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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

One of the most active translators of Lithuanian literature into English is Romas Kinka. His biography is so multi-layered that we could have a conversation just about his personal history: born in Lithuania in 1942, his family and he left his native city of Šiauliai in 1944, spent the next 4 years in various displaced persons’ camps in Germany and then emigrated to England in 1948, where he has lived on and off since. He studied Russian language and literature for his first degree and linguistics for his second. While still a student at the University of London, he taught Lithuanian at the London Lithuanian weekend school. In the early 1970s he was invited to teach Lithuanian language and Lithuanian morphophonology at the University of Chicago, also working as vice-director of the Lithuanian Institute of Education in Chicago, where, besides his administrative duties, he also lectured in translation, Lithuanian phonetics and phonology, Lithuanian dialectology, and the methodology of teaching Lithuanian as a foreign language. Returning to London in the late 1970s, he ran a language bookshop and later owned a library supply company. In 1990 as political affairs coordinator of the Lithuanian Association he coordinated the first official visits to the UK of the then Lithuanian prime minister Kazimira Prunskienė and Lithuania’s head of state prof. Vytautas Landsbergis to meet with Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He was also the official representative of the Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis up to the universal recognition of Lithuania’s independence in September 1991. In 1991-1992 he served in the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as its official spokesperson and an advisor. He is the recipient of the Diplomatic Star awarded him by the Ministry for his services to Lithuania.

Romas, I like to begin our conversation by asking you about literary style and the specifics of translation. For example, how different is the process in translating writers that you’ve worked on like Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Sigitas Parulskis, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, Alvydas Šlepikas, Paulina Pūkytė, Herkus Kunčius? What specifically is harder and what is easier for you as a translator in approaching these authors’ texts?

When I get a question like this I like to begin by quoting Rudolf Nureyev who, when asked about his technique, responded by saying ‘That’s kitchen’ and stopped there. However, I’ll go a little further. Each of the writers you name has, to state the blindingly obvious, an original voice and each one presents particular challenges – although I prefer to speak in terms of opportunities for me as translator. We don’t have enough space to speak about the differences between those six writers, all of whom I consider among the very best Lithuania has to offer and all deserving of the widest possible recognition outside their country.

It would be hard to imagine two writers more different than, for example, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė and Paulina Pukytė, both as regards the stories they tell and the language they employ in telling them. Kristina’s four-novel historical series Silva rerum[1], about a family of nobles covering the period from 1659 to 1795, has made her Lithuania’s best-selling author of fiction, a rare case of quality literary fiction meeting bestsellerdom, while Paulina has carved herself a niche with her at times wildly funny stories set in England about her own experiences living in London as an educated, cultured observer with better than good English (in fact, better educated and more cultured than most of the locals she comes across) and those of Lithuanian immigrants without a higher education and with poor or non-existent English in England struggling to make themselves understood in a foreign environment[2].
Kristina employs a multi-layered, baroque Lithuanian which is a perfect fit for the period her stories are set in and for me that means making sure that my English is lexically and stylistically spot on[3]. Like Adam Thorpe in his translation of Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, in my translations of excerpts from Silva rerum I employ only the English vocabulary of the time, avoiding words that have come into English after 1795. In this regard, I find the full Oxford English Dictionary which provides citations of the earliest printed use of a word invaluable (something that the academic Dictionary of the Lithuanian Language, sadly, does not do). As a boy at school studying Latin and reading the works of the authors of the Golden Age, I particularly enjoyed translating Cicero, whose influence on the development of European literature would be hard to overstate, and consider that experience, now over 60 years ago, priceless in translating Kristina’s texts – read some Cicero and then something from Silva rerum and you may understand why.

Paulina’s texts, especially those featuring Lithuanian immigrants, use a stripped-down language which could be taken directly from a police interview or a recorded phone call to the police, accurately reflecting the language used by the immigrants themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to translate because the register has to be exactly right and a misstep in translation will jar like a wrong note in a solo musical performance.

In the same way as there are no ‘easy’ languages, although some may initially seem that way, there are no ‘easy’ texts. As I go deeper into a text, I discover, if you’ll forgive the pun, more depth.

