translating digital versus print

It has happened several times now that I have found a story from my author’s book online, either at the website of a newspaper or journal, or at the author’s own site. It did not occur to me until recently–after having translated two Jergović pieces for the New York Times–that it makes the work go faster when I have a digital version of the text to work from. Why has to do with the pure mechanics of working with a print volume versus one that is already in the same medium that I will be using to create the English version. When you have to go back and forth between print and computer, there are extra steps, mostly having to do with flipping pages and typing. In a short text this does not make much difference in terms of the time involved. But with longer texts, it can make a very big difference. There are also font issues that have to do with adding diacritics–one must change keyboards to insert ć or č, š, đ, or ž into the English text in the case of people’s names and toponyms. This takes additional time.

As this book is 1000 pages in length, the simple mechanics change things quite a bit in terms of time. Now that I’ve found the e-version of “The Match Juggler” online, I can use it to make faster progress, and if you’re reading this Miljenko, it would help me to have e-versions of “Dnevnik pčela,” “Parker 51,” and “Sarajevski psi” as well.

Art of the Litany

Jergović uses lists often and to great effect. Some are longer than others. I think it is litany rather than catalogue, though I could see someone arguing for the latter. Litany has an effect of prayer or incantation, and these seem more like that to me. It would be strange to focus on their informational quality.

This one, from a remarkable, seventy-page story called “The Match Juggler,” conveys well what I have in mind:

He would sit in the park, his back turned toward the fountain, his thumbs pressed against the back of a bench, as he flicked the matches with his fingertips, one after another, miniature torches that would burn out in the air, leaving no trace of themselves behind. They would turn to smoke and dust, just as the Jewish people, in a year, or two, or three, would turn to dust and smoke. And this would be a wonder, in which no one would believe, for to whom would it occur to do away with six million largely peaceful and unarmed people, harmless castoffs who stepped aside for others, small shop owners, mean money-lenders, gullible bankers, and industrialists, rabbis, village lackeys, shoemakers, lottery ticket salesmen, small time crooks and con men, idealists, communists and Zionists, soft-spoken worshippers afraid of life but even more of what comes after, famous doctors, surgeons, pediatricians, and psychoanalysts, disciples of Doctor Freud, whom the Nazis did not kill when they found him in his Vienna apartment, exiling him to London instead, for Doctor Freud, too, was a match juggler, the professors of biology who created the most beautiful herbariums in the history of Europe, archivists, librarians, and village teachers, whose worried wives concealed their Jewish heritage, great German poets and travel writers, who had journeyed all the way to India and Nepal in order to leave their testimonials to the German culture, circus performers and circus owners, village carpenters, proprietors of pawnshops and rare books, chemists and manufacturers of poison, barbers, mystics, tricksters of great imagination, quacks who for tiny sums would make the rounds of apartments in the center of town, performing abortions on the underage daughters of the city’s solicitous gentlemen, philosophy professors, peaceful and smiling like the Buddha, in whom the idea of world revolution and rebirth fermented, of a happy time for humanity, which would arrive once it had passed through the frightful twentieth century, building custodians, owners of small kosher restaurants at the border of the ghetto, where non-Jews were also welcome, handymen, servant girls, midwives, the authors of the first Aztec, Turkish, and Aramaic grammars, blind and deaf painters, idlers, dreamers, and devoted bookkeepers, industrialists with no heart for their workers or their workers’ rachitic children, who would not live long, rag merchants, peddlers, roofers, ice cream vendors, loafers, porters, dish washers and dish dryers in communal kitchens, where the Jewish poor found food, philanthropists, sponsors, coin collectors and counterfeiters, false prophets, proselytes and neophytes, who changed faith late for by then Nazism had come along? To whom, really, would turning all these people into smoke and ash have occurred? Or a better question: who would have believed that someone who desired to make all these people disappear would come forth and that his desire would be realized?

This is one paragraph. The manner in which the wonder (čudo) of the match juggler’s art and the wonder of the Holocaust is tied together, with a nod to Freud’s match juggling artistry, is rich and full.

The list is a bit like an aria in the midst of the recitative of the narrative proper. Time stops, and we’re invited to reflect and feel. This as a rule takes me longer to translate, and I feel the need to look up words I know. I’m not sure why. Maybe it affects my own sense of time as I’m trying to create the English as well.

Ars Prosaica

I’m in the production tunnel now and finding it difficult to comment on my work. This happened to dozens of my students at Iowa when they were in the midst of finishing translation MFA theses and were then expected to write something about them. This required a shift of thinking and approach that they had not been practicing. Translating is not writing about, and these two activities require different habits of mind. It takes work to break out of one and into the other. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the silence of the past several months here. I’m translating.

