Catherine the Great and the Small is the coming-of-age story of a Montenegrin girl, her tumultuous teen and young adult years, as she is surrounded by the even more tumultuous events unfolding in what we now know as the ex-Yugoslavia.
Author Olja Knežević says, “Catherine is someone who could have been my really good friend. I could have known her growing up.”
This richness and intimacy of character is perhaps what I loved best about the book. I felt like she could have been my friend too. It’s perhaps a hallmark of Olja’s writing: “The deeper you go, the more universal it becomes.”
Translators Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać bring Olja’s energetic, emotional, even playful voice to life in English, as Ellen would describe it.
What’s more, Ellen and Paula illuminate place, history, politics, and culture for those of us who have little experience of the region. The clues, sprinkled within the text and elaborated on in an endnote, are insightful and add even more richness to the experience of this book.
There’s so much in this chat that I hope you will enjoy, about writing, translation and language, but also about expressing ourselves, being human, joy and punishment in literature and in life. And don’t miss the reading in both Montenegrin and English!
Thank you to Istros Books for the review copy.
Olja Knežević (pronounced Olya) was born in Montenegro, graduated from high school in California, has a BA in English Language from Belgrade University, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck College, London. She currently resides in Zagreb, Croatia. She is the founder of Ženski glasovi (Women's Voices), an NGO that promotes and publishes writers from the region of ex-Yugoslavia.
The manuscript of Katarina was the recipient of the 2019 VBZ literary award for the best unpublished novel written in Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian or Bosnian and was subsequently published by VBZ in Croatia. Its English version, Catherine the Great and the Small, translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, was published in June 2020 by Istros Books in London.
Ellen Elias-Bursać translates fiction and nonfiction from the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. ALTA's National Translation Award was given to her translation of David Albahari's novel Götz and Meyer in 2006. She is ALTA’s President.
Paula Gordon translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry by Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian authors as well as dialog for fiction and documentary films. Her translation of Ljubomir Đurković’s play Refuse was published in 2003 by the Montenegrin National Theatre; a new revised version is pending publication by Laertes Press. Catherine the Great and the Small by Montenegrin author Olja Knežević, co-translated with Ellen Elias-Bursać, is her first translated novel.
Before becoming a translator, Paula worked in experimental theater and dance, then worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina with humanitarian aid and arts organizations; she was on the production team of the Sarajevo Film Festival from 1998 through 2001.
Enjoy and thanks for listening!
Founder & Creative Director, Intralingo Inc.