Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 28, 2013

The Perils of Transation, guest post by Will Firth

Will Firth 2010

Will Firth
(c) Ben Liquete

Last week in the course of my review of A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koscec, I had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ his translator in the conversation that took place in comments about the book.  Will Firth is a multi-lingual Aussie translator  who works in Berlin, translating Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croatian.  Born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia, Will studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb and Moscow, and since 1991, he has been living in Berlin, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities.

On his website, Will declares his vision as a translator:

I see myself as a mediator and a smuggler: my mission is to  funnel socially and politically relevant writings and quality literature from Eastern Europe, so vastly underrated, to the egotistical ‘West’.

I rather like the idea of ANZ LitLovers being a ‘receiver’ of these smuggled writings, and helping to spread the word in my part of the world!

Anyway, in response to Karenlee’s question about the perils of translation, I had the nerve to ask Will to contribute a guest post about it for ANZ LitLovers, and to my astonishment,  it was in my InBox within 24 hours!

I’m very happy to respond to Lisa’s invitation to write a guest post for ANZ Litlovers. I work as a literary translator and mainly translate novels and short stories for publishers in Britain and the US. Since I’m fairly well attuned to the literary scene in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, my key client is happy for me suggest titles and I’ve actually been able to choose half my work myself in the last few years.

I rarely meet an author face to face before translating their book. We normally establish contact by e-mail when the contracts have been finalised and it’s clear that the project is going to go ahead. We start corresponding and I ask them questions, at first of a general nature and then in increasing detail. I like to discuss things even when I’m 99% sure what my solution is going to be because there are often ambiguities in the original or multiple translation options in English, so having certainty about the author’s intentions is important to me. Almost all of my authors appreciate this intensive communication: it’s a pleasure for them to know that someone is reading their work so closely, and sometimes it even shows up inadequacies that they’d like to redress in future editions of the original. Occasionally we’ll disagree about a particular point, and there are no set rules about who then prevails – them, me, or the editor at the end. I’ve only translated one deceased author, and it was a shame not to be able to get to know him! I dread the challenge of working with a really well-known (or opinionated) author who might want to dictate aspects of the translation.

‘As literal as possible, as free as necessary’ is often seen as the guiding principle of faithful translation. There are times when something of a mental leap is required to find an appropriate equivalent in English, especially when the languages are structurally very different. Similarly,  it can take substantial reformulation to do justice to implicit cultural assumptions. I often find that an idiom or a free translation encapsulating the essence of a situation does the job, but it can take a lot of brainstorming to come up with a good, succinct solution.

Doing away with repetition and other redundancies is something I have to do regularly. On the other hand, I also often make changes where contextualisation or explanation is required. One simple example is when contemporary writers from ex-Yugoslavia refer to ‘the war’; usually it’s only clear from the context which war they mean, so in the translation I’ll expand on this and refer to the Second World War or one of the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, at least at first mention.

Jokes and wordplay are notoriously hard to translate and often demand a recasting of the image so as to express the emotional valence with suitable terms in English. In a book of memoirs I translated for a Croatian-Australian family, the memoirist – a successful soccer player in his youth – describes a befriended doctor writing a fake sick report for him. He quips about his feigned condition being a čir na jedanaestercu (in English: an ulcer of the ‘eleven-metre mark’, i.e. the penalty spot). There’s a clever allusion here to a duodenal ulcer. I found this untranslatable because we don’t say ‘eleven-metre mark’ in English soccer terminology. The challenge was therefore to come up with a term referring to soccer and also mentioning an inner organ or illness, and after much experimentation I settled for an ‘offside gall bladder’.

Sometimes there are difficult terminological issues to deal with, and since footnotes are generally not acceptable the translator is faced with the option – or even necessity – of accommodating them by creatively tweaking the text. With one demanding historical novel I saved myself many headaches by persuading the publisher to let me write a brief introduction dealing with some of the terms and issues.

There are books where I’ve had to change the name of the main protagonist because it would create the wrong associations in English. There have also been times when I’ve come up with a new title for a book or story because a literal translation of the original title would have been bland or misleading. One example was a witty short story by a Bosnian author about a fellow who cruised through life, constantly tipsy, and discovered he could speak any language provided he drank the corresponding national beverage. The title of the original was ‘Skraćeni jezički kurs’ (A Condensed Language Course), but I thought that sounded too dry and managed to convince the editor to settle for ‘A Drink or Two Loosens the Tongue’.

The element of lateral thinking involved in finding divergent solutions like this is demanding, and there are days when I feel I can’t loosen up and think outside the box. But I find it immensely rewarding when I do come up with something appropriate, and even more so when readers like it.

© Will Firth

* * *

I can manage light conversation and tourist interactions in a few languages, (French, Italian, Spanish, Indonesian, and (sort-of) Russian) but my competence is nowhere near good enough to read novels in their original language so I’m very grateful to the often unsung heroes of literary translation.  And with Will, it seems as if we also owe him thanks for often being responsible for nominating books that eventually make their way to publication in English – because he reads widely in the literature of the former Yugoslavia, and his publishers obviously trust that he knows what’s good to read.

