Sieges and The Unwritten

This piece by Miljenko Jergovic in my English translation was in the New York Times this weekend. I was impressed by the quality of the editing by Max Strasser. I’ve done a lot of editing, though not in a journalism vein, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. His light but confident touch was reassuring, as were the explanations for why he thought certain things needed expansion, omission, or re-ordering. The work of editing is often thankless, so I wanted to thank him here.

The content of the essay contrasted sharply with an idea that emerged from a symposium that was organized at Indiana University, Bloomington over the weekend, by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spector, which was focused on Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky. “Planting the Flag” was a somewhat intimate affair, with some thirty or so people sitting at one table, presenting their work and talking in depth about this re-discovered “classic” author (a phenomenon worth discussing unto itself) now being translated and published both in Russian and in English for the first time. K (for short) was almost unknown in his lifetime, a philosopher poet of sorts, though he wrote prose for the most part. I could never do justice to his work or the discussions at the symposium, so I won’t try here, except to note one thought that has stuck with me and is percolating.

It emerged from a discussion of the phenomenon of imagined but unwritten works, which it turns out is much more widespread than I realized. K explored it extensively and suggestively, and during our discussions the idea came to take shape for me in a compelling and provocative manner. While there is an infinite number of books that have been imagined but not written, there is a much more concrete sense in which each time a book is created in the world, it opens an absence and a potential in every other language for its translation. These are works that have been authored — for the author is the author even when the book is translated — but not yet written in the language of the receiving culture. They are authored but unwritten.

The Personal and the Historical

A major feature of the Kin, sometimes rehearsed with surprising results, comes out in the following passage quite vividly. The narrator is describing life with his mother.

She didn’t clean the apartment anymore or wipe away the dust. She only worked at her work place. And she was a good, thorough head of the accounting department. She followed the rules with strictness, in accordance with the Stubler heritage. Quite the Swabian. But in her life she did nothing more. She did not move and did not care about the current state of things around her.

This bothered me during the first years after Nona’s death. But later no. I grew accustomed by degrees to her unhappiness as an aspect of my own family circumstance. We lived together, but until the war all we ever talked about was how badly she felt. During the war in Croatia, she was at the height of menopause. A year or two earlier she had had a serious hemorrhage. She went three times to have the upper layer of skin scraped off in order to remove all the blood. I was with her during every instant of this. She had no one but me, so I experienced my mother’s menopause from beginning to end in great detail. Both the psychological and the physical aspects.

When they attacked Croatia, it had been some time since she had stopped losing blood. But she was in the depth of depression. She would take her yearly vacation time only to lie in bed for three weeks. It’s hard to live with someone who doesn’t move from her bed and doesn’t care. She said her life had no meaning and she would kill herself. She had no one else, so she had to say this to me. At night she would call a telephone number for help in such situations. This kind of line had been working for years in Sarajevo. It was started by a psychiatrist couple. But now it was someone else who answered. The other two had different jobs now. They were Ljliljana and Radovan Karadžić.

The move from the personal to the historical throughout the passage, which becomes most vivid in the final line, will blind many readers to the underlying implied connection, which is perhaps not so blatant as Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of Vronsky’s breaking the back of his racehorse Frou-Frou and the near death of Anna because of Vronsky’s getting her pregnant, but has a similar feel. I can’t remember now whether I’ve ever seen an equation of war with menopause, though as I think it about it, the blood letting that ends with the cessation of life is a natural connection that someone must have made in the past.

Editing and Self-editing

I think about the importance of editing often as I’m working. Partly this is because I am also editing other people’s writing as I write and translate. It is easier to separate these activities when the writing is of very different kinds, but sometimes they cross paths, and then I have to be careful that the voice of one first-person narration does not slip into another first-person narration. That, I think, is happening with this post. It sounds to me a bit like the narrator in Vassilis Alexakis’s Mother Tongue (La langue maternelle), the English translation of which (by Harlon Patton) I am editing for Autumn Hill as I work on Kin. Alexakis has a lovely first-person narrator’s voice, but it is quite different from Jergovic’s. How they are different would take me too long to figure out–I need to get back to both!–but here is a very brief example of the kind of editing that seems to be absolutely essential in both the self-performed and the other-performed kinds.

Re-reading a recently translated passage, I came across this phrase, which ends a section in which the narrator has commented on the disappearance of an entire line of relatives from the past: “Mi smo u rodu s fantomima i duhovima.” I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my draft version had “We are the relatives of phantoms and spirits,” which is basically what the phrase means but misses an obvious connection to the very title of the book, which is explicit in the expression, “u rodu s…” (in relation to…). The slight change to “We are kin to phantoms and spirits” raises the register ever so slightly and strikes for the whole line a more effective, more moving tone.

I find myself looking at every sentence this way, which is of course no way to finish on time but gives me so much more pleasure than just rushing forward to get through the pages (and pages). It will be a better book, I hope, as a result of these little things.

Uncles and Uncles

I am struggling a bit with the challenge of Turkishisms. There are lots of them in Rod, regionally specific words that derive originally from Turkish and retain something of their Ottoman-era stylistic aura. Sometimes they are referenced explicitly, sometimes they pass by without comment, but any reader of the original work will be aware of them, even if only dimly. How to bring them out without simply using an italicized foreign word in each case has to be part of a global approach to the whole translation, it seems to me.

