Another Lost Giant

This is from “The Bee Journal,” which could be its own short book—an internally coherent novella of a little of 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.

The idea of nebo as sky and as heaven

I remember Fulvio Tomizza making the claim—this was during the only meal we ever shared together, at his home in Trieste—that he aimed for five ideas per page. An idea, I understood, was a turn of some sort, either in reasoning or character depiction or language, some new thought that generated new interest on the level of the page while the entire book was working towards its larger aims. You might block out how you wanted the book to go, but ideas of this sort were discovered in the writing.

Translating an author’s work—a serious author who wields ideas in something like the manner Tomizza intimated—often means getting a feel for how the author thinks, the sorts of connections he makes. Otherwise, the turns leave you feeling baffled. This is true especially when the ideas are embedded in language play.

Here is an example from a passage in “The Match Juggler”:

As we have repeated on multiple occasions and demonstrated through the depiction of multiple episodes from his life and the memories of other members of the Stubler household, Rudolf Stubler was a believer. Chance (or God) had so willed it: the Stublers were divided into deep, authentic, which also means naïve, believers, and complete unbelievers. There was never a loss of understanding between them—about God there could be no misunderstanding. It was just that for some of them the sky was blue and for others heaven was empty.

This was an earlier draft, when I hadn’t figured out how to deal with the use of nebo, which can of course mean both sky and heaven. In context, the English sort of makes sense, but it is murky and leaves me feeling like the author (the translator channeling the author) is trying to be clever but not succeeding. One can sense a thought behind it, but without knowing that nebo has this double meaning in the source, the thought remains distant and not quite realized in the English version.

I haven’t been counting, but it feels like this sort of turn or one like it happens at least five times per page in Jergović’s prose, and I suspect it is one of the main ways that he manages to get us to be patient—he is very patient—with him as he makes his way towards the book’s larger aims. I have been thinking a lot about patience as I work my way through his book. It is a distinctive quality that he shares with writers he references often, like Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš.

Patience also helps me to resolve such issues, as I set them aside but return to them later, and, in this case, see that heavens (plural) can of course have a similar double quality, though by contrast to nebo, which begins with a secular sense and expands to a religious one, heavens begins with a religious sense and allows a secular one. It’s a difference I can live with, and my solution becomes: “It was just that for some of them the heavens were blue and for others they were empty.”

I believe my author will appreciate the zeugma.


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.

An Unfortunate Episode in the Rhetoric of Re-translation

Or, to be clear, it would be that thing in my title, if the book had been re-translated, but this is not really a re-translation, so mostly this is about editing. Unfortunately, the editor in this case, Mark Thompson, has chosen to position his work along the lines that are often reserved for the rhetoric of re-translation and certain forms of marketing of translations that appeal primarily to accuracy and authenticity. (I will refrain from putting these words in quotes but please imagine them there; this is about rhetoric and the ways we present claims about translation, translated texts, translators, and so on.)51LJpC-v39L

The claims typically suggest that the previous translation was seriously flawed and, as a result, created a wrong impression of the work in question, such that its reception was somehow skewed if not missed altogether. Then they imply that the current translation rights the wrongs of the earlier work, giving readers proper access to the original in a way that they were somehow denied it before. This is exactly the rhetoric Thompson uses to critique Heim’s work (in the second half of his talk).

I was curious to know what precise translation experience Thompson was basing the larger claims in his critique upon, but unfortunately I could not find any book translations by him, only a portion of Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, published in 2011. Of course there are very good editors of translations who have not translated entire books themselves, though I have not been able to find any other translations edited by Thompson either. Still, he has written an excellent biography of Danilo Kiš, the author of the book in question, so there’s no reason not to pay careful attention to his critique of a translation of that author’s work by someone else.

It does give one pause, however, when someone with little professional experience in the domain itself makes categorical statements about how translators “ought” to keep the exact tenses of the foreign language text in their English versions, or how they “should” repeat words whenever the author does. Actually, these are both rather naive over generalizations that most experienced translators and experienced editors of translation know to be so. They are as dependent upon context as any choices a translator might make, and it is simply not the case that all language cultures have the same levels of tolerance for repetition and tense variation, or that the verbal systems of different languages work the same way. Nor does back-translating in the manner he discusses clarify the process of creating the English version, e.g., finding another word in the source language that might have been used but wasn’t in order to make the claim that if the author had wanted to use that word, she or he could have, and therefore, the word used in the previous English version was the wrong one.

Listening to Thompson’s categorical assertions—which I sincerely hope are not written down in the introduction to this new edition—actually made me as irritated and angry as he claims to have felt about Heim and his translation (why he should be precisely “irritated” with Heim was not completely clear). Editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. This is important enough to write again. The very slight nod to the translator of the whole text, the one whose work he used as the basis of his revisions, came very late in Thompson’s comments and seemed rather grudging and almost an afterthought, especially by contrast to the litany of “deep flaws” he shares.

I have edited quite a few other people’s translations. It is possible to do so when you don’t have an expert grasp of the language of the source text. It is even possible to fine tune the translation in the process. But in such cases, the editor’s name does not go on the cover, at least not unless it is a scholarly edition of some sort and the editor in question has created a scholarly apparatus to accompany the text. Actually, the editor’s name is not generally mentioned anywhere in literary works, whether they are translated or not. This is the work of an editor. Moreover, even when I know what questions to ask where and which verbs or lines or articles might have diverged from a Spanish or German or Japanese (minus the articles) source, I know that translating the whole would be beyond me given my skills in these languages. This is because editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. It makes the collegial nature of editing all the more important.

The rhetoric of re-translation often formulates attempts to move its audience by means of a critique of a previous translation: it is “old,” “outdated,” “inaccurate,” and so on. These claims are familiar as attempts to justify the need for the new version. This is what is happening with Thompson’s discussion of his edited version of Heim’s translation as well, and some of his changes might in fact be improvements on the English version. I just wish it had been more graciously done. The very title of his talk is rather offensive, as if Heim was not concerned with doing justice to the authors’ whose work he translated and the works themselves. When Heim was called upon to revise other people’s translations, something that happened often, he did it without putting his name to it. Nor did he spell out all the things he disagreed with in the other person’s work publicly. This grace and discretion were marks of his work both as an editor and as a translator.