Definition of Dostoyevskian

According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

Dostoyevskian, n. 1. Person who sees her or his interests supported by principles and laws that are in fact harmful to her or his interests; 2. by extension, person blinded by anger, spite, or other passion such that she or he is no longer capable of seeing where proper interests are best represented; 3. by further extension, person looking for “strong leader” to take away all such details in order to get back to watching favorite sporting events without them. (See also Trump supporter)


Forgetting First Ladies’ Names

The bus ride was long from Zagreb.

The route took us through Istria and seemed to include a stop at every little picturesque village, only there’s something about bus stops in picturesque Istrian villages—they become the ugliest parts of town when they put the bus station there. Even in Rovinj, which doesn’t have any ugly spots as a rule, has the bus station, which is, relatively speaking, the ugliest part.

Then there was Porec, and Novi Grad, and Umag, and then the border—when you have to get out for passport control (and here I was thinking Croatia was already in Europe), then Koper, and finally Trieste. There was a middle aged woman throwing up into a bag across the aisle, with her husband trying to console her. The two Russians in front on me were speaking surprisingly quietly among themselves, but the Austrian boys speaking German, apparently on an excursion, were louder. No one was annoying, but it was crowded and loud and long.

When we got to Trieste, I was happy the rain had let up a little and only sprinkled me with a few drops during the two-block walk to the hotel. The reception desk clerk was friendly and, obviously pleased that I could speak to him in Italian, struck up a conversation as he handed me back my passport.

“So what’s the word from Trump?”

“Nothing good.”

“His wife’s from nearby here. What’s the name?”

“Of the town? Ljubljana” (I’m very good at pop-geography quizzes).

“No, his wife. What’s her name?”

This was my first moment of embarrassment. Couldn’t remember Trump’s wife’s first name. This did not bother me too much. I don’t really need to remember her name for anything, and there are other things I would much prefer to remember, like the dates of the Battle of Vienna or when Peter the Great died. “It starts with an ‘m,’ I think.”

He laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”


“Right! Melania! She’s pretty. How’s her English? Does she speak well?”

“You know, I’ve never really heard her speak except at that convention, and that speech she took from the other one.”

He had started laughing in the middle of this because he could see what I was going to say, but then: “Right, the other one, the black one. She was very pretty, too. What was her name?”

And now I was really embarrassed. Could we go back to the geography? He laughed a lot at my discomfort. I really couldn’t remember. Did I mention it was a long bus ride? “Her husband’s name was Barack.” I pronounced “Barack” carefully as if his wife’s name would follow easily from his…. Nope.

He looked on his computer screen, then said her name, laughing again, and added. “Maybe you should give me the passport.”

And maybe I should.

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.

Internal Rhyme for the Kicker

I’m moving so fast now that it’s likely I’ll forget even more of this process than elsewhere, so I’m creating a quick post as a memory marker. This is towards the end of “The Match Juggler,” an extraordinary story that actually has a slightly longer title: “The Match Juggler—Furtwängler.” The eponymous juggler is introduced early in the story and then left, when Rudolf Stubler says good-bye to him at the Graz station. Stubler continues on to Berlin, where he has a chance encounter, and a long conversation, with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The title of the story is ambiguous about whether Furtwängler is his own sort of match juggler. It is a story about art, the death of Beethoven at the hands of the Nazis, the Holocaust, and much more.

The thing I want to remember is the internal rhyme I’ve placed in this paragraph, which does not exist in the source but seems right to me here:

This was what Wilhelm Furtwängler was told, which he, word for word, conveyed to Rudolf Stubler, who would tell the story of these events during family gatherings, when someone got married or when someone was buried. Among the Stublers, as has been noted and as the finale of this family history testifies, they buried a lot more than they married.

I will finish this seventy-page story today, then move on to “The Bee Log,” an internal novella of 170 pages or so.

The Cultural Shape of the Sentence

I recall learning in graduate school—I can picture the particular lesson, which was delivered by Irina Paperno, probably in the first-year introductory pro-seminar, in which we were reading The Master and Margarita in Russian, and this topic was sure to come up—about how Russian literary prose typically orders itself differently from English. Irina used the syntactical concept of tema i rema (which has other designations in other languages). The basic idea is that each proposition contains some old information and some new information. Tema is the old stuff, while rema is the new. Russian tends to have a lot of tema at the beginnings of sentences, while English tends to do it the other way. I have often wondered whether this particular syntactic bias has also influenced the standard of journalistic prose in English, which tends to lead with the newest stuff at the beginning and then fill in a whole bunch of background later in the article.

Here is a good short descriptive example from an online Croatian grammar:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Marko je došao kući.

Or, in English,

Mama: Who came to the house? Papa: Marko came to the house.

In the response, “Came to the house” is tema, “Marko” is rema.

Jergović’s prose, like Bulgakov’s in M&M, I now realize, features lots of tema at the beginnings of sentences. Sometimes tema can extend for a whole paragraph before getting to rema. Here is a good short example:

Poslove oko plamenika za parne lokomotive na uskotračnoj pruzi Sarajevo – Ploče, Rudolf Stubler završio je već trećega dana boravka u Berlinu.

I suppose literally this could be something like this (though I generally do not create “literal” equivalents as I’m working, perhaps a topic for another post):

The work/s surrounding the burners for the steam locomotives on the narrow-gauge track Sarajevo-Ploče Rudolf Stubler completed already by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

All the stuff leading up to Rudolf Stubler is tema since it was stated earlier in the text that this was the ostensible purpose of his trip. Here too is the notorious “already” (već) rearing its ugly head. Actually, the part about being in Berlin is also tema, so in a sense it is split up, not really all at the beginning, but the subject of the sentence waits a bit long to enter, and if I ordered my English sentences this way as often as the source does, I fear they would become rather annoying to English readers. With this particular one, here’s what I’ve done:

Rudolf Stubler had completed the work regarding the burners for the narrow-gauge steam locomotive on the Sarajevo-Ploče line by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

It still might feel a bit wordy, but the pace of the text is like this, and by this point in the book—somewhere around page 600—if readers aren’t prepared to take their time, well, they won’t have got to this point in the book if that is the case.

This suggests to me, too, that the example from the Croatian online grammar should really be re-shaped for maximum effect:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Došao je kući Marko.

Or, what one generally cannot do in English, but here goes:

Mama: Who came to the house?
Papa: Came to the house—Marko.