What weight, in your opinion, do rhythm and syntax play in translation? How do you get on with translating slang, jargon, dialect or, for example, words coined by an author?

Regardless of who the writer is, I pay particular attention to sound and rhythm, what linguists call the segmentals and the suprasegmentals. As to how creative a translator can be in translating vocabulary can to some degree depend on the publisher, who afraid of losing the reader, will iron out the quirks, as some put it, after a translation has been submitted. I need hardly say there are different theories of translation – and therefore different approaches by translators[4]. I recently had the opportunity to compare half a dozen translations into English of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, and the differences can be startling. Puns in particular require considerable creativity – and time – from a translator.

How do you come to a text that you’ve chosen to translate? Do you take any interest in an author’s biography?

The process begins with me being approached by a publisher, an author, the Lithuanian Culture Institute or a literary festival (for example, the annual Prose Readings festival in Riga). The first thing I do when asked to translate an extract from a novel, no matter how short, is to read the whole book because there may be clues elsewhere in the book as to how best to translate a word, phrase or passage. Obviously, with a short story or a literary essay of the kind Giedra Radvilavičiūtė writes, that’s all I usually need to read[5]. An author’s biography, while of possible interest, would not sway me one way or the other but an author’s personality if I were to meet him or her might possibly get in the way. In any event, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to choose whom or what I want to translate.

In a radio interview you said that, apart from some exceptions, you’re not particularly fond of historical or science fiction. I know I’m simplifying things by putting the question like this, but I have the impression that to an ‘ordinary reader’ the most important thing is what the writer is writing about, while to a connoisseur of literature it’s language, the style, in other words, how the writer writes. How important is the subject matter to you in choosing what you read – and what you translate?

I’ll mention two exceptions as regards historical fiction and they are Kristina Sabaliauskaitė in Lithuanian and Hilary Mantel in England. For me, both form and content are important - a good story isn’t enough. I need to be swept along by the narrative but also enjoy the language the author uses. If I can’t get past the first fifty or so pages I stop and have to come to terms with the fact that the book isn’t for me, no matter how highly it’s been rated by others.

You’ve translated all kinds of texts. Do you find literary fiction the most pleasant to translate? At first glance at least, it would seem that’s where a translator can best express his personality and creativity. Looking at things from this perspective, can a translator sometimes be tempted to improve on the original? I remember someone at an international conference saying that some of Milan Kundera’s texts in Lithuanian sound better that the original.

Over the last almost six decades I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of texts, mostly in the fields of law, medicine, and music[6], and of course, literary fiction. I’ve always enjoyed the drama and spectacle of trials, especially when the setting is, for example, the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales) or Lincoln Crown Court set in an old building in the grounds of Lincoln Castle, and when the two opposing barristers, that is, the prosecuting and defence counsels, are at the top of their game. When you’re sitting next to a defendant in the dock you’re interpreting synchronically (as you would in a booth), which I compare to riding a wave – stop to think and you fall off; interpreting in the witness box is consecutive. Both require different skills and some interpreters are good at one or the other but not always both. There is, needless to say, more pressure on the interpreter in the witness box because (s)he is on view and every translated word has to be heard and understood by everyone in court. I also work as a forensic linguist in which capacity I’m asked to report on the work of a court interpreter or translator which may affect the outcome of a trial.
I enjoy everything I do, but, yes, it’s literary fiction which provides the most scope for creativity, a translator being both a reader and a writer. I certainly don’t consider it my job to improve on the author I’m translating but to translate the original text to the best of my abilities – and that’s quite enough work, thank you, but, at times, where something isn’t clear to me and the author is alive I will ask for an explanation (I haven’t yet learnt to commune with the dead). An author might sometimes be vague on purpose and that, of course, is his or her privilege. As for Milan Kundera sounding better in Lithuanian than in the original, allow me to be sceptical.

The writer and essayist Dalia Staponkutė wrote: ‘A new language demanded total commitment, accuracy of meaning, the decoding of strategems, translation from me, and that is why now, when I write in Lithuania, a little of what I write is Greek and I’m constantly translating.[7]’ What language do you think in – English or Lithuania? How do they – let’s also include the other languages you read in – interact amongst themselves?

