Women in Translation Month is a brilliant time for book recommendations. A cursory search on #WITMonth on Twitter invariably brings up a wealth of tempting suggestions, and that’s even without the list of new releases that WITMonth founder Meytal Radzinksi generously shares every year to help promote the reading of translated literature by women and address the imbalance that sees more than 65 per cent of literary works coming into English authored by men.
So it was that I found my August book of the month after a tweet caught my eye. I can’t say what it was about this particular post, or indeed remember who wrote it, but something in the enthusiasm of the words prompted me to seek out Mima Simić’s translation of the oddly titled Love Novel by Croatian writer, theatre director and performer Ivana Sajko.
In spite of the warmth with which I’d seen the book discussed, I nearly didn’t get past the first chapter. Opening in the middle of a fight between the couple whose troubled relationship it follows, the narrative bristled with fury and violence, striking a sharp, angular tone that I wasn’t sure I had the energy to stick with for a whole book, even one as slender as Love Novel (which weighs in at not much more than 100 pages).
It was only the softening at the end of the first chapter – when the unnamed female protagonist, an out-of-work actress, retreats to her child’s bedroom and tries to soothe the toddler with a string of brittle and whimsical claims, and flights of fancy – that made me think I might be missing something and persuaded me to persevere.
I’m very glad I did. Over the following pages, I discovered that this slight book is a work of enormous range. The emotional intensity that had nearly overwhelmed me in the opening chapter was not the relentless, one-note barrage of anger I’d feared but an illustration of Sajko’s extraordinary capacity to suffuse her narrative with the feelings of those she portrays. From the ludicrous to the poignant and the excruciating to the banal, she inhabits her characters’ realities with a freshness that is at times quite astonishing, rendering this story of a couple pushed to breaking point by circumstances largely beyond their control as gripping and engaging as the most high-stakes thriller.
This power probably doesn’t come from Sajko alone. Mima Simić’s ‘Translator’s Note’ at the end, in which she reveals that this story of poverty and struggle is hers too – one lived by almost all those she knows who grew up in the former Yugoslavia – makes clear how invested she is in this project. ‘The world of Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel is my world,’ she says, going on to reveal that the translation process took her more than a year because ‘every time I opened the book, it was like a punch in the gut. A punch by someone I knew, a family member.’
Simić’s description of how hard she worked to overcome the ‘not-quiteness’ of the story’s expression in another language, and her evident commitment to rendering the work as powerfully as possible in English provide an interesting case study for those considering the issue of the direction in which translation should work. (For a long time, the prevailing assumption in the anglophone industry has been that translators ought to translate into their mother tongues, with the result that native English speakers have largely been the ones who win contracts to bring foreign works into the world’s most-published language. Recently, however, a number of people have begun to query this, rightly demonstrating that this can be limiting and short-sighted, restricting the movement of texts and the opportunities open to those working in different languages.)
Love Novel makes a powerful argument for approaching the question on a case-by-case basis. Not only is the power in the writing impressive (although Simić is quick to stress that she doesn’t believe you have to have lived through an experience to translate it well, and I would say the same is true for writers), but there is a quality in the voice that feels distinctive, and which a first-language English speaker may have hesitated to try to achieve.
It’s hard to know how to write about this – the language we have with which to review translations in English is still very underdeveloped and sparse. But while being entirely grammatically correct (with the flexibility that literary writing allows), the text has a striking timbre that seems to complement its subject matter and place of origin. It’s something to do with the cumulative effect of choices that skew its rhythms in a certain direction, accenting the voice. So it is that, as we read about everything from irreverent reflections on how Jesus milked his crucifixion to a nosy neighbour’s grizzly demise in a wheelie bin, the world in which this is all taking place remains present.
Yet, in the way of the best novels, the writing is universal too. One of Sajko’s key methods for achieving this is reflecting psychology at the sentence level, shifting tenses and tumbling from contemplation into action and even hallucination as scenes become fraught. She knows and shows how we think in extreme moments – that peculiar blend of insight and delusion that at once connects us to and separates us from the rest of the world. What’s more, though the experience portrayed in this novel may feel deeply personal and particular to people who lived through it, like Simić, for those of us staring down the barrel of an economic crisis, much of the book will read as scarily fresh and timely.
Brilliant, strange, funny, angry and sad, this is an extraordinary novel. A welcome addition to the anglophone bookshelves. Highly recommended.
Love Novel (Ljubavni roman) by Ivana Sajko, translated from the Croatian by Mima Simić (V&Q Books, 2022)