Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.