The bridge on the Drina in Albanian

Beograd_240311_Podkast_Muharem Bazdulj
Source: Kosovo Online

Written by: Muharem Bazdulj

I recently came across a book, a translation of "The Bridge on the Drina" into Albanian, published in 1962, just a few months after Ivo Andric received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is titled "Ura e Drines" in the translation. The translator was Mehmed Hoxha. It was published by "Rilingja" in Pristina in an edition of 2,500 copies. Considering the number of Albanian speakers in Yugoslavia at that time, this was a very solid and ambitious print run.

It is worth saying more about both the publisher and the translator. The word “Rilingja” means “renaissance” in Albanian. The newspaper "Rilingja" was founded in Prizren on February 12, 1945. Initially, it was a publication of the People's Front of Kosmet, and then "Rilingja" became a newspaper of the League of Socialist Working People of Kosovo. In the first months, the newspaper was based in Prizren, but then it moved to Pristina. There, "Rilingja" evolved from a newspaper into a vast publishing and printing enterprise from which a lion's share of the cultural production of Albanians in Socialist Yugoslavia developed. At its peak, "Rilingja" published a double-digit number of newspapers, magazines, and reviews, as well as up to three hundred books annually. These books were primarily works of Albanian writers, but many were translations from world and South Slavic languages, including Serbian, of course. These were not only indisputable classics; there were also translations of contemporary Serbian writers from Kosovo. There was, therefore, a deliberate cultural policy behind such production. These are the exact details and data that convincingly refute the idea of the "endangerment" of the Albanian minority throughout the existence of the SFRY.

One of the people who conceived this production was undoubtedly the translator of "The Bridge on the Drina" – Mehmed Hoxha. He was no ordinary person. Even to those who know nothing about Albania and Albanians, his surname will sound familiar, because even those who know nothing about Albania have heard of Enver Hoxha. By some twist of fate, Enver and Mehmed Hoxha were not only namesakes but also contemporaries. Not only that, both were born in autumn, and their birthdays are just six weeks apart. Even the names of their birthplaces rhyme in a way—starting with the same letter and having four syllables; Enver Hoxha was born in Gjirokastër on October 16, 1908, and Mehmed Hoxha in Gjakova on November 29 of the same year. Both Gjirokastër and Gjakova were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. But let's focus less on Enver Hoxha and return to Mehmed. By 1941, he had joined the National Liberation Movement. He quickly became the president of the National Liberation Committee for Kosmet; when the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Kosovo and Metohija was founded, he was elected its president. From the days of the country's liberation and the establishment of federal Yugoslavia, Mehmed Hoxha was one of the most prominent Albanian figures in the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. In post-war Serbia, he served as a minister in the Executive Council and as a deputy in the National Assembly. Eventually, he became a member of the Council of the Federation. He was actively involved in literary and translation work, translating from French as well as Serbian. He died in Belgrade in December 1987, before interethnic tensions in Kosovo escalated. He was buried in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens at Belgrade’s New Cemetery.

Ismail Kadare, the greatest Albanian writer of all time, was born in Gjirokastër, like Enver Hoxha. The story of his relations with Hoxha himself, some members of his family, and the regime as a whole is too complicated to be summarized here. What I want to emphasize here is the fact that in 1978, when he was already undoubtedly not only the greatest contemporary Albanian but also one of the most significant current European writers, he published the novel "The Three-Arched Bridge," openly inspired by Andric's masterpiece. We know that from the early 1970s, "Rilingja" closely cooperated with similar "business entities" in Albania, importing books from them and exporting their own books. Theoretically, Kadare could have read Andric in Russian or French translations, but it is most realistic that he read the translation in Albanian signed by Mehmed Hoxha.

Essayists, literary critics, and literary historians around the world have discussed the similarities between these two novels, about twenty years ago, for example, the French author Jean-Paul Champseix. It is always interesting, of course, when one brilliant writer inspires another, but the "logistical" aspect that makes such "inspiration" possible is often overlooked. In this case, it was likely represented by "Rilingja" and Mehmed Hoxha.