Ellen Elias-Bursac, current standing Vice President for the American Literary Translation Association and former revision expert for the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, has helped ease the challenges created by language barriers. During her time at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Elias-Bursac was given the responsibility of translating and verifying evidence during the war crime trials.
Elias-Bursac began her college career studying the Russian language. Wanting to learn a second Slavic language, she participated in an exchange program at Zagreb University. At Zagreb, Elias-Bursac learned the Croatian language and met her future husband. After they married, they lived in the area for 16 years.
Elias-Bursac’s translation work is wide-ranging and varied. She has written a textbook on Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages as well as translating the fictional novel, Götz and Meyer, which won the ALTA National Translation Award in 2006. Most recently, Elias-Bursac published an award-winning book illustrating the challenges faced by the International Criminal Tribunal entitled Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War.
Elias-Bursac has described translation work as tricky and requiring complex decision-making. The many choices that need to be made in translation are crucial for the broad understanding that is demanded in legal situations like the International War Tribunal.
“In every sentence and every vocabulary situation that you’re faced with, you’re weighing things and figuring out what to place emphasis on in your reading of the text,” Elias-Bursac told KGOU’s World Views. The primary focus of her translation work is interpreting and revising literature.
When assisting with trials at the International Criminal Tribunal, the language used is taken very literally. Translators’ decisions are critical, especially to the attorneys.
“I would go along with my finger to document and run down the page and make sure that I agreed with the judgment calls the translator had made,” Elias-Bursac said.
Assuring that everyone was on the same page and making credible judgement calls was pertinent for the final outcome. The attorneys involved often questioned the language used at the expense of the translators and revisers. Elias-Bursac’s interpretations informed the court’s decisions by providing insight that otherwise could have been misunderstood.
Elias-Bursac is an expert in working with Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian writings. All three languages are very similar; Elias-Bursac estimates they are 90 percent mutually understandable. Their dialects were not necessarily considered separate languages until the division of Yugoslavia when Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia were recognized as separate entities with their own languages. According to Elias-Bursac, the result was countries which “chose to call the language that was spoken in their community by their national name,” she said.
“We have perhaps in some ways greater differences among dialects in the United States,” Elias-Bursac explained. “There’s a little bit less comprehensibility between somebody from New England and somebody from Mississippi than there is between Croats and Serbs.”
On the work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the process of challenging interpretation decisions
At the Tribunal, what I found so interesting is that things generally weren’t lost. And that’s because they were long trials and if there was a problem with a single witness and something came up and there was confusion the judges would turn to the interpreters in the booth and say, "Could you help us with this?" And the interpreters would explain why they thought there was a problem. And then if there were contentious issues about terminology, which often happened because it was something much more enjoyable for some of the attorneys to talk about than the the actual things that had happened on the ground that the court was there to discuss, they would prefer to sort of divert attention over to the language. And so there was a great deal of discussion of language in the courtroom.
Then if there were really serious terminological issues, they would have to write a memorandum to the language unit and we would respond formally with a memorandum about why the language unit had chosen to translate the terms as we did. . . And so in the end it was possible for the judges to get a full understanding of all the language issues that were involved to a degree that I wouldn't have imagined possible until I actually saw it in action.
On the similarities and differences of Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages
Whether or not these overlap as languages linguistically is not that important to the people who decide what to call the language. I wrote a textbook with a colleague, Ronellle Alexander of Berkeley, where we decided to produce the textbook in such a way that every exercise is given in all three: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. And the idea being ... so that students could see what the similarities and differences are. There are differences, but the languages are, I would say probably, 90 percent mutually understandable. That doesn't mean that if you've learned Croatian and you go to Serbia that you'll be speaking the same as what the people are speaking in Serbia. But the people in Serbia will be able to understand you. And that's a piece that's a little bit hard to grasp.
Grillot: Ellen Elias-Bursac, welcome to World Views.
Elias-Bursac: Nice to be here.
