Forrester’s artful translation of Dubravka Oraić Tolić’s poetry earned her the Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS) 2006 Heldt Prize for the best translation in the last two years. In an interview with Ooligan Press, she discusses her experiences translating American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse:
Q: How did you first discover the writing of Dubravka Oraić Tolić?
A: I met Dubravka before I knew she was a poet, when I visited the Center for Scholarship on Literature at Zagreb University, where she worked. I knew first about her scholarly work on comparative literature and literary theory. After a few conversations, she gave me a copy of her wonderful book, Urlik Amerike, which later became American Scream. I always cringe when readers refer to authors by their first names, but the personal connection we have makes me always think of her as Dubravka, and I add her last names almost as a guilty afterthought.
Q: Why did you decide to translate American Scream and Palindrome Apocalypse?
A: I was in Zagreb in 1986–87 on a university exchange program with a project of translating contemporary stories. When I read Dubravka’s poetry, I reacted to it as a translator as well as a reader. I read Palindrome Apocalypse after 1991, when Dubravka mailed it to me and asked me to consider translating.
Q: What were your biggest challenges while translating the two pieces? Was there anything in particular about Dubravka’s poetry that was difficult to translate into English?
A: First of all, I can say that it took me a long time, many readings and many passes through the translations to grasp what Dubravka is doing in her poems. They are exceptionally rich and multi–layered—and that makes sense, since they were first published at a time when many of their messages couldn’t be uttered loudly. American Scream was published in Croatia in 1981 and Palindrome Apacalypse in 1993—both periods of political unrest. The stylistic gymnastics work as an equivalent to Aesopian language, Anna Akhmatova&39;s “triple bottom” to the poetic casket. Also, you see how much Dubravka has learned from her studies of other Russian and East European poets, from her work on citationality. The poems are at once accessible and dense, and I worked hard trying to re-create that effect for an English—language reader—a surface that is artistically satisfying, but depths that continue to reward rereading and study.
Q: What do you think American readers can gain from American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse?
A: Foreign literature in translation always offers historical, sociological, cultural insights, examples of how things are Other, delivered within an aesthetic whole that gives that Otherness meaning and emotional punch that would be lacking for a mere fact. So American readers could learn something about Croatia, or about Eastern Europe more broadly. But it’s also the case that a good work of art can be productively read from a variety of points of view, and Dubravka, especially in American Scream, has plenty to say about America too, or “developed” western culture in general.
Q: Can a translation be as good as the original?
A: Sure! A translation can be better than the original. The key in that case is to give a second–rate work to a superb artist. This happened from time to time in the Soviet Union, where some amazingly good translations were produced, but that doesn’t apply to the work I translated here. The readers who are equipped to read both the original and the translation would have to weigh in on the question.
I don’t know how helpful it is to ask whether a translation can be as good as the original—after all, unless you have as many previous versions as War and Peace has, the translation is giving you something you didn’t have before. It’s like a telescope through which you can see a heavenly body you knew was there but could only imagine from its gravitational influence on other heavenly bodies. Or else the translator is like a telescope and spectrograph, if the reader can’t “go there” him or herself.