I understand what Dalia is saying – and, by the way, I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to translate two extracts from her beautifully written – and beautifully produced, book Iš dviejų renkuosi trečią. Mano mažoji odisėja (Faced with Two Options, I Choose the Third: My Personal Odyssey; Vilnius: Apostrofa, 2014). But my experience is different – I was trilingual by the age of six and whatever language I’m speaking in that’s the language I think in.

My father was an ethnic Lithuanian born at the cusp of the 20th century in a small Lithuanian town on the Lithuanian-East Prussian border in which Vincas Kudirka, one of Lithuania’s greatest sons, spent the final years of his life. The town was renamed Kudirkos Naumiestis (literally ‘Kudirka’s Newtown’) to honour him in 1934. Besides Lithuanian, my father spoke German, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, and English. My mother’s history is more complicated: she was born in Riga to a Polish mother (related to Stefan Żeromski) and a Polonized Lithuanian father – she spoke Polish at home, learned Latvian informally playing with the local Latvian children, Russian at school (the language of instruction throughout the Russian Empire). She only began to learn Lithuanian, her fourth language, when her family relocated to Šiauliai in 1919, about a year or so after Lithuania’s declaration of independence (she went on to learn German and English). I made up my mind at the age of thirteen that I’d learn each of the languages my parents spoke and also began to take an interest in linguistics after coming across a book on language when I was still at grammar school.

The well-known cultural journalist Rosie Goldsmith participated in the Vilnius Book Fair 2018. She moderated an event, dedicated to presenting the Lithuanian authors going to London - Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, Alvydas Šlepikas, and Tomas Venclova. I remember during the event (and later at the London Book Fair) I was pleasantly surprised by the warm atmosphere, created by Rosie’s humour, energy, and positivity. It seems to me in Lithuania – and not just in our literature – there’s much too little of that, on the contrary, you can feel various complexes, the fear of getting things wrong, we’re not as relaxed. You can feel more resignation in our literary life, an exalted way of speaking (and the other hangovers from the Soviet period: an exaggerated hospitality, artificial decorativeness, and a poster-like approach, characteristic of some literary festivals). So, I’d like to ask you about the mentality and the connection of society with literary processes, the situation in the field of literature? What differences can you see?

By happy chance, I’m the translator into English of all three Lithuanian prose writers featured at the London Book Fair 2018 and while I’ve never translated Tomas Venclova, I did write a review of Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova (Rochester, 2018)[8]. I would certainly agree that things are over all more relaxed in England than in Lithuania, but then the English have more reasons to be relaxed, in spite of successive governments of whatever stripe not supporting the arts more or better – and in spite of the worries over whatever deal the UK ends up after Brexit. I like to remind both my Lithuanian and English friends that the last time England was invaded and conquered was a 1000 years ago, while Lithuania’s experience as we all know or should know is markedly different. Occupation certainly leaves its mark on the psyche – how can it not? I completely agree with your comments on the estimable Rosie Goldsmith, whom I’m lucky enough to know personally, but would add that she is hardly a typical example of someone working in the arts in the UK and would be a stand-out in any culture.

Young people in Lithuania (and, most probably, not just there) use borrowings from English. It seems that English is invading sentence structure, the very way of thinking and forms of expression. Do you think that’s connected just to information technology and globalization, or perhaps it’s a reflection of the falling prestige of the Lithuanian language. If so, is that a more a matter more for language policy and consciousness raising? And what about the younger generation in Britain? Can you discern changes in their spoken language? Have changes in English also affected English literature?

As regards anglicisms, the processes you mention are, as you quite correctly state, not restricted to Lithuania and/or young people. They started, for example, in France after World War II - in spite of the efforts of the Académie française and predate the use of the internet by several decades. It must be quite painful for the French to come to terms with the inroads made by English and the fact that French is no longer the second language of all cultured people throughout the world (it used to be said that ‘everyone (= the cultured) has two languages – their own and French’). The prestige of French or, for that matter, Lithuanian, doesn’t come into it. Language policy in the shape of the Académie française or the Lithuanian Language Commission can only do so much.

