Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica is a Slovenian translator living in Ljubljana. In 2015, she was a Paul Celan Visiting Fellow at IWM, where she translated Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century into Slovenian.
When non-fiction tops the list: 149 books in translation enabled by the Institute’s Paul Celan program
by Ludger Hagedorn
The picture accompanying this interview was taken in the biggest bookshop in Ljubljana in 2016, shortly after the publication of the Slovenian translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Next to the author’s name, written in big letters in red, it displays in similarly big letters in black the Slovenian title and at the very bottom, inconspicuous, in much smaller letters and almost like an annoying imposition, the translator’s name. It is a telling picture. Though the work of translators is indispensable for literary and academic discourse, it is most often not only underpaid (or sometimes not paid at all) but also heavily underrated by the public. And though the work of translators is most time- and energy-consuming, and demands great creativity as well as language skills, their achievements are rarely acknowledged. Their biggest success is to have done their jobs so well that the translation process itself fully escapes the reader’s attention. Consequently, in book reviews translators usually are mentioned either in a compulsory marginal note (seemingly the translator has done a good job) or they are criticized for allegedly not matching up to the author’s linguistic richness or the subtlety of differentiations.
The translator of the Slovenian edition of Thomas Piketty’s worldwide bestseller is Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica. She was a fellow at the IWM in the summer of 2015, when she spent three months at the Institute translating the book from the original French into Slovenian. For her, as for many other translators, such a stay is a double opportunity. First and foremost, the fellowship offers the chance to fully concentrate on a translation project, something that is otherwise often hindered by too many other parallel obligations. Second, it is a rare experience for translators who are used to working in isolation to discuss their issues with the IWM community of fellows, to make use of its library and infrastructure, and to take part in its public and academic events. Vesna made the best of her fellowship and finished the translation on time. The translated book came out immediately after the end of her stay at the Institute, and a few weeks later the happy and proud translator sent the following little note to her friends and colleagues at the IWM: “Perhaps the information that in October 2015 the Piketty translation knocked the infamous 50 Shades of Grey (!) off the 1st place among best-sellers in Slovenia, could be of some use to you,” followed by a smiley. This was a rare occasion for a translator to see her work thus rewarded—and at the same time clear evidence that the translation of non-fiction books is an important undertaking for a significant number of readers.
Under the rubric “Made in IWM,” we normally publish short articles on books that were written or conceived at the institute, supplemented by links to reviews written about these or to other materials that somehow relate to their reception. For a translation, it is a sobering experience to look for such reviews or further references. It is not only the case that the translator’s work hardly ever gets expressly acknowledged, as noted above. Even if such references existed, it would be a futile undertaking to collect them for an article like this, since it is of little interest or benefit to an international readership to find out about the subtleties and innovations of a translation into any “smaller” language such as Slovenian. To learn about the weal and woe of translation, it seems most advisable to speak to the person who knows best: the translator herself. That is why below we publish an interview with Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica, allowing her to speak not only about her own experiences as a translator, but also about the meaning of translation in general for public and academic discourse.
The program in whose frame Vesna came to the IWM as a fellow is named after the poet and translator Paul Celan. His work is an exemplary illustration of a writing that draws from a variety of languages and cultures, and that bridges cultural and linguistic diversity. The Paul Celan Fellowship is one of the institute’s oldest programs, having run (almost) continuously since it was established in 1987. It is one of the very few programs internationally that is dedicated to the translation of non-fiction books. Scholars/translators in the realm of the humanities and social sciences are invited for a stay at the institute (usually of three months) to pursue their projects.
Since its inception, the conditions of the fellowship state that translations can either be from or into an Eastern European language. For both the “East” and the “West” the division of Europe after the Second World War deeply impaired the mutual reception of literature and debates in the humanities and social sciences. The program is meant to overcome still existing discrepancies and imbalances resulting from this divide. The overwhelming majority of projects that have been realized so far have been dedicated to translating into Eastern European languages. This might reflect an ongoing mismatch in the mutual interest of East and West. On the other hand, the fact that most applications derive from Eastern European countries clearly reflects the economic situation of publishing houses there: often these were simply not able to realize their envisaged projects without external support for the translation costs.
Of the 149 translation projects that have been realized so far, works by Western European authors dominate. However, translations into Western European languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish remain few, with German faring slightly better (seven). Translations into Eastern European languages are prevalent: Polish is in the lead with twenty-two projects so far, followed by Hungarian (seventeen), Czech (fifteen), Bulgarian (fourteen), and Romanian (ten). In recent years the number of translations into Ukrainian has increased up to sixteen. The Baltic languages are well represented while translations into Albanian, Belarusian, and Georgian remain rare. The languages of the former Yugoslavia collectively, with eighteen projects, are second only to Polish—the first four while it was still one entity, and later ones divided between Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Slovenian.
