Today, the translator Will Firth gives his subjective take on literature and translation in Croatia…
The contemporary literary scene in Croatia
Croatia has a population of slightly over 4 million people. Most spoken and written communication is carried out in the Croatian or western variant of Serbo-Croat (also the main language of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro). There are minority languages such as Italian, Hungarian and Romani (Gypsy). Croatian has a variety of dialects, and a small amount of literature is written in these.
As in many other countries, the culture of reading is changing. Print-runs of novels are often in the low hundreds, even when written by highly regarded authors. Domestic best-sellers occasionally break through this barrier, but generally the market is small. The collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s led to a fragmentation of the book market, and the consequences are still being felt today. Since ready-to-print computer files can easily be sent over the Internet, it is not uncommon for books to be published in parallel by publishers in several post-Yugoslav countries, since postage costs and tariffs would otherwise render many book projects unviable. An increasing amount of literature is available online through various web magazines and blogs.
Government funding of literary projects is an important factor for the survival of publishers and magazines, and for the livelihood of writers. Very few writers in Croatia (or the wider region) can make a living from writing fiction or poetry. Almost all of them work at least part-time as journalists, teachers, librarians, etc.
A small number of Croatian writers have gained international recognition in recent decades, including Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić (as of the 1990s), and the younger Robert Perišić and Olja Savičević.
As could be expected given the upheaval in this part of the world throughout much of the 20th and 21st century, social issues and questions of identity figure strongly with many Croatian writers. Older and more conservative/right-wing writers are sometimes preoccupied with national identity, whereas younger authors tend to have a more diversified approach, looking at subcultural themes, gender/sexuality, social problems, economic migration, etc. There is a lot of sensitive, experimental and generally eye-opening literature to be discovered.
A lot more literature is translated into Croatian than is translated out of it.
Must-read classics from Croatia available in English
Sarajevo Marlboro (1997) by Miljenko Jergović (translated by Stela Tomašević, Penguin UK), a collection of powerful short stories dealing mostly with the war in Bosnia (1992-95), with many elements of the absurd, and anchored in the humour and richness of life in a multicultural society.
How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992), a thoughtful and elegantly written set of essays by the journalist Slavenka Drakulić (English by the author herself). It offers a feminist look at politics, relationships, self-realisation and self-censorship, with a special Eastern European edge.
The Bridge on the Drina (original published in 1945) by Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. The Bridge on the Drina is an epic tale of Bosnian history, centring on the construction by the Ottomans of a majestic bridge over the Drina river. (Ivo Andrić was born to Croatian parents in Bosnia. He grew up there, identified as a Yugoslav for most of his life, and referred to his language as Serbo-Croat. Attempts have been made by pro-Serbian and pro-Croatian lobbies, especially since the collapse of Yugoslavia, to proclaim Andrić a Serb or a Croat respectively, but the reality is more complex.)
Best new books from Croatia available in English
Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević (2015, translated by Celia Hawkesworth) is billed by the publisher (Istros Books) as “a tough yet poetic novel by one of Croatia’s best known writers. The story is rich in local colour and sentiment, following the main character, Dada, who returns to her home town on the Adriatic coast in order to unravel the mystery of her brother Daniel’s death.”
Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišić (2012 Istros Books; 2013 Black Balloon Publishing, translated by Will Firth) is a witty take on the absurdities of the modern media seen through the eyes of the main (anti)hero who tries to reconcile his youthful rebelliousness with the pressures of adult life in Zagreb. Our Man in Iraq was the best-selling Croatian novel of 2008 and also received the respected literary award of the daily newspaper Jutarnji list.
Trieste by Daša Drndić (2013 MacLehose, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać) is a sensitive, powerfully written documentary novel: an old woman sifts through photographs and newspaper clippings, reflecting on the experiences of her Catholicized Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of northern Italy.
Publishing houses that publish contemporary fiction
Fraktura is the leading publisher for fiction and a wide range of non-fiction. Its titles regularly top the best-seller lists and are shortlisted for Croatian literary prizes. Fraktura won the Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher Award at the London Book Fair in 2015.
Sandorf is a relatively young and very dynamic publishing house with an eye for exciting young writers from Croatia and throughout the Serbo-Croat-speaking region.
Ljevak is a fairly large and established publishing house that does not shy away from experimental and left-leaning writers despite the reactionary zeitgeist prevailing in Croatia.
Literary magazines for contemporary fiction
There are not many literary magazines in Croatia. The most noteworthy, Zarez (The Comma), is currently only being published digitally since its finances were axed by the right-wing government in early 2016. There is also Književna republika (The Literary Republic), a magazine put out by the Croatian Writers Society (HDP), and its sibling publication Relations, which consists of translations into English or German.
And finally, new books or authors from Croatia that absolutely have to be translated into English
Dark Mother Earth (Črna mati zemla, 2013) by Kristian Novak, a novel – partly written in dialect – about a young writer suffering from amnesia and a writer’s block who returns to his native village near the Hungarian border. He has no trouble finding words there, and by immersing himself in his traumatising past, with much humour and tragedy, he manages to recreate his adult self.
Hacked Kiti (Hakirana Kiti, 2013) by Andrea Pisac, the story of a young Eastern European woman working on her anthropology PhD thesis in London and fighting with insomnia and relationship troubles. Her professional “outsider” approach allows her to dissect her own and others’ identities. But her computer has been hacked and she herself becomes an object of scrutiny and fascination for a clique of gonzo IT specialists with their own agendas. The multiple layers of the story provide an enjoyable and surprising read.
Journey to Russia (Izlet u Rusiju, 1926) by the Croatian classical modernist Miroslav Krleža. I include this work here because 2017 will be the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In this literary travelogue we relive the 1924 visit to the Soviet Union of an enthusiastic young communist who does not hesitate, however, to describe the harsh sides of the “workers’ state” in poignant and lyrical language. In one striking chapter, Krleža philosophises about the sense of smell and its significance, and goes on to describe his first olfactory impressions of Moscow.
Will Firth was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has lived in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a translator of literature and the humanities (from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat). His best-received translations of recent years have been Robert Perišić’s Our Man in Iraq, Andrej Nikolaidis’s Till Kingdom Come, and Faruk Šehić’s Quiet Flows the Una.