Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.

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….

On Translating Miljenko Jergović

PEN gave me 500 words or so to write on this topic, which I have now written many thousands of words on in this blog, so I took a slightly different tack, beginning this way:

I have been drawn since first becoming a reader to the sense of adventure that the opening pages of a long novel inevitably evoke. It is the closest equivalent I know to setting off on an actual journey. And in the last pages, if the book is good, you are tired but also elated and you want it to continue, because now you know this story, these characters, their lives, memories, and experiences. I was drawn to translation as a way of intensifying this experience, allowing greater access than a mere reader, but also, and this is crucial, giving responsibility for encouraging others to feel what I felt while reading. Miljenko Jergović’s Rod is a massive adventure with a wide scope, a novel that traces the intersections of lives, countries, and regions, from the early twentieth century to the present day. The theme of mixture is a central feature and one of the most attractive aspects of the book, an idea that is still contested in many parts of the world. Jergović’s embrace of this mixture as his heritage along with his fundamental doubt in political structures that attempt to offer ideologies of purity—ethnic, religious, or otherwise—make his an absolutely contemporary voice. At the same time, he is a writer’s writer, reflecting carefully on his work as he goes, with formal innovations and inventions.

The rest is at the PEN site.

Sieges and The Unwritten

This piece by Miljenko Jergovic in my English translation was in the New York Times this weekend. I was impressed by the quality of the editing by Max Strasser. I’ve done a lot of editing, though not in a journalism vein, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. His light but confident touch was reassuring, as were the explanations for why he thought certain things needed expansion, omission, or re-ordering. The work of editing is often thankless, so I wanted to thank him here.

The content of the essay contrasted sharply with an idea that emerged from a symposium that was organized at Indiana University, Bloomington over the weekend, by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spector, which was focused on Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky. “Planting the Flag” was a somewhat intimate affair, with some thirty or so people sitting at one table, presenting their work and talking in depth about this re-discovered “classic” author (a phenomenon worth discussing unto itself) now being translated and published both in Russian and in English for the first time. K (for short) was almost unknown in his lifetime, a philosopher poet of sorts, though he wrote prose for the most part. I could never do justice to his work or the discussions at the symposium, so I won’t try here, except to note one thought that has stuck with me and is percolating.

It emerged from a discussion of the phenomenon of imagined but unwritten works, which it turns out is much more widespread than I realized. K explored it extensively and suggestively, and during our discussions the idea came to take shape for me in a compelling and provocative manner. While there is an infinite number of books that have been imagined but not written, there is a much more concrete sense in which each time a book is created in the world, it opens an absence and a potential in every other language for its translation. These are works that have been authored — for the author is the author even when the book is translated — but not yet written in the language of the receiving culture. They are authored but unwritten.

Editing and Self-editing

I think about the importance of editing often as I’m working. Partly this is because I am also editing other people’s writing as I write and translate. It is easier to separate these activities when the writing is of very different kinds, but sometimes they cross paths, and then I have to be careful that the voice of one first-person narration does not slip into another first-person narration. That, I think, is happening with this post. It sounds to me a bit like the narrator in Vassilis Alexakis’s Mother Tongue (La langue maternelle), the English translation of which (by Harlon Patton) I am editing for Autumn Hill as I work on Kin. Alexakis has a lovely first-person narrator’s voice, but it is quite different from Jergovic’s. How they are different would take me too long to figure out–I need to get back to both!–but here is a very brief example of the kind of editing that seems to be absolutely essential in both the self-performed and the other-performed kinds.

Re-reading a recently translated passage, I came across this phrase, which ends a section in which the narrator has commented on the disappearance of an entire line of relatives from the past: “Mi smo u rodu s fantomima i duhovima.” I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my draft version had “We are the relatives of phantoms and spirits,” which is basically what the phrase means but misses an obvious connection to the very title of the book, which is explicit in the expression, “u rodu s…” (in relation to…). The slight change to “We are kin to phantoms and spirits” raises the register ever so slightly and strikes for the whole line a more effective, more moving tone.

I find myself looking at every sentence this way, which is of course no way to finish on time but gives me so much more pleasure than just rushing forward to get through the pages (and pages). It will be a better book, I hope, as a result of these little things.

Catalogues, lists, parataxis, and pig spleens

One of the things my author does is list. He lists and lists, stringing objects and observations in long catalogues that are sometimes paratactic (without connecting words), and sometimes filled with and’s and but’s and gradations of these (such as the word “a,” which can suggest and, but, though, and a variety of other linking notions) to create sentences like this:

By evening, the sausages will be made, the meat ground up and packed into the wide, flexible pork intestