Book Review

On translation and Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

Gorgeous Bosnian novel and my thoughts on the role of translators


I review this rather gorgeous book about life and death and war and nature for the dudes over at Open Pen. Click on any of these words to see the piece.

Shortly after the review was posted, Will Firth, the translator of the novel, emailed in to complain that he wasn’t mentioned enough. Thus, being a polite bastard, I bunged in a paragraph lauding his translation. Intellectually, I’m not sure I approve of this, as I think the greatest translations should surely be aiming for a seamless reproduction of the original prose in a different language. Firth’s translation is strong, yes (i.e. the book reads well), but the text is an autobiographically-inspired exploration of the effects of war on the memory of youth and nature, the destruction of residual happiness due to latter horror. The story is Šeheć’s, on a profoundly personal level, and the reason why I didn’t bother mentioning the translation in my first draft is that the novel itself is personal, is rooted in memory and in description. 

Firth’s translation allows me to experience Šeheć’s story, but Šeheć’s story is the fictionalised story of Šeheć’s life, turned into gorgeous prose as a response to personal trauma. Firth needs to be absent for this deeply felt novel to function. Translating Quiet Flows the Una isn’t a stylistic feat like Gilbert Adair’s translation of Perec’s novel without “e”s, A Void, but it is obviously a valuable and commendable achievement. Firth’s ability to render a novel into a different tongue is impressive, but in this case the novel itself is so much the product of the writer that it seems disingenuous to pay attention to the translator. It’s like writing a review of a film but focusing on the amenities of the cinema. Yes, without the cinema, I wouldn’t have been able to see the film, and if the cinema had been truly bad (i.e. technical issues, bad smells, too many rats) it would have been impossible to engage with the film. A good translator is a conduit between a reader and a writer: important, yes, but the narrative is not theirs. If the novel were made better due to a translator more talented than the original writer, then the translator’s pride is perhaps justifiably central, however, Quiet Flows the Una has won multiple international prizes in its original language, and it succeeds because of its innate strength, not the strength of Will Firth. Given Firth’s tone in his previous email, I expect that at some point soon he wil Google himself and/or the book and find this, so:

Will: I think you did a great job. But Šehec’s novel contains such emotional power based on personal experience that I felt focusing on the merits of the translation would do a disservice to the original text.

That’s my opinion. Please enjoy the linked review and, Mr Firth, please respond in the comments below:

7 comments on “On translation and Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

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