No Literary Apartheid in Bosnia
by Chris Agee
Compared to Serbian or Hungarian or Greek poetry, surprisingly little Bosnian
poetry has been translated into English. What has is almost universally weak,
both technically and artistically.
It is abundantly clear why this was, and is, so. There appears to be a view
widespread in the former Yugoslavia that non-native speakers can easily handle
journalistic or literary translation into English. But this procedure reflects a
serious misconception. It is exceptionally rare to find a translator who can
produce work of real literary or even technical quality in a language that is
not his or her own.
After all, it is hard enough to produce work of literary quality even in one's
native language. Always a bad policy in prose, translation by non-native speakers in the
matter of poetry is wholly misguided, since it is nearly always
tone-deaf to sophisticated registers of usage, style, atmosphere and meaning.
You might call it the Yasushi Akashi school of poetic translation. Wooden, unreflective
and mechanical, it has wreaked havoc on most of the English transla-
tions of Bosnian poetry before this anthology.
Translation is an important window onto a country. As such, it shapes the
understanding and image of that country. Unfortunately, both the dearth and the
weakness of previous translations of Bosnian literature can only tend to confirm
the worst Western stereotypes - that the country is some sort of balkanized
Ruritania where three tribes with unpronounceable names do unspeakable things;
that it lacks a serious unified culture within ancient borders as old as those
of Western nations; that it might as well be partitioned de facto between the
cultures of its better-known neighbours.
In contrast, this anthology rows against those stereotypes; since English is the
global lingua franca, it opens a large window on the rich and sophisticated poetic tradition
of a long-standing people. The outstanding quality of the
translations implicitly demands that Bosnian poetry be taken as seriously as the
poetry of any other European nation.
Now I will step briefly into the lion's den. A debate is going on in Bosnia as
to whether, basically, there should be one or three Bosnian literatures - this
latter option based, presumably, on the linguistic differences between the
Bosniak, Serbian and Croatian versions of the language, rather than a crude
ethno-religious classification. I am speaking, of course, of a debate within liberated
It is surely understandable that what was once formally called 'Serbo-Croat'
should be renamed more naturally as Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian. It is also
right that every effort should be made within free Bosnia to ensure the equality
zation of each of these dialects. But when these justified linguistic
considerations begin to intrude into literature, I think we are into dangerous territory. We
are into the same obsession with labels that first descended
to ethnic cleansing, and then led to the catastrophic Western map-making of successive
Any critical move towards the idea of three literatures is deeply retrograde.
However much is made of linguistic differences, it would mark a partition on
ethno-religious grounds. Is that what people in free Bosnia really want, after
the years of genocide and suffering - to finish the work of the ethnic separatists, to
institute a literary apartheid?
Should Mehmedinovic and Vesovic really belong to different literatures, though
both would scorn the idea? And what can this mean, when there is only one land
in question? And what of the poet in this anthology, a Muslim by background, who
has a special fondness for the Serbian dialect? Or the future writer who might
mix the three dialects in the interest of some artistic vision, as James Joyce
did with English when writing Ulysses in Trieste, in Austro-Hungary?
There is an alternative that is also opportunity. It involves what might be
called a civic state as opposed to an ethnic nationalism. All citizens are
equal, both politically and culturally. Just as Irish culture is simply what
happens culturally on the island of Ireland - including, of course, the
contributions of outsiders - Bosnian culture is simply what happens culturally
within the historic boundaries of Bosnia.
Actually, isn't there something artistically simple-minded about the idea that
linguistic difference must equate to imaginative or cultural difference - that
literature, so fond of holding disparate things in creative unity, should be
packaged with new labels according to some different words and pronunciations?
Isn't the poetic imagination more likely to thrive on cross-fertilizations
within a single tradition than on the partitioning of that tradition?
In this inclusive light, diversity is not sidetracked by what Freud called 'the
narcissism of small difference'; it liberates rather than balkanizes. Historic
Bosnia is, in fact, unique in Europe for being a nation without a majority - a
nation of minorities. As has often been remarked, this is why it is like a polyphony. And a
polyphony ceases to be itself if one of the strands is left out,
or if the strands are unravelled into something else. As I understood it, the
defence of Bosnia was about the defence of polyphony; as I see it, that polyphony in its
literary form is best defended by a single Bosnian literature.
This text first appeared in the Sarajevo daily Oslobodenje. It is an edited version of
remarks delivered at the Sarajevo launch of Scar on the Stone: contemporary poetry from
Bosnia, edited by Chris Agee, Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Bloodaxe Books,
Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1998, available from The Bosnian
Institute for £8.95.