With the 60th Book Fair currently underway in Belgrade, we sat down with Zoran Paunović - beloved professor of literature, critic, essayist and eminent translator - to discuss topics concerning the current state of publishing in Serbia and the art of translation.
He welcomes us, his former students, in his office at the Faculty of Philology, ready to answer what we hoped would be interesting questions. We sit opposite him in the warm office filled with books, official documents and exams waiting to be marked, thanking him for making time for us. Friendly and kind as we remember him from classes, he inquires about our lives, our studies, but soon, we become the ones asking the questions…
Professor Zoran Paunović. Photo: Miloš Cvetković
A few years ago when you were asked how we should read translations, you answered 'Don’t, if you don’t have to. Read the original'. Why do you give advantage to reading the original?
It is undeniable that there is greater value in reading the original and that translation is a necessary evil, no matter how many good translations there are, really good, great ones, and even when you are reading the one that delights you most, you should always have in mind that that translation still doesn’t match the experience of reading the original. Therefore, whenever you can, whenever you have the opportunity, don’t read the translation, as much as it is praised, but read the original work. You can feel the difference yourselves, when you speak Serbian and when you speak English, your way of thinking is different, and the same goes for writing, even more so. A good writer, Borislav Pekić for example, would be able to write a novel in English, but that wouldn’t be it and you wouldn't recognize him as Borislav Pekić. You simply write in the language you think, feel and experience the world in. So, no matter how capable a translator may be in transfering that experience, that transfer will always be only a transfer to the fullest extent possible, but never complete. Or sometimes, it’s too much, I mean when the translator allows himself to offer you more than what the author offered, which is again a violation.
Then you don’t believe there's such a thing as a perfect translation?
It’s not only me, but I believe that anyone who ever did any translating at all can confirm that. Maybe if you translated just one sentence, but not even if you took only one, and I don’t mean the simplest one consisting only of a subject and predicate, but no literary sentence has its perfect translation, and that impossibility of achieving perfection becomes even greater as the text grows. That sentence is part of its paragraph, which is again a part of a chapter, and so on, therefore, every part depends on the whole, which just increases the impossibility of reaching that perfect translation.
One of your most famous translations has to be Ulysses by James Joyce, for which some people have said that it can’t be read without your comments that accompany the text. Is this maybe a case where it’s better to read the translation?
No (laughs). For those comments that you mention, I wrote that it is best if the reader tries to read the novel without even looking at those intrusive footnotes. And I believe that there are, if not many, then at least enough of those who have read the novel, or can read it that way. Because, you know, it’s a sort of a violation of the work’s integrity. Where Joyce did not want to clarify something, what right do I have to explain it? Now of course, you can have a different approach, a different way of thinking. Many of the things that were a matter of general knowledge for Joyce’s reader, I refer primarily to the Irish context, are not part of our general knowledge and so you can ask yourself, all right, why shouldn’t I make it easier for our readers to understand the text by offering them additional explanations. That is why I wrote that it is better reading it without the notes, but that they can be used, the choice is up to the reader, but again it would be better reading it without the meddlesome teacher telling you what you already know.
You are well known for translating prose, but what are your views on translating poetry? Is it something that can and should be done?
If translation is generally seen as a necessary evil, translation of poetry is that to an even greater extent. It’s not bad, I mean, it’s not forbidden, it’s not essentially wrong to translate poetry, but as a reader of a translated piece of poetry you have to have even greater reservations regarding that translation than when you are reading prose. Of course you should not read it as if the translator were your enemy and now you are searching for his mistakes, not with a preconceived notion that the translator did a poor job, but with an awareness of what we just talked about, that it is impossible to achieve a perfect translation. And so then you say, OK, here I see what it’s all about, because a good translator will, even in poetry, be able to convey a part of the original experience, and if he is especially good then he will know how to capture the essence of that experience and somehow translate it into the target language, but, that will still be, only a shadow of a shadow.
How would you comment on the state of publishing in Serbia and, in most cases, the apparent disregard for quality when it comes to translation?
