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.

New Terms and Old

Lots of terms for people have regionally specific origins, and many in turn never leave such confines. The term irredentist, for instance, which my computer loves to underline in red to let me know is at least questionable if not an outright mistake, will be clear to anyone who has studied Italian unification or the contested borders of the eastern Adriatic in the final years of the Habsburg Empire.

Kin deploys dozens of such words, and these are interspersed with other, often regionally specific, terms for family members, the local or long-time inhabitants of cities or regions, or newcomers to them.  There are three basic strategies for dealing with such locally specific lexical items: translate them into something that exists in English, explain them, or incorporate the non-English word into one’s text so that readers learn it. Each of these strategies has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Translating the word to one that is in use in English makes it familiar, but can give also it erroneous connotations. For example, the word kuferaš (plural, kuferaši), which comes from the German Koffer (bag, suitcase), was applied to the many skilled workers who came to Bosnia when the Austrians annexed it in the latter part of the nineteenth century. An English equivalent like “carpetbagger,” which has the advantage of also being formed from the bags they brought with them, has the big disadvantage of being associated with the post-Civil War American South. Explaining the term by saying something like, “they used a disparaging term based on the suitcases they brought with them,” could work if the term was used only once or twice. But when it is used many times, you need something short and repeatable, preferably something that can be used in various combinations, in singular and plural, perhaps as an adjective and an adverb. Using the foreign term in the English text helps with all those things but removes any sense of intimacy and, especially when it appears just once or twice, might lend a rather token exoticism to a text. Each of these has to be weighed and considered with every term, and as I noted above, this books has lots of these. Here’s a partial list:

Vlach, Swabian, Chetnik, Ustasha (pl. Ustashas) or Ustaša (pl. Ustaše), Turks (who are not Turkish but rather Bosnian Muslims, likely of Slavic descent), Sarajlija (pl. Sarajlije), who are the long-time residents of Sarajevo, Ragusan/s (from Ragusa, as opposed to Dubrovnik), gospar/i (see Ragusans), gospoda (gentlefolk, in older Turgenev translations), and gospodja/đa (madam or madame or Mrs.), opapa and omama (great-grandma and great-grandma, sort of), amidža (uncle), tante and teta (both meaning auntie), stric (another kind of uncle), rodica (girls cousin), rođak (boy cousin or just plain relation), Ilidžan (person from Ilidža), dajdža (yet another kind of uncle), komšija (neighbors), domobranac (Home Guardsman), and there are more. I think most of these I have managed to work into my English text. It is a thousand pages long after all, so anyone with the patience and courage to persevere–it is worth it–will learn what they mean, a little like the reader Aleksakis’s Foreign Words learns the words of Sango that pepper his novel, such that by the end they can decipher the final twenty lines or so, which are all in that language.

Then there are the Turkishisms, which float in and out of the text depending on the characters involved, the places where the action takes place, and the historical moment.

And so there might be a teferič or teferičiti se, komšija, meraja, mejdan (megdan), avlija, dimija, jelek, dajdža, mahala, presamiti se, kasaba, kazan, komšiluk, amidža, ćoškast, čaršija, telal, birvaktilski (one of my favorites), tuč, fajda, jorgan, potaman, dulum/dunum, dirinčiti/ati, kirija, hamal(in), behar, taman, bašta, dindušman, javašluk, šehit, kaldrma, ćepenak, sulunar, muhurleisan, rahatluk, ćumur, memla, čaršaf, kandža, badava, kaldrmisan….

I love these words. They linger on my tongue as I am reading aloud, and I have no idea, generally, what how to evoke them in English. (I shall do my best, Miljenko.)

Editing time, in about a month and a half, will be when I make definitive decisions about most of these. For now, I just keep lists.

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.

Description of a Description of a Place

Imagine translating several Balzac novels with all their intricate Parisian detail but never having been to Paris, or a couple of Aleksandr Tišma novels without ever having set foot in Novi Sad. These are of course possible things to accomplish. The words are the words, and today more than ever before we have maps and more maps, including satellite images that can provide a great deal of detail about many places across the globe. The spatial relationships would be clear enough through such means, and historical maps could of course provide a lot of information.

But there is no substitute for exploring a place with one’s own feet and one’s own senses. Why this is the case is complicated to explain. Partly it has to do with the things not described by an author but present in a place and implicit in its description. This might be slope or color, the texture of the materials in walls or streets, the brightness or dullness of an object in relation to others in an area, which means the play of light and shadow. A wide street is different from a broad street, and the same word might be used for either in the source. Selecting the one that corresponds more closely to the place, which in turn can bring it uncannily to life in the receiving culture, could very well boil down to how one—the translator, in this case—experienced it on a given day, the rare day, when she or he got to see it in person.

This is just about the words, you might say, and of course I can’t disagree with you. But the words can just as easily discourage or encourage one in one’s reading. Any mediocre writer and any mediocre translator is capable of ruining the pace of a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. And not knowing the place where an author has focused her or his attention is one way this failure can occur. It is a failure than can affect the reception of an author in another culture forever.

