Croatian, ASL, and Optimistic Translation: An Interview with Sara Nović

ALTA blog contributor Ken Bruce interviewed author and translator Sara Nović, whose novel Girl at War has just come out in paperback in both the US and UK. 

To start with, you’ve been translating a number of poems from Izet Sarajlić’s Sarajevska Ratna Zbirka (Sarajevo War Journal) from the Bosnian.  Those of these I’ve read are fairly short but quite pointed and very (darkly) funny.  Were there any difficulties rendering the full impact and humor of Sarajlić’s poetry into English within such a condensed, sometimes claustrophobic form?  

novic headshot

Sara Nović

Definitely. Sarajlić’s humor, and the way he presents such strong narratives in small spaces, are what drew me to his work.Translating from Bosnian to English in general can be difficult because Bosnian’s seven cases afford a lot more flexibility with word order than English, and it requires significantly less pronouns and prepositions. I think every translator develops priorities for a project that best reflect the author’s original intentions–so I tried to keep the language as spare as I could, at the possible expense that an American reader might not get every reference. Working with these poems forced me to focus on economy of language, and I feel that reflected in my own creative work now, too–if a word doesn’t absolutely need to be there, I cut it.

If there is one thing that the American people know less about than the state of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, it’s probably the state of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian literature.  Are there lesser known writers from these countries already translated into English you think deserve more attention?  Are there as yet untranslated authors of poetry or fiction who should be brought to an English-speaking audience, maybe even someone whose work you’d personally like to tackle?   

There is so much great literature coming out of all the ex-Yugo countries. Everyone should read everything by Dubravka Ugrešić, of course. Slavenka Drakulić is great, too. These two I know already exist in English, as do really famous writers like Ivo Andrić and Vasko Popa. Unfortunately the reason why a lot of Americans don’t know about the state of literature in ex-Yugo is because much of it is untranslated. I suppose this is the case with much of the world’s literature, given the tiny percentage of things Americans read in translation. I’d really like to get Sarajlić’s work out to a wider audience; then I’d love to tackle some prose, maybe a contemporary Croatian novel.

You studied translation and fiction at Columbia University for your Masters.  How far back did your interest in literary translation go before this?  Was there any translator’s or author’s writing or guidance that particularly inspired you? 

I’ve always had a love of languages, and I’ve been lucky to have three in my life substantially–English, Croatian and American Sign Language. (There was a time in college where I could read novels in Spanish, but unfortunately I haven’t stretched that muscle in quite a while!) And to be Deaf, too, is to live a life in translation–I was used to having interpreters translate my signs into English, and others’ English into ASL on a daily basis. That said, though, I never considered translation as a literary or career endeavor–it just didn’t cross my mind somehow. It was luck that I arrived at Columbia while the translation program was just beginning, and the faculty was pretty phenomenal. Susan Bernofsky and Idra Novey were particularly encouraging of my work in the early stages, when I was still working out what translating poetry even entailed, and their positive responses kept me going. Susan was also very inclusive of ASL, whereas at the university level Columbia doesn’t even give students language credit for studying it. We did an exchange with Gallaudet where we translated GU students’ creative work into English and they translated ours into ASL. That experience made me feel like the translation world was a community of which I wanted to be a part.

In addition to being an author and translator, you also founded/edit for Redeafined, a “blog concerned with restoring the balance of information surrounding deaf issues.”  Not out of line with this philosophy, you have written a number of short stories focusing on d/Deaf characters.  In an article from last year you wrote about the obstacles of promulgating the Deaf experience in written English, as opposed to using sign languages, but conveyed hope that there is room in the English language/literature for such expression.  How has your writing and your relationship with written English evolved as you’ve tried to carve out a space for the d/Deaf experience in the seemingly hostile environment of the English language? 

My relationship with English is a bit of a fraught one because in a way I feel like it can never be truly mine. On the page I can understand and control all its elements, but out in the world only about 60% of spoken English is comprehensible through lipreading–the rest is context and guesswork. In that way, I think my engagement with English is always from a Deaf perspective to some degree.

I’ve written Deaf characters, and have played with dialogue in a really basic way, like in the removal of quotation marks from hearing people’s speech, and characters who speak and sign simultaneously, but say two different things. The project I’m working on now, though, has many Deaf characters and addresses the ASL/English divide more directly. I am experimenting with a way to translate ASL into English but still feel distinct from English. I haven’t figured out how to do it, yet. But I think it’s important that I do it in a way that takes ASL from three dimensions to two without flattening it, because I want hearing people to understand that there is a linguistic richness in ASL one can’t find elsewhere–it’s not just gestures or broken English.

Are there are ways your experiences of translating between ASL and English for yourself and writing characters’ ASL dialogue out into English have influenced and/or been influenced by your experience translating from the Croatian and Bosnian into English, or do they remain independent of each other for you?

ASL obviously has a very different grammatical structure from either English or Croatian/Bosnian, because it operates as a 3-D mechanism. If you are telling a story in ASL, you can set up characters and objects in space and then move them around. So beyond a single sign, where you place it or the way you move it conveys a lot of indirect information beyond the denotation of that one sign. This movement is what makes ASL unique, and I’d really love to be able to figure out how to capture that via English. I’m not sure that my translation from Croatian has given me any clues as to how to approach that particular question, but without having learned about and practiced translation and overcome challenges between languages, I probably would’ve just discounted it as an impossible task. Translating has made me more optimistic about translating, and about writing.


Sara Nović is the author of Girl At War (Random House; Little, Brown UK), now out in paperback. girl at warIn 2014 she was an ALTA Travel Fellow for her work on Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlić’s Sarajevska Ratna Zbirka (Sarajevo War Journal). She has an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied fiction and literary translation. She teaches writing at Columbia, Wesleyan University, and with the literary nonprofit Words After War, and lives in Brooklyn.

Ken Bruce lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he studiesken bruce philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, writes short fiction, and enjoys reading and learning about translated literature from all parts of the world.

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