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.

 

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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 Turkish-derived word for 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 perhaps 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….