Grillot: So Ellen you've done a lot of work in translating written works from Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian. But let's start with that from the beginning of what took you to Croatia? That's where you went to you that as an undergrad as you were telling me earlier. You went there is an undergrad. So what took you there to begin with and then kind of made you stay and work in the region?
Elias-Bursac: Well it's a funny story. It was the Cold War in the early 70s when I was in college. And the there were several of us four of us in the Russian Department studying Russian as Major who wanted to go to a Slavic speaking country and do some Russian study and learn a second Slavic language. And our professors were fiercely cold war anti-Soviet Russians who didn't want us to go to Russia and they were very uncomfortable with the idea of us going to a communist country. So they suggested we could go to Munich to start studying Russian at Radio Free Europe where they had a course and we could drink beer and have a fun time and come back. And we explained that we weren't interested in that and that we wanted a truly academic, serious program that we could actually do good work with Russian. And we were also interested in learning more about contemporary Soviet Union things because we all wanted to work in the area and these professors wouldn't teach us anything after 1917 so. So we asked them to look further and they found a program in Zagreb that was at the time funded in part by the State Department of the United States. And so it was a good deal we didn't have to pay too much to go on it and it was actually terrific. We got to Zagreb University, we took Russian courses. We also learned Croatian, or Serbo-Croatian as it was at the time, or Croatian Serbian as you care, as anybody cares to call it. And I sang in a chorus. And in the chorus I met a young man whom I liked and I went back to Mcallister at the end of my year, got my degree, and went back to Zagreb and we got married and I lived there for 16 years until 1990 just before the war broke out. And everybody always asks me, "So did you know the war was going to break out and that's why you moved back to the States?" And of course I didn't. But we'd been planning for a number of years for our daughter to spend high school years in the States and so that was, really, what was it was all internal things that were governing our choices, I think, really much more than all the stuff that later became apparent.
Grillot: We talk about these languages as being different: Croatian Serbian Bosnians Macedonian. I mean, you know, as different languages. But yet you said you studied Serbo-Croatian and the other ways in which you call Serbo-Croatian. But what what are the distinctive differences? I mean you're now a translator translating this work. What are the distinctions that we can that we can point to in these languages.
Elias-Bursac: Well the simple fact of the matter is that the countries that emerged from what was Yugoslavia after the war chose to call the language that was spoken in their community by their national name. So Serbs refer to the language spoken in Serbia as Serbian, Croats refer to the language spoken in Croatia as Croatian, and Bosnians, the Bosnian government refers to the language spoken in Bosnia as Bosnian. And whether or not these overlap as languages linguistically is not that important to the people who decide what to call the language. I wrote a textbook with a colleague, Ronellle Alexander of Berkeley, where we decided to produce the textbook in such a way that every exercise is given in all three: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. And the idea being to this so that students could see what the similarities and differences are.There are differences, but the languages are, I would say probably, 90 percent mutually understandable. That doesn't mean that if you've learned Croatian and you go to Serbia that you'll be speaking will be the same as what the people are speaking in Serbia. But the people in Serbia will be able to understand you. And that's a piece that's a little bit hard to grasp. We have perhaps in some ways greater differences among dialects in the United States. I think there's a little bit less comprehensibility between somebody from New England and somebody from Mississippi than there is between Croats and Serbs, but maybe not. I mean I suppose it would depend on where and there are dialects within Croatia that are very difficult for people to understand from other regions.
Grillot: So this has always fascinated me having again spent some time there, especially given that long history of where they all, you know, were basically part of the same country and speaking I guess that 90 percent of their language probably is similar. Those who I would talk to about this would say, you know, they all read the same magazines, the same newspapers, they were listening and watching the same you know television shows. So there wasn't an emphasis on the differences and the language until after the various wars and then there was a significant amount of attention that was placed paid to the differences in their languages. And in fact when I was living in Skopje, Macedonia you would have public service announcements for example that would say, "In Serbian this is said this way and in Macedonian it's said this way." It was almost like your daily, you know, lesson on how to say something in a different language and ended up making those distinctions.
