One-on-one | theater

Alexandra Channer: I think of translation as a political activity

By - 13.04.2022

British translator of Albanian literature talks Kosovar theater.

Those who follow literary publications in Kosovo will likely have encountered the name Alexandra Channer. Having translated numerous plays, poems, short stories, novels, memoirs and film scripts, Channer is currently among the most prominent translators of Kosovar contemporary literary texts into English.

You’ll often find her name alongside that of Kosovar Albanian playwright Jeton Neziraj. “It’s a collaboration which has lasted over a decade now,” Channer told me, referencing the 17 plays of his that she has translated. One of them, “Balkan Bordello” — an adaptation of the ancient Greek Oresteian Trilogy — last week made its New York City debut at La MaMa Experimental Theater, after having its English language premiere in Prishtina at the end of 2021.  

Trained as a political scientist, Channer’s odyssey into Albanian language began in 2005 when she came to Kosovo to conduct academic research on nonviolent resistance. She eventually joined Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (VV), and translated its main political documents. And after the February 10, 2007 demonstration in which two VV activists were killed and three were left seriously injured by Romanian police working for the UN, she coordinated the human rights case for the victims’ families.

Given her background as a political activist, for Channer there’s something political in her translation work as well. She sees it as “transmitting Kosovo authors’ ideas and the questions they’re asking to a wider audience.”  She recently translated Enver Dugolli’s memoir, which focuses on his time as a political prisoner during the Milošević regime. The book was published in English in May 2021.

K2.0 caught up with Channer over Zoom to talk about translation and creative writing, the texts she has translated and how she has connected to Kosovo through Albanian language.

K2.0: When you first came to Kosovo, I assume you did not think of yourself as a translator, let alone one of Albanian literary texts. What set you on this path?

Alexandra Channer: I was coming to Kosovo to do my research for my doctorate, a PhD in political science. I had to read documents and textbooks, and interview people, and it was imperative for me to be able to talk to people and understand Albanian. So I started as a student learning Albanian, and obviously translation is part of learning a language, isn’t it? When I got to Kosovo to begin my interviews, I was interested in nonviolent resistance and strategies of resistance. I think I arrived in August 2005. 

Someone mentioned that there was a new movement that had just begun and that I should go and speak to this young man called Albin Kurti, who was involved in establishing and leading the movement. So I did. And he said something like, “Well look, right here in front of you there is this new movement starting, so why don’t you come follow that and see what we’re doing, then you’ll be looking also at contemporary non-violence in Kosovo.” So that’s what I did.

As part of initially following and trying to understand the Movement for Self-determination [Vetëvendosje], gradually I got involved myself. I started to translate some of the core documents of the movement because at that time there was very little understanding outside of the Albanian-speaking population about the movement. Also, there was this weekly newsletter that we produced in English. I was volunteering to try and help better communicate this message to people outside of Kosovo.

I was meant to be in Kosovo for just two years but it ended up being eight. Obviously, my grant from my university ran out after a while, so then I began translating to pay my bills. At that stage, I worked on normal things you would expect — reports and these sorts of things. 

"Literary translation opens up new questions that are relevant for all of us."

Then I was very lucky that Jeton Neziraj approached me. Initially, he asked me to edit a couple of his plays. That was the beginning of a collaboration which has lasted over a decade and has included really important plays. Through that collaboration my work then also included some film scripts and plays of other playwrights from Kosovo. And then some books and memoirs, quite often with a historical or political kind of approach. 

You started out translating mainly political and administrative texts. How was it for you the shift to literary texts? 

At a personal and practical level, you always think, “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough,” right? There’s always that personal challenge, pushing yourself over your boundaries and embracing it. Jeton’s work in particular is so political and addresses really interesting and challenging social issues. Translating his work, I think, is also fundamentally political. 

For example, “One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater” was one of the most significant of his early plays that I translated. For me, it was just fascinating because it was the first political satire that I had come across in Kosovo. Throughout the play, there is this combination of comedy, ridiculousness and the absurd, but underneath all of that, there are very strong political messages and critiques that open up quite big questions, relevant obviously to Kosovo, but also to all of us. I found the shift to literary translation deeply fascinating on that level — it is so engaging because it always opens up new questions that are relevant for all of us. 

You’ve translated plays, poetry, short stories, novels and memoirs, among other things.  Does your translation style differ when you navigate between different literary forms and genres?

