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.