Family Humor

I’m proofing Kin, which has been slow going I’ll post separately about that and am finding myself laughing at many things that before I didn’t notice or don’t remember noticing as funny. Jergović’s humor is almost always rather dark, and I recall someone noting how frequently he found himself laughing while reading another of his books. At that point, I wondered if I was translating the same author or, a more scary thought for a translator, if I had missed something in my reading. But reading it all together has reassured me.

Below is an example, which uses the rather normal expression spavati kao zaklan, and then goes to town with it. Normally, the expression would just be rendered as “sleep like a log” or something similar in English, but here there’s quite a bit more. The scene unfolds as a Turkish caravan with a couple of Venetians and a Parisien are passing through Zagreb in the mid-nineteenth century on their way to Ottoman Sarajevo.

Ganimed slept like a slaughtered man, in a deep, rich feather bed prepared just for him. The rest, including Botta and Sarchione, slept on ordinary army straw, but for him, as a special guest, the feather bed had been prepared that was kept, cleaned, and aired out in case one day, God willing, some Viennese prince or Pest count might stop at Blind Marica’s. As it had been decades since any prince had been to Zagreb, let alone to their inn, they made use of the occasion to offer the feather bed to a guest worthy of such attention. And Ganimed appeared to be just such a personage: handsome and slender, with a lofty bearing like some Russian princeling. The truth was that the old woman and her young valet, with a mustache like that of the most refined postman, had not accorded this honor because of Ganimed but more for themselves and the story that they would tell for a long time thereafter, and which they would continue to live off until an actual prince might come, about the youth who was so handsome one could not look away.

He really did sleep “like a slaughtered man.” The valet, who had learned this strange local expression, told him he would sleep precisely so in their bed of goose down. Botta translated his words calmly. Ganimed was shocked, but this served as the inspiration for his self-portrait, surely the best known of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s drawings that have been preserved and about which we should say several words here, for later there will not be time.

The painting Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept in the permanent exhibit of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the war. For financial reasons, or as a consequence of the lack of public interest in art, the permanent exhibit was never shown in its entirety again after the war, and the gallery closed for good in 2012. Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept all this time in a gallery storeroom and only displayed on two occasions to the public over the last twenty years. The first time was immediately after the war, in 1996, at the exhibit The Free-hand Sketch – Drawn and Painted Works of Well-Known Architects, which was held in Paris’s Museum of Architecture, and the second was when it was included in a small 2005 display of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s works in the foyer of the Vienna Opera House on the occasion of the building’s construction.

Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat is one of Ganimed’s most elaborate paintings, with a multitude of details amid the five colors of the brush strokes and a slight watercolor overlay. The setting…

There follows a wonderful ekphrasis of this delicate painting…

Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.

Publishing Kin

It looks like Archipelago Books will publish Kin in the first half of 2021. In the meantime, we are working together on some first serial publication excerpts. I have taken three and contacted two editors I know at lit mags to start, while the folks at Archipelago are working on a handful of others. This ability to excerpt is probably a major publishing virtue of the book, and indeed Miljenko Jergović published many short segments in a variety of venues in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, leading up to the book’s full publication in Croatia in 2013.

If those two editors pass on the excerpts I’ve got, I’ll go to two others, and so on. Depending on how well Jill Schoolman and her people do with theirs, I might take more to send out. All this really ought to happen in the first half of this year since the better lit mags generally are a good year out in terms of the publication schedule (though you can sometimes squeeze something in later if they have space and are interested).

Revisiting excerpts also allows me to revise again, which can of course go on forever until you’re just removing and replacing commas. When I’m at that point, I’ll be very happy.

Happy 2020!

Breathing and Stretching

I turned in the manuscript. I TURNED IN THE MANUSCRIPT!!! It clocked in at a bit over 400,000 words. I’m not sure what that will mean in terms of pages. Probably more than a thousand. This will depend on the editing process. But the main part is done.

I got a haircut on Saturday, and Ally asked me if I had done anything to celebrate. The question was natural but also a little unexpected. Well, no, nothing at all. Nor do I think any single thing–a dinner? a weekend vacation?–would adequately mark having completed the work. Turning it in feels good of course, but it doesn’t feel like the end at all. There’s editing and promotion work to do, the latter being the sort of thing that really never ends, and there are so many projects that have been simmering while this one was on the front burner. I am anxious to get back to them.