Some of Jeton’s work has both this sort of contemporary dialogue, then sections of prose and also very lyrical, poetic — almost ancient in style — songs. His work is very varied in terms of the language that’s used and the style. I’m afraid I find poetry so hard, really hard but very satisfying when I do it. It’s very difficult because you don’t know the context of the poem unless you’re talking to the author and really getting to understand how they wanted to use each word. So I always feel slightly hesitant whenever I am translating poetry. 

When you’re dealing with a book, a memoir like Enver Dugolli’s, you’re thinking of his voice telling you the story and that comes across very clearly in the language. Whereas in a play, there are a variety of characters that you’re trying to think about how to express their voices. You’re also thinking about how a play will be transformed once again by the director and by the actors or perhaps translated into another language. In a play, there are constant transformations. I’m just one very small part of a bigger process that’s going on between the author, director and everyone else. 

From a personal perspective, I think that when you’re translating there’s this interesting process of discovery. As you unfold each word in a sentence, you’re discovering what is happening. And there are different levels of discovery. Through a play, you’re obviously with those characters, you’re living with them, you feel empathy for them or you hate them or whatever it is, but they’re fictional. Whereas with Enver’s story, it’s very real right? This is something that happened to someone and also connected with the research I did when I was in Kosovo. It brought to life many of the stories that I heard from other political prisoners. You’re alone with this text, uncovering sometimes very horrendous stories and tales.  

It’s interesting how you distinguish between different voices that communicate and interact within a text. Where do you feel your voice as a translator fits in?  

I think it’s incredibly complicated. I’m still not quite sure what the answer is but all I know is that the translator has a bridging role, somehow sitting between transmitting what is written on that page but also transforming it enough so it maintains the same sense of beauty or power in the new language that it’s going into. I try to pitch it correctly so that my work is facilitating but not dominating the author’s voice. 

Translation is like a jigsaw puzzle.

It’s difficult to think of a practical example of how that happens, but I suppose one of the rules I have is just simplicity of language. I try to ensure that the English I use is as clear as possible, communicating the original words of the author. I think it’s very difficult to be clear what the role of a translator is. I’m simply in the middle, I’m in a process, part of that process. 

Has translation changed in any way your relationship with English and how you read?

It definitely has made me more aware of how a text is structured and how powerfully a message can be conveyed. One of the reasons why I always love doing literary translations is because I also have a sort of creative part of my character. I always wanted to write, I love writing, so it really satisfies that part of my interest. I love the process of thinking about, “Gosh, how they’ve constructed this narrative and these different characters.” Especially when translating Jeton’s work — how very cleverly he uses these different mechanisms of comedy or tragedy to convey quite interesting messages. I find that process fascinating. 

Translation is like a jigsaw, you’re always unraveling, unpacking and then rebuilding, putting together the pieces in different ways. When I read a book now, obviously I just love a good story like everyone else, but I do notice when I think the language is really good. That has become more important for me now. 

What part do you think translation plays in the process of creative writing?

One of the reasons why I get so much pleasure from the translation work is that I feel I am part of creating something beautiful. I cherish the value of creating a beautiful, powerful work of art. I get a lot of pleasure from this and I am glad to be part of that process. Similarly, I think opening doors to collaborations is crucial to creativity. Especially when you are talking about plays, you are not just creating a dead piece of text which is going to sit on a shelf, you’re creating something which people are going to use and change and argue about. You’re part of something quite dynamic.

When I look back, I also think about the role that translation has played in maintaining my connection with Kosovo, since it’s been about 10 years since I left in September 2013. I’m interested in the role that language plays in this bond. There’s creativity in the use of a language, but also a sort of spiritual connection with that language and the experiences you had in a place linked to it — all the emotional bonds with the people and friends in Kosovo. I really think that as well as being a creative process, translation is also about the connection that language brings among countries and the people. 

You’ve translated many plays by Kosovar playwrights. Do you follow the theater scene in Kosovo? 

I saw “One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater” at the National Theater. That was the first time I saw a play that I’ve translated on the stage in Kosovo, so that was really exciting. I was also lucky enough to go and see one of Bekim Lumi’s performances, “The Blood Shirt,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s three tragedies — Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet — and the Albanian traditional Code of Lekë Dukagjini, at the Ethnographic Museum in Prishtina. I went with a group of friends to see that and it was incredible. Those are the two performances that I’ve seen. I try to follow what I can but I suppose most of my contact with theater is through people who approach me to translate their work. 

