Another Lost Giant

This is from “The Bee Journal,” which could be its own short book—an internally coherent novella of a little of 170 pages—and is one of the final three parts of Kin I am translating, along with “Parker 51” and “Sarajevo Dogs.”

While some appraised Plague and Exodus as an outrageous casserole, “the product of a megalomaniacal mind,” “a work of provincial learning that suffers from delusions of grandeur,” one big prank by a collection of idiots, or, simply garbage, the sort that occasionally appears everywhere as a result of the over-production of books, others, a small number, but largely more authoritative and powerful, greeted it as an epoch-making book, “the final actualization of a brilliant intellectual biography, proof of how the greatest literary works and historiographical syntheses take shape in the solitude of monastery cells, far from university cathedrals and academies, in peace and in silence, with anthropological reach into the depth of our civilization’s sub-conscience, magisterial cultural and historical ceremony and summation, a disclosure of the human and the apiary soul, a theological tractatus on insects and on flowers, which puts man and God face to face, even for those of us who don’t believe in either the one or the other. Plague and Exodus is all of this and much more!” This was what Professor of Aesthetics Ivan Focht wrote about [Đorđe] Bijelić’s book, but all the polemics were halted and all the derision died when Miroslav Krleža raised his head in defense of Bijelić’s work. He was not leaving his house anymore by then. He was old and found it hard to move. He was no longer writing, but he came forward on two occasions, to defend two books: Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidović and Bijelić’s Plague and Exodus. Both had been written by Jews, one dealing with concentration camps, the other with beehives.

I find the interweaving of fact and fiction, literary history with invented literature, and the invented histories of invented literature, both fascinating and effective. It is just one of the many things Jergović does well in the book.

Internal Rhyme for the Kicker

I’m moving so fast now that it’s likely I’ll forget even more of this process than elsewhere, so I’m creating a quick post as a memory marker. This is towards the end of “The Match Juggler,” an extraordinary story that actually has a slightly longer title: “The Match Juggler—Furtwängler.” The eponymous juggler is introduced early in the story and then left, when Rudolf Stubler says good-bye to him at the Graz station. Stubler continues on to Berlin, where he has a chance encounter, and a long conversation, with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The title of the story is ambiguous about whether Furtwängler is his own sort of match juggler. It is a story about art, the death of Beethoven at the hands of the Nazis, the Holocaust, and much more.

The thing I want to remember is the internal rhyme I’ve placed in this paragraph, which does not exist in the source but seems right to me here:

This was what Wilhelm Furtwängler was told, which he, word for word, conveyed to Rudolf Stubler, who would tell the story of these events during family gatherings, when someone got married or when someone was buried. Among the Stublers, as has been noted and as the finale of this family history testifies, they buried a lot more than they married.

I will finish this seventy-page story today, then move on to “The Bee Log,” an internal novella of 170 pages or so.

The Cultural Shape of the Sentence

I recall learning in graduate school—I can picture the particular lesson, which was delivered by Irina Paperno, probably in the first-year introductory pro-seminar, in which we were reading The Master and Margarita in Russian, and this topic was sure to come up—about how Russian literary prose typically orders itself differently from English. Irina used the syntactical concept of tema i rema (which has other designations in other languages). The basic idea is that each proposition contains some old information and some new information. Tema is the old stuff, while rema is the new. Russian tends to have a lot of tema at the beginnings of sentences, while English tends to do it the other way. I have often wondered whether this particular syntactic bias has also influenced the standard of journalistic prose in English, which tends to lead with the newest stuff at the beginning and then fill in a whole bunch of background later in the article.

Here is a good short descriptive example from an online Croatian grammar:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Marko je došao kući.

Or, in English,

Mama: Who came to the house? Papa: Marko came to the house.

In the response, “Came to the house” is tema, “Marko” is rema.

Jergović’s prose, like Bulgakov’s in M&M, I now realize, features lots of tema at the beginnings of sentences. Sometimes tema can extend for a whole paragraph before getting to rema. Here is a good short example:

Poslove oko plamenika za parne lokomotive na uskotračnoj pruzi Sarajevo – Ploče, Rudolf Stubler završio je već trećega dana boravka u Berlinu.

