This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Pajtim Statovci and David Hackston, the author and the translator of the novel Bolla, which is out today from Pantheon. Bolla follows Arsim and Miloš, two young men who first meet in Kosovo in 1995—as the threat of war looms—and begin an affair. Arsim, who is married and a soon-to-be father, is Albanian, while Miloš is Serbian. “We should be enemies,” Arsim reflects. “But now, as we touch, there is nothing between us that is strange or foreign to the other.” When the violence in the region escalates, Arsim’s family decides to leave the country and Miloš enlists in the army, and yet despite their abrupt separation, they remain forever touched by each other. The story extends into the 2000s, weaving back and forth in time, and is punctuated by the legend of a demonic serpent. This is a sweeping novel about difference, desire, and the consequences of war. Pajtim Statovci was born in Kosovo in 1990 and moved with his family to Finland when he was two years old. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki. He is also the author of My Cat Yugoslavia (Pantheon, 2017) and Crossing (Pantheon, 2019), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bolla was awarded Finland’s highest literary honor, the Finlandia Prize. David Hackston is a British translator of Finnish and Swedish literature and drama. He graduated from University College London in 1999 with a degree in Scandinavian studies.
1. How long did it take you to complete work on Bolla?
Pajtim Statovci: I wrote the first sentences of Bolla about ten years ago. However, I often find it difficult to designate the starting point of a novel. Many aspects, themes, and even plotlines have been on my mind for much longer than the actual years of writing and working on the novel.
David Hackston: After translating a preliminary sample from different sections of the book, preparing the initial draft of Bolla took around three months. Of course, the relative speed of a translation project depends very much on the style of the original, but a good rule of thumb is to allow around one month for every hundred pages of text. Though Pajtim’s rich deployment of Finnish is always a challenge, over time I’ve become more familiar with his voice, and with each subsequent translation—this is the third of his novels I have translated—getting the initial draft done feels easier. Though it’s never “easy” in the truest sense of the word.
2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Pajtim Statovci: On the last page of the novel there’s this picture of bolla, a demonic serpent. I think I was maybe six or seven years old when I drew this picture—that has been edited and photoshopped by a graphic designer to fit the page—based on the stories I was told about this creature. How it spends its life in a dark cave, hiding from humans, only to be released once a year for a single day. And when it’s released for that brief moment of freedom, it becomes a kulshedra, a dragon that causes havoc by destroying everything and everyone it sees. I think that this drawing was, in a way, one of the starting points of this book.
David Hackston: My very earliest memory of Bolla is when Pajtim sent me a draft of the novel, some six months before it was first published in Finnish. This was a great privilege, as authors don’t ordinarily involve their translators in the process of writing the original novel. It was fascinating to compare this early draft with the finished product. Of course, through translations into different languages, the text takes on new life again and again. In this sense, the publication of the original—in this case, the Finnish text—isn’t really the end of the process so much as a pitstop on a much longer journey.
3. What was the most challenging thing about the project?
Pajtim Statovci: I really wanted to challenge myself with this novel by writing a story with a narrator that is not a typical hero. Bolla’s protagonist is a human wreck, a man that is so lost and broken and wounded that he ends up hurting the people closest to him. In fact, creating this character has been one of the hardest things in my writing career. After failing to find a believable narrator’s voice for him multiple times, I had to disregard some “unwritten rules” of fiction writing, such as the necessity of having the reader in your corner all the time. Doing that also freed me, because now I could write without fear of judgment, and I started getting somewhere. A catharsis isn’t necessarily always peaceful.
David Hackston: As I mentioned earlier, Pajtim’s use of language is particularly rich, and rethinking this richness in another language is always a challenge, though one that I relish. One particular challenge here is in conveying aspects of the history explored in the novel to readers who may not necessarily be familiar with the details of the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. The translator has to provide little signposts here and there to keep the reader up to speed, but in such a way that the prose doesn’t read like a textbook.
4. Where, when, and how often do you write? Where, when, and how often do you translate?
Pajtim Statovci: I only write when I feel like I have something to say. I don’t have a work schedule, and I don’t write every day. I need to be inspired and motivated to be able to start, and if I force myself to write, what I have managed to write is usually something that just doesn’t last. Currently I work from home. Before COVID-19 I worked in libraries and cafés. My day usually consists of answering e-mails, reading, occasional interviews—and on a good day, writing, too.
David Hackston: Some translators really need absolute silence in order to concentrate, but I actually prefer a little background hubbub. I translated most of Bolla at a café across the street from my house. Because I often travel—at least in pre-pandemic times—I sometimes need to translate whenever I get the chance: in cafés, local libraries, in transit at an airport. In this respect, the pandemic proved challenging as it forced me to find a way of concentrating at home where, paradoxically, there are so many other things that easily distract me.