The current state of literature in the world is such that priority is given to entertaining, popular, shallow and cheap literature, and it’s no consolation that the situation in the world is such, because here in Serbia it’s worse. This is because in our country real literature is actually more marginalized, and is becoming even more and more marginalized. The state of publishing in Serbia is as it is because of the increasingly present monopoly of a really really small number of publishers who have the monopoly over the largest number of bookstores, giving them many tools for keeping smaller, but valuable and precious publishers, in the background. Therefore, a small number of people is dictating the cultural policy, that is, the current publishing policy, and the basic criterion is of course, the commercial one. You can easily see this, and you know it very well, by the types of books currently on display in bookstores, by what people are actually buying, reading, and by what is considered literature. Here we have a distorted idea of what literature really is. And so, when they ask celebrities what books they are reading, they will proudly give a title of a book that an intelligent person would be ashamed of, and it is actually something that’s not even real literature, and is part of the field of literature because we have lost sight of the border between what literature really is, as an art form, as a way of thinking about the world and feeling the world, and literature as paraliterature, as goods that need to be sold and nothing more. There were once great publishing houses that took care of this balance, and by publishing widely popular books enabled themselves to also publish various valuable theoretical books. That cultural policy differs gravely from the one in this capitalist society where the only criterion is money.
We see more and more ‘works’ by ‘writers’, the kitsch and fashionable ones, who are actually just celebrities, while it is difficult to find great books translated and published some 30 years ago. Do you believe a time will come when those forgotten works will again be prioritized? Will the current situation change for the better, or will it stay like this indefinitely?
I can only hope that this is a cycle that will pass, but the reality is, I’m afraid, different, because the young generations are brought up on this cultural and publishing offer, and this cultural policy altogether, where you have brainwashing on multiple levels, and there is so little that can offer those brains a true, artistic, intellectual experience of reading. To put it simply, less and less room is being left for those contents, and I don’t mean only literature, but also others, that encourage the activity of a man as a contemplative being. And literature has always been one of the dangerous subversive activities, dangerous of course for those that want to stifle free thought instead of encouraging it. And since the current orientation of culture as a whole is such, I’m afraid that the negative effects are yet to be felt. I remember a little more than you do, and so, I mean, I have the opportunity to remember, whether I actually do is the question (laughs), so I recall different worlds where culture and literature occupied a much better place. Context shapes the generation growing up in it. Currently, with this context, we can only fearfully wonder what the intellectual model will be of a typical member of a generation that will in 10 years' time have the leading role. Someone like that will only be able to impose that same primitive model because another characteristic of primitivism is absolutism, and the belief that you are always right and that only you can be right. You can easily convince a thinking man that he is wrong, but an ignorant man, or a man that won't think, you can never convince of that. Therefore, that single-mindedness is something, I’m afraid, of a contagious disease which lasts longer because it is passed on from generation to generation.
Do you think that the growing use of electronic readers and ebooks may serve as a lifeboat for literature? It is after all an easy way of making books available.
As much as some people believe that electronic media will destroy what we know as the book, I am sure that it will be quite the opposite – it will help save it. Because a book, a book is the text, it is what is written inside it, and it is not necessarily something that has to be made of paper. Now, I, of course, being an old-fashioned man (laughs) prefer reading a proper book, but I would much rather get a recently published book in a minute, with one click, than have to wait for the Amazon shipping, which comes with additional costs. I can have it in literally one minute and start reading. That is good for the book, right? It has more opportunities to live. It has more different incarnations. When you have multiple incarnations that is good, it prolongs your life. Same goes for the book. It will be electronic as long as it wants to be, in the same way that you have records in music, for example, the vinyl which has been forgotten for some time is slowly coming back. To what extent will it come back, that is the question, but it will survive, it will remain because it is something good. So will the book, I believe, to a much greater extent than vinyl.
Nowadays almost all books are available on the internet for illegal download. To what extent do you think that affects the author, or more likely, some publishing magnate, as is the case in music?
Well, OK, to some extent it probably affects the writer in the most banal, material way, because a certain number of books, depends how many, will not be paid for. On the other hand it is beneficial to him because many of those who will read him in the electronic version would not be able to read him any other way. Therefore, it is hard to weigh out the pros and cons. The safest thing for the author, as it’s most commonly the practice here, and abroad I believe, is for him to negotiate a fixed fee for a book, which would be sufficient. He should, of course, receive certain royalties as well, but that should be a less important part of the contract, and so, he can then look forward to piracy (laughs) of his work, instead of despairing and pulling his hair out.
You write because it means you are speaking to someone. You write because, no matter how much you don't want to admit it, you want to speak to as many people as possible, and the Internet, and other electronic media certainly help you with that, therefore….