But this passage is worth quoting, as it says a lot about my author’s way of working. It comes near the end of the book (I have many more pages to go but am jumping around in my translation work because it feels right):

It is not worth changing the names. One should leave them intact and then arrange the destinies of one’s literary heroes, leading them along a high-mountain path between reality and the text, between the life they lived and the life that is to be narrated. But in such a way as to be more plausible than reality, and so that by means of the narrative a biography of the narrator will also be sensed. Everything is true and nothing need be true.

I have resorted to a bit of translationese here, eliminating a specific toponymic expression in favor of a general one: the high-mountain path in question is a specific mountain in Croatia, but as most readers would need to look up the name to get the reference, I think it is better this way. The notion of the true here is “istina” rather than “pravda,” which has its own issues, I know. I’m not sure I understand the necessary of the biography of the narrator generally, though in Jergovic’s work it is, I think, clear.

Translating Syntax

I once listened to a student who had listened to another student as he defended his  keeping to the syntax of the source language (Chinese, if I remember correctly) as a way of defamiliarizing his English text and interfering in the English-language complacency of his readers. I have no particular problem with this idea in principle. I like it actually.

But much depends on the practice, and if the source text in question is not particularly unusual in its syntax, then making one’s translation sound strange is a fairly radical translation strategy, one that one’s author might not agree with. If I were the author, I might very well object if someone were making my prose sound “strange” in the translated work.

An example helps to illustrate. This is from “Veliki park” (“Veliki Park”):

Bookkeeping, which Franjo worked at for a short period of his life, barely seven or eight years after retiring from his job as a railway traffic engineer, he did not give up easily.

That is very close to the source syntax. It also comes across as rather clunky in English. If I leave it that way, I am pretty sure my editor at Archipelago will think I was just going too fast to notice.

It needs to go something more like this:

While he worked at it for a short period of his life, barely seven or eight years after retiring from his job as a railway traffic engineer, bookkeeping was not something Franjo gave up easily.

My friend Brooks Landon did a series of presentations for The Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft.” It’s a fine series with lots of examples from a wide variety of authors of both the tersest and simplest utterances on the one hand, and the longest, most complex literary propositions on the other. Balance is often a key principle.

Of course, sometimes a sentence is lopsided for a reason. Applying a principle of balance in such cases could be just as radical as applying a principle of defamiliarization in others. Obviously there has to be some balance in applying balance.

Translating Place

My author does a lot with names. Here is an example:

Like Mehmed-paše, Nemanjina Street was built in the sixteenth century. It had been a road in the neighborhood of the Hadji Balina Mosque, which the people would remember as Čekaluša. But Čekaluša did not get its name from the word čekanje, or waiting, as is sometimes thought today. Originally it was Čegaluša, which probably came from Čegaleu, the name by which Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha was known, who built the Brusa Bezistan and that wondrously beautiful bridge across the Željeznica River.

I am still uncertain about how to spell some of the names here (as the variation between “Mehmed-paše” and Rustem Pasha demonstrates—I’ll figure this out later). The hidden footnote “or waiting” is of course my explanation for readers who will not immediately see the connection between čekanje and Čekaluša. This is not an especially difficult one.

I remember struggling with these sorts of naming difficulties when translating Predrag Matvejević’s The Other Venice, which featured local dialectal names for rare plants, among other things. Websites for homeopathic remedies were extremely helpful at the time, with explanations about where various kinds of plants grow in the world and botanical names. Once you have the botanical name, you can figure out what the plant is called in many different languages, though that may or may not include Venetian dialect. It was fun in a way but slow going.

Readers will need to be interested enough to be paying close attention to the words, such as in this example:

The hillside part was called “Banjski brijeg” because it passed above the Gazi Husrev Beg bath, or “banja.”

Will readers see the internal “banj(a)” in “Banjski brijeg”? There’s not much more I can do than point it out, as efficiently and unobtrusively as I can, and so my “or ‘banja'” at the end.

But this is not just a travel guide, and the names carry weight in ways that are literary and cultural and are tied to the descriptions as markers of memory and imagination rather than just location and history. This becomes clear when Jergović mentions a Jewish porter named Samuel, a character from a story by Isak Samokovlija, and notes that the Jewish poor “spent their lives on that pilgrimage with the sepet crates on their backs, and soon it would be as if they had never been there at all, their only remembrance, and that uncertain, being in the names of these streets.”

Sepet is a crate, so it’s technically redundant. But the street Sepetarevac gets its name from the crates, so I need it in there, and for now a tiny redundancy seems like a reasonably small price to pay for the reminder.

