Spare Life in particular that made you want to translate it?

CK: I had read Lidija’s poetry and actually met her in Toronto sometime after the publication of Do Not Awaken Them with Hammers. I had not known that she was writing novels until I was invited to consider translating A Spare Life. After reading the first fifty pages, I jumped at the opportunity to be the voice of both Lidija and Zlata. Who would turn down the opportunity to work with an author whose language is so vivid and original!

SC: There is a fair amount of history woven into the novel, as well as references in the first part to specific people and things from 1980s Yugoslavia. Did you find that you had to do a lot of research throughout the translation process? Did you ever reach out to Lidija in order to clarify something?

CK: My first trip to Macedonia was in the late 1970s. Since then, with a few exceptions, I have gone there every year. When I am in Macedonia, I am usually in Skopje. I walk in Toronto, and I walk in Skopje, several miles a day. I think of Skopje through different sight lines. When I was working on my dissertation I lived in a student dormitory and got to experience walking through the city in all seasons. In fact, I make a point to go to Skopje in different seasons, not always in the summer. This novel describes the Skopje that I know very well. These are exactly the years that I have been coming to Macedonia. Still, I was never a child in Macedonia, and, therefore, I needed to ask questions about children’s games and expressions of childhood.

SC: Are you currently working on any translations or other projects?

CK: In addition to my linguistic research on the language situation in Macedonia, I continue to work on a number of translation projects. The third novel in Luan Starova’s Balkan Saga, The Path of the Eels, will be out next month with Autumn Hill Books. Starova is an Albanian-Macedonian who writes in Macedonian (and later produces Albanian versions of his works). The first two, My Father’s Books and The Time of the Goats, were published by University of Wisconsin Press. At a time of heightened interethnic and interlinguistic conflict in Macedonia, Starova’s works, which highlight the long and deep cultural and linguistic ties of different Balkan peoples, provide an antidote to our notions of the Balkans as a locus of conflict because they focus on centuries of cultural and linguistic exchange.

I have done preliminary work on another novel by Dimkovska, Non-oui, and a new novel by Goce Smilevski (author of Freud’s Sister, which I translated for Penguin). I just finished translating five short stories by the new Macedonian writer Branislav Gjorgjevski from his collection North of the Sun (Severno od sonceto), and I have two poems by Vladimir Martinovski, “After the Dance” and “Look,” coming out in International Poetry Review. I am unbelievably fortunate to be able to work face-to-face with all these writers who have entrusted their English voice to me.

SC: What other writers from Macedonia or its surrounding region should we be reading?

CK: I focus on Macedonian writers, so I will keep the focus on Macedonian literature here. In announcing the BTBA 2017 longlist, a number of people have mentioned the growing number of books in translation, new presses, new translators, and new voices being heard in English translation. To date there has been very little Macedonian literature in translation, but that is slowly changing. I was asked to provide some information on Macedonian literature in translation for the blog Map World Literature, and readers can find some interesting suggestions there.

I would add here that I am returning to Canada with a suitcase full of new books—short stories, poetry, and novels—that should provide great reading in English! No spoilers, but I hope to get some of these out in the next year or two.