We also owe thanks to the small independent publishing houses which specialise in translations.  Here in Australia Scribe Publications and Text Publishing have brought out many of the notable books in translation, the ones that tend to be on shortlists of one sort or another. The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani is the most recent of these that I’ve reviewed from Text, and from Scribe, (also on the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize nomineesThe Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (translated by Aussie David Colmer).  As you may have noticed on my RH sidebar, soon to be read on my TBR is a trilogy by Hans Fallada (Scribe) which I’m looking forward to.  Text has also been active in bringing us books by Chinese authors, such as Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke.  In the Asian century, it’s very important that we read more of their stories, but in multicultural societies like Australia, it’s also important to hear the voices of the ethnic groups that are part of our citizenry.

In the case of books from Serbo-Croatian countries, Istros Books, based in London, is a small independent publishing house which specialises in the literature of Eastern Europe and in 2013 is producing two series, Best Balkan Books and Books from the Edge (Croatia and Turkey).  What’s fantastic for Aussie buyers is that thanks to online suppliers offering free postage is that we can at last get hold of these books at an affordable cost.  Will has been active in translating for Istros, as you can see from the list below, but he’s also worked for very small publishers here in Australia.


Will’s recent translations include:

• A Handful of Sand, novel by Marinko Koščec, Istros Books 2013, 250pp, ISBN: 978-1908236074 (see my review)

• Our Man in Iraq, novel by Robert Perišić, Istros Books 2012, 250pp, ISBN: 978-1908236043

• The Coming, novel by Andrej Nikolaidis, Istros Books 2012, 127pp, ISBN: 978-1908236036

• Stolen Thoughts / Украдени мисли, poetry by Dushan Ristevski (bilingual version), Macedonian Literary Association “Grigor Prlichev” 2011, 158pp, ISBN 978-0980847963 (Contact the MLA by email to order this one).

• Hansen’s Children, novel by Ognjen Spahić, Istros Books 2011, 156pp, ISBN: 978-1908236012

Pirey, novel by Petre M. Andreevski, Pollitecon Publications 2009, co-translated with Mirjana Simjanovska, 290pp ISBN 978-0980476323.  To buy this one, visit the publisher’s website Pollitecon Publications.


Most of these books are widely available online.  To buy them from Fishpond with free delivery within Australia click the cover images.  Follow the direct links for the others that are harder to find.

Many thanks to Will for this fascinating glimpse into the art of translation!

Update 20/10/13
Will has written an article which goes into more detail about the process of translating A Handful of Sand. See it here.


  1. Thanks for this Lisa, very interesting :)

    In fact, I had been wondering recently about the state of translated fiction in Australia as the majority of what I read comes from the UK or US. Are Scribe and Text the main players (apart from the majors) in Australia? And do they commission their own books, or just pick up what has been successful with certain publishers in the UK?

    I’m not sure where they get their publicity because I don’t really see any of these books…


    • Oh Tony, *slashing wrists* have you not been reading my reviews of Aussie-published translated books on this blog?!


      • I have, but I wouldn’t say that there have been that many (not by my standards anyway!). For instance, I was just browsing your Text Publishing tag, and I didn’t find more than a few translated books there. Last year, I read just under 100 books originally written in a language other than English, and I’m wondering who (if anyone) would have supplied all these books here if I hadn’t been getting them from the UK/US…


        • *Oh, good, applying bandaids* I don’t specialise in translated fiction the way you and Stu at Winston’s Dad do, so I’ve only read 27 books in translation in the last 12 months, but both Text and Scribe have published more in translation than I’ve reviewed here, and I also forgot to mention Giramondo, they published Varamo by Cesar Aira in their Shorts series. Scribe, for example, published The Mandrake File but that’s not the sort of book I read, and Text publishes the Carlos Ruiz Zafón books but I’ve only reviewed one of his.


  2. Well done Lisa in scoring this terrific guest post which answers many of my questions about the processes involved in translating Literature. And on a frivolous note, doesn’t Will have lovely eyes?


    • He’s a very good-looking young man!


  3. Fascinating post Lisa — and thanks Will — I loved the detail about needing to change imagery as that’s always a big issue for me when I’m reading translated literature. Another issue I often wonder about is rhythm, because even prose I think has rhythm. When language structures are different that must be a real challenge.

    As I said, great post …


  4. This is great Lisa. I read a lot in translation (not in English) and I’m always interested to read how translators work.

    I wish there were more translated books in English. Too often, I have to write “not available in English” when I write a billet about a foreign book I read in French.


  5. It’s a subject that can generate considerable debate. I suppose it’s not possible to produce a perfect translation, but on the other hand, there is nothing like reading books in translation to discover a window on other cultures.


  6. Great post I have enjoyed Will’s work with Istros books and have found his translations excellent and through them I ve discovered many wonderful writers from the Balkans ,all the best stu


    • No one would be in a better position than you, Stu, to judge how good a translation is, so that’s real praise for Will!


  7. Let me draw your attention to Cold Hub Press in New Zealand, publishing elegant chapbooks of poetry in translation (among them, I confess, some of my own work).


  8. […] précédemment paru sur le blog de ANZLit Lovers le 28 Avril […]


  9. […] list of publications in Macedonian, Serbo-Croat and Russian.  His post for this blog was called ‘The Perils of Translation’ and it came about because I had read A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koscel which Will had translated […]


  10. […] translator Will Firth will be familiar to readers of this blog who remember his guest post on ‘The Perils of Translation’ and more recently his piece ‘Change is the Only Constant’ about writing in Macedonia, […]


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