This understanding, which has been gnawing at me from inside throughout the translation of long passages of this book, brought me to Zagreb a couple of days ago to meet and speak with my author and, yesterday, to Sarajevo, to walk, listen, observe, smell, compare, and try to feel the place that inspired so much of Kin.

Today I found Veliki Park, where Franjo Rejc would wait each year for the arrival of autumn, on a bench that according to my author no longer exists, amid the old Muslim gravestones that once formed a part of the old Čekrekčinica Cemetery. And I found Mejtaš, the street and the square, crossroads of my author’s childhood, which seemed smaller than I had anticipated, exactly as if I had been the child through whose eyes the little square appears, like a major thoroughfare, in narrative form—I hope I have captured this sense. And I found the street Sepetarevac, perhaps named for the steps (sepeti) climbed by the Jewish porters to transport good to the shops on Bjelave (which I also found).

Each of these places has a precious, unique feeling for me personally now, not just because I have visited them, but because I spent so much time trying to describe them and then went to seek them out. A couple of days ago, as we were sitting in the cafe of Zagreb’s Kino Europa, I told my author that I felt as if we have known each other for a very long time, though of course that may simply be the illusion of literature. He is very skilled at this illusion, magic, sorcery, call it what you will. He was kind enough to agree with me—maybe we have known each other for a long time.

More Sarajevo tomorrow. I suspect I’ll have a hard time sleeping tonight.

 

On the Origin of the Expression “Italian Tears”

How to create the appearance of an accent can be to some extent language specific, especially where a word in one language might use different consonants and vowels than an equivalent word in a different language. But as long as the general characteristics of accented speech are recognizable, this should not pose too big a problem.

Tako je govorio Lucio Fabiani: zima svoga života. S umekšanim suglasnicima, onako po talijanski, pa bi zima bila cima, svoga zvoga, život zivot, i čim bi Ćućo spomenuo cimu zvoga zivota oba bi mu oka bila puna suza. Ali ne onih koje niz obraze poteku, nego naročitih suza stajaćica, kakvih u to vrijeme u Sarajevu nije bilo, ni oko njega, na pašnjacima, među pčelinjacima, te su ih ljudi nazvali—suze talijanke, i čim bi netko u društvu spomenuo da su se kome oči napunile suzama, upitalo bi ga—je li talijankama, i svi bi tad znali o kakvoj se žalosti, o kakvom čovjeku, o kakvim se suzama govori.

Here the general characteristics of an Italian accent are what stand out, not the specific ways that it manifests itself in one or the other language. Since there is a comic effect as well, it needs to be relatively pronounced, it seems to me, and there aren’t enough consontantal markers in “winter of one’s life” for that, though “once” for “one’s” is a good start. Plus my author has every word accented. So I’ve added a bit to make it stick.

This was what Lucio Fabiani said: the winter of one’s life. With extra vowels and softened consonants, as in Italian, so that winter was a-winter, one’s was a-once, life was a-life, and the moment Ćućo remarked on the a-winter of a-once a-life, both his eyes would be filled with tears. Only not the kind that run down your face but that particular kind of stay-in-place tears that did not exist in Sarajevo then, or anywhere nearby, on the grazing lands, among the beekeepers, so people called them Italian tears, and anytime someone might remark in conversation about how another’s eyes had filled with tears, they would ask, Italian ones? And then everyone would know what sort of complaint, what sort of person, and what sort of tears were being discussed.

A-this is a-good for a-now.

Another Lost Giant

This is from “The Bee Journal,” which could be its own short book—an internally coherent novella of a little over 170 pages—and is one of the final three parts of Kin I am translating, along with “Parker 51” and “Sarajevo Dogs.”

While some appraised Plague and Exodus as an outrageous casserole, “the product of a megalomaniacal mind,” “a work of provincial learning that suffers from delusions of grandeur,” one big prank by a collection of idiots, or, simply garbage, the sort that occasionally appears everywhere as a result of the over-production of books, others, a small number, but largely more authoritative and powerful, greeted it as an epoch-making book, “the final actualization of a brilliant intellectual biography, proof of how the greatest literary works and historiographical syntheses take shape in the solitude of monastery cells, far from university cathedrals and academies, in peace and in silence, with anthropological reach into the depth of our civilization’s sub-conscience, magisterial cultural and historical ceremony and summation, a disclosure of the human and the apiary soul, a theological tractatus on insects and on flowers, which puts man and God face to face, even for those of us who don’t believe in either the one or the other. Plague and Exodus is all of this and much more!” This was what Professor of Aesthetics Ivan Focht wrote about [Đorđe] Bijelić’s book, but all the polemics were halted and all the derision died when Miroslav Krleža raised his head in defense of Bijelić’s work. He was not leaving his house anymore by then. He was old and found it hard to move. He was no longer writing, but he came forward on two occasions, to defend two books: Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidović and Bijelić’s Plague and Exodus. Both had been written by Jews, one dealing with concentration camps, the other with beehives.

I find the interweaving of fact and fiction, literary history with invented literature, and the invented histories of invented literature, both fascinating and effective. It is just one of the many things Jergović does well in the book.