Robert Elsie was born in Vancouver (British Columbia), Canada, on 29 June 1950. He studied at the University of British Columbia and graduated there in 1972 in Classics and Linguistics. With the help of a scholarship, he was able to pursue post-graduate research in Europe, and carried out research at the Free University of Berlin, the University of Paris IV, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland and the University of Bonn, where he finished a doctorate in Linguistics and Celtic Studies in 1978. At that time, the Linguistics Institute of the University of Bonn had rare and privileged contacts with the hermetic “People’s Socialist Republic of Albania” and, as such, he and other students were first able to visit the country for several years on end and get to know it. These annual trips to Albania in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and travel in neighbouring Kosovo awakened in him a passion for the exotic country and its little-known culture. After learning the Albanian language, he resolved to devote himself to Albanian Studies as an academic discipline and later became a leading expert in the field. He is now the author of over sixty books and countless articles, mostly devoted to Albanian Studies.
In the mid 1980s, Robert Elsie worked for the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Bonn, where he served as a translator and interpreter. In the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, Elsie was active as a freelance conference interpreter for Albanian and took part in many high-level negotiations (German government, European Union, United Nations, NATO, Council of Europe, etc.). Beginning in 2002, he worked primarily for ICTY (the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) in The Hague, where he was simultaneous interpreter for the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and other detainees. He has been active for this United Nations organization since that time.
Overview of his Scholarly Works
In his scholarly pursuits in the field of Albanian Studies, Elsie devoted himself initially to literature. Among his early publications were a Dictionary of Albanian Literature, Westport, Connecticut, 1986 and a two-volume History of Albanian Literature, Boulder, Colorado, 1995. This work appeared in Albanian as Histori e letërsisë shqiptare, Peja 1997, and in Polish as Zarys historii literatury albanskiej (Outline of the History of Albanian Literature), Torun 2004. He also published literary translations into English and German, such as the UNESCO volume An Elusive Eagle Soars: Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry, London 1993; Albanian Folktales and Legends, Tirana 1994; the works of the northern Albanian poet Migjeni (1911-1938) translated into English as Free Verse, Tirana 1991, and into German as Freie Verse (Free Verse), Idstein 1987; a German-language anthology of Albanian verse as Einem Adler gleich: Anthologie albanischer Lyrik vom 16. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Like an Eagle: Anthology of Albanian Poetry from the 16th Century to the Present), Hildesheim 1988; and the works of the Kosovo Albanian poets Ali Podrimja (b. 1942) in Who Will Slay the Wolf: Selected Poetry, New York 2000; Flora Brovina (b. 1949) in Call Me by My Name: Poetry from Kosova, New York 2001; and Eqrem Basha (b. 1948)in Neither a Wound nor a Song: Poetry from Kosova, New York 2003. These later translations were carried out in collaboration with Canadian writer Janice Mathie-Heck.
His criticism of Albanian literature was compiled in the volume Studies in Modern Albanian Literature and Culture, Boulder, Colorado, 1996, that appeared in Albanian as Një fund dhe një fillim (An End and a Beginning), Tirana & Prishtina 1995.
In view of the explosive political situation in Kosovo, of which the outside world was still largely unaware at the time, he compiled the first major anthology of writings on the subject, the 600-page volume Kosovo: In the Heart of the Powder Keg, Boulder, Colorado, 1997. This was followed by a collection of historical texts on the Kosovo crisis in Gathering Clouds: The Roots of Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo and Macedonia, Early Twentieth-Century Documents, Peja 2002.
In the following years, Elsie’s interests turned increasingly to other spheres of Albanian Studies, in particular to folk culture and history. A major contribution to Albanian anthropology was his Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture, London 2001, that appeared in German as Handbuch zur albanischen Volkskultur (Handbook of Albanian Folk Culture), Wiesbaden 2002, and Albanian as Leksiku i kulturës popullore shqiptare (Lexicon of Albanian Folk Culture), Tirana 2005. He also edited a German translation of the famed Albanian Kanun, Der Kanun: das albanische Gewohnheitsrecht nach dem sogenannten Kanun des Lekë Dukagjini (The Kanun: Albanian Customary Law According to the So-Called Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini), Peja 2001; and published (in collaboration with Antonia Young and Ann Christine Eek) a noted study of Kosovo village life by the late Norwegian anthropologist Berit Backer (1947-1993), Behind Stone Walls: Changing Household Organization among the Albanians of Kosova, Peja 2003. He also published an early German-language study of Albanian peasant life in Macedonia by Bajazid Elmaz Doda (ca. 1888-1933), Albanisches Bauernleben im oberen Rekatal bei Dibra, Makedonien (Albanian Peasant Life in the Upper Reka Valley near Dibra, Macedonia), Vienna 2007.
