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.

 

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.

 

translating digital versus print

It has happened several times now that I have found a story from my author’s book online, either at the website of a newspaper or journal, or at the author’s own site. It did not occur to me until recently–after having translated two Jergović pieces for the New York Times–that it makes the work go faster when I have a digital version of the text to work from. Why has to do with the pure mechanics of working with a print volume versus one that is already in the same medium that I will be using to create the English version. When you have to go back and forth between print and computer, there are extra steps, mostly having to do with flipping pages and typing. In a short text this does not make much difference in terms of the time involved. But with longer texts, it can make a very big difference. There are also font issues that have to do with adding diacritics–one must change keyboards to insert ć or č, š, đ, or ž into the English text in the case of people’s names and toponyms. This takes additional time.

As this book is 1000 pages in length, the simple mechanics change things quite a bit in terms of time. Now that I’ve found the e-version of “The Match Juggler” online, I can use it to make faster progress, and if you’re reading this Miljenko, it would help me to have e-versions of “Dnevnik pčela,” “Parker 51,” and “Sarajevski psi” as well.

Art of the Litany

Jergović uses lists often and to great effect. Some are longer than others. I think it is litany rather than catalogue, though I could see someone arguing for the latter. Litany has an effect of prayer or incantation, and these seem more like that to me. It would be strange to focus on their informational quality.

This one, from a remarkable, seventy-page story called “The Match Juggler,” conveys well what I have in mind:

He would sit in the park, his back turned toward the fountain, his thumbs pressed against the back of a bench, as he flicked the matches with his fingertips, one after another, miniature torches that would burn out in the air, leaving no trace of themselves behind. They would turn to smoke and dust, just as the Jewish people, in a year, or two, or three, would turn to dust and smoke. And this would be a wonder, in which no one would believe, for to whom would it occur to do away with six million largely peaceful and unarmed people, harmless castoffs who stepped aside for others, small shop owners, mean money-lenders, gullible bankers, and industrialists, rabbis, village lackeys, shoemakers, lottery ticket salesmen, small time crooks and con men, idealists, communists and Zionists, soft-spoken worshippers afraid of life but even more of what comes after, famous doctors, surgeons, pediatricians, and psychoanalysts, disciples of Doctor Freud, whom the Nazis did not kill when they found him in his Vienna apartment, exiling him to London instead, for Doctor Freud, too, was a match juggler, the professors of biology who created the most beautiful herbariums in the history of Europe, archivists, librarians, and village teachers, whose worried wives concealed their Jewish heritage, great German poets and travel writers, who had journeyed all the way to India and Nepal in order to leave their testimonials to the German culture, circus performers and circus owners, village carpenters, proprietors of pawnshops and rare books, chemists and manufacturers of poison, barbers, mystics, tricksters of great imagination, quacks who for tiny sums would make the rounds of apartments in the center of town, performing abortions on the underage daughters of the city’s solicitous gentlemen, philosophy professors, peaceful and smiling like the Buddha, in whom the idea of world revolution and rebirth fermented, of a happy time for humanity, which would arrive once it had passed through the frightful twentieth century, building custodians, owners of small kosher restaurants at the border of the ghetto, where non-Jews were also welcome, handymen, servant girls, midwives, the authors of the first Aztec, Turkish, and Aramaic grammars, blind and deaf painters, idlers, dreamers, and devoted bookkeepers, industrialists with no heart for their workers or their workers’ rachitic children, who would not live long, rag merchants, peddlers, roofers, ice cream vendors, loafers, porters, dish washers and dish dryers in communal kitchens, where the Jewish poor found food, philanthropists, sponsors, coin collectors and counterfeiters, false prophets, proselytes and neophytes, who changed faith late for by then Nazism had come along? To whom, really, would turning all these people into smoke and ash have occurred? Or a better question: who would have believed that someone who desired to make all these people disappear would come forth and that his desire would be realized?

This is one paragraph. The manner in which the wonder (čudo) of the match juggler’s art and the wonder of the Holocaust is tied together, with a nod to Freud’s match juggling artistry, is rich and full.

The list is a bit like an aria in the midst of the recitative of the narrative proper. Time stops, and we’re invited to reflect and feel. This as a rule takes me longer to translate, and I feel the need to look up words I know. I’m not sure why. Maybe it affects my own sense of time as I’m trying to create the English as well.

Ars Prosaica

I’m in the production tunnel now and finding it difficult to comment on my work. This happened to dozens of my students at Iowa when they were in the midst of finishing translation MFA theses and were then expected to write something about them. This required a shift of thinking and approach that they had not been practicing. Translating is not writing about, and these two activities require different habits of mind. It takes work to break out of one and into the other. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the silence of the past several months here. I’m translating.

But this passage is worth quoting, as it says a lot about my author’s way of working. It comes near the end of the book (I have many more pages to go but am jumping around in my translation work because it feels right):

It is not worth changing the names. One should leave them intact and then arrange the destinies of one’s literary heroes, leading them along a high-mountain path between reality and the text, between the life they lived and the life that is to be narrated. But in such a way as to be more plausible than reality, and so that by means of the narrative a biography of the narrator will also be sensed. Everything is true and nothing need be true.

I have resorted to a bit of translationese here, eliminating a specific toponymic expression in favor of a general one: the high-mountain path in question is a specific mountain in Croatia, but as most readers would need to look up the name to get the reference, I think it is better this way. The notion of the true here is “istina” rather than “pravda,” which has its own issues, I know. I’m not sure I understand the necessary of the biography of the narrator generally, though in Jergovic’s work it is, I think, clear.

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.

Making a Long Book Move

One of the techniques Jergović uses is at the level of the paragraph and amounts to a kind of clever closure, often of a longish sentence, sometimes more than one, that serves to slow down the pace but also gather up energy as the narrative moves on. It works, I think, a little like a Bach chorale after a patch of recitative in a mass, or, the Shakespearean couplet at the end of a soliloquy idea I mentioned earlier.

Two examples from the chapter I’m currently translating (Germans in Sarajevo) should help to make the technique clear.

The identities of these individuals were, for the most part, never uncovered and the Party’s railroad network was never broken, not even during the several terrifying weeks of Vjekoslav Luburić’s reign of terror, and so Engineer Püframent’s work was, among other things, to teach the technicians how, in the name of public good, to repair the machinery that, during the war, also in the name of public good, they had ruined.

Or this, shorter one:

Nona would recall times from before the war, while Mrs. Piframent did not wish to recall anything as a rule, or did not wish to speak about the times she recalled.

The shift from Püframent to Piframent is deliberate and subtle. The family has come from Germany and is being integrated into the life of the town, as well as that of the narrator’s family. The spelling of their name suddenly and without fanfare becomes localized, inevitably in the proximity of food.

I imagine this parallelism technique has a name. It is probably a rhetorical figure. If anyone has a suggestion, I’d like to hear it.