One more shows the intricacy of the place names and their importance to the idea of imagination and memory:

In our time Sepetarevac was linked to Bjelave by a little street called Zlatikuša. It was called this because the meaning of its proper name—Zatikuša—had in the meantime been forgotten. This is how Alija Bejtić explains the name: “In old Sarajevo, which was provided with water by street fountains, individual water sources were not abundant, such that in any of the places where the water was inclined to flow freely, the pipes needed to be squeezed and hindered, the verb for which was zatiskivati, so that the water would accumulate in the supply basin. These places were called zatikuše, one of which was in the location in question.”

Now, the switch from the actual name, Zatikuša, to the one people later used, Zlatikuša, involved the insertion of an “l” after the initial letter, creating a new idea, as zlat is the root for the word “gold.” Jergović does not need to do much to point this out, but English readers will need a little help, which I’m trying like this:

They continued to call the street Zlatikuša for a long time, for it takes but a slight revision to adapt an empty word without any meaning to the excessive desires of human imagination. And thus did gold, or zlato, appear on Zatikuša, at the top of Sepetarevac.

Is it enough? Is it too much? If this were a poem, I might be able to linger on this question for a bit more, but I’ve just rounded page 400 and need to push on to “Veliki park,” which of course needs to be “Veliki Park” (with a capital “p”) to accord with English naming conventions. In other words, the translation of “Veliki park” could very well be “Veliki Park.” Unless I have to explain what “veliki” means….

Olga and Zehra

Rounding page 340 and making good post-holiday progress, I continue to find little gems of passages, like this one in a chapter from Part Five of Kin, which is called in the source Inventarna knjiga, a play on “invention” and “inventories” that I think I can get at by simply calling it Inventories in the English (this is what I am trying at this point anyway):

One after another she gave birth to her five children. There were two by the time Olga arrived in town, and the others were all born with her there. Olga told Zehra she herself did want to have any more children. This was not an easy thing to accomplish because Franjo was pushy. He didn’t understand about children, only about his male needs. Zehra understood all this. In general Zehra understood everything and was able to reduce any overlong, complicated story to two or three sentences in which everything was simple, easy, and clear. She was not embarrassed by a single one of Olga’s stories—this was important, for her other friends were easily embarrassed—but rather found her way around in each one and managed to say something to comfort her. How was this possible given that Zehra was a Muslim, a very devout Muslim who kept to all the rules of her faith and did everything every day, when she was awake and when she was asleep, in accordance with it? The answer is strange but simple: Olga belonged to a different world and a different faith, one that determined that the women could have their heads uncovered and all sorts of other things that were different from Islam. If Olga had been a Muslim, Zehra would have died of shame, run away from her confessions, and never seen her again. But as it was, she not only did not have to run, she could always be helpful. Before Olga’s faith, Zehra was always completely free, just as Olga was free before Zehra’s. This made them best friends.

The unlikely friendship of Olga and Zehra is one of the many standalone moments of the book, and its splicing together of these moments—through stories interwoven with other stories like the great network of the Habsburg train system that Olga’s husband Franjo helps to build and manage (other literary references come together here, most notably to Danilo Kiš but also to Robert Musil and others, this in another superb standalone chapter entitled “Kakania”)—is a major achievement, constructed of sentences that do something like what this one is doing, weaving and interweaving these stories in verbal tapestries around an inscrutable center that is perhaps best expressed as history through memory, family, and the stories of a family.

Lydia Davis’s Eleven Pleasures

A very nice piece by Lydia Davis in the Dec. 8 NYRB on “Eleven Pleasures of Translating.” I wish I had the time to write an extended essay on it, because she broaches important topics in a way that invites commentary, if not conversation. Two quick observations (before I return to the pleasures of translating (and other stuff)):
 
First, the long intro demonstrates the difference between many (mostly older) translators of the tactile dictionary-centric school and those who tend to start with online sources. “Later, I discovered that the equivalent [for the French “macher“] in the wine-tasting world is indeed ‘chew’—but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?” Well, perhaps not, but one could have done a Google search on the spot to verify this. There’s even at least one YouTube movie that demonstrates how to chew one’s wine.
 
More interesting is this: “I have had two literary occupations, and preoccupations, all my adult life, both evidently necessary to me, each probably enhancing the other—writing and translating. And this is one of the differences between them: in translation, you are writing, yes, but not only writing—you are also solving, or trying to solve a set problem not of your own creation. The problem can’t be evaded, as it can in your own writing, and it may haunt you later.”
 
Teachers now discuss problem-based teaching these days quite a bit. Translation, then, might be understood as a form of problem-based writing teaching.