A good example is the chapter entitled “Stričevi i amidže,” which means “uncles and uncles,” the first word deriving from “stric” or “strik” (father’s brother), while the second is the plural of “amidža,” which according to the Hrvatski jezicni portal, means “stric.” A bit more searching will make it clear that amidža is the word used by Muslim families for uncle, and this is what the chapter is about. The ending is poignant:

When they found themselves all together, they always knew exactly, and never did any child mistake, who was called amidža by whom and who was called strik by whom.

The wars of the nineties were needed for the Rejc children and grandchildren to understand the nature of the difference.

Our Auntie Marica, Uncle Eda’s wife, a good cook and a simple-hearted woman, with a big heart and a stormy disposition, was born in Vitez.

Nieces and nephews did not call their uncle amidža there.

Except among the Muslims.

This kind of example is simpler than those in which the words are use without comment, for here the text teaches readers to read, making it possible to simplify the chapter title to “Uncles” without fear that the significance of the word “amidža” will be lost.

Elsewhere I need to think and choose carefully. There are so many examples that I’ve started keeping a list. It will be something I talk about with my author–for we are at least in contact about such things–when we discuss the text at length.

On compensation and explicitation

The phenomenon of compensation is well-known to translators. You cannot quite get that metaphor there so you put in one somewhere close by, not the same one using the same figure, but one that might do some of the same work. Or, even more commonly, the rhyme of the source becomes some other form of sound painting in the translation, shifting to alliteration or assonance.

With a long prose work, I suspect there are other, more general considerations than these, or rather in addition to these, which exist on the sentence or line level. Length tends to be a problem unto itself. Partly this is due to the conventional wisdom, all too often well-founded, that foreign texts are not edited much if at all. This means that often the first time a foreign author has the experience of having her or his text edited is when it is translated. Translators of contemporary works into English are therefore frequently engaging in two, distinct but in practice inseparable activities.

I had the great privilege of working with an experienced editor-translator on my very try. The book was Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada, and the editor in question, Michael Henry Heim, carefully marked up my text in pencil from start to finish. One of the principles (MHH liked principles) behind his suggested changes derived from his observation that my English text was “rather prolix.” Some of this, he said, was due to me, some to the author. The result was the language of the whole thing grew sparser and tighter.

Obviously this is not a principle to apply indiscriminately. Every text is different. But the tendency to explain, another phenomenon well-known to translators–which is described by translation studies scholars by the rather ugly but quite descriptive term “explicitation”–always puts a lengthening pressure on the translated text. You want your readers to see what is in the source in all its detail, so you add explanatory words here are there to try and make them clear, to make them explicit. Unchecked, this pressure can overwhelm any work, let alone one that is 1,000 pages long in the source.

And so I find myself actively struggling against it, trying to make things as short as possible, which means inevitably compensating in places like this:

Pomicao je usnama kao da sriče molitvu, a onda se prekrstio, lako i hitro, kao rutinski katolik.

Which becomes:

He moved his lips as if reciting a prayer, then crossed himself, nimbly as a rote Catholic.

Because (in this case I can also explain it through an analysis) “lako” (easily) and “hitro” (quickly) are both, I think, covered in the term “nimbly,” and “a onda” (and then) is covered by “then.” And while I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a “rote” rather than a “routine” Catholic, I know what it means implicitly. It’s also a syllable shorter.

It’s just one little place, but the accumulation of little places like this will, I hope, be palpable.

Catalogues, lists, parataxis, and pig spleens

One of the things my author does is list. He lists and lists, stringing objects and observations in long catalogues that are sometimes paratactic (without connecting words), and sometimes filled with and’s and but’s and gradations of these (such as the word “a,” which can suggest and, but, though, and a variety of other linking notions) to create sentences like this:

By evening, the sausages will be made, the meat ground up and packed into the wide, flexible pork intestines, the cracklings will have been salted and left to cool in the summer kitchens on wide, black baking pans, the cats will be gorging themselves around the courtyards on the pig spleens and the little bits of their animal insides that a person can’t manage to swallow, and everyone will be dead drunk, singing Croatian songs about the Velebit Mountains and Ban Jelacic, and when the rakija has wiped away their minds completely, they’ll take courage and shout to the memory of the Ustaše Jure Frančetić and Rafael Boban, to the glory of the Poglavnik Pavelić, and neither the People’s Militia nor any village informants or spies will be there to report the songs or the singers, for they too will in that moment be feasting on their slaughtered pigs, singing different Croatian songs or maybe the same ones.

It’s not the longest sentence in the book, but there are quite a few like this. Some of the active verbs in the source I’ve changed into participles to make the thing hold together. Hidden footnotes are peppered throughout (the word mountains, for instance, and the word Ustaše and the names Frančetić and Rafael). He also uses a fairly specialized word for pig spleens, which is slezina, and which maybe ought to be “milt” in English, but who knows what that means? Pig spleens rings true and is appropriately disgusting.

On the loftiness of administration

I have two dogs. When one lies down, the other likes to stand over his head so that when the lying dog looks up he looks right into the standing dog’s penis. I tell the standing dog to knock it off, and he comes over to me all smiling (he does smile) and tries to lick my face, because he knows I’m the boss. I don’t let him lick my face and tell him to knock that off too, so he goes back and stands over his fellow dog.

When dogs engage in this kind of behavior it’s mildly distasteful. Seeing people do it is outright disgusting.