Judging a Book in Translation: A Profile of Ismail Kadare

Lucinda Byatt

Lucinda Byatt presents the case of Ismail Kadare, winner of the 2005 International Man Booker Prize.

The International Man Booker Prize was only awarded for the first time in June this year, in the recently nominated UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh. And the prize-winner … well, he’s from Albania. But that, as I hope will become clear, is the whole point.

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in the town of Gjirokastër in southern Albania. He is Albania’s best known poet and novelist. His first novel The General of the Dead Army was published in 1963, and its translation into French in 1971 laid the foundations for Kadare’s growing reputation in Western Europe. The book is a study of post-war Albania and a meditation on the futility of war. Although he lived with the horrors of the repressive Hoxha dictatorship, Kadare continued to write, but “often sailed perilously close to the wind”: several texts were banned; others he managed to smuggle out of the country as pages stuffed inside wine bottles to be stored in safekeeping by his French publisher.1 Kadare was granted political asylum in France in October 1990, shortly before the collapse of Hoxha’s regime, and did not return to Tirana until 2002.

In the imposing surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Old College, I listened as the judges of the inaugural International Man Booker Prize set out their criteria for choosing this year’s winner. It was no easy task. The prize aims to “recognise one writer’s achievement in literature,” it is awarded for a body of work, not a single book,and it can be won by a living author of any nationality, provided that his or her work is available in the English language. In an important break with most other major literary awards, the prize-winner can nominate a translator who then receives a separate award. This year’s judging panel included the eminent literary critics John Carey (chairman), Alberto Manguel and Azar Nafisi. All three judges highlighted the international scope of the prize, a fact that was borne out by over half the shortlist of eighteen writers, including the winning author, being read in translation.

The new prize may mark an interesting turning point because, in the past, very little has been done for non-English authors. Often shunned by the major publishers, it has fallen to the few brave stalwarts, often smaller presses who specialise in this area, to carry the burden of extra translation costs. The truth is that the returns are far from assured since large chain bookstores and consequently most English-language readers are hesitant to read translated works. In the UK our reading tastes are too often dictated by commercial requirements and the “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em quick” mentality. However, as Alberto Manguel pointed out, the fault also lies in our failure as readers to rebel, to demand more European and non-European authors. He cited the statistic that approximately 3% of books published in the US and UK is translations, compared to a staggering 26% in Italy (2002)2: shocking, but hardly surprising given the dominance of the English language.

The choice of Kadare as winner has proved controversial. Since his nomination in June, many have questioned his real relationship with the despotic Albanian regime and the reasons for his exile.

Writing in The Guardian, Julian Evans quotes Kadare’s response to this absence of dissent: “That was not possible. You risked being shot. Not condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word.” Instead, Kadare “revived old forms – parable, myth, fable, folk-tale, legend – packed them with allusion and metaphor, plundered the past.”3

Another question that has generated lively debate focuses on the problem of judging a book in translation. This is especially true in Kadare’s case, because few of his works have been translated directly from Albanian. Most have been translated from French and are therefore “twice-removed” from the original text. Translation is a complex art, an imperfect process: Umberto Eco and others have drawn attention to the Italian pun on “tradurre/tradire” (to translate/to betray), which raises the problem of the translator’s loyalty to the original. In Kadare’s case, the addition of another layer of language, a “retranslation,” adds yet another filter. David Bellos, the translator chosen by Kadare to receive the special translator’s prize, has written illuminatingly on this subject 4.

