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.

Big New Book

I’ve just signed a contract to translate a 1000-page novel. It is due to the publisher in May of 2017, so I’ll be working steadily on it for the next couple of years. The publisher (the visionary Archipelago Books) asked for a sample, but I had not read the book, which came out in 2013, so I asked if they had a print copy they could send me, and they agreed. I knew the author’s work already and had actually approached the same publisher about another of his books, Buick Riviera, which I like a lot, but they indicated that they wanted to publish several other works by him before they got to that particular book. They had already at the time published his Sarajevo sarajevoMarlborough, an exquisite collection of short stories about the war, translated by Stela Tomasevic. Then came this request.

I read some reviews online and then read, when it arrived, through the book—I wish we could use the Russian imperfective verb for such expressions, as it suggests more “I engaged in reading” than “I read the whole thing” and that would be closer to how I read in this case—and decided I liked it and wanted to try my hand at it. I was very busy with a host of other things and had trouble squeezing out the 5,000 words from the beginning that I eventually sent them. I got a note back immediately from the publisher. Could I do the whole thing?

A friend later said I should have talked to him before signing the contract because he “could have talked me down off that ledge” (he had done a similarly massive project and it had taken a lot out of him), but I didn’t have anyone to do that at the time, and the book seemed to be calling. It is Rod, m_92787by Miljenko Jergović, which I’m translating as Kin, for now at least, as maybe a different title will surface as I go. The source language is what we refer to these days as Bosnia-Croatian-Serbian, or BCS, and some people add Montenegrin to the mix lately, making it BCMS. The author is a Bosnian Croat from Sarajevo, the publisher, Fraktura, is based in Zagreb, but much of the usage is older and regionally specific. Jergović is very sensitive to such nuances and likes to pepper his prose with them, often with ironic intent.

The title Kin seems good to me now, a very short title for a very long book. Kin, moreover, has many of the connotations that rod has, as well as many of the root associations. Rod is much richer, however. Rod is at the heart of roditi, to give birth or, when reflexive, be born. It is in the word for relative, relation, and cousin. Kin, in turn, is in kindred and kindergarten, and kind. It also has a very old feel, something almost primordial, and this is true of rod as well, a Slavic root that reaches to concepts such as parenthood, fertility, maternity, and motherland. I don’t know that English has a single word that can do that, so kin might have to do.

One of the reasons I like the book and have agreed to work on it is that it dovetails with some of my own thinking about cultural mixture, crossing, hybridity, especially in families, including my own of course. So I suppose there is a “simpatico” element to my motivation. I often feel that I know what the author is referring to beneath the surface layer of the words of a sentence. These thoughts come to me in my sleep or the next morning as insights into the book or the language or life in general.

I’ll be writing about this work from time to time, as it will be occupying my mind. These pages will allow me a forum for expressing things as they pass that otherwise would disappear in the invisible revision process from one “save” to the next on my screen.

And I’ll be posting some excerpts, maybe passages I’m having difficulty with, or those I think are especially good. Here is a passage at the end of the book’s first section.

“A year after the fall of the nationalist government, during the coalition led by the Social Democrats under Ivica Račan, whose Europism brought a sigh of relief to Europe, and to its Croatian neighbors first and foremost, I was at a film festival in Istria. It was held in an ancient walled city on the top of a hill that was once inhabited exclusively by Italians who, after Istria became part of Yugoslavia, were given the opportunity to vote by the Communists—either to go away as Italians or to stay behind as Yugoslavs—and these people had set off on their way, bags in hand, to spend years in Italian refugee camps, leaving their Istrian homes behind forever, and so this festival, in this town, was a form of socio-political, as well as cultural ceremonial marking a new, anti-nationalist Croatia. Of course the new minister of culture showed up, whose supporters and sympathizers had taken to calling the “Croatian Malraux,” an appellation he was prepared to accept, being that in Croatia, and as a rule in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Balkans as a whole, it is common and accepted practice to name leaders and dignitaries after magnificent foreigners, Franz Beckenbauer, Emperor Selassie, Shakespeare, in short, who cares. Anyway, this minister of ours, this Croatian Malraux, was previously a lexicographer, which means he was mostly taking it easy, or having intellectual debates at the pub after he had inspected the two or three lexical items that had turned up on his desk that day. I was not fond of the way he ran the Ministry and wrote an article about it in the newspaper, though I was truly gentle, far gentler than when I had written similar articles against Tudjman’s nationalists.

“I wasn’t thinking of my article when that afternoon I approached a café table around which, in the shade of an immense Slavic tree sat a group of directors, producers, and general practice intellectuals, with Minister Malraux at the head. I knew these people, the Minister too, and I merely wanted to convey an every-day hello in passing.

