Marking Time through Cultural Expressions

This passage has two issues. The first I don’t think I can convey without mucking up the English text with too much unnecessary explanation. The second one I can convey in several different ways, but none seems ideal. The passage is associated with the viewpoint of a man who used to be a Jesuit, then became an Orthodox priest, and is now traveling with a detachment of Partisan soldiers in Slavonia during World War II.

Bilo je to krajem septembra, rujna kako se nekad govorilo u jezuita, i trajalo je ono najljepše miholjsko ljeto, kada se Bog prikaže i onima koji ne vjeruju.

The first problem is the fact of having two different words for September, where English has just one. “It was the end of September, September as the Jesuits once said, and…” won’t do at all. “Rujan” is the Croatian word, one of them, while “septembar” is more Yugoslav, Serbian. But these also have religious connotations, so the Jesuits, being Catholics, would likely use rujan, while the Orthodox would more likely use septembar, and then the Yugoslavs, being communists, would opt for the more international term, which would historically rub the Croats the wrong way until eventually they would go back to rujan, at least officially, post-1991. I don’t see how I can do any of this. I’ve looked for alternative Jesuit terms for the months in English, without any luck. I may have to ask my author if it’s okay to just skip that little phrase, “September [rujan], as the Jesuits once called it.”

But the second one “miholjsko ljeto” has several different translations in English. The first that comes to mind is “Indian summer,” but this strikes me a bit like using a recognizable dialect from one part of the world to render the dialectal speech of a character somewhere else in the world, for instance, a cockney accent for a Czech peasant or an inner city African American idiom for someone who speaks with marked Turkishisms in Sarajevo. This is never a good strategy as it creates conflicting cultural currents in the English text. The specifically North American term “Indian summer” is not quite so obtrusive as that, and it would go by fast, but I know my own question would be, “Do they have ‘Indian summers’ in Slavonia?”

The term that’s being used here is probably best translated as “Michaelmas summer,” which has a lovely exotic ring to it, and it adds a religious connotation a bit later in the line where I suspect I’ll have to lose the reference to the Jesuits, which is a bit of compensation. But who will know what “Michaelmas summer” means?

A third option would be a sort of “translationese” watering down of the expression, in which I write something like “late summer” or “extended summer.” This explains rather than translates and is also just not as effective as artistic prose.

At this point, I’m inclined to put “long Michaelmas summer,” which has the added effect of slowing the cadence. And so the whole thing ends up going something like this:

It was the end of September, and the long, beautiful Michaelmas summer stretched on as God showed himself even to those who did not believe.


Switching Senses for Sense

E, vidiš te kakva si!

This phrase appears in a conversation between a poor couple, one of whom works as a janitor, the other as a washerwoman at a hospital. The man is telling his wife not to look at the bed linen she washes because it makes her sad. She can tell when someone is alive or dead depending on what’s on the sheets when they bring them to her.

He says, “Why do you look at them so much, dear? A person can go mad from looking too much at bed linen the same as from looking too much at books. Wash, sweetie, but don’t look at anything!”

“I would if that were possible,” she answers, and then he delivers the line above.

Literally, this means something like, “Well look at what kind you are!” And I suppose I could make this more idiomatic by putting, “Just look at yourself!” but that feels too polemical and not soft enough to me. He’s a shy man who makes jokes to cheer her up when he sees her down from washing the sheets of dead people. He’s trying to console her but also convince her that she can do this. Perhaps just look at yourself feels too judgmental or mixes up the looking at the sheets with the looking at oneself, which is not strong in the source.

In any case, I cannot quite hear the right tone of delivery as easily as with, “Listen to yourself,” and so

Listen to yourself

it is.

Paragraph contours, paragraph tone

There is such a thing as tonal movement in a paragraph, and Jergovic’s are, I believe, distinctive. I cannot take a lot of time out of translating now because my deadline is looming, but here is a paragraph, actually three but the first two are a single sentence each, as an example of what I have dimly in mind.

But there was something else that linked the Stublers and the Seghers-Steins.

Mr. Maksim and Madam Danica would be Karlo’s children’s first music teachers.

She would be the person to teach them how to read music, such that before long all four children would be capable of deciphering any form of written notes. Thus, from the paper, would music be opened to them, and they would learn to hear it even without instruments, and Karlo, Regina, Olga, and Rudi would learn to play Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, and Bach, as well as the insane Schumann, who lost his senses in the span of one crazy carnival and leaped into a river to drown. Olga and Rudi had such strong imaginations that they could discern every instrument in the orchestrations, hearing even what was not in the notation: breaths of surprise, the public’s coughing, the heavy breathing of the old conductor, the noise of the street near the concert hall, the sounds of the epoch pouring across the paper notations like a sudden summer rain, melting the colors, and returning the brilliant music that no one would ever repeat again into the void. But then the electricity would go out, the bora would blow out the kerosene lamp, bringing on the darkness, and it was not possible to read anything anymore, besides fear, that of the young person and the child, before the life that had brought them together, which would afflict them and then tear them apart like the bombs in the summer of 1993, when they had all since died off, that fell on the courtyard of one of Sarajevo’s children’s shelters.

Oh my, ALTA!

What a fantastic ALTA conference that was over the weekend in Minneapolis, the fortieth anniversary of the association, with Lydia Davis and Tim Parks as perfectly matched yin and yang speakers on the passions and the torments of literary translation, and what wondrously talented and poised ALTA fellows I got to coach in their Friday reading (though none of them needed coaching): Aaron Coleman, Bonnie Chau, Ellen Jones, Zoe Sandford, Timea Sipos, and David Smith; and what great panels and roundtables and speakers all around, including Lucien Stryk prize winner Jennifer Feeley, Cliff Becker Prize winners Anne Fisher and Derek Mong, National Translation Award in Poetry winner Daniel Borzutsky, and National Translation Award in prose winner Esther Allen!