Elias-Bursac: So there's quite a lot of difference between Macedonian and Serbian. Macedonian and Slovenian, within the former Yugoslavia and Albanian and Hungarian and Italian, were all considered languages that were distinct from the Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin-body of material that we think of that used to be called Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian. So so Macedonian, I mean, there is a lot of shared vocabulary between Macedonian and Serbian but the grammatical structure is very different. The syntactical structure is very different. Bulgarian. It follows ... well it's more it's like English as opposed to ... it's a language with a different logic morphological logic and syntactical logic or syntacmatic logic. So it's it has some really significant I mean I don't want to go into that here but but it has a lot of it has all but vocabulary wise they are very close so it's comprehension is possible. But third the differences are there and I think that could be said certainly between Croatian and Serbian-Bosnian is kind of a it goes to both sides. But there are similarities between Bosnian and Croatian there are similarities between Bosnian and Serbian parts that they share.
Grillot: That's interesting me I guess. I think it was more of the vocabulary that they were trying to to suggest and this word how this word might be pronounced or said in some ways more so than the grammatical construction of the language and of course we're also dealing with different alphabets too. Right I mean they've got the Cyrillic alphabet being used in one part of the country.
Elias-Bursac: Well the thing that's confusing about Serbian is that is that they use both the Serbian and the Latin alphabet in Serbian. And you'll see writers who choose to only have their work published in the Latin alphabet and other ones who insist on the Cyrillic alphabet. And you have people who feel, you know, passionate about not letting Cyrillic be done in by the Internet. For example, I have a friend who's very fierce about that. So there's lots of different feelings about that but but in Belgrade you'll find both. In Croatia You don't find Cyrillic anymore at all in Bosnia only in the Serbian parts of the Republika Srpska will you find Serbian like that. They don't use it anymore.
Grillot: So as a translator, then, as you're reading these works in the original language in the Croatian or Serbian or Bosnian, how do you capture some of those feelings, as you suggest, feelings about how something is written, what alphabet is using the kind of message perhaps that they're trying to convey? I mean does that have to come into your mind as a translator of this work?
Elias-Bursac: If I felt that a writer was taking a stand on something, I might mention that in an afterword about the translation. I might give it as context about the translation, but it wouldn't come up in the translation itself. When I'm working into English a lot of these points are just moot. They're just the way people talk. And I'm finding a way to say what they're saying in English. And so I don't really have to spend too much time worrying about those nuances unless they come up as an issue in the text itself and it's being articulated then of course I'd articulated it.
Grillot: And that would be obvious to you as you're reading the work and life in the foreign language. Well let's talk a little bit about some of the work that you've translated. In particular, you focused on translating a work about the war crimes tribunal. I mean this is one of the things that of course many of us know about the former Yugoslavia is that it was one of the first efforts to use a war crimes tribunal to hold accountable those responsible for, you know, massive atrocities in the country during those wars. So what is it that you did in that area and how was it that you were able to communicate to an English speaking audience what it is we need to know about the war crimes tribunal?
