Interview _ Marija Todorova

Marija Todorova has worked for international organizations that include the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her research interests include interpreters in mediation, intercultural education, and visual representation in translation.

Todorova is an Executive Council member of International Association for Translation and Intercultural Studies (IATIS). She holds a PhD in Translation Studies from the Hong Kong Baptist University, and a PhD in Peace and Development Studies from University Ss. Cyril and Methodius Skopje.

In this interview, Maria Todorova talks about translation, peacebuilding and Journeys in Translation:

What would you say is the role of translation or translation studies in peacebuilding?

For me, language is maybe one of the most important aspects of both peacebuilding and development. In the current state of the world when we are witnessing increasing numbers of refugee crises around the globe, the need for language professionals who work alongside humanitarian personnel is greater than ever.

My interest in this topic started with my employment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and the ensuing refugee crisis in Macedonia in 2001 as well as the repatriation process in Kosovo. I was interpreting for the refugees at the Macedonia-Kosovo border as well as in various refugee camps throughout Macedonia, and for the internally displaced people and minorities in Kosovo. This was a truly life-changing experience for me.

I have done a lot of research to explore some of the aspects that make interpreting in conflict different and specific.

My personal experience provides me with a lot of insight, and I also conducted interviews with people who were working as interpreters in both the Kosovo refugee crises and the European refugee crises. Although employed primarily for their linguistic skills, field staff working in situations of emergency often decide to adopt a role similar to that of a mediator, and giving voice to the vulnerable. In doing this they undertake tasks beyond the scope of the work of a language broker and more of a peacebuilder.

Can you tell us more about the book chapter, "Interpreting conflict: Memories of an interpreter"?

Interpreters have been traditionally seen as invisible. Even when their presence is mentioned by historians, interpreters working in conflict zones are rarely referred to by name or given space to share their stories and comment. However, if we listen to their accounts we may be able to learn a lot about how they feel and how they perform their tasks.

The chapter you mention was published in Transfiction: Research into the realities of translation fiction (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014), edited by Klaus Kaindl, Karlheinz Spitzl. The chapter makes an attempt to make some sense of the life of a Serbian interpreter in a Kosovo US Army base by examining the main character of Tanja Jankovic’s semi-autobiographical work of fiction, The Girl from Bondsteel. The novel is an account of how an interpreter copes with the difficult situation of being “in between”. This ‘in-betweenness’, however, does not mean being in a place which is neutral or objective, in between cultures. For Diana, the main character in the novel, this means constantly making decisions and taking sides based on her own ideologies and loyalties which are connected with specific cultural spaces, and not with the ‘in-between’.

And, with Zoran Poposki, you co-authored "Public memory in post-conflict Skopje: Civic art as resistance to narratives of ethnicity and disintegration". Can you tell us more about that chapter as well?

The violent conflicts in the countries emerging out of former Yugoslavia may be a thing of the past but the ethnic and nationalistic tensions underlying them remain part of the daily life in the new independent states. This article looks at how art in public space is used to promote or resist the legacy and ideology of ethnic division, disintegration and conflict.

The article, in Post-Conflict Performance, Film and Visual Arts: Cities of Memory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), edited by Des O'Rawe and Mark Phelan, explores tactics of creative resistance to the official public narrative of ethnicity, history and disintegration, focusing on the work of a few Macedonian new media artists who seek to resist the government-led transformation of Skopje’s public space into a place of division and spectacular power. One of these artists, Zoran Poposki has produced several projects focusing his art on transforming the public space from a place of exclusion into a place of inclusion and representation of the multifaceted nature of Skopje’s citizens.

In the article, we also focus on the difference between public art proper (artworks in public space commissioned by governmental or corporate entities that ultimately reproduce existing mechanisms and relations of power as well as a culture that glorifies violence); and civic art (artworks in the public sphere, largely immaterial in form and created through broad participatory processes that are representative of various counter-publics and help create a culture of peace).

You are also the author of "Hong Kong Diversity in Anglophone Children’s Fiction". Tell us more.

A few years ago, my family and I moved to Hong Kong. Moving to a new country for us meant being able to learn a new culture, experience it in our own unique way, and adding that layer to our existing (multi)cultural experiences.

It also meant implanting a bit of ourselves in the diverse and cosmopolitan culture of Hong Kong.

We do this by embracing the local literary and art scene. Hong Kong offers a unique possibility to do this due to its production of local books in the English language.

I was particularly drawn to children’s literature because of its potential to transform and change deeply rooted stereotypes.

My study, "Hong Kong Diversity in Anglophone Children’s Fiction" (in Cultural Conflict in Hong Kong: Angles on a Coherent Imaginary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), edited by Jason S. Polley, Vinton W.K. Poon and Lian-Hee Wee), approaches fiction books for children as framing and representation sites that contest or promote stereotypes. Books should assist children in building their identities and thus encourage children to accept differences and reject discrimination. They should serve to open young readers’ horizons to other cultures and ways of life, thereby helping them to overcome fears that stem from ignorance.

The written word has a great potential to convey to children information about social diversity. One of the goals of effective use of children’s literature is to familiarize and celebrate cultural difference, to develop interaction, experience, understanding, and respect for people from different cultures. Both Anglophone children’s books and the Anglophone authors from Hong Kong speak to the diversity in Hong Kong, but migrant and ethnic minority experiences are still less likely to become the center of Anglophone children books published and distributed in Hong Kong.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

Translation is not only my profession; it is something I take great pleasure in. In addition to my work as an award-winning professional translator of numerous literary works primarily catering to a particular market, serving as a volunteer translator gives me the opportunity to participate in the socio-cultural processes by promoting the voices of the marginalized periphery.

For several years, I have served as a volunteer translator for the International Children’s Digital Library, translating children’s picture books in Macedonian. It all started with the translation of the picture book, Ciconia, Ciconia by the Croatian author, Andrea Petrlik Huseinović, about a white stork who is forced to leave its home destroyed by war.

In Hong Kong, I have served as a co-translator for the Hong Kong Poetry Festival, introducing Macedonian, Bosnian and Serbian poetry to Hong Kong readers. On the other hand, literature produced in and about Hong Kong is often overlooked by foreign translators and critics, rarely getting the attention it deserves as part of the world literary scene. Thus, my translation students at the Hong Kong Baptist University and I curated a website that introduces new contemporary prose and poetry from Hong Kong authors to English readers.

Hong Kong is also home of a significant migrant and refugee community. Recently, I was invited as guest speaker at a literary sharing on the issue of belonging and hospitality. Here I shared some of the poetry from Journey in Translation and the poems were received with great interest.

Marija Todorova's translation, into Macedonian, of Emma Lee’s “Stories from 'The Jungle'”, Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) p.85. 

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work you put into the initiative?

Translating poetry is not an easy task. Poetry contains a multi-layered and complex language, condensed with images and feelings, very different from any other literary genre. Translating poetry means that one has to interpret all the potential meanings embedded in these features. For some poems this meant retaining the poetic form as well. Whether or not this is at all possible when translating poetry from one language to another is a big question. Finding the right words to make the same impact in a new language can be very challenging.

Which were the most enjoyable aspects of the work?

Translating poetry is a very rewarding task. By translating the poetry in the Journeys in Translation project into Macedonian language I hope to contribute to the internationalization of the narratives of refugees and their plight. With this translation I hope to confront and change the misperceptions and stereotypes of the ‘other’ as enemy, along with providing positive models for acceptance and integration. This acceptance of cultural diversity as a positive thing and not as an obstacle helps promote models of coexistence and the expansion of identity.

As Macedonia has been affected by several refugee crises over the years, these poems will find resonance with the readers affected by the cultural conflict still present in the country.

Translating into Macedonian does not only represent sharing different voices and perspectives with the Macedonian readers. For me, it also means preserving the Macedonian language.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

Culture has been seen as an integral part of conflict, being both the cause of and channel for direct violence and its justification, as art can also be used to perpetuate cultural violence. Johan Galtung defines ‘cultural violence’ as referring to aspects of culture such as religion, language, art, empirical science and formal science, all of which justify direct and structural violence.

Art has an important role to play in the symbolic continuation or challenging of that culture of violence. Art, in all forms, is used as resistance to narratives of hate. The artist is a citizen, too, who reacts to social problems in the city just like everyone else.

By being an oppositional aesthetic practice, art of the activist or socially engaged type can offer powerful resistance to the state’s power structures, becoming civic art, the type of ‘art that promotes and creates civic values, invites and fosters citizen participation in public affairs’, all of which are essential to the functioning of democracy as a discursive space. In this process, culture is perceived as vital to social transformation, conflict mediation and resolution.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise through blogs, letters, emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. 

Over Land, Over Sea was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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