The first novel by Albania’s great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, appeared in English in 1971 in a relay translation. The English translator of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY, Derek Coltman, based his work on the French of Isuf Vrioni. An Italian general and a priest are sent to Albania to find and return the bones of their country’s war dead for burial. Written under Enver Hoxha’s repressive Communist dictatorship, Kadare’s novel raises questions about the futility of war and gestures of national pride.
Kadare is acclaimed as one of the foremost European writers of the twentieth century, and is one of the few internationally known writers in Albanian. He was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. The format of the prize at the time allowed non-anglophone authors to nominate one of their English translators to receive a separate award. Kadare nominated David Bellos, who has translated seven of his other novels – also as retranslations from the French.
According to Bellos, Kadare and Isuf Vrioni worked together so closely on the French versions of his books that the author actually preferred them to be translated from French rather than Albanian. Vrioni grew up and studied in Paris as the son of the Albanian ambassador. After WWII he was persecuted by Albania’s Communist regime and imprisoned for more than a decade. He started translating works into French during his long imprisonment to keep his memory of civilisation alive. Later, after the fall of Communism, he worked in human rights before being appointed his country’s representative to UNESCO. He also wrote a memoir, MONDES EFFACÉS: SOUVENIRS D’UN EUROPÉEN; you can read an extract in English here.