First up is breathing and stretching, which feels right at the moment. But while I breathe and stretch, I’m also thinking about the next two presentations I’ll be doing, in about a month at the annual AWP conference in Tampa, Florida. One panel is on word play in translation, and I’ll likely use examples from the just completed thing I worked on, for which examples are ready. The other is on the theme of translation and exile, and there I’m considering a brief exploration of the sort of self-othering, internal travel, ethno-linguistic exile from one’s “own” language that takes place when one translates, especially when one translates a lot, many short works, fewer long ones, or one big monster of a book. I suspect this is something that happens to people who learn to love a foreign culture and begin to feel estranged from their “own.” Non-translators must also know it, so figuring out what is specific to translation in this scenario will be a question to answer.

Playing with words is part of this, too, of course, so the two topics are likely to be connected in my presentations. I plan to practice them here in a few preparatory posts, so anyone who ends up being there may end up knowing what I will say before I actually say it. The AWP format does not really allow much room for expansion, and while the entire conference is focused on writing and writers, actually writing one’s comments and thoughts down and reading them to the audience is discouraged. Maybe this is ironic.

First, however, I’ll be trying to catch up on the many things I’ve let myself get behind on. And stretching and breathing of course. I invite you to join me.

A Truth about Dogs

From the last long story in Kin, “Sarajevo Dogs”:

The basic sensation of a dog, canine melancholy, the foundation of canine lyricism, is a feeling of extended abandonment. It follows the dog from the moment of birth, is repeated in an array of variations through life, and not once has a single dog ever escaped it. Even those rare ones that are loved and protected are left with it at the entrance to the supermarket when we go inside, or experience it when we go have a shower or wash our hands, when we go out to open the door for guests or shut ourselves up on our offices. This sense of abandonment is equally as horrible as that experienced by dogs on the street. Perhaps it’s even worse since it repeats every day. Dogs don’t experience time as people do. To dogs time lasts endlessly long, the canine second is a human minute, the human hour an entire canine day, a day a year, a year centuries…. Ten human years is a thousand canine ones. A dog’s life is cut through with a thousand-year sense of abandonment. In a thousand human years an entire civilization can be created, mature, and die, with its music, art, poetry, myths and folk traditions, novels and a whole history of film, and with each civilization, the consolation of people before death is born, lasts for a time, and disappears. After a thousand years, everything normally disappears. A thousand years of canine abandonment, which every happy dog lives through, is a whole human civilization.

Words, Speed, Time, Money

At the October 2017 ALTA conference in Minneapolis, Tim Parks began his keynote address by providing a counterpoint to Lydia Davis’s 19 pleasures of translating theme of the night before by enumerating 19 torments of translating. But when he got to number 19, he was on a roll so he just kept going. It was delivered as a litany with plenty of comic effect. It got a lot of laughs, too, and buried in the middle was one that I had not really realized was true of my Kin, and it went, “This page has no dialog on it!” Exactly. Most of these thousand pages do not have any dialog, and when there is dialogue, it is often buried inside a paragraph, rather than set off as its own blocked and quoted text. There are almost no quotations marks in the book in fact, an effect I have tried to maintain.

So as I worked my way through, I noticed that each page felt rather long. I tended to measure my progress by the page, especially in longer segments of the book that did not have breaks (which is about half of the total), so there were times when I could not figure out why the work was progressing so slowly. Some of that was just my being very careful, on the one hand, and not being familiar with the vocabulary of whatever the domain was that my author was using as a structuring principle, on the other, bees, for instance, or book binding, or dog breeds. But it was also this straight prose narration, which can be quite hypnotic in its consistency at times.

So I’m making a note here, at least to myself so that I remember and can pace myself appropriately in the future, with regard to words, speed, and time. I have in mind the number of words on each page (when translated into English), the speed at which I have been working at various moments during the translation of the book, and the time it has taken to complete. Each page of the source appears to become a little over 450 words on average in the English version. This is pretty consistent throughout, so the total is likely to be a book of about 450,000 words. Where there are no breaks, my pace has tended to be about five pages in a day, though I have pushed it up to eight on some days. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I have barely managed half of a single page, but that was largely because I could not divest myself from other responsibilities, not because of the work itself. A better average, for when I had the time to work on it, has been between 2000 and 3200 words per day.

What this would amount to in terms of pay were I making the per-word rate one of my colleagues mentioned she was making the other day, for prose translations from the same language, is something for another post perhaps. To contradict myself slightly from a previous post in this thread, I don’t do this for the money.

Impossible Historical Ideological Neologism Used in Passing

I’m in the revisions stage now, and going back through an earlier section, I found a parenthetical note to myself that says: “no way, samovoz,” and then the page number in the hard copy.

The English passage in question is this:

No one saw him as he was leaving, and no one knew when did so. But he left in time, when it was still possible to take one’s own car to Zagreb and onward, to who knows where.