Modern classics in sociology and philosophy have a large share of the authors translated. Books by Max Weber, Edmund Husserl, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault have attracted at least three translations projects each. However, and maybe a bit surprisingly, the two top-ranked authors are female: Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler. Similarly high up on the list are works by Jan Patočka and Hans-Georg Gadamer, both of whom have a close connection to the history of the IWM. Further authors translated more than once include Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, G.W.F. Hegel, Siegfried Kracauer, Paul Ricoeur, and Georg Simmel.
A short review of 149 books and translators should not emphasize somebody individually. But two exceptions have be allowed due to the outstanding prominence of both people concerned. One of the early fellows was Zoran Djindjic, later Serbia’s prime minister, who during his stay at the IWM translated Husserl’s Crisis. The other is the 2002 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Imre Kertész, who worked on the Hungarian translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Vermischte Bemerkungen.
Finally, it is important to mention our partners, without whose support it would not have been possible to realize the program of the Paul Celan Fellowships. The IWM is most grateful to Bosch Stiftung, Stuttgart, and Erste Stiftung, Vienna, which supported this program for many years, and to S. Fischer Stiftung, Berlin, our new partner since 2020.
You can read the interview with the Slovenian translator Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica below. I would like to thank Vesna for her cooperation and her willingness to not only speak about the concerns of a translator and the translation process, but also to give a face to the translator herself who most often stays in the background. We would both like to see this also as a symbolic gesture to speak out on behalf of the other 148 translators who took part in the Paul Celan Fellowship program.
Ludger Hagedorn in conversation with Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica
Vesna, you are a translator—among many other states of being and things that you also do. Why do you think that translation is important?
History provides the answer. The intellectual, spiritual, even physical landscape of Europe and the world would be unimaginably different without translators. This is no hyperbole. Not only was the Bible, the role of which is superfluous to stress, spread via translators—so were the works of Aristotle, for example. They were lost to the Western world. It was mostly thanks to their Arabic-speaking translators, and then the European translators who translated them from Arabic, that Europe regained them.
So, to gauge the import of translation you only need to look around. What do you see? What kind of cityscape? Without translators, the environment you are seeing would likely be unrecognizable, because the concepts on which that cityscape grew and developed over the centuries wouldn’t be there.
This is a striking argument, yet a historical one. How do you see today’s situation? Many would argue that, especially in sciences, it is enough that we all communicate in English.
Every era had its lingua franca; today, it’s “basic” English. And it certainly is “enough”—if all we are after is the exchange of technical knowledge. But the increase of such knowledge—of factual information of any kind—does not automatically equal progress in terms of well-being (which is always heavily dependent on intangibles), of cultural growth, of a full and enriching experience of the world.
Languages, including dialects, are a direct reflection of the underlying mentality of the communities from which they emerged. They are also essential identity markers—in some cases, such as the Slovene nation, perhaps the only true identity marker, certainly the main cohesive factor. By suppressing them, which insidious gradual substitution does— and most especially, if the substitution takes place in areas associated with self-governance and power, such as economics—that identity, with its unique historical and cultural references, is slowly eroded and eventually obliterated.
So, if we were to discuss the “point” of translation we might just as well ask ourselves: what is the point of trying to preserve national identities? And it would be a legitimate—indeed very interesting—question, but one that exceeds by far the scope of this interview.
By the way, and this is the supreme irony, the English being used is, as I already mentioned, predominantly a “basic”—that is, severely impoverished—version that is arguably depleting, mostly via the internet, even English itself, which is doing no favors to anyone.
What about the so-called “smaller languages”? It seems that these especially not only depend on translations to preserve some “linguistic sovereignty,” but that they are also more active in translating, so that in proportion to the population even more books are being translated.
In contemporary Europe, a “small” language—spoken by a numerically small nation or community—is more of a boon than it is a curse. The “smaller” the language, the less parochial its speakers tend to be. Of course, there is no paradox in that: in order to thrive, you have to import, see what is “out there.” At the same time, it is essential for true sovereignty—always entangled with the notion of identity—to develop and fine-tune the linguistic tools needed for proper discourse on any topic. From this alone it should be obvious how essential, absolutely indispensable, the role of translators is, especially in a “small” milieux, for the intellectual and cultural growth of a society.
Translation often seems like squaring the circle. Whatever you do, the result will never be a one-to-one mirroring of the original. But translation also opens up a creative space.