“‘Beat it, you Bosnian trash! Go back where you came from so we don’t have to send you ourselves!’ shouted Malraux. I didn’t get too upset, since the previous night was filled with such hard work and exertions that the ministerial hangover extended to the afternoon. But still I stopped long enough to look carefully at a director who had been blacklisted during the Tudjman years and whose films were not allowed to be shown on television then. He was a tough dissident, as tough as Kundera if not tougher. He looked down and did not say anything. He needed to be watchful of the ministerial hangover because he wanted to make movies again, and that, in Croatia, does not happen without government money. A promising young producer also looked down, a fighter against nationalism in every form and apologist for inter-ethnic affection, and everyone else, one after another, looked down, dissidents one and all from the time of Tudjman, until, after I had stood there for far too long waiting, I turned and made my way down that Istrian knoll, the Croatian Malraux shouting behind me.

“I left, and I’m still going, as a happy man, because unlike my Great-grandpa Karlo, I’m not being led away by a couple of guys nor is a third poking me in the kidneys with his rifle. This is the important nuance in our identities, why we live where we live without belonging to the majority. Happiness keeps us in this place, and happiness—I believe this—has often cost us our lives. Reconciled to being who we are, while carrying inside us the idea of who we are not, we represent identities that cannot be defined by a single word, passport, identity card, entry pass…. The masses know who they are from a gravestone, a flag, a name, and then they chant it out, but we are left with long, uncertain explanations, novels and films, true stories and invented ones, and the need to visit a village in the Romanian Banat where there are no more Germans but where the horizon is the same as when Great-grandpa Karlo was a boy, and with empty villages in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, where people went away in a puff of smoke, and with uncertain memories, the feeling that today we are one thing, tomorrow another, that our hymns and state borders constantly elude us, and with repentance and long, painful remorse because a relative of ours lived and died as an enemy, and because we are ourselves something of an enemy, and with faith in what we hide beneath our language, the truth that our homeland is no more, and maybe never was, because for us every foot-length of the world is foreign country.”

Prehistoric Times

Alyson Waters has a fantastic translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times, which was published a couple of years back by Archipelago Books. I liked it so much that I reviewed it. Here is the first paragraph:

“Under the influence of having just completed this book—and let me note at the outset that the influence is hard to resist—I feel like I could starprehistorictimes2t just about anywhere in reviewing it, so why not a footnote. There is just one in the book, but what a footnote, extending over two pages, explicative, digressive, apt, entertaining, and, best of all, delivered in the voice of the translator, Alyson Waters. We can say more (since, too impatient to wait for the French book to arrive in the mail, I wrote to the translator to ask): what in the world could the author have written in French that would translate so well into such a translator’s note? Answer: nothing at all! Or next to nothing. The author merely opens a window in his text (here in Waters’s translation): ‘Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write clé when it is possible to write clef, even if in so doing I compel the translators of my tale to slow down—and I trust they see no malevolence where none intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages that will even further delay me taking up my post….’ His sentence goes on, as do many in this exquisitely prolix little book, but this is where the footnote marker is placed, so let’s stop where Waters’ footnote begins in order to consider its context and what she accomplishes in writing it.”

Okay, that’s enough. If I quote more, I could be infringing on copyright, which makes me very afraid. You can read the rest here! if you’re interested.ForeignWords

I should note that this is not the first time that Waters has taken my breath away by her work. Her translation of Vassilis Alexakis’s Foreign Words was just the second book that Autumn Hill Books published. I think it is still one of the very best.

A book from far away

I’ve had the treat of just returning to Yuri Rytkheu’s novel A Dream in Polar Fog (trans. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse; Archipelago Books, 2005) to teach it in my class this semester. If it were just an adventure story, one would not expect the book to have been published by a press with Archipelago’s literary credentials. And indeed, while plot is what drives the book forward, local color gives it depth. Add a dose of historical fiction, and the novel lopes briskly along on three legs without the need of a fourth, be it character depth or stylistic complexity. Searching for these will lead you down a side path in approaching this book, where you’ll likely lose sight of the emotional truth and compassionate understanding that lie at its core.

The story unfolds in the far north-eastern corner of northern Asia, in the village of Enmyn, where a young Canadian explorer, John MacLennan, has been injured after an attempt to blast free his ice-bound ship. The ship’s captain appeals to the local Chukchi tribesman (a people closely related to the Eskimos), who agree to transport MacLennan by dogsled across the tundra to a Russian hospital in exchange for three Winchesters, a box of cartridges, and a two-handed saw. It is the Fall of 1910.

