Natasa Durovicova, International Writing Program
Natasa Durovicova, the International Writing Program’s all-purpose editor, speaks faster than most people think—and English is her fourth language. Durovicova grew up in Bratislava, in what is now the Slovak Republic, and in Sweden. She has a BA in drama and film from the University of Lund in Sweden, and an MA in English from UC–Santa Barbara. She has written and spoken widely about European cinema and the challenges of translation in film. For the International Writing Program (IWP), she edits the online journal 91st Meridian and prepares manuscripts for the International Literature Today course. Durovicova also is the IWP’s web editor (www.uiowa.edu/~iwp) and translator-in-residence.
Describe your family.
The one I come from has a journalist and a linguistics professor in it, plus a future engineer. The one I made here has an English professor (Garrett Stewart) in it, perhaps a future journalist, and perhaps a future vet in it. Plus a cat. They are all very, very nice.
How many languages do you read and speak and translate, and what are they? And in what order did you learn them?
When you start off in a language spoken by three million people sum total, you are taught a second one really quickly. So, after Slovak, which I was born into, German from a neighbor lady in our apartment building at 7 or so. Then Russian from fourth grade up—the language of our political Big Brother at that time. English in middle school—that was the first year English was taught at a public establishment at all, a hint of the political thaw to come in 1968. Then Swedish, the language of the country that gave my parents political asylum when they needed it. French nominally in high school but really because my first boyfriend didn’t speak much Swedish (and, being French, no English). Then Italian as an enrollment trick—that was the one unique class offered by the high school I wanted to transfer to. Then a smattering of Croatian during several summers as a tour guide on the Adriatic coast. In sum—all strictly by necessity, and all before 18. After 18, a new language seems to me to be pretty much a lost proposition.
Do you speak as fast in other languages as you do in English?
How often do you encounter IWP writers with whom you do not share at least one language?
Much too often, unfortunately. As I find out each fall, one should also know Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Once or twice, though, it turned out Russian was the lingua franca to link up with an East Asian writer. Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s imperial reach in the Far East and the Pacific did leave some useful traces.
What has being promiscuously polylingual taught you about culture, about people and how they communicate?
A Slovak saw goes: Kolkymi jazykami hovoris, tolko krat si clovekom. In a clunky translation: You are human as many times as the number of languages you speak. That is, a language is a magic path to another mental and cultural space. Every once in a while, a turn of phrase or an expression crops up that exists only in one given language; then the moment of failure to translate is like falling through a rabbit hole into a whole world one otherwise doesn’t visit. For all the globalization, people really do think and feel truly differently out there.
Name a couple of wonderful Eastern European movies that most Americans have never seen.
Let’s see. How about Ladislas Starevich’s amazing animation movies done with dead insects in early 1920s? Jan Svankmajer’s even more amazing animation films, from the 1950s until today. Milos Forman’s 1964 comedy Black Peter, about a taciturn teenager and his loquacious dad. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, a survey of 300 years of Russian history in one single 90-minute shot.
But really, most Americans never have been able to see any of the wonderful films made all over the world since 1918. Ask your nearest multiplex owner or distributor why. In Iowa City, though, we are lucky to have the Bijou, as well as fabulous DVD/tape collections of world cinema in the UI Main Library and the Iowa City Public Library.
What was your response to the breakup of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak republics?
Hated it. Even though I had lived in Sweden for 20-some years by then. Remember the disintegration of Yugoslavia? This was an un-bloody but equally irrational historical turn. First off, there wasn’t even a referendum—just two craven politicians on both sides seizing a tense moment and carving up a perfectly good federal republic, one with a rather admirable history in the post-Versailles and pre–Cold War Europe. The Slovak Republic was reborn out of that split with a national flag last flown during the pro-Nazi government of World War II.
Things have improved after 15 years, but I still think the nationalism behind that split is a pathetic and immature sentiment. Anyhow, the European Union has made it possible to begin reassembling the old republic’s shards in a new and hopefully much better European formation.
If you had any free time, how would you spend it?
Finish the book I’m involved in. See more movies. Kayak. Go shopping with my daughter, or hey, even with my son. Put more time into my film scholarship. Travel to Asia and South America. Paint our study, clean the closets. Hike the northeast. Read, read, read, and not get up, or even fall asleep. Actually go to the gym, which I right now only pay for. Spend more evenings in Clapp, Hancher, and Mabie. Drive from Newfoundland to the Florida Keys with my family. Get just a little grip on Chinese.
What is the best book you have read recently?
For fiction, Ioanna Karystiani's The Jasmine Isle and Rafael Courtoisie’s short story collection The Red Sea. For nonfiction, Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect.
What is the best movie you have seen recently?
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s brilliant Three Times at the Bijou [in early October].
by Winston Barclay