An interview with Jennifer Zoble
In March of this year, Feminist Press released the first book in English translation by the contemporary Bosnian author Asja Bakić. Translated by Jennifer Zoble, with an afterword by Ellen Elias-Bursać, the book showcases a powerful triumvirate of women active in forming and fostering the literary scene from the former Yugoslavia. But as Zoble makes clear in the interview to follow, Mars does not fit neatly into expected tropes related to the post-war literature from the region — its stories are not grounded in any real locatable place or time. Gender, sexuality, and national identity are fluid, and by the end of the densely slim volume the reader is finally transported to another planet altogether.
For Women in Translation month, hc co-editor Meghan Forbes spoke with translator Jennifer Zoble about the process of translating this powerful little book.
Meghan Forbes: Does the Croatian compilation include the same set of stories as appear in English, or did you make a different selection for the Feminist Press edition?
Jennifer Zoble: Our English edition with Feminist Press replicates the original Croatian edition by Sandorf. The same ten stories appear in the same order. We felt it was important to preserve the order for a few reasons. The first story, “Day Trip to Durmitor,” establishes the wry, playful nature of the book’s humor. And it introduces the figure of the woman writer narrator, which appears (in different forms and contexts) in fully half the stories. The final story, “The Underworld,” takes place largely on Mars. Though Mars is briefly mentioned in a few earlier stories, usually as a kind of idea or metaphor, it’s not central to the plot until the final story, which, given the book’s title, contributes to a sense of suspense throughout the book and, ultimately, a sense of arrival.
MLF: The pacing of the volume is striking. I was taken by the fact that the first three stories open with death, and yet, there is a lightness and sense of speed when reading. The heavy subject matter in these stories, buoyed with the sci fi and surreal, seems intended to give the reader stamina to keep making their way through. Was there anything particularly challenging in conveying this kind of surreal and uncanny macabre in translation?
JHZ: Yes, it’s really remarkable that a collection of stories whose characters’ predicaments range from moderately uncomfortable to deeply disturbing can at the same time be so full of vitality and humor! I think the challenge for me, in translating both the grim and the impish parts, was favoring subtle choices and only reaching for the blunt object when the original text demanded it. I was always trying to avoid using anything too broad, anything that would make the comic parts too jokey or the tragic parts too lurid. But it wasn’t a huge challenge, because Asja’s book did this very successfully and I stuck very close to it in my translation.
MLF: On the technical aspects of translation, I was curious about the process of translating “Passions.” The story opens with a statement that offers up a question: “For a long time I didn’t know whether Vanja was a man or a woman.” In English, it is possible to hang onto that gender ambiguity for some time, but the nature of grammatical gender works differently in Croatian, so that this ambiguity could presumably not be sustained for very long. Does that aspect of the story operate differently within the plot of these two versions?
JHZ: Right, because the story is written in the past tense, and since gender is marked in the Croatian past tense, it’s clear from the story’s second sentence that Vanja is conceived as a woman, even if gender ambiguity is part of the character. It’s not just the verbs, though—the story uses feminine adjectives and pronouns from the beginning as well, and it’s due to those pronouns that the gender ambiguity can’t be sustained for very long in English, either. I suppose I could’ve opted to use gender-neutral pronouns, but I think it would’ve pushed harder on a detail that, even though it opens the story, doesn’t really remain a focus. The “mystery of her [Vanja’s] gender,” as the narrator puts it, ultimately seems to say less about Vanja and more about the narrator’s professed isolation from and ignorance of other people—the strange contradiction she locates at the heart of her success as a novelist. And it reflects the years the author has spent idealizing Vanja in her absence. “Passions” is a story largely about (mis)perception, or, as the narrator puts it, “seeing things upside down, but then correctly.” It’s my favorite in the collection.
MLF: As you mentioned already, the title of the collection, Mars, would seem to be a direct reference to the final story in the book, in which all the world’s writers are literally relegated to life on Mars. But that is not the only instance in which that planet is conjured, and in fact, the settings of several other stories have a fantastical, dystopic quality to them. Even when we are supposedly on Earth, the natural environment is so alienated from the familiar machinations of daily life that the characters could be living on another planet. And at the same time, there is something here that is devastatingly familiar. When I was reading, I wondered if Asja meant to wryly suggest that we’re in fact already living on something like Mars. Is this something you find in these stories as well, Jen? What is it about them, that made you want to translate them now?
JHZ: Absolutely. Only a couple of the stories are set in a specific geographic space or historical time, so in most of them you can’t read the characters’ views or prejudices or neuroses through any one cultural lens, and the dynamics of the familiar and the foreign are thoroughly subverted. I found this really appealing, especially for a work in translation, and I think my wonderful editor, Lauren Hook, did too. We both were excited to publish a book from the Balkans that would bring readers into settings and situations completely different from those they’d likely encountered before in the region’s literature.
You mention the sense of alienation that runs through the book and I think this also drew me in. Every story’s protagonist (in most cases, the narrator) finds themselves in unfamiliar physical and/or psychological territory, in circumstances beyond their control, and the process of reading is a process of accompanying the character(s) on a journey of discovery, often self-discovery that leads to both greater knowledge and even greater alienation. I’m not an avid reader of speculative fiction but I’ve gathered this is a frequent premise—but what Asja does with it, especially the way she uses this premise to explore gender politics, is really refreshing.
Jennifer Zoble translates Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian- and Spanish-language literature. Her translation of the short story collection Mars by Asja Bakić was published by Feminist Press in March 2019. She received a 2018 NYSCA grant for her translation of Zovite me Esteban (“Call me Esteban”) by Lejla Kalamujić. She’s an assistant clinical professor in the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program at NYU, co-editor of In Translation at The Brooklyn Rail, and co-producer of the international audio drama podcast Play for Voices.