I suppose literally this could be something like this (though I generally do not create “literal” equivalents as I’m working, perhaps a topic for another post):

The work/s surrounding the burners for the steam locomotives on the narrow-gauge track Sarajevo-Ploče Rudolf Stubler completed already by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

All the stuff leading up to Rudolf Stubler is tema since it was stated earlier in the text that this was the ostensible purpose of his trip. Here too is the notorious “already” (već) rearing its ugly head. Actually, the part about being in Berlin is also tema, so in a sense it is split up, not really all at the beginning, but the subject of the sentence waits a bit long to enter, and if I ordered my English sentences this way as often as the source does, I fear they would become rather annoying to English readers. With this particular one, here’s what I’ve done:

Rudolf Stubler had completed the work regarding the burners for the narrow-gauge steam locomotive on the Sarajevo-Ploče line by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

It still might feel a bit wordy, but the pace of the text is like this, and by this point in the book—somewhere around page 600—if readers aren’t prepared to take their time, well, they won’t have got to this point in the book if that is the case.

This suggests to me, too, that the example from the Croatian online grammar should really be re-shaped for maximum effect:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Došao je kući Marko.

Or, what one generally cannot do in English, but here goes:

Mama: Who came to the house?
Papa: Came to the house—Marko.

 

The idea of nebo as sky and as heaven

I remember Fulvio Tomizza making the claim—this was during the only meal we ever shared together, at his home in Trieste—that he aimed for five ideas per page. An idea, I understood, was a turn of some sort, either in reasoning or character depiction or language, some new thought that generated new interest on the level of the page while the entire book was working towards its larger aims. You might block out how you wanted the book to go, but ideas of this sort were discovered in the writing.

Translating an author’s work—a serious author who wields ideas in something like the manner Tomizza intimated—often means getting a feel for how the author thinks, the sorts of connections he makes. Otherwise, the turns leave you feeling baffled. This is true especially when the ideas are embedded in language play.

Here is an example from a passage in “The Match Juggler”:

As we have repeated on multiple occasions and demonstrated through the depiction of multiple episodes from his life and the memories of other members of the Stubler household, Rudolf Stubler was a believer. Chance (or God) had so willed it: the Stublers were divided into deep, authentic, which also means naïve, believers, and complete unbelievers. There was never a loss of understanding between them—about God there could be no misunderstanding. It was just that for some of them the sky was blue and for others heaven was empty.

This was an earlier draft, when I hadn’t figured out how to deal with the use of nebo, which can of course mean both sky and heaven. In context, the English sort of makes sense, but it is murky and leaves me feeling like the author (the translator channeling the author) is trying to be clever but not succeeding. One can sense a thought behind it, but without knowing that nebo has this double meaning in the source, the thought remains distant and not quite realized in the English version.

I haven’t been counting, but it feels like this sort of turn or one like it happens at least five times per page in Jergović’s prose, and I suspect it is one of the main ways that he manages to get us to be patient—he is very patient—with him as he makes his way towards the book’s larger aims. I have been thinking a lot about patience as I work my way through his book. It is a distinctive quality that he shares with writers he references often, like Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš.

Patience also helps me to resolve such issues, as I set them aside but return to them later, and, in this case, see that heavens (plural) can of course have a similar double quality, though by contrast to nebo, which begins with a secular sense and expands to a religious one, heavens begins with a religious sense and allows a secular one. It’s a difference I can live with, and my solution becomes: “It was just that for some of them the heavens were blue and for others they were empty.”

I believe my author will appreciate the zeugma.

 

Nego, već, and katekizam

“Nego” and “već” are especially frequent and often do not need to be rendered as “but” or “already.” In fact they often don’t need to be translated at all, or rather their translation is a non-word in English, a sort of translation by omission or translation by silence. An example of the latter:

Samo željeznica nije trunula i urušavala se, nego je postojala onakva kakva je bila i u prethodnih stotinu godina, s redom vožnje kao svojim jedinim katekizmom.

The nego here draws contrast and one could of course render it as “Only the railroad/railway had not collapsed and destroyed itself but existed exactly as it had for the preceding hundred years….” But when this or similar nego constructions are frequent (and they are, as in the correlative construction “not only… but  also,” then some variation and economizing can help move the prose along: “The railway was the only thing that had not collapsed and destroyed itself, remaining exactly as it had been for the preceding hundred years, with the timetable as its sole article of faith.”

For the last word in the sentence, katekizam, whose English equivalent would in other contexts be “catechism,” the emphasis on one (jedini) thing suggests that “article of faith” is a better solution, especially since the sentence before this suggests that the RR had outlived both Hitler and the two-thousand-year-old faith in Jesus Christ.

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.