Two years ago, after stumbling upon a podcast featuring the rising French writer Édouard Louis, I read his novel Histoire de la Violence. I was quite moved by this book, and the thought of translating it into Croatian came to mind almost immediately. I mentioned the idea to several acquaintances in the literary field and even managed to pique a publisher’s interest. As has been the case with more than one project I have tried to start, the combination of a hectic schedule, lack of motivation and lack of funding contributed to the fact that I never undertook translating Louis (although I like to think that I have not completely given up on it). However, a few months ago a noticeable interest in my idea seemingly sprang out of nowhere: Acquaintances I would run into at literary events inquired about Louis, whom they no longer referred to as ‘that young French writer of yours’, instead mentioning him by name.
What had happened in the meantime? Louis’s work had been translated into English – first his bestselling debut Pour en Finir avec Eddy Belleguelle (The End of Eddy), followed by Histoire de la Violence (History of Violence) – and subsequently made its way into the Anglophone media. Consequently, Édouard Louis also appeared on the literary map in Croatia. as I am typing this, I strongly suspect it will not be long before his work, or rather his name, catches the attention of a major publisher in the country.
The reception of Elena Ferrante illustrates these dynamics quite well. Although the tradition of translating Italian literature in present-day Croatia dates back to Renaissance times, preserving a solid continuity throughout the 20th century, the bestselling Italian author came to the attention of Croatian publishers, and of the readership at large, only after the English translations of her novels had been met with critical acclaim. The ‘Ferrante phenomenon’, in both its inherently literary and tabloid aspects, resonated quite strongly in the Croatian media: The fascination with the mystery of the author’s identity, the praise for the relentless ‘power’ and ‘style’ of her fiction, etc. However, the manner in which this very ‘style’ became available in Croatian barely got a mention, not only in the mainstream press, but in the specialized media, as well. My impression, in short, is that ‘Croatian’ Ferrante is being seen as a logical offshoot of the ‘English’ Ferrante, herself the ‘global’ avatar of the ‘original’ Italian Ferrante; Croatia and Italy, in this scheme, are connected through the global literary market, and by the bias of its lingua franca, i.e. English.
I will attempt to make sense of the situation by introducing a historical parallel. In socialist Yugoslavia (1945-1992), the institutions of the literary field were built around the notion of sovereign national literatures, sharing the world stage and enriching each other through constant interaction – a belated reflection of the 19th century Romantic cultural nationalism, mobilized by the Communists in the anti-fascist struggle. Translation, especially in the country’s first decades, was seen as an important means of combating the ‘cultural backwardness’ of its nations (Serbs and Croats being the largest among them). It was imperative to ‘catch up’ with the developed world by having not only, say, the classics of the Western canon, but also contemporary texts from fields such as physics or medicine, available in the local languages. The underlying idea was that we had to work on providing the literatures and cultures of ‘our nations and nationalities [narodnosti, the term used as a stand-in for “national minorities”]’ with the best that the literary, cultural, philosophical and scientific traditions across the globe had to offer. While the merits of the translator were not necessarily always recognized nor rightly valued, the crucial place of this figure in the literary field was at least implicitly recognized. More importantly, the sense of a linguistic and cultural pluralism, of a multiplicity of sources and centres participating in these exchanges, was vital to the aforementioned schema.
In independent, capitalist, post-war Croatia, this structure has irrevocably crumbled. The very notions of national language, literature and culture have been invoked during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as justification for ethnic cleansing and identitarian violence, with many institutions of the literary field becoming strongholds of ultra-nationalist politics. Nowadays, instead of the romantic, inclusive notion of national literature as an agent on the global stage shared by other sovereign literary traditions, the fate of literature in Croatia is being decided by market forces on the one hand, and by nationalist cultural institutions on the other. The dynamics and politics of literary translation are to a great extent left to follow the broader relations of power; given Croatia’s position as a small, semi-colonized, globally insignificant country, we could hardly hope for its literary field to become anything more than peripheral and provincial. Thus, the decades and centuries of translation and reception of Italian or Hungarian literature did not contribute much to the ‘discovery’ of Elena Ferrante or László Krasznahorkai in Croatia – it was their rise to prominence in the English-speaking world, and consequently in ‘the world’. Despite claiming to value literary translation greatly, the bureaucratic network of EU funding does little to help: translation has, it seems, less freedom and space than it has ever had.
A further development is that a growing portion of readers are interested in reading mostly or even exclusively in English. Many of them are fans of Anglophone genre fiction – fantasy, horror, SF – from younger generations, with middle class backgrounds that have allowed for a decent grasp of English. Such a reader will often decide to simply ‘cut out the middle person’ and pursue the original, instead of waiting for a translation (that might or might not see the light of day). However, the trend of turning to English for reading has also been expanding to ‘highbrow’ literature, and, more importantly, to English literary translations from other languages. In a recent discussion about Ferrante in a Facebook group, the readers discussed exchanging the English translations of some of her novels, not yet available in Croatian, between themselves. When an Italian-speaking acquaintance of mine asked if anybody knew where they could find the original, several people replied along the lines of ‘Why? The English version is great’. Only a few days after having read the discussion, I listened to a host of a public radio broadcast wonder if the recent surge in emigration from Croatia to Ireland and Germany was going to increase the demand for Croatian books abroad. It is a vivid example of the often stark discrepancy between public discourse on ‘culture’ in Croatia and the emerging realities of the cultural field. In this case, we are dealing with a true clash between a romanticized notion of ‘our’ language and literature in the world, and the fact that even in Croatia, fewer and fewer readers choose to read in Croatian.
One could argue that the ways in which the hegemony of the English language impacts the reception of literature is not specific to the Croatian context. Certainly, what has made Ferrante and Knausgård, or Murakami before and perhaps Louis after them, the global literary phenomena is precisely the prominence their works have ascended to in the Anglosphere: They are being made popular, translated and read worldwide because they are being made popular, translated and read in the hegemonic language of the late 20th and early 21st century. Authors such as Boris Buden and Rastko Močnik have already explored the phenomenon of the ‘new diglossia’ that arises in today’s Europe: the language of the upper classes, required for any sort of social mobility, has de facto become English, while the so-called national languages are being delegated to modern vernaculars. It is a situation similar to the European Middle Ages, with English taking the place of Latin, and EU institutions filling in for the Church. However, these processes will inevitably affect a marginal, semi-peripheral space such as Croatia with specific repercussions and consequences (Buden often cites the notorious example of Tim Orešković, a Croatian immigrant in Canada who managed to enter office as prime minister of Croatia despite not being fluent in the language). Moreover, I am under the impression that the repercussions of this social, economic, political and cultural situation in the literary field often go unconsidered and undiscussed, which makes their impact even more significant and profound.
Of course, I am not advocating for a return to the 19th century ideals of national languages and literatures, especially not having witnessed such notions widely mobilized for politically abhorrent causes in the past quarter of a century. I also believe that the institutionalization of a new lingua franca in all spheres of public life, from party politics to the literary field, does not have to be solely an instrument of subjugation. This fact also allows us to formulate questions, tackle issues and articulate criticism in a common idiom; the fact that I have written this essay in English and had it commissioned for publication outside of my mother tongue is telling. Whatever the future may hold, I see the ‘new diglossia’ producing important shifts in the reception of literary texts, but ultimately in the very structure of the literary field as well. I believe that I will not be speaking only about Croatia and former Yugoslavia, if I say that we need to discuss the emerging cultural situation.