One-on-one | Culture

John Hodgson: Out of spite I started learning Albanian

By - 15.11.2023

British translator talks about his time in

1980s Prishtina and translating Ismail Kadare.

John Hodgson stepped out into the Prishtina train station in 1980 not knowing much about where he’d arrived. But he was soon taken with the vibrant energy of the city — a mix of optimism, pride and grievance — and he began studying Albanian in earnest.

Today he’s the preeminent English-language translator of Albanian literature, having translated novels by Ismail Kadare as well as works by Fatos Lubonja.

For years Kadare’s novels reached English readers by first going through the French. It was through the French translations of Jusuf Vrioni, the son of King Zog’s representative in Paris, that Kadare’s works first made a splash in the West. Vrioni — who largely grew up in pre-war France and who Hodgson described as “more French than the French” — ended up imprisoned in Hoxha’s Albania. His translations were his ticket to freedom.

These French translations have long been treated as the equivalent of the Albanian originals due to the quality of Vrioni’s work as well as Kadare’s close ties to French culture (he’s largely lived in Paris since 1990). This, along with the challenge of finding literary translators from the Albanian, has meant Kadare’s English readers have long been reading novels that were translated first into French, and then from French to English.

This changed thanks to Hodgson, whose first Kadare translation came in 1997 with the publication of “The Three-Arched Bridge,” originally published in Albanian in 1978. Since then, Kadare’s works in English have been increasingly translated directly from the Albanian. Hodgson’s seventh and most recent Kadare translation, “A Dictator Calls,” was published in August 2023 by Counterpoint Press.

K2.0 spoke with John Hodgson over Zoom about the turbulent 1980s in Kosovo, translating Marxist-Leninist propaganda for the U.S. government, his early encounters with Kadare’s work and annoyingly persistent Nobel buzz.

K2.0: What was your introduction to Albanian?

John Hodgson: Well, I came to Prishtina more or less by accident because I had studied English at university and I was teaching English and I was very interested in Eastern Europe at the time.

And I was really very keen on going to the Soviet Union. So I went along to the British Council and I said, “Can I go and teach in the Soviet Union?” They said, “Well, we’re actually full up there, will you go to Yugoslavia?” So I thought, “Well, all right.” And so they offered me a choice of two cities in Yugoslavia and I chose Prishtina.

What was the other city they offered?

The other choice was Niš. They gave me a paragraph to read about the two cities and I read that in Niš, it said that the main attraction was a tower of skulls and I didn’t like the sound of that so I chose the other one.

So you arrive in Prishtina. It’s 1980. Tell me about your arrival and what you were up to.

Well, I had very little information about where I had come, but it was a very special period in the history of Kosovo, which was fairly quickly apparent.Tito had died six months before and in Yugoslavia as a whole there was a big question mark, what would happen next? And the atmosphere among the Albanians in Prishtina was electric and very, very positive. There was an immense sense of pride and also grievance.

One of the first things that I was taken to visit was a concert in the big Palace of Youth, Boro and Ramiz it was called then. It had just been built and the whole city of Prishtina was full of these spanking new buildings in this really up-to-date architecture.

And there was a concert of the university folklore group and there were a lot of patriotic songs, and the audience went absolutely wild and the music was fabulous. And this registered with me that this was a place with a very vivid internal life.

You were teaching English to university students. Is that right?

That’s right. Yes. For four and a half years.

So you were there during the student protests in ’81. And during the crackdown afterwards. Can you tell me about your observations from the period?

I came from a society where student protests were normal and when the students went out onto the streets, first of all for their living conditions, I said “well I’ll come too.” But they insisted that I shouldn’t. And of course, this was a society that couldn’t cope with street protests of this kind. The demonstrations were very, very brutally suppressed.

And then very quickly it spread more broadly into society. And then tanks arrived. This was a European country that was using tanks against its own citizens.

As regards the effect on students, this electric atmosphere, it was completely dashed. And it was followed by a lot of purges of staff and students. I’d mention here the lecturer at the English faculty, Shaqir Shaqiri, who introduced me to the English writer Edith Durham, who was a great traveler in the Balkans. He’d done a dissertation about her. But he was sent to prison for many years and I never met him again.

Then there was what was called “ideopolitical differentiation.” It’s a wonderful phrase, but they went through the entire student body questioning them and students went to prison and it was a dire and very difficult time.

At what point did you start studying Albanian?

I started quite soon, because I realized that the ethos of the whole university atmosphere was overwhelmingly Albanian at that time. We of course did have students studying in Serbian, but it was very much conceived as an Albanian university.

Shortly after I arrived I went to a conference in Skopje with a lot of British and American teachers at different universities and they had them all learning Serbo-Croatian, as it was called at the time, and they said “You can go anywhere in Yugoslavia with Serbo-Croatian!”

I said, “I think Albanian is quite interesting.”

“Nobody learns Albanian it’s totally useless!” they said. So really out of inat [spite] I started learning Albanian.

Is there anything from those first years that you look back to most fondly?

What I think back to most fondly I think are my visits to villages. This was a time of enormous upheaval in Kosovo society, where the old ways were still present, but sort of disappearing. And I didn’t know how quickly they would disappear.

But it was still very much a farming, an agricultural society. And in the villages, people lived according to old ways. The men assembled in an Oda [traditional meeting room]. And we would sit on the floor on carpets and drink endless cups of tea and smoke countless cigarettes and throw cigarettes at each other across the room. It was an extraordinary society to encounter.

After you left Prishtina, you were hired to translate Albanian Marxist Leninist propaganda for the U.S. government.

That’s right. Yes.

I want to know all about that.

[Laughs] Well, okay. This was from ’85 to ’91, the time after the death of Enver Hoxha, when Ramiz Alia was in charge and the communist system was just hanging on.

I worked for an outfit called the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. It monitored the media and the radio of countries around the world. Back in the ’80s, we’re dealing with a very monolithic media landscape in the communist countries of Eastern Europe, you just had a state radio and a party newspaper.

So I was employed to listen to Radio Tirana and to translate Zëri i Popullit [the party newspaper], which, as you can imagine, was incredibly boring, but also in its weird way, quite obsessive because I was reading this stuff without any idea about what life in Albania was like.

I hadn’t been there at all and my students in Prishtina were also very interested in Albania. They had a lot of preconceptions of what Albania must be like. In many cases they idealized Albania. So it was really looking at this mystery from the outside and seeing what I could make of it.

Give me a sense of the depths of the boredom.

The depths of the tedium… Well, you had endless speeches of leaders, you had denunciations of American imperialism and Soviet socialist imperialism. And then you had a lot of news from collective farms. You had over fulfillment of production targets…

“Olive harvests were 10% above target,” and things like that?

Oh! Thirty! [Laughs] Thirty at least!

But at the same time, we had no idea what it was like at all. And when I eventually went to Albania in 1991, it was very, very shocking. That first trip was with a little group of English people. We were all interested in Albania and in the travels of Edith Durham. And we went in a minibus round the country in the summer of 1991, when Albania was actually a sort of skeleton, it was stripped bare. It was a ruin.

And at the same time, it was a very optimistic time, a very idealistic time. There was a feeling that life was going to get better. And, of course, people were extremely hospitable in very, very touching ways.

What were your literary encounters with Kadare’s work prior to translating him?

I was introduced to Kadare by my students in Prishtina who were great Kadare enthusiasts. He meant an awful lot to them. Here was an Albanian writer who was achieving an international reputation at that time, really in French. And they were enthralled by his books, which had a very national… their content was very national. They were almost like the epics of old times, now recreated in the form of the novel. And his language, his style, was beautiful, and very lucid, very clear in a kind of crystalline Hemingway sort of manner.

And, of course, he was the first Albanian novelist of any note and the first writer to create a proper literary medium out of this reformed standardized Albanian language.

Albanian readers frequently note that Kadare’s prose is radically different from other Albanian writers. Can you explain what makes his prose stand out so much from others?

I think Albanian literature before had been mainly poetical. I think the prose tradition in Albanian literature has never been quite so strong. And Kadare, when he began writing, he used language in a very, very direct, visual and outspoken way.

Everything he wrote was beautifully clear. I think it’s often said that a horse by Tolstoy just moves. You can feel it, you can see it moving and it is just brought to life. And Kadare’s prose was like that. It was also very accessible. And I think this was part of the socialist realist doctrine that literature was not supposed to be obscure, it was supposed to be accessible to the masses.

As the years have passed, and as this doctrine has been forgotten, Kadare’s language has evolved. Now he rather enjoys being obscure, he loves to lose himself in mystery, and he has tackled themes that were forbidden under communism and he indulges in metaphysics. But at that time his language had a very straightforward aspect.

What’s your perspective on how Kadare was being read in Kosovo in the 1980s versus how he has been read in Albania?

In Kosovo, he was really read for his national content. The Albanians at this time, they felt very much discriminated against by the Yugoslav system, they felt downtrodden and humiliated. And Kadare has, as I said, has a lot of national content and this healed their wounded pride.

But in Tirana, he was often read by, certainly by the intelligentsia, for his skill in getting things past the censor. He was very, very devious in his writing, and for those in the know, you could work out little descriptions, little criticisms of the system. Some of these which are barely discernible to the foreign reader, but which for Tirana were a big deal.

Few if any Albanian writers from the socialist period have been widely translated. As far as you know, are there any socialist realist Albanian novels or writers that managed to overcome the artistic restrictions of the regime and might be worth translating? For example, I don’t know much about the writer Dritëro Agolli, but I know he lived in the same building as Kadare and was widely celebrated. Any writers like that?

I mean, I think it’s nice to remember Dritëro Agolli, who I think is primarily a poet. I was reading his long poem, “Mother Albania,” which is a long Walt Whitman socialist vision of Albania. And it is preposterous and unreal. But he was an authentic voice.

He had been a partisan. He was a convinced communist from the very beginning. And he lived through all these upheavals and he was very honest about his role in them. I remember him saying, “I’m not either black or white, but you’ll just have to take me as I am.” He was, in his way, a very fine writer.

I think a lot of the other socialist realist novels are probably best forgotten.

Are there other Albanian writers that you would like to see translated?

I think a lot of Albanian writers… so many are writing in other languages now. There’s Gazmend Kapllani, who I think wrote his first book in Greek. And I have great admiration for Pajtim Statovci, who writes in Finnish. And he wrote a remarkable book which… Well, it’s called “My Cat Yugoslavia,” and I’m sort of convinced that the publishers tacked this title onto it. It really doesn’t fit the book at all. The book is an astonishing picture of a patriarchal Kosovo family and what happens to the family in exile and how the patriarch, the father, becomes devalued and the mother comes to the fore and keeps the family together.

And then there’s Fatos Lubonja. I think he is an absolutely superb writer. And the story he has to tell is extraordinary. I’ve translated three books by him and two of them have been about his prison experiences. The most recent one, “Like a Prisoner,” is a sequence of a dozen stories and each one is a sketch of a fellow prisoner from his time in Albanian prison camps where he was imprisoned for 17 years. They are stories of such psychological insight and very dramatic and beautifully done with great control and great philosophical depth. So I want to say how wonderful they are.

The first Kadare work you translated was “The Three-Arched Bridge.”

Yes. Yes. I did that in about the early ’90s, but at that time they were still doing translations from the French. And of course, Kadare had this wonderful French translator, Jusuf Vrioni, who was basically a pre-war French aristocrat. I think his father had been King Zog’s Ambassador to France and he was more French than the French and a man of great personal dignity.

He died around about the year 2001 in Paris. He was a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. But he had been in prison in Albania and his translations of Kadare were really his ticket to freedom. So he invested a lot in them. And of course they were done absolutely beautifully and they acquired a certain status in France and as vehicles for Kadare abroad. So these Vrioni translations, these French translations, were seen as equivalent to the originals.

It was quite difficult to sort of get round that and to translate Kadare from the original Albanian.

Kadare’s prose, beyond being praised, is also noteworthy for its many neologisms. He comes up with these Albanian linguistic innovations.

Yes, he does.

And often they’re to replace Turkish or Balkan words in use in Albanian.

This has been something that’s been going on in the Albanian language since the 19th century, since Sami Frashëri and this whole idea of language purity as they think of it. And it’s also, I think, an aspect of Kadare’s very complicated relationship with Albania’s Ottoman heritage and the way he writes about the Turks in which there is real bitterness and hatred. And there’s also a lot of Islamophobia, as we might call it.

So there is this intense discomfort. And at the same time, there is also a kind of attraction because his prose descriptions of Ottoman times are also very powerful and evocative. And I think this reflects something in Albanian culture as a whole, that there is this attraction and repulsion from the Ottoman past.

Do you run into difficulties sometimes dealing with that in the translation?

Yes, yes, I mean there’s some things… I don’t start in with my own neologisms, but there are layers to Kadare in this respect, which are not easy to reproduce. And he will dig up an old Albanian word for pillow, for instance. And this will suddenly appear in his novels, which gives them a sort of sense of unreality because nobody actually uses these words. But I think he hopes that they might. I think he’s trying to reform the language.

But sometimes it doesn’t really fit. I think there’s one point that he claims that the Ottomans banned chimneys in Albania, that they wouldn’t allow houses with chimneys and the smoke had to come out of roofs. But the very word for chimney in Albanian is Turkish. And some of this I think is a little bit artificial, but interesting.

Your most recent Kadare translation is “A Dictator Calls” which is a disquisition on a fabled phone call between Josef Stalin and Boris Pasternak, Soviet writer and aborted Nobel winner. In the book Kadare deals obliquely with his own history as a writer in a dictatorship. It’s an odd book, but I found it quite enjoyable and hypnotizing. It also felt like the decision to write it, and then translate and publish it in English, is partly about trying to stay in the game for the Nobel.

Yes, there is a bit of that. But Kadare has won all kinds of prizes really, and I think he doesn’t need prizes so much as some close readers. I think he’s been haunted by this Nobel business and I think he and we would do much better to try and forget about it really.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Feature image: John Hodgson’s personal archive.