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.

Lydia Davis’s Eleven Pleasures

A very nice piece by Lydia Davis in the Dec. 8 NYRB on “Eleven Pleasures of Translating.” I wish I had the time to write an extended essay on it, because she broaches important topics in a way that invites commentary, if not conversation. Two quick observations (before I return to the pleasures of translating (and other stuff)):
First, the long intro demonstrates the difference between many (mostly older) translators of the tactile dictionary-centric school and those who tend to start with online sources. “Later, I discovered that the equivalent [for the French “macher“] in the wine-tasting world is indeed ‘chew’—but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?” Well, perhaps not, but one could have done a Google search on the spot to verify this. There’s even at least one YouTube movie that demonstrates how to chew one’s wine.
More interesting is this: “I have had two literary occupations, and preoccupations, all my adult life, both evidently necessary to me, each probably enhancing the other—writing and translating. And this is one of the differences between them: in translation, you are writing, yes, but not only writing—you are also solving, or trying to solve a set problem not of your own creation. The problem can’t be evaded, as it can in your own writing, and it may haunt you later.”
Teachers now discuss problem-based teaching these days quite a bit. Translation, then, might be understood as a form of problem-based writing teaching.

Hacked, rigged, and “interesting”!

In a series of shocking and unprecedented revelations, anonymous sources on Russia have unearthed a complex plot to influence not only the U.S. presidential election but also key senate and house races as well. The alleged plot involved hundreds of proxy voters in neighboring states to those where their illegal votes would have been cast. The individuals in question were deeply embedded–one might say surgically implanted before birth–in local communities throughout the country, posing as ordinary citizens in a wide variety of professions and occupations, from farmers and truck drivers to university economics and political science professors. These individuals, however, were allegedly only one prong of a multi-pronged attack on American governmental sovereignty and democratic culture, whose sole and single-minded aim was clearly, as one of our sources has put it, “to keep that Clinton b— out of the oval office.” The scheme, which like most things Russian, is wrapped in mystery, purportedly also involved a host of proxy servers run through dummy corporations–none of which can be traced to Clinton’s adversary–selling products and services whose names seem to lack vowels in all the places where any normal language would have them, a fact that might be explained by the possibility that the attackers were acting in collaboration with Polish and Bosnian elements.

One election-night commentator contacted for comment responded by using the word he had used almost all night long as the election results rolled in, calling it an “interesting” idea. We can be confident that what he really meant in both cases was “this is such bullshit.”

Sieges and The Unwritten

This piece by Miljenko Jergovic in my English translation was in the New York Times this weekend. I was impressed by the quality of the editing by Max Strasser. I’ve done a lot of editing, though not in a journalism vein, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. His light but confident touch was reassuring, as were the explanations for why he thought certain things needed expansion, omission, or re-ordering. The work of editing is often thankless, so I wanted to thank him here.

The content of the essay contrasted sharply with an idea that emerged from a symposium that was organized at Indiana University, Bloomington over the weekend, by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spector, which was focused on Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky. “Planting the Flag” was a somewhat intimate affair, with some thirty or so people sitting at one table, presenting their work and talking in depth about this re-discovered “classic” author (a phenomenon worth discussing unto itself) now being translated and published both in Russian and in English for the first time. K (for short) was almost unknown in his lifetime, a philosopher poet of sorts, though he wrote prose for the most part. I could never do justice to his work or the discussions at the symposium, so I won’t try here, except to note one thought that has stuck with me and is percolating.

It emerged from a discussion of the phenomenon of imagined but unwritten works, which it turns out is much more widespread than I realized. K explored it extensively and suggestively, and during our discussions the idea came to take shape for me in a compelling and provocative manner. While there is an infinite number of books that have been imagined but not written, there is a much more concrete sense in which each time a book is created in the world, it opens an absence and a potential in every other language for its translation. These are works that have been authored — for the author is the author even when the book is translated — but not yet written in the language of the receiving culture. They are authored but unwritten.

Catalogues, lists, parataxis, and pig spleens

One of the things my author does is list. He lists and lists, stringing objects and observations in long catalogues that are sometimes paratactic (without connecting words), and sometimes filled with and’s and but’s and gradations of these (such as the word “a,” which can suggest and, but, though, and a variety of other linking notions) to create sentences like this:

By evening, the sausages will be made, the meat ground up and packed into the wide, flexible pork intestines, the cracklings will have been salted and left to cool in the summer kitchens on wide, black baking pans, the cats will be gorging themselves around the courtyards on the pig spleens and the little bits of their animal insides that a person can’t manage to swallow, and everyone will be dead drunk, singing Croatian songs about the Velebit Mountains and Ban Jelacic, and when the rakija has wiped away their minds completely, they’ll take courage and shout to the memory of the Ustaše Jure Frančetić and Rafael Boban, to the glory of the Poglavnik Pavelić, and neither the People’s Militia nor any village informants or spies will be there to report the songs or the singers, for they too will in that moment be feasting on their slaughtered pigs, singing different Croatian songs or maybe the same ones.

It’s not the longest sentence in the book, but there are quite a few like this. Some of the active verbs in the source I’ve changed into participles to make the thing hold together. Hidden footnotes are peppered throughout (the word mountains, for instance, and the word Ustaše and the names Frančetić and Rafael). He also uses a fairly specialized word for pig spleens, which is slezina, and which maybe ought to be “milt” in English, but who knows what that means? Pig spleens rings true and is appropriately disgusting.