The time in question is approximately 1944. The “he” in question is a high ranking Home Guard officer from Croatia, stationed in Sarajevo, which means he was watching the political landscape carefully to figure out when he would need to escape, as the Independent State of Croatia began to collapse. The word samovoz is where I’ve got “one’s own car,” which is not much of an attempt, I realize, to convey all the nuance of the Croatian word. The problem is that it was a neologism for car under that particular regime, created probably around 1941, as the Independent State of Croatia itself came into being.

I have toyed with three or four different possible ways of sneaking more of the ideological content in somehow. While it was probably a German car, calling it a “fascist car” seems odd and might create more confusion than it’s worth. Creating some sort of Orwellian neologism in English might be fun, but that too would likely put too much emphasis on what is, in effect, a subtle passing comment by the narrator-author, which serves to situate the text historically. It could also imply a bit of the officer’s own viewpoint through the use of the word he might have used.

This is one I think I may have to let go.

Translation as Job, Vocation, Calling

I was once accused by a translator colleague of bringing down the going rate for translation by doing it when I had another job. This person had no idea what I charged or did not charge for doing the work, and perhaps she was angry about something else, but I remember distinctly that her comment had come after I made a statement in some online forumthis was over a decade ago and I no longer remember what the forum might have beenabout my being able to choose the work I wanted to do and generally take my time in doing it. What she apparently intimated from this was that I was somehow taking the work away from someone else by agreeing to do it for less because I had a steady job as a university professor.

This is rather a sore spot among translators, more so, I think, than among fiction writers or poets, who generally understand that it is not really possible for emerging authors in those genres to make a living on the basis of the writing alone. Even after fiction writers have published a couple of books, unless they magically begin to sell many many copies, which is impossible to predict and also rare, they will almost always still need to keep their teaching job or whatever other job they’ve got to pay the bills. Translators tend to think about this differently, however.

There are actually two parts to this sort of criticism from freelance translators towards those of us who have academic jobs. Translation for us, so the criticism goes, can be part of our academic dossiers, our promotion files, our curricula (plural) vitae. We can engage in it without caring about the money we get paid for it because it is part of this other domain and we’re being compensated on a very different basis, not for the work itself but for having done the work, a bit like the future anterior tense, which skips over the present and time travels to some future moment for accomplishments that have yet to be attained, all without ever leaving the present. “When I will have completed all these things, I will be a successful academic,” and so on.

This sort of imagined reward for translations performed in the academy may or may not be true in all cases. Much depends on the institution and the nature of the dossier, but it is true that in some institutions and for some faculty members, artistic translation can form a part of such a dossier and be counted somehow, whether as scholarly or as creative work, or perhaps as something in between. And so, in our protected and self-serving manner, to go back to the criticism, we are expanding our research profile all while taking work away from those who really need it and are devoted to it. This is the criticism, not always stated in such a bald form, but implied or merely suspected, for the most part politely (translators are nice).

I suspect that this quiet criticism, which has lurked in the back of my mind ever since it was directed so uncharacteristically directly at me many years ago, has tended to make me shy away from projects that might in fact be appealing to and needed by freelance translators. My personal rule has tended to be only to take on work that I thought was unlikely to be translated if I didn’t do it. This has meant, for the most part, non-commissioned projects that I needed to research and then pitch to publishers. And that has meant probably not genre fiction (though I suspect I would enjoy translating some pf those genres), also not popular or well-known authors, and mostly works on the experimental side, unusual somehow, highly literary, sometimes quirky or idiosyncratic. Luckily, I also enjoy such works.

There are big advantages to this way of translating from a scheduling standpoint. For one thing, generally no one is waiting for you to finish besides your own internal critic. And that means that you can spend a lot of time and energy on the project at hand without worrying about the dreaded deadline. You can also only work on projects you find attractive and worthwhile from an aesthetic standpoint or a political or theoretical one. You can also stop working on something if it begins to ring hollow somehow, or if your views about it or about life change. These are enormous freedoms, and I don’t think I ever took them lightly.

My current project has not been like this, of course. It was commissioned. It could have been translated by someone else. It has a deadline (had a deadline, then another, now it has what I hope will be the final onenext month) from a publisher with a strong list and an eye for high quality works. The exception has both proven the rule and reinforced it. I plan to go back to the rule after this, with a clearer sense of the privileges and freedoms I enjoy in approaching translation the way I generally have approached it, without rushing too much, thinking about the work carefully, selecting on the basis of quality and what I suspect I can do well, if not to say what I will have done well afterward.

Let this serve as a new year’s resolution then, and a sincere wish for anyone else who might see the work, the vocation, the calling to translate as the privilege that I do.

 

Bitch or Female (dog)?