Elias-Bursac: Well first I should say that what I am principally is a literary translator. I mostly translate literature. And that's what I've been doing for the last 30 years. After the war, first in 1998 and then off and on until 2005, when I went for five years, I was working as what's known as a reviser at the War Crimes Tribunal in the language unit. And there are two main jobs for translators at an organization like the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. It's called the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It's a semiofficial name. The language unit was divided between interpreters working in the booth with doing simultaneous interpreting for the actual courtroom sessions. I was not doing that. That's not my expertise. But I was working in the document area where we were preparing evidentiary material that had originally been in one of the languages of the former Yugoslavia for tendering as evidence in the courtroom. And so there was a lot of written evidence and military orders and all kinds of ... millions of pages I think that their archive is 20 million pages. I think we were translating a bit between 50 and 75000 pages a year, our unit. And so my job, with four or five other native speakers of English who know the language well was to have the original on the left, the original of whatever it was that was being translated the document, and the translation on the right done by one of our staff members. We had 70 people working from various languages into English or into French. And then I would go along with my finger to document and run down the page and make sure that I agreed with the judgment calls the translator had made or wanted to give them some feedback on some of the judgment calls they had made with how to deal with the tricky parts of the text. Of course questions of grammar and syntax and spelling and make sure they hadn't skipped over something by mistake and that kind of thing and that. And if there was new terminology that we had to pull from the document to add to our database that I would then make note of that. And so we went through all the documents that were being tendered in the courtroom and as a sort of second set of eyes as revisers. And all of us were people like myself. I lived in Zagreb, as I said, for 16 years. And all of us were people like me who had either Americans or Brits or there was an Irish woman just thinking quickly through the different people I worked with who who had either taught at universities in that part of the world or lived there for a stretch of time or were married to someone as I was and lived there that way. And so we all knew the culture well and we could go back to the pre-war years. A lot of people testifying were people who were in their 40s and 50s who'd mostly lived in Yugoslavia. The post-war period was only brief at that point or even hadn't we started. The tribunal started in '93, so the war wasn't even over yet when it started. But so that their vocabulary and the way they were talking about things was very familiar to all of us. Things may change. The newer generations may be using other terms in other language but that wasn't the case for the work that we were doing.
Grillot: Well it's interesting you bring up that kind of how language is changing and you know the way new things may be said or whatever. Kind of going back to this you know looking at in your translation work, looking at you know how something is being represented and try to pick up on that and then you referred to judgment calls and this translation work that you get. I mean I stated that there is always the risk you run of losing something in that translation process, I guess. We use that word lost in translation that there's there's the possibility of that or at least you know making some sort of interpretation. But I guess that's given your background and knowledge and cultural experience that's what you're trying to grasp and understand is making sure things aren't lost.
Elias-Bursac: What I found so interesting of course we are all making choices. That's what translation really is about is many many many many many choices in every sentence and every vocabulary situation that you're faced with you're weighing things and figuring out what to place emphasis on in your reading of the text and so forth. But at the tribunal what I found so interesting is that is that things generally weren't lost. And that's because they were long trials and if there was a problem with a single witness and something came up and there was confusion the judges would turn to the interpreters in the booth and say, "Could you help us with this?" And the interpreters would explain why they thought there was a problem and then if if there were contentious issues about terminology which often happened because it was something much more enjoyable for some of the attorneys to talk about than the the actual things that had happened on the ground that the court was there to discuss, they would prefer to sort of divert attention over to the language. And so there was a great deal of discussion of language in the courtroom and then if there were really serious terminological issues they would have to write a memorandum to the language unit and we would respond formally with a memorandum about why the language unit had chosen to translate the terms as we did. And then if in that they were welcome to bring in a witness to contest our translation but that we were going to stick with what we had chosen for the following reasons and we'd usually substantiate it with either dictionaries or whatever to show why it is we had chosen to translate that way. And so in the end it was possible for the judges to get a full understanding of all the language issues that were involved to a degree that I wouldn't have imagined possible until I actually saw it in action. But it took a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of attention to accomplish that and of course when one's translating a novel, one's much more limited in terms of them you just write on the paper and then a reader picks it up and reads it and there's none of this opportunity for asking the people in the booth to explain.
Grillot: That this is really instructive, actually, the notion of global justice obviously depends on our language and use of language and that process that judicial process really does, you know, it affects it in terms of the language it's being used and how it's being said and making sure that everyone's clear on what is being provided in terms of testimony or whatever. Very interesting very instructive.
Grillot: Thank you so much Ellen for being with us today. Very interesting conversation. Thanks.
Elias-Bursac: Thank you.
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