It would be fantastic to bring some Kosovo playwrights to the UK and have a sort of mini festival.

In speech, your Albanian slightly leans toward the Gegë dialect. Does this manifest somehow in your translations?

Like every student, I learned standard Albanian when I was studying the language, while my spoken Albanian I learned in Kosovo. I was listening and talking to people speaking in the language they use in their homes, with friends. I’ve spoken it and listened to it, so it seems quite natural to me in terms of translating it. I would say it is an advantage.

Does your academic background, particularly the research you did in Kosovo, influence your translation work?

If you think at the simplest level, if the translator understands the context about which they are writing then it means that they probably interpret the language more effectively. So I think it enabled me to understand a variety of literary texts but also political memoirs, to approach them with an academic perspective too, one that’s open to questions, critiquing, thinking. 

"I think of what I'm doing as part of a political activity — helping Kosovar authors transmit their ideas to a wider audience."

I think it makes me more open to question different perspectives. But the most important thing is just understanding the historical and cultural context of where a piece of text is coming from. Sometimes the work that comes to me is because people know that I’ve worked on these issues in my PhD and therefore I have a good understanding of these issues and also an academic approach to these texts.  For example, I just worked on a very interesting book which was a set of interviews about the experiences of political prisoners at Goli Otok, from WWII to the present. For my own work I had interviewed one of interviewees in this text, and I’m also doing work on records of some of the massacres that occurred in the war. 

You mentioned that you’ve been thinking a lot recently about why you do translation. Have you arrived at any sort of anwer?

On a personal level, it’s partly being involved in the creative process of translating but also part of a wider community of people who are all producing plays, scripts and books. Then, it is also this connection with the language that I was talking about, maintaining connection with Kosovo and my present there. So that it’s not just that I was there but I’m still part of things that are happening there and still feel Kosovo is part of me. That’s on a personal level.

Then also, I do think of what I’m doing as part of a political activity — helping Kosovo authors to transmit their ideas and the questions they’re asking to a wider audience. And with some of them, with Jeton for example, there’s a very specific goal: the reconciliation he talks about, the emancipation that he’s trying to achieve through his texts, and particularly his work in bringing some of his plays to Belgrade or other audiences.

How does your translation process work? How do you go through different drafts and rereadings?

I do a first rough draft to establish the basic meaning of the text and the narrative. Then I go through the text with a fine tooth comb. At that point, when crafting the English grammar and structure, I think about how to craft that sentence in the most effective, powerful or beautiful way. And also, how to get that balance we were talking about before between bridging the words of the author and transmitting or transforming them for the audience they’re trying to reach. There’s a very detailed and intense process of crafting going on. Then I normally try to leave it for a while just to sit and then I go back through it again quite deeply. 

This gives you a sense of perspective — you step out from baffling over one word to looking at the text as a whole. You need to step back and think about the whole narrative because there are layers of how the translation and the text fit together from an individual word to a sentence to the entire narrative as well. A pause between reviews is always useful. At a practical level, when you’re dealing with a lot of text, there are things you can miss or don’t notice and the second time you read it, those suddenly become clear. I would say a good translation takes time. 

There will always be some questions that I’m just not quite sure that I have correct answers for, so if I can, I like to collaborate with my authors. That’s the best way. I always highlight anything that I’m not sure if I got the meaning correct or if I’m not sure what words they would prefer, since there are a variety of words, especially in English, I could use to transmit something. I don’t think it ever works properly if it is just a straightforward transaction. Literary translation is not a transactional process. There’s collaboration there because the act of translation is also part of the creative process. And the author needs to be deeply involved in that. 

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished a play and I’m about to start a film script. I am also doing a sort of personal family memoir. So, I’ve got three on the go for the moment. 

13/04/2022 Correction: The text originally incorrectly stated that Channer was the coordinator for VV’s February 10, 2007 demonstration. She coordinated the human rights case for the victims’ families.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English.

Feature Image: Matt Curtis.

This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.

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  • 14 Apr 2022 - 12:32 | Lirika Demiri:

    Thank you, dear Ann! Whenever you happen to be in Kosovo, let me know! All the best, Lirika

  • 13 Apr 2022 - 15:44 | Ann Christine Eek:

    Hi Lirika, another great interview! Thanks for your good work! Greetings to both Alexandra and you! Maybe we'll meet soon, in Kosova? All the best, Ann Christine