Certainly, translation is an authorial activity, one that necessarily engages all of your intellect and intuition and personal experience; it engages everything that you know and everything that you are. People will often ask translators whether they “write” themselves (and why not). I like to joke: “What do you mean, do I write? I've written some of the very best novels of the 20th century. Only, I wrote them in Slovene.” It only works as a joke because there is a deep truth in it. Translation is re-writing a text as a thoroughly involved co-author. You have to render the meaning as accurately as humanly possible—but the full meaning of a literary work is not conveyed through what is said only, but also through how it is said. You also have to render the “texture” of the author’s voice, his or her timbre, the tone of the work. In a way, translation is very similar to musical interpretation, with the added challenge of having to transpose a score written for, say, piano to be played on a cello, but that cello somehow still has to sound like a piano. In fact—or rather, in my opinion—a translation should be viewed (and presented, and judged) as an autonomous work of literature in the target language—but one that conveys the concepts and tone laid out by someone else, the original author.
But any musing on translation is also a good opportunity to ponder on the inevitable gaps in everyday semantics—which are not often speculated about, except in theory, and even then not deeply enough. Words are, in a very real, literal sense, the building blocks of our perceptible world—and thereby a prison, just as much as a space of liberation.
What about the translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which you were working on at the IWM in the frame of the Paul Celan Fellowship: what were the most demanding challenges you were confronted with and how happy you are with the result?
I will forever be grateful to my editor for having been given the opportunity to translate it. It is one of the very few books, among the more than fifty I’ve translated, that probably “changed my life,” inasmuch as a book can do that. It did that not just by teaching me very valuable data but by making me far more aware of the inner workings of economics in general—which was precisely the author’s intention: empowering everyone, not just economists, by offering a better understanding of the economic framework that shapes their daily lives, which in its turn might help, in time, to exert greater control over it.
In translating it, the main challenge was the need to coin certain terms, because economists in Slovenia (as in many other countries) often use English technical terms, untranslated. The importance of having one’s own linguistic tools to formulate and manage any political or social discourse is probably too obvious to comment on. On the other hand, there was the obvious need for the terms, and the language in general, to remain familiar and practical for the purpose.
Exceptionally, there were no less than three editors, plus a copy editor, cooperating on the book, which, naturally, made for lively discussions (and, occasionally, very little sleep). It is safe to say that scorching-hot Viennese summer of 2015 isn’t one I am going to forget any time soon. In the end, we came up with a book that is bound to remain a seminal reference work for at least a generation or two of Slovene economists. Or, more precisely, for economists working in Slovene.
You must have been happy to see it ranked Number 1 on the Slovenian list of bestsellers?
I certainly was happy, though not really surprised, considering the fame of the original. What did throw me for a loop was the news that it had knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off its formerly undisputed top position. In the autumn of 2015, that was quite an achievement!
There is a special day in the year dedicated to translation: September 30th, St Jerome/Hieronymus day, is the International Translation Day. Does it help to raise awareness?
The fact that it exists at all (and I am grateful it does) says a lot. Like women and endangered species, translation seemingly needs a day to “raise awareness” about its importance and plight. As in those other cases, it doesn’t really work. In this case, even the name of the day tells you just how much “awareness” is missing: it is not dedicated to translators but to “translation,” apparently a self-generating activity—a mechanical parthenogenesis.
Anyway, I think it does help some to raise awareness, but mostly among the people who already are more or less aware of the importance of translation: readers, librarians, etc. “Preaching to the choir” comes to mind.
What I think would help raise awareness—and quickly!—would be to remove (even just optically) all translated works on all the shelves of libraries and bookstores for the day, or even just a few hours. Or just to invite (via the media) all readers to please do try this at home. Remove all translations from your shelves. See what you are left with.
What would also help tremendously, and it doesn’t require any radical interventions, would be to make it mandatory (not optional) for all media book reviews—and all online bookshops—to include the name of the translator among the essential data about the book (author, translator, year, and place of publication). It’s not about some ego trip—it is, after all, basic information: not just recognition of the translator’s work but also a gesture of fairness and transparency towards the readership and towards the author of the original.
Still, there has been progress, no question about it. Decades ago, it was unthinkable—or a major exception—for the translator to be named on the cover of the book; today—at least in many European countries, including Slovenia—it is standard procedure. There are even increasing numbers of readers who will be attracted to a book because of the translator, not necessarily the author.
However, the bottom line—monetary remuneration—quickly reveals how severely undervalued translators’ work still is (and not just in literature; the same goes for subtitling, an area that has a major impact on the target language, for far more people watch TV than read books). That is why programs such as the Paul Celan Fellowship—which is unique in that it provides help for non-fiction translation—are so invaluable. By guaranteeing the translator a safe spacetime to work in, temporarily free of the most pressing financial concerns, it recognizes and honors the work and role of translators in society.
Hagedorn, Ludger, When non-fiction tops the list 149 books in translation enabled by the Institute’s Paul Celan program
Samo Rugelj, Bukla 115 https://issuu.com/revijabukla/docs/bukla-115/21