And how exhilarated I am to be the local conference organizer for ALTA41 next year in Bloomington, Indiana—it is from Wednesday, October 31 to Saturday, November 3, 2018. Mark your calendars!

Definition of Dostoyevskian

According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

Dostoyevskian, n. 1. Person who sees her or his interests supported by principles and laws that are in fact harmful to her or his interests; 2. by extension, person blinded by anger, spite, or other passion such that she or he is no longer capable of seeing where proper interests are best represented; 3. by further extension, person looking for “strong leader” to take away all such details in order to get back to watching favorite sporting events without them. (See also Trump supporter)

Forgetting First Ladies’ Names

The bus ride was long from Zagreb.

The route took us through Istria and seemed to include a stop at every little picturesque village, only there’s something about bus stops in picturesque Istrian villages—they become the ugliest parts of town when they put the bus station there. Even in Rovinj, which doesn’t have any ugly spots as a rule, has the bus station, which is, relatively speaking, the ugliest part.

Then there was Porec, and Novi Grad, and Umag, and then the border—when you have to get out for passport control (and here I was thinking Croatia was already in Europe), then Koper, and finally Trieste. There was a middle aged woman throwing up into a bag across the aisle, with her husband trying to console her. The two Russians in front on me were speaking surprisingly quietly among themselves, but the Austrian boys speaking German, apparently on an excursion, were louder. No one was annoying, but it was crowded and loud and long.

When we got to Trieste, I was happy the rain had let up a little and only sprinkled me with a few drops during the two-block walk to the hotel. The reception desk clerk was friendly and, obviously pleased that I could speak to him in Italian, struck up a conversation as he handed me back my passport.

“So what’s the word from Trump?”

“Nothing good.”

“His wife’s from nearby here. What’s the name?”

“Of the town? Ljubljana” (I’m very good at pop-geography quizzes).

“No, his wife. What’s her name?”

This was my first moment of embarrassment. Couldn’t remember Trump’s wife’s first name. This did not bother me too much. I don’t really need to remember her name for anything, and there are other things I would much prefer to remember, like the dates of the Battle of Vienna or when Peter the Great died. “It starts with an ‘m,’ I think.”

He laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”


“Right! Melania! She’s pretty. How’s her English? Does she speak well?”

“You know, I’ve never really heard her speak except at that convention, and that speech she took from the other one.”

He had started laughing in the middle of this because he could see what I was going to say, but then: “Right, the other one, the black one. She was very pretty, too. What was her name?”

And now I was really embarrassed. Could we go back to the geography? He laughed a lot at my discomfort. I really couldn’t remember. Did I mention it was a long bus ride? “Her husband’s name was Barack.” I pronounced “Barack” carefully as if his wife’s name would follow easily from his…. Nope.

He looked on his computer screen, then said her name, laughing again, and added. “Maybe you should give me the passport.”

And maybe I should.

Description of a Description of a Place

Imagine translating several Balzac novels with all their intricate Parisian detail but never having been to Paris, or a couple of Aleksandr Tišma novels without ever having set foot in Novi Sad. These are of course possible things to accomplish. The words are the words, and today more than ever before we have maps and more maps, including satellite images that can provide a great deal of detail about many places across the globe. The spatial relationships would be clear enough through such means, and historical maps could of course provide a lot of information.

But there is no substitute for exploring a place with one’s own feet and one’s own senses. Why this is the case is complicated to explain. Partly it has to do with the things not described by an author but present in a place and implicit in its description. This might be slope or color, the texture of the materials in walls or streets, the brightness or dullness of an object in relation to others in an area, which means the play of light and shadow. A wide street is different from a broad street, and the same word might be used for either in the source. Selecting the one that corresponds more closely to the place, which in turn can bring it uncannily to life in the receiving culture, could very well boil down to how one—the translator, in this case—experienced it on a given day, the rare day, when she or he got to see it in person.

This is just about the words, you might say, and of course I can’t disagree with you. But the words can just as easily discourage or encourage one in one’s reading. Any mediocre writer and any mediocre translator is capable of ruining the pace of a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. And not knowing the place where an author has focused her or his attention is one way this failure can occur. It is a failure than can affect the reception of an author in another culture forever.

This understanding, which has been gnawing at me from inside throughout the translation of long passages of this book, brought me to Zagreb a couple of days ago to meet and speak with my author and, yesterday, to Sarajevo, to walk, listen, observe, smell, compare, and try to feel the place that inspired so much of Kin.

Today I found Veliki Park, where Franjo Rejc would wait each year for the arrival of autumn, on a bench that according to my author no longer exists, amid the old Muslim gravestones that once formed a part of the old Čekrekčinica Cemetery. And I found Mejtaš, the street and the square, crossroads of my author’s childhood, which seemed smaller than I had anticipated, exactly as if I had been the child through whose eyes the little square appears, like a major thoroughfare, in narrative form—I hope I have captured this sense. And I found the street Sepetarevac, perhaps named for the steps (sepeti) climbed by the Jewish porters to transport good to the shops on Bjelave (which I also found).

Each of these places has a precious, unique feeling for me personally now, not just because I have visited them, but because I spent so much time trying to describe them and then went to seek them out. A couple of days ago, as we were sitting in the cafe of Zagreb’s Kino Europa, I told my author that I felt as if we have known each other for a very long time, though of course that may simply be the illusion of literature. He is very skilled at this illusion, magic, sorcery, call it what you will. He was kind enough to agree with me—maybe we have known each other for a long time.

More Sarajevo tomorrow. I suspect I’ll have a hard time sleeping tonight.