My local vet once referred to her dog, which was about to have a litter, as a bitch, and I thought nothing of it. Or rather, what I thought was that she, the vet, was using the word correctly and also perhaps somewhat provocatively. She, the vet, is also a somewhat unusual person, uses crystals and homeopathic remedies in her practice, and this too seemed to corroborate my dim feeling that someone else in the same circumstances might not have used that particular word. The context was clear, so it wasn’t that terribly provocative, and there was no chance that anyone would have confused her use with regard to a female dog about to have a litter of pups with using the word to refer to a female person. The provocation in this case, if I’m right in hearing it in her usage, was about using the right word for the circumstances and refusing to change her word choice just because some people today might not use the word under any circumstances for fear of being thought misogynistic. Enter translation, where the specific term for a female dog in another language might not be so loaded as the English term “bitch.” It might be loaded, in fact probably is loaded, but is also very likely not loaded in the same way.

Translationese would tend to soften and explain, and so “female” would likely rise to the surface as the best option. And of course as an isolated case, in the midst of, say, a long prose work, using the word female would not likely be seen by anyone but the most self-righteous language police enforcer as problematic at all. It would be akin, I think, to finding the right idiom for something conveyed in a very specific way in the source language, for instance, “to stand someone up” for the French poser un lapin à quelqu’un. The French phrase uses the words “put” and “rabbit” in a very distinctive way, but as long as the “putting” and the “rabbit” are not thematically relevant (an interpretation the translator would need to decide on), it would not be a terrible loss to substitute “standing” and “up.” On the contrary, this move would create other interpretive avenues to English language readers, enriching the text rather than impoverishing it. This is an aspect of the “remainder” that several translation theorists have commented on. And if the text were older, something from the nineteenth century, for instance, again there would not be much of a problem. Readers would tend to read with a principle of charity, understanding that many of the contemporary associations we might have with words would not apply to a book from a hundred years ago or more. If the story in question is both about rabbits and contemporary, however, then all bets are off.

And so in a story about dogs that take on human characteristics, a story like the very last chapter of the 2013 novel Kin, which is entitled “Sarajevo Dogs,” what is the right way to consider the use of the quite specific word “bitch”? In an earlier section of the same book, my author uses bees as the human surrogates, and bees too have their own very specific lexicon, with drones and workers and queens. Now “queen” might begin to take on some of the complicated social and political implications that “bitch” immediately conjures, but the context is clearer somehow, and this kind of slippage seems less likely. Is it because bees are not mammals? A female dog (bitch) has nipples, after all, but a queen bee is an abstraction, almost a metaphor.

At this point I am leaning towards “female” because “bitch” seems more of a distraction and because the uses of the term kuja or, even more, the diminutive kujica (little bitch?) do not appear to be laden in this text with the associations of the English term. This is my interpretation, of course. I am also aware, however, of my own reactions in reading the work, which become much harsher towards it if I allow for the possibility that such bitchy associations might be intended by the author. I don’t think they are there, but I also recognize that I do not want them to be there. And given the choice, I prefer not to have them in the English version. I am of course thinking of audience here, so this strategy can be understood within a rhetoric of translation, which I have written and published about elsewhere, most recently here.

 

Visiting the End

I am getting close to the end of this translation and feeling a bit light headed.

I don’t think I wrote much about the trip I took in September to Zagreb, to speak with my author, and then to Sarajevo to walk through the areas he writes so much about. It feels like a long time ago now, but I keep seeing the places as I translate lines that refer to them. It has helped a lot, since I had never been to Sarajevo before, and while I could translate the words, I really did not have a feel for the spatial dimensions and so much more that is simply implied.

The backache is nearly constant now, as the distinctive feature of translating prose works makes itself felt. So this is what it feels like to have translated over eight hundred pages of a single book with a little under two hundred to go. I wonder if the ache isn’t at least partly from the anticipated remainder, a little like one feels tired sometimes because of the list of things to do rather than because of the things one has just done. In fact, isn’t there more often a feeling of elation rather than fatigue at the end, after one has finished with something long and taxing? I suspect that will happen here too.

Based on what my author says about Sarajevo, I picked the right month to travel there. He has long passages of fog, mist, smog, snow, and ice, all of it rather grimy and dark, for the rest of the year. The trip also helped me to feel the pressure of the hills he often refers to, the central spaces, the Miljacka River, the street and general area where he spent a number of years as a youngster, especially its relative remoteness and insularity despite being a short, even if rather steep, walk to the center of town.

I was surprised to find it referred to as Šepetarevac (with the first letter as a š instead of as it ought to be, a plain s) in the first book by Jergović that appeared in English, Sarajevo Marlboro (Archipelago Books, 2004), especially as the name is emphasized so much. It has to be a mistake. I suspect mine will inevitably have some, too.