Ars Prosaica

I’m in the production tunnel now and finding it difficult to comment on my work. This happened to dozens of my students at Iowa when they were in the midst of finishing translation MFA theses and were then expected to write something about them. This required a shift of thinking and approach that they had not been practicing. Translating is not writing about, and these two activities require different habits of mind. It takes work to break out of one and into the other. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the silence of the past several months here. I’m translating.

But this passage is worth quoting, as it says a lot about my author’s way of working. It comes near the end of the book (I have many more pages to go but am jumping around in my translation work because it feels right):

It is not worth changing the names. One should leave them intact and then arrange the destinies of one’s literary heroes, leading them along a high-mountain path between reality and the text, between the life they lived and the life that is to be narrated. But in such a way as to be more plausible than reality, and so that by means of the narrative a biography of the narrator will also be sensed. Everything is true and nothing need be true.

I have resorted to a bit of translationese here, eliminating a specific toponymic expression in favor of a general one: the high-mountain path in question is a specific mountain in Croatia, but as most readers would need to look up the name to get the reference, I think it is better this way. The notion of the true here is “istina” rather than “pravda,” which has its own issues, I know. I’m not sure I understand the necessary of the biography of the narrator generally, though in Jergovic’s work it is, I think, clear.

Translating Syntax

I once listened to a student who had listened to another student as he defended his  keeping to the syntax of the source language (Chinese, if I remember correctly) as a way of defamiliarizing his English text and interfering in the English-language complacency of his readers. I have no particular problem with this idea in principle. I like it actually.

But much depends on the practice, and if the source text in question is not particularly unusual in its syntax, then making one’s translation sound strange is a fairly radical translation strategy, one that one’s author might not agree with. If I were the author, I might very well object if someone were making my prose sound “strange” in the translated work.

An example helps to illustrate. This is from “Veliki park” (“Veliki Park”):

Bookkeeping, which Franjo worked at for a short period of his life, barely seven or eight years after retiring from his job as a railway traffic engineer, he did not give up easily.

That is very close to the source syntax. It also comes across as rather clunky in English. If I leave it that way, I am pretty sure my editor at Archipelago will think I was just going too fast to notice.

It needs to go something more like this:

While he worked at it for a short period of his life, barely seven or eight years after retiring from his job as a railway traffic engineer, bookkeeping was not something Franjo gave up easily.

My friend Brooks Landon did a series of presentations for The Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft.” It’s a fine series with lots of examples from a wide variety of authors of both the tersest and simplest utterances on the one hand, and the longest, most complex literary propositions on the other. Balance is often a key principle.

Of course, sometimes a sentence is lopsided for a reason. Applying a principle of balance in such cases could be just as radical as applying a principle of defamiliarization in others. Obviously there has to be some balance in applying balance.

Translating Place

My author does a lot with names. Here is an example:

Like Mehmed-paše, Nemanjina Street was built in the sixteenth century. It had been a road in the neighborhood of the Hadji Balina Mosque, which the people would remember as Čekaluša. But Čekaluša did not get its name from the word čekanje, or waiting, as is sometimes thought today. Originally it was Čegaluša, which probably came from Čegaleu, the name by which Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha was known, who built the Brusa Bezistan and that wondrously beautiful bridge across the Željeznica River.

I am still uncertain about how to spell some of the names here (as the variation between “Mehmed-paše” and Rustem Pasha demonstrates—I’ll figure this out later). The hidden footnote “or waiting” is of course my explanation for readers who will not immediately see the connection between čekanje and Čekaluša. This is not an especially difficult one.

I remember struggling with these sorts of naming difficulties when translating Predrag Matvejević’s The Other Venice, which featured local dialectal names for rare plants, among other things. Websites for homeopathic remedies were extremely helpful at the time, with explanations about where various kinds of plants grow in the world and botanical names. Once you have the botanical name, you can figure out what the plant is called in many different languages, though that may or may not include Venetian dialect. It was fun in a way but slow going.

Readers will need to be interested enough to be paying close attention to the words, such as in this example:

The hillside part was called “Banjski brijeg” because it passed above the Gazi Husrev Beg bath, or “banja.”

Will readers see the internal “banj(a)” in “Banjski brijeg”? There’s not much more I can do than point it out, as efficiently and unobtrusively as I can, and so my “or ‘banja'” at the end.

But this is not just a travel guide, and the names carry weight in ways that are literary and cultural and are tied to the descriptions as markers of memory and imagination rather than just location and history. This becomes clear when Jergović mentions a Jewish porter named Samuel, a character from a story by Isak Samokovlija, and notes that the Jewish poor “spent their lives on that pilgrimage with the sepet crates on their backs, and soon it would be as if they had never been there at all, their only remembrance, and that uncertain, being in the names of these streets.”

