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!