Translator’s Q&A: Dana Todorović

How did you end up being bilingual and did you receive an education in both languages?

Having an American mother and Serbian father, I was raised bilingual. I wasn’t an early speaker (perhaps due to the confusion), but when I did actually begin speaking I spoke both languages fluently.

Although I did attend high school and university in the English-speaking world, I still feel that Serbian is my stronger language and I express myself with greater confidence in Serbian. The fact that I’ve lived in Belgrade for the past 20 years definitely has something to do with it, but also, I somehow feel that our childhood environment (and I did live in Belgrade until the age of fourteen) plays a crucial role in shaping us in terms of language preference. The more I read in English, the more I recognise its incredibly rich vocabulary and nuances of expression, which I feel I will never be able to master at the level of my Serbian. On the other hand, the Serbian language (or Bosnian, or Croatian) is very soulful and descriptive, and can be wonderful at conveying emotion. It can also come in handy when you want to tell somebody off, which I rarely do, of course.

In which language was The Tragic Fate of Mortiz Toth first written?

The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth was originally written in Serbian, as were all my other works of fiction.

What are the joys and frustrations of this Slavic language, and can you give us one of your favourite expressions?

When it comes to difficulties regarding translation, there is a lot of emphasis on style in Serbian fiction, as well as a tendency to write very long and complex sentences with a lot of digressions. This can sometimes be tricky to translate into a language whose rules of syntax are so different from Serbian.

The biggest frustration for me from a social aspect is never knowing whether to use the formal or informal form when addressing someone. English is so much easier in that respect because everyone is addressed as “you”. This has always been a source of awkwardness for me in social situations, and I have even gone so far as to purposely phrase my letters and e-mails to omit the use of “you”.

As for expressions, Serbs have their own version of “better safe than sorry”, and the literal translation of this saying goes something like: “Surplus will not make your head hurt”. I understand the reasoning behind this, of course, but being a migraine sufferer, I somehow feel that the opposite is true and that too much of anything is more likely to give me a headache.

How would you describe this work to readers just about to experience it in the English language? Are there themes that particularly interest you, or things you would like to highlight?

The good thing about this work is that it is highly universal. Its themes concern the human condition as a whole and are not dependent on any particular social setting, so the book will likely appeal to readers who share a humanistic or spiritual outlook regardless of their background. It will also most definitely appeal to those with a passion for philosophy and those who enjoy mystery novels.

How difficult was it for you to translate your own work, and did you have to resist the temptation to re-write in the new language?

It was more challenging than I though it would be. In the past, I would always scorn translations that were so literal that they failed to capture the spirit of the target language, but when I first sat down to translate my own novel, I found myself falling into the same trap. I think that authors are much too tied to their original work with all its metaphors, similes, sentence structure, etc., and if they are to embark on the difficult venture of translating their own work, it is necessary to step back and try to view it from different angles. Sometimes it is necessary to let certain things go.

Can you tell us something about your experience with Serbian literature in general and are there any common features?

The Eastern European literary tradition – and this can also be said for contemporary literature – relies rather heavily on the metaphor, which can at times come off as an abstraction to the unprepared reader. Leaving a story open to interpretation is very common and even considered a sign of good writing in Serbian literary circles, whereas it seems to me that the English speaking audience looks for more closure in a story. In my opinion, the key is to find that perfect balance between allowing the reader to tailor the meaning of the story to their own beliefs and reality and providing them with a somewhat satisfying ending.

How did you feel knowing that this book would be published as part of a series? (Have you read the other two books?)

I haven’t yet read these particular books, but being acquainted with other works of these authors, I know I’m in great company and I’m incredibly proud to be part of this series. It will be very interesting for me to read these books in the English language first, and then go back to the originals.

Dana Todorović was interviewed

by Susan Curtis-Kojaković

The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth

Written by Dana Todorović

Translated by Dana Todorović

Published by Istros Books/Peter Owen

as part of their World Series Serbia


Dana Todorović

Dana Todorović is a novelist living in Belgrade. She is half-Serbian, half-American, and although she was educated mainly in the US and UK, she prefers to write in Serbian. Her debut novel, Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (“The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth”) was shortlisted for the Branko Ćopić prize for best novel, awarded annually by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and was also listed as one of the top novels of the year by the NIN weekly and the daily Politika. Her second novel Park Logovskoj was shortlisted for several major literary awards, including the prestigious NIN award. Both novels were also published in Germany. In addition, she is the author of two children’s books, as well as several short stories that have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. She has extensive experience working as a translator, particularly in the field of theatre and film (translating plays and screenplays) and spent six years working as an interpreter for the UN. Dana comes from a family of actors. Having studied drama herself at university, she also had acting roles in a number of movies of the former Yugoslavia.

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