5. What are you reading right now?
Pajtim Statovci: I’m reading Emma Cline’s Daddy. It was just published in Finnish, translated by Kaijamari Sivill. I enjoy Cline’s writing immensely. These stories are so rich in detail, drawing you in instantly. What is left unsaid, to bubble under the surface, is what I really do appreciate in Cline’s work. It defies explanation and doesn’t avoid a single thing.
David Hackston: One of the drawbacks of being a translator is that I rarely get the opportunity to read anything that isn’t directly related to my work: I’m either reading the original of an upcoming translation project, checking the proofs of a translation about to go to print, editing things I translated last week, or more often than not all of the above at once. It’s also hard to read Finnish literature without my translator’s spectacles on. I’m currently reading Lovetown by Polish author Michał Witkowski, in a glorious and uproarious Finnish translation by the excellent Tapani Kärkkäinen, and Pete Buttigieg’s Trust.
6. What is one thing you might change about the literary community or publishing industry?
Pajtim Statovci: I wouldn’t know.
David Hackston: In the twenty or so years I have been working as a translator, the number of titles published in English translation has grown steadily, something demonstrated by the recent inclusion of a category for translated literature at the National Book Awards. This is a great development. Given the rise in popularity and visibility of translated fiction in the English-speaking world, sometimes it’s disappointing when reviewers, magazines, and journals forget to mention the input of the translator in the process, giving rise to the recent #namethetranslator hashtag on Twitter. While we don’t necessarily need or want to bask in the limelight, we have creative agency too, and it’s only right that it should get the credit it deserves.
7. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Pajtim Statovci: I don’t know if I miss anything about it, really. Writing this book was, as I said, very consuming and also emotionally draining. It’s been over two years since I finished Bolla, and I have moved on to other interests and other themes. The excitement of having something new to work on is what I like to focus on, and not miss what’s forever gone. When you’ve given your work for publication, it’ll never be yours again, it’ll never give you the comfort of being solely yours, a place of freedom. You just need to build this space again from scratch.
David Hackston: The worlds, characters, and lives portrayed in Pajtim’s books are very unique, and there’s always an element of sadness at saying goodbye to them once the translation goes to print. But as I said earlier, just as the publication of the original isn’t the end of the process, neither is the publication of the translation. The book will go on to live a life of its own, and it’s gratifying to read reviews and hear other people’s thoughts about something that until that point had existed only on my computer. This is why we translate: to make fascinating works of literature accessible to other readers, who can then make up their own minds and have thoughts of their own about them.
8. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Pajtim Statovci: I find it a bit hard to say what counts as “wide recognition.” But I’d like to see more discussion about the works of György Dragomàn and Hiromi Kawakami, both of whom are respected and recognized authors.
David Hackston: Among authors writing in English, it’s hard to say because everything we read has already been published and, therefore, “recognized.” The one English-language author I keep coming back to is Alan Hollinghurst, for the stories but also for the beauty of the writing. As for Finnish authors, who to my knowledge haven’t been published in English translation but certainly should be, there are many, but I would particularly mention Riitta Jalonen, whose recent novel Clarity is a touching, semi-fictionalized account of the life and career of New Zealand author Janet Frame, and Sirpa Kähkönen, whose novels, notably her Kuopio series, explore aspects of Finnish history and life in rural communities.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Pajtim Statovci: I have many trusted readers, friends and colleagues, all of whom focus on different things while reading, which is helpful. Then, I listen carefully to everything my editors here in Finland, as well as abroad, especially in the United States and the U.K., have to say, as English is a language I understand and know, to some extent. I equally respect the opinions of my translators, especially David, who has done a fantastic job in bringing all of my books to life in the English language. He has this miraculous ability to capture the essence, the soul and spirit, my writing. I am very lucky to have him by my side.
David Hackston: At least for me, this is generally the copy editor. They are able to read the very first draft of a translation, often still full of question marks and chunks of the original text, and to look beyond the roughness and see the novel itself as it emerges through the translation process.
10. What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve ever heard?
Pajtim Statovci: “Creativity is tolerating continuous incompleteness.”
David Hackston: Often it’s the comments said in passing that can end up being the most important. I remember studying Finnish in London sometime around 1998, and my late Finnish teacher, Hannele Branch, saying after a short translation exercise, “Have you ever thought about becoming a translator?” At the time, I hadn’t ever thought about it, but now, twenty-plus years later, this feels like a significant moment.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sirpa Kähkönen’s Kuopio books were a trilogy. They are a series.