In the field of history with which he was increasingly involved, Robert Elsie edited (in collaboration with Robert Dankoff) and translated from the Ottoman Turkish the Albania sections of the Seyahatname of the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi (1611-1683): Evliya Çelebi in Albania and Adjacent Regions, Leiden 2000. This book was translated into Albanian as Evlija Çelebiu në Shqipëri dhe në viset fqinje, Tirana 2008. He discovered and published the manuscript of the first history of Albania, written by the French Lazarist priest, Jean-Claude Faveyrial (1817-1893), Histoire de l’Albanie (History of Albania), Peja 2001, a work translated into Albanian as Historia - më e vjetër - e Shqipërisë (The Oldest History of Albania), Tirana 2004. In addition, Elsie found and published the German-language manuscript of the Hungarian scholar Baron Franz Nopcsa (1877-1933), Reisen in den Balkan (Travels in the Balkans), Peja 2001. This book was translated into Albanian as Udhëtime nëpër Ballkan (Travels through the Balkans), Tirana 2007. In collaboration with Bejtullah Destani, he published the travel journals of noted British poet and painter Edward Lear (1812-1888) in the volume Edward Lear in Albania: Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans, London 2008, that was translated into Albanian as Edward Lear në Shqipëri: ditar udhëtimesh, 1848-1849, Tirana 2008. A collection of early historical texts on Albania, translated from various languages, was published under the title Early Albania: A Reader of Historical Texts, 11th-17th Centuries, Wiesbaden 2003.
Given that Albania and Kosovo continued to be badly known on the international scene, Elsie published the two major reference works on the countries: Historical Dictionary of Albania, Lanham, Maryland, 2004; and Historical Dictionary of Kosova, Lanham, Maryland, 2004, which, despite the titles, are volumes of a more general encyclopaedic nature.
Returning to the field of literature, Elsie published a new and more streamlined survey of Albanian literature in Albanian Literature: A Short History, London 2005, that appeared in Albanian as Letërsia shqipe: një histori e shkurtër, Tirana 2006. He also made further literary translations from the Albanian, once again with Janice Mathie-Heck: selections from northern Albanian oral epics in Songs of the Frontier Warriors: Këngë Kreshnikësh, Albanian Epic Verse, Wauconda, Illinois, 2004; prose translations of the northern Albanian writers Ernest Koliqi (1903-1975) and Migeni in Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja 2004; the collected works of the Albanian poet Visar Zhiti (b. 1952) in The Condemned Apple, Los Angeles 2005; the first anthology of modern Albanian prose to appear in English, Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood: Modern Albanian Short Stories, Evanston, Illinois, 2006; a novel by Fatos Kongoli (b. 1944) entitled The Loser, Bridgend, Wales, 2007; the works of the late Kosovo Albanian poet Azem Shkreli (1938-1997) in Blood of the Quill: Selected Poetry from Kosovo, Los Angeles 2008; a full historical anthology of Albanian verse, Lightning from the Depths: An Anthology of Albanian Poetry, Evanston, Illinois 2008; a short novel by Ornela Vorpsi (b. 1968) entitled The Country Where No One Ever Dies, Champaign, Illinois, 2009; and more translations of Albanian oral verse in Anna Di Lellio’s volume The Battle of Kosovo, 1389: An Albanian Epic, London 2009.
Probably his most ambitious literary publication was the English translation (with Janice Mathie-Heck) from Gheg dialect of the great literary epic of Father Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), The Highland Lute: The Albanian National Epic, London 2005, a work in thirty cantos and 15,613 lines. The revival of this epic, long banned under the communist regime, was received with great enthusiasm, in particular in northern Albania.
The world of early Albanian photography has also fascinated Robert Elsie. In this field he has published two major photo albums. Writing in Light: Early Photography of Albania and the Southwestern Balkans, Prishtina 2007, includes the earliest photos ever taken in Albania (fifty pictures by the Viennese photographer Josef Székely from 1863), and the photo collections of Baron Franz Nopcsa, Bajazid Elmaz Doda, Austrian scholar Maximilian Lambertz (1882-1963), and the men of the Dutch Military Mission to Albania in 1913-1914. He also edited (in a trilingual, English, French and Albanian edition) the first colour photos ever taken in Albania and Kosovo, the autochromes of the Albert Kahn collection in Paris, under the title Albania and Kosova in Colour, 1913, Tirana 2010.
Recent to appear are second updated and much expanded editions of the Historical Dictionary of Albania, Lanham, Maryland, 2010, in 660 pages, and Historical Dictionary of Kosovo, Lanham, Maryland, 2011, in 451 pages. These two books have also been translated into Albanian.
Although Albanian Studies have been by far the primary focus of Robert Elsie’s research and publications, he has also published other works. Among them are: Dialect Relationships in Goidelic: A Study in Celtic Dialectology, Hamburg 1986; the poetry anthologies The Pied Poets: Contemporary Verse of the Transylvanian and Danube Germans of Romania, London 1990; and An Anthology of Sorbian Poetry from the 16th-20th Centuries, London 1990, as well as a German-language translation of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) as Konstantinos Kavafis: Das Gesamtwerk, griechisch und deutsch (Constantine Cavafy: The Complete Works, Greek and German), Zürich 1997.
Elsie’s presence as a leading figure of Albanian Studies has been accentuated since the 1990s by his ever-expanding websites that offer abundant cultural material on Albania and the Albanians. Among them, in addition to his personal site www.elsie.de, are: www.albanianhistory.net that offers a wide spectrum of historical texts and documents of Albanian history; www.albanianlanguage.net that provides audio recordings of about 150 Albanian dialects recorded in ten countries, mostly by Elsie himself, and a selection of audio recordings of well-known Albanian figures of the past; www.albanianliterature.net that offers the world’s largest collection of Albanian literature in English translation; www.albanianphotography.net that provides numerous early photo collections of Albania and Kosovo; and www.albanianart.net which gives a visual presentation of classical Albanian painting and folk costumes.