There is a good deal of mistrust and chauvinism on both sides, but the helplessness of the Canadian — he has been wounded in the hands — creates natural points of contact: he cannot eat or drink on his own, or unfasten his own trousers in order to urinate. When the travelers are stranded by a blizzard, he becomes so ill with fever and infection that they must call on a local shaman woman to amputate portions of his damaged hands. The ensuing scene is both brutal and riveting as four men hold down the screaming invalid while the old woman washes his wounds in puppy’s blood and applies her knife. With this striking opening, MacLennan’s misfortune, and, in truth, his transformation, has only begun. On returning from their aborted journey, the travelers find that the recent storm has cleared the ice that prevented the ship’s departure. MacLennan’s shipmates have sailed for home, leaving him behind. By seventy pages in, the setting has been prepared for MacLennan’s — and largely through him, our own — intimate journey with the Chukchi people.

The Chukchi for their part adopt MacLennan, caring for him initially as they would a helpless infant. He moves in with Toko, Toko’s wife Pyl’mau, and their small son, and begins slowly to learn and appreciate Chukchi ways — their language, their beliefs, their methods of survival in the often unforgiving environment they call home. The author announces his ethnographic intent from the very start by footnoting a variety of Chukchi terms, for parts of the home (chottagin, polog), foods (kymgyt), clothing (kamleika, kerker), and animals or tools made from them (yarar, kamuss). Likewise, he explains aspects of Chukchi cosmology, for instance that the “Invisible Land” means Wrangel Island, or that “fast ice” forms in shallow water along the coastline. Such direct commentaries become less obtrusive (fortunately) within the first thirty pages or so, giving way to the characters’ own observations. Mostly these are MacLennan’s views of the Chukchi, but Rytkheu doesn’t shy away from shifting perspective — sometimes abruptly — in order to allow the Chukchi a reciprocal look at the foreigner in their midst once in a while.

As MacLennan heals and learns to live with his disability, he comes not only to appreciate his hosts but to respect and love them. With a growing sense of responsibility, he assumes the role of a provider, learns to hunt, takes part in their trade with the outside, their internal rituals, their domestic affairs. He marries and has children. In the ensuing eight years of his life among them, he comes to see the Chukchi more and more as his people, and takes a jealous, hostile view of the influence of outsiders.

MacLennan sometimes expresses Rousseau-like attitudes towards the Chukchi, suggesting, for instance, that their existence requires no literacy or books, that theirs is the most sensible way of living, that they are closer to nature and freer and untainted as a result. While he never chooses the outside world over his adopted one — even after a surprising visit from a close family member near the end of the book — these noble savage ideas are toned down as his experience with the Chukchi deepens. And one can’t help but see irony in the author’s presentation of MacLennan’s simplistically rosy views at times, as when MacLennan writes in his journal that the people are uncomplicated but immediately thereafter is reprimanded by the village elder for not following proper etiquette after his daughter’s birth. What MacLennan comes to prize is not the Chukchi people as some more or less abstract, idealized good, but the uncomplicated fullness of his own place among them, despite his occasional mistakes and unfulfilled longings.

I suspect that American readers might be inclined to see the sudden announcement that the Bolsheviks have seized power, in the work’s next to last chapter, as an ominous note for MacLennan and his adopted people. This would be a mistake. Even if Rytkheu had such thoughts (which is unlikely, given the considerable Soviet support for Chukchi culture), he certainly would not have been able to express them in such a direct manner in a book published in 1981 in the USSR. And indeed, the news is delivered by a two-faced American capitalist named Carpenter, who is trying to trick MacLennan into leaving Chukotka. He wants free reign to trade (cheat) and gobble up the gold discovered in the streams on Chukchi land. MacLennan keeps Carpenter honest in his business dealings, and the Chukchi have no need for the gold. His ultimate response to the businessman in effect likens socialist doctrines to the absence of personal property among the Chukchi. He has no fear of the Bolsheviks’ arrival. This is a perfectly orthodox Soviet message.

But MacLennan does voice concerns for the future. The Chukchi’s fragile, living balance with their environment is under constant threat, and the march of civilization — through trade, exploration, politics — is having an ever greater effect upon them. MacLennan’s personal journey, his experience of loss and renewal, his gratitude, sense of belonging, love, and respect, have fostered in him a keen sense of responsibility for the Chukchi’s continued well being in the difficult times to come. By the story’s end, this is a sense that we cannot help sharing.

I hope my students appreciate it as much as I do. I plan to supplement it with a few of the literary myths presented in Rytkheu’s Chukchi Bible (same translator, same press, 2011).