Sepet is a crate, so it’s technically redundant. But the street Sepetarevac gets its name from the crates, so I need it in there, and for now a tiny redundancy seems like a reasonably small price to pay for the reminder.

One more shows the intricacy of the place names and their importance to the idea of imagination and memory:

In our time Sepetarevac was linked to Bjelave by a little street called Zlatikuša. It was called this because the meaning of its proper name—Zatikuša—had in the meantime been forgotten. This is how Alija Bejtić explains the name: “In old Sarajevo, which was provided with water by street fountains, individual water sources were not abundant, such that in any of the places where the water was inclined to flow freely, the pipes needed to be squeezed and hindered, the verb for which was zatiskivati, so that the water would accumulate in the supply basin. These places were called zatikuše, one of which was in the location in question.”

Now, the switch from the actual name, Zatikuša, to the one people later used, Zlatikuša, involved the insertion of an “l” after the initial letter, creating a new idea, as zlat is the root for the word “gold.” Jergović does not need to do much to point this out, but English readers will need a little help, which I’m trying like this:

They continued to call the street Zlatikuša for a long time, for it takes but a slight revision to adapt an empty word without any meaning to the excessive desires of human imagination. And thus did gold, or zlato, appear on Zatikuša, at the top of Sepetarevac.

Is it enough? Is it too much? If this were a poem, I might be able to linger on this question for a bit more, but I’ve just rounded page 400 and need to push on to “Veliki park,” which of course needs to be “Veliki Park” (with a capital “p”) to accord with English naming conventions. In other words, the translation of “Veliki park” could very well be “Veliki Park.” Unless I have to explain what “veliki” means….

Olga and Zehra

Rounding page 340 and making good post-holiday progress, I continue to find little gems of passages, like this one in a chapter from Part Five of Kin, which is called in the source Inventarna knjiga, a play on “invention” and “inventories” that I think I can get at by simply calling it Inventories in the English (this is what I am trying at this point anyway):

One after another she gave birth to her five children. There were two by the time Olga arrived in town, and the others were all born with her there. Olga told Zehra she herself did want to have any more children. This was not an easy thing to accomplish because Franjo was pushy. He didn’t understand about children, only about his male needs. Zehra understood all this. In general Zehra understood everything and was able to reduce any overlong, complicated story to two or three sentences in which everything was simple, easy, and clear. She was not embarrassed by a single one of Olga’s stories—this was important, for her other friends were easily embarrassed—but rather found her way around in each one and managed to say something to comfort her. How was this possible given that Zehra was a Muslim, a very devout Muslim who kept to all the rules of her faith and did everything every day, when she was awake and when she was asleep, in accordance with it? The answer is strange but simple: Olga belonged to a different world and a different faith, one that determined that the women could have their heads uncovered and all sorts of other things that were different from Islam. If Olga had been a Muslim, Zehra would have died of shame, run away from her confessions, and never seen her again. But as it was, she not only did not have to run, she could always be helpful. Before Olga’s faith, Zehra was always completely free, just as Olga was free before Zehra’s. This made them best friends.

The unlikely friendship of Olga and Zehra is one of the many standalone moments of the book, and its splicing together of these moments—through stories interwoven with other stories like the great network of the Habsburg train system that Olga’s husband Franjo helps to build and manage (other literary references come together here, most notably to Danilo Kiš but also to Robert Musil and others, this in another superb standalone chapter entitled “Kakania”)—is a major achievement, constructed of sentences that do something like what this one is doing, weaving and interweaving these stories in verbal tapestries around an inscrutable center that is perhaps best expressed as history through memory, family, and the stories of a family.

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.

On Translating Miljenko Jergović

PEN gave me 500 words or so to write on this topic, which I have now written many thousands of words on in this blog, so I took a slightly different tack, beginning this way:

I have been drawn since first becoming a reader to the sense of adventure that the opening pages of a long novel inevitably evoke. It is the closest equivalent I know to setting off on an actual journey. And in the last pages, if the book is good, you are tired but also elated and you want it to continue, because now you know this story, these characters, their lives, memories, and experiences. I was drawn to translation as a way of intensifying this experience, allowing greater access than a mere reader, but also, and this is crucial, giving responsibility for encouraging others to feel what I felt while reading. Miljenko Jergović’s Rod is a massive adventure with a wide scope, a novel that traces the intersections of lives, countries, and regions, from the early twentieth century to the present day. The theme of mixture is a central feature and one of the most attractive aspects of the book, an idea that is still contested in many parts of the world. Jergović’s embrace of this mixture as his heritage along with his fundamental doubt in political structures that attempt to offer ideologies of purity—ethnic, religious, or otherwise—make his an absolutely contemporary voice. At the same time, he is a writer’s writer, reflecting carefully on his work as he goes, with formal innovations and inventions.

The rest is at the PEN site.

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.