On demons, devils, Satan, et al.

Problem-based teaching is all the rage, I hear, so maybe translation can serve as a point of departure of sorts. Here is the problem.

Od njega, Javorka je prvi put čula riječ đavao.

Vrag se u njezinom životu već javljao. Spominjali su ga i Nona i Nono, bio je prisutan u svakoj priči, uglavnom bezazlen, šaljiv, šeprtljav, ali đavao je bio nešto sasvim novo. Zbog onog ao, koje se nije moglo samo tako izgovoriti, zaustavljalo je rečenicu, gonilo da se razmišli o njemu, i da ga se shvati vrlo ozbiljno.

What I first wanted to try was this:

It was from him that Javorka first heard the word Satan.

The devil had already appeared in her life. Nona and Nono mentioned him, he was present in every story, mostly naïve, mischievous, and clumsy, but Satan was something completely new. That name was impossible to just pronounce and then go on with one’s sentence without thinking about it and thoroughly comprehending it.

The problem with this solution is that Satan is such a powerful word. Plus it reminds me so much of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live from twenty years ago. Saaataan!!! Besides that, I’ve completely left out the “ao” thing. What is that anyway, and why does it stop one’s sentence midway?

So now I’m thinking of moving my tinkering to earlier in the sentence, to the first term. (This reminds me of the trick of trying to discern which word the poet or songwriter came up with first in a rhyming couplet. It is a mark of poor poetry and/or songwriting that anyone should be able to tell.) And so the following solution begins to seem better:

It was from him that Javorka first learned about the devil.

Demons and spirits had appeared in her life much earlier. Nona and Nono had mentioned them, and they were present in every story, mostly as naïve, mischievous, and clumsy. But the devil was something completely new. Because of that evil, which was impossible to pronounce lightly, one’s sentence stopped midway and forced one to reflect on him and consider him seriously.

This has the advantage of using part of the word in the same way that the source does–đavao and ao become the equivalent of devil and evil. The disadvantage is that evil is a word unto itself, unlike ao, which might be suggestive but isn’t a coherent semantic category anywhere near as specific as evil. Maybe this compensation is over-compensation. For now at least it is my version, and I must fly onward to the many pages, and problems, that await.

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