Young people in the UK and the USA are, of course, influenced by whatever is happening in the social media. And that, of course, will translate, if you’ll forgive the pun, into the language they use, spoken or written, including fiction by younger authors.

Amongst your acquaintances you have writers, editors and publishers. Do they take an interest in the literature of small countries? How, in your opinion, should Lithuanian literature be presented abroad to make it more attractive? I could mention in this connection the Latvian communication strategy #iamintrovert, which has attracted a lot of attention and success (just in 2016-2018 the rights of 43 Latvian writers were sold to British publishers).

I recently showed a translation of a novel that I worked on to a well-known English writer and she loved the novel but it's to publishers that works of literature deemed worthy of being translated have to be pitched. The larger publishers who usually choose stars of foreign literature to publish in translation don’t need financial support, but smaller publishers most certainly do. In the case of Lithuania, it’s the Lithuanian Culture Institute (LCI) that financially supports translations of Lithuanian literature and very little would be published otherwise. I’ve translated extracts from Lithuanian novels which to my mind are world-class but haven’t been picked up by foreign publishers in spite of the best efforts of LCI. There is no magical formula and LCI is certainly aware of all the possible strategies including the Latvian one. And selling the rights and then having a book published abroad doesn’t necessarily guarantee wide distribution, the attention of literary editors, that is to say, reviews in magazines and newspapers, never mind finding the book on a shelf in a bookshop or a public library[9].

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’re very fond of the work of Juozas Aputis. What other canonical Lithuanian writers have left a strong impression on you? When did you read them? What hasn’t yet been translated into English but in your opinion should be?

Among my favourite Lithuanian writers active during the Soviet occupation are, yes, Juozas Aputis[10], but also Romualdas Lankauskas, Vytautė Žilinskaitė, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Sigitas Geda... I first came across them in the 1960s and 1970s through the books – and the journals Pergalė (now Metai) and Nemunas – sent to me by my aunt who stayed on in Lithuania after the war, and by visiting the extraordinary Lithuanian Library in London run by Rostis Baublys in his home, and then later, while living in Chicago, where I had access to the University of Chicago library, the World Lithuanian Archives, and the Lithuanian bookshop in Cicero (open only on Saturdays!) run by the musicologist Juozas Kreivėnas who imported books from Lithuania. There’s certainly still literature from Soviet times worthy of wider interest (see the writers I’ve named above), both fiction and poetry, but with newer writers coming to the fore there’s less chance of foreign publishers being persuaded to publish translations of work from that period.

Growing up in England, what interest did you take in its literature?

I was eight when my parents and I moved to the East End of London after spending our first two years in England in rural Wiltshire (housed in former army barracks as part of the British government’s ‘Westward Ho!’ scheme to bring over Baltic DPs from Germany because of the labour shortage in Britain). Almost immediately, I began to explore London physically through walking its streets, devoting my Saturdays to what is now called the activity of psychogeography[11], targeting areas of London of architectural and literary interest with the help of written guides and work by London writers like Charles Dickens and Arthur Morrison (Colin McInnes and Sam Selvon were to come later). In my late teenage years, I began going to literary events and indulging one of my favourite pastimes - scouring second-hand bookshops of which there were many more then. When I worked at the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs I used the opportunity to explore Vilnius, a cornucopia of architectural delights, with a guide in human or book form.

I should also mention that, although at home we had a small collection of Lithuanian books published after the war in Germany, including Jonas Mekas’s wonderful book of poems Semeniškių idilės (Idylls of Semeniškiai; Kassel: Žvilgsniai, 1948) and which I read long before I knew of him as a film maker and which has pride of place to this day on my shelves, and in England, my real introduction to Lithuanian literature started with a book given me for my 15th birthday by a former Lithuanian language and literature teacher, an émigré like us, living next door to us. That book was Sauja derliaus (A Harvest Handful), an anthology of readings from Lithuanian literature, compiled by the writer and editor Kazimieras Barėnas and published by the Nida Book Club in London in 1957[12]. I made my way through it (all 558 pages!) with the help of that kind Lithuanian teacher. The arrival from Rome in 1958 of the Rev. Steponas Matulis of blessed memory to serve as rector of St Casimir’s Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church in London, a short walk from the house I lived in, was an important event both in the life of the London Lithuanian parish and for me personally. He invited me to teach at the London Lithuanian weekend school even though I was still a teenager and gave me access to the rectory library which had regularly received books and periodicals from Lithuania from 1912 on – a treasure trove which allowed me to explore the panoply of Lithuanian literature published in the interwar years.

 

1. ‘Biront Speaks to God’ from Silva rerum in Words without Borders, March 2018 (https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/march-2018-lithuania-biront-speaks-to-god-kristina-sabaliauskaite-romas); Jura Avizienis ‘Shadows, Shrouds, and Family Chronicles: Writing from Lithuania’ in Words without Borders, March 2018 (https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/shadows-shrouds-and-family-chronicles-writing-from-lithuania); Sabaliauskaitė, Kristina, ‘Famine in Milkont, 1710’, excerpt from Silva rerum II in Novel of the World (Mondadori, 2015), p. 692-701 (http://www.we.expo2015.org/en/what-we-do/novel-world).

2. Paulina Pukytė, excerpt from Bedalis ir labdarys (A Loser and a Do-Gooder) in Best European Fiction 2016 (Victoria, TX / Dublin / London, 2015), p. 138-148;
https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewbest-european-fiction-2016-403234.html

3. Boyd Tonkin in his The 100 Best Novels in Translation (Cambridge UK: Galileo Publishers, 2018) chose Adam Thorpe’s translation of Flaubert’s Madam Bovary which employs only the English vocabulary of Flaubert’s time.

4. For a general overview of translation for non-specialists see Boyd Tonkin’s introduction to his The Hundred Best Novels in Translation (see above), as well as Nicholas de Lange’s essay ‘Reflections of a Translator’ in The Sixteenth Annual Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Judaic Studies (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 1993), 1-24 (https://www.academia.edu/37580518/Nicholas_de_Lange_Reflections_of_a_Translator_in_The_Sixteenth_Annual_Rabbi_Louis_Feinberg_Memorial_Lecture_in_Judaic_Studies_Cincinnati_University_of_Cincinnati_1993_1-24).

5. See my translation of Giedra Radvilavičiūtė’s short story ‘The Ear’ (Ausis) published May 2018 in an online anthology on the European Union Prize for Literature website (http://www.euprizeliterature.eu/); and of her essay ‘Baden-Baden Time’ from her collection Tekstų persekiojimas (The Persecution of Texts; Vilnius: Apostrofa, 2018) in Vilnius Review (Vilnius, 2018).

6. For the past three years I’ve translated and/or edited all the articles in the annual publication Lithuanian Music Link, published by Music Information Centre Lithuania.

7. Dalia Staponkutė, Iš dviejų renkuosi trečią. Mano mažoji odisėja (Faced with Two Options, I Choose the Third: My Personal Odyssey; Vilnius: Apostrofa, 2014), p. 168.

8. ‘Romas Kinka reviews MAGNETIC NORTH: CONVERSATIONS WITH TOMAS VENCLOVA by Tomas Venclova and Ellen Hinsey,’ The Riveter, April 2018 (http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-romas-kinka-reviews-magnetic-north-conversations-with-tomas-venclova-by-tomas-venclova-and-ellen-hinsey/).

9. For example, to date (15 October 2018) Sigitas Parulskis’s Darkness and Partners, translated by Karla Gruodis and published by Peter Owen at the end of May 2018 has a very short review (144 words) by a reader on Goodreads, no customer reviews at all on amazon.co.uk, never mind a review in a magazine or newspaper in the UK.

10. I translated his sublime short story ‘Wild Boars on the Horizon’ for From Baltic shores: short stories, ed. by Christopher Moseley (Norwich: Norvik Press, 1994).

11. One of England’s best known psychogeographers is the novelist, short story writer and journalist Will Self.

12. The Nida Book Club published the Lithuanian émigré writer Antanas Škėma’s extraordinary novel Balta drobulė (White Shroud) in 1958, after it had been rejected by American Lithuanian publishers. An English translation by Karla Gruodis was published by Vagabond Voices (Glasgow) in 2018, a mere 60 years after the original publication.

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