Those of us who read historical fiction have to be pleased that the first winner of the Prize is a historical novelist (although he doesn’t label himself that way) and history plays a major role in his writing. To pick out just a few of his historical works: The General of the Dead Army (Harvill 1963) tells the story of an Italian general sent to recover the remains of soldiers who fell in the Albanian campaigns some twenty years earlier. It was later turned into a film, with Marcello Mastroianni memorably cast in the role of the Italian general. Kadare’s native town of Gjirokastër, with its lofty stone buildings towering over narrow cobblestone alleys, provides the background to Chronicle in Stone (Serpent’s Tail 1970), a largely autobiographical account of a young boy’s coming of age during World War II when the town was successively occupied by Greek, Italian, and German forces. Above all, Kadare draws on the myths and history of medieval Albania, which provide a rich vein of parable, political allegory, and metaphor. The Castle tells the story of Albania’s struggle against the Ottoman Turks, involving the siege of a medieval Albanian fortress by the Turks in the 15th century, and the defeat of the Turks by Skenderbeg. The Three-Arched Bridge chronicles the construction of a bridge across a great river in 1377, with the bridge emblematic of the disintegration of the economy and political order as it attempts to straddle cultural divides. The river is personified as the “Wicked Waters” as it pits its strength against the bridge’s masonry; when a body is discovered walled up in the foundation, the local community is overshadowed by uncertainty, superstition and murder. Lastly, in Doruntine, one of the most well-known Albanian myths is transformed into a medieval thriller.

Kadare rejects any attempt to label his writing, in particular the term “historical fiction.” In an interview given in June 2005, when asked, “What is the perception of history from the writer’s point of view?”, he replied, “As I have said before, I don’t accept so-called “historical literature.” I think this terminology makes it easy for superficial critics or for students to study literature at school. History is part of human life. And because human life gives birth to literature, these artworks include historical events. The difference is that literature does not see what we call historical events as such, but as simply events. And to a certain point, anything is history, whether it happened centuries ago or two days ago. The term “historical literature” does not exist for me as a writer. Literature is the art of narration, and anything that is told somehow has happened. I know it is not an easy issue to explain for the public. The question is, “What does history represent for literature?” I believe that history for literature is part of everyday life. Nothing more.”5

In another interview, this time for New European Review, Kadare was asked how important history is in shaping a writer’s conscience, and his work, and why are writers and readers so fascinated with history? Kadare replied: “This stems from literature’s very tradition. Literature denotes storytelling and that is how it started. It means telling things that have happened. Literature has, by its very nature, a historic dimension. In a sense, literature is in itself history, for even when you talk about something that happened the day before, it is somehow history, because that day is already over. This is not surprising. Ancient literature was more than historic. It was mythological, which is deeper and more distant than history. A person, whether writing or reading, needs some degree of remoteness from particular events.”6

Writing in The Spectator, Alberto Manguel commented that, “Kadare is an explorer of vast areas of human suffering, a writer who recognises, in our myriad conflicts, stories of humour and misery, happiness and treason, evil and greatness, that have changed little since the times of Homer.”7 With or without the label, this is the essence, I would say, of all historical fiction.

In his presentation speech, John Carey laid considerable emphasis on the failures of the publishing industry to promote non-English writers, stating that “To an outsider, the British publishing industry can seem like a conspiracy intent on depriving English-speaking readers of the majority of good books written in languages other than their own.” However, there is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the imbalance between English and other languages, and, bearing in mind the role played by readers in this two-sided process, it is encouraging to note the contribution made by the Historical Novel Society. Contrary to the complaint that literary editors commission few reviews of translated books, a steady stream of works in translation has been reviewed in every issue of the Historical Novels Review. We can hope that the new prize will provide access to even more historical fiction in translation.

Two new Kadare titles are due to be published shortly: The Successor (forthcoming, January 2006) and Agamemnon’s Daughter (forthcoming, date TBC). In the UK, he is published by Random House (Harvill/Vintage), and for the two forthcoming novels and relaunched backlist, Canongate. In the US, he is published by Arcade.


1. David Bellos, Adventures in Kadaria, Independent, 24 June 2005

2. Fabrizio Megale, Il diritto d’autore del traduttore, Editoriale Scientifica, 2004

3. “Living with ghosts, Julian Evans talks to the controversial Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare”, The Guardian, Saturday September 17, 2005

4. David Bellos, The Englishing of Ismail Kadare. Notes of a retranslator. The Complete Review, May 2005

5. Interview for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty given on 23 June 2005

6. http://www.neweuropereview.com

7. The Spectator, 25 June 2005

Lucinda Byatt is a freelance translator and book reviewer living in Edinburgh.


First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.2 (Nov. 2005): 32.

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