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Lost and Gained in Translation

book inc writer Vida Penezic explores the process of translating stories from a bygone era, highlighting the challenges of adapting them for a new audience while reflecting on changes in her writing style and worldview over time.

By Vida Penezic

March 14, 2024

When a few months ago I came across several short stories I had written in the 1970s, my first thought was, “I must share them with my writing group.”

There was only one problem: the stories were not in English. I had written them while I still lived in my old (now defunct) country, called Yugoslavia in Serbian. Not an insurmountable obstacle, I decided. The stories are short. I’m bilingual. How hard could it be to translate my own work? I chose two of them, “Beast” and “The Case of a Man Who Broke His Leg in Heaven” (430 and 1,800 words, respectively), and got down to work.

I thought I’d be done in a few hours. It took days. When the translation was finally completed, each story was over 3,000 words long. They were still the same in every essential respect: the same characters, the same plot points, the same theme. So why the extra words?

The short answer: different audience. But that’s not the only explanation. In the intervening years, I learned a few life lessons and, hopefully, at least some things about writing. So, also, different me.

Originally, these stories were meant to be private, more like journal entries (although they were both fictional) than something intended for public consumption. The idea was to express my own (dark) state of mind and leave it there on paper. A kind of cathartic cleansing. Consequently, my writing style was terse: I used mostly nouns and verbs, describing actors and their actions. No adjectives or adverbs unless absolutely necessary. I told who did what and occasionally how they did it. Why they did it or how they felt about it was to be inferred. However, if I wanted my new readers to follow one of my protagonists into the forest as she’s running for her life and the other into heaven, where he is the only person who can feel pain, I had to add a lot more details.

“Beast” involves a woman, a man, and a possible assault. The story’s original setting was an unspecified place in Yugoslavia, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Members of my new audience were unfamiliar with this long-gone world and might be led astray (away from the intended meaning) by filling in the blanks with misconceptions or conjectures. I needed a stable, neutral, easily recognizable setting that wouldn’t call attention to itself. I picked the American Midwest at our time and retold the story with this setting in mind. To make this work, I had to add cars, some farms and cornfields, a summer job for my college-age female character, and an explanation of why she would find herself in the company of the town weirdo. The original was laser-focused on the conflict and its complex outcome. To be accessible to a wider, more diverse audience, the translated version needed a lot more context and many more details.

“Beast” is all about interiority. We enter the female protagonist’s mind and see what she sees, think what she thinks, dread what she dreads. Back then, when it was unlikely that anyone but me would read this story, I didn’t need to spell out anything. Now, I needed to bring my readers along for the ride. Every time I thought a plot turn might be too vague and my potential readers lost, I added details and other markers. Still, the story conveyed the same message and the readers were left with the same questions as in the original. All in all, in my opinion, the translation was successful.

However, after I shared the story with my group, someone asked why she (the potential victim) didn’t use her cell phone to call the police. Oops! I had forgotten to account for the absence of the cell phone. At the time the story was written, a person was lucky to have the phone cord long enough to be able to sit in a chair while talking. Today, we need an explanation of why the phone isn’t in someone’s pocket.

“The Case of a Man Who Broke His Leg in Heaven” is summarized by its title: a man breaks his leg in heaven, and that needs to be dealt with. The story setting, heaven, has been relatively stable in our imagination during the past couple of thousand years, so little needed to be changed there. However, once I started looking at it with a different audience in mind, I realized that while our ideas about the setting might have remained stable, our attitudes toward it were not. Back then, I was writing about what, for me, was an abstract, nonexistent fantasy world. A kind of place where everything goes. Now I was addressing people some of whom might think of it at least as a theoretical possibility. This, I felt, called for fixing certain world logic issues. For example, I felt that key events and interactions had to appear realistic, and I spent some time (and words) making sure the world of heaven was ruled by the laws of physics—or explaining why some things behaved contrary to our worldly expectations.

Finally, when I first wrote the story, the people who could have possibly read it would not have belonged to any organized religion. This was not necessarily true of my current audience. Worried that someone might find the story offensive since, in my version, heaven was benign only as long as its residents didn’t question it, I prefaced my reading with a trigger warning. This, it turned out, was completely unnecessary and primarily revealed my own biases.

But the most interesting discovery came while I was writing this essay. The world portrayed in the two stories discussed above allowed for no way out. Ultimately, my characters lost their battles, one way or another. In my translation I honored this original vision, but I slowly realized that my current writing reflected a somewhat different view.

These days, the world of my stories is still a ridiculous place that doesn’t serve us (the people) well, but my characters tend to find a way through the mess and into a better situation. In other words, the world may still be a ridiculous mess, but my characters (we, the people) are not. Until I started writing this essay, I had no idea I felt this way.

Vida Penezic

Vida Penezic writes short stories, novels, and essays. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she is particularly interested in the tension between awareness and the cultural frameworks that structure our cognition. Vida is currently putting finishing touches on one novel and preparing to start writing another.

Vida Penezic writes short stories, novels, and essays. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she is particularly interested in the tension between awareness and the cultural frameworks that structure our cognition. Vida is currently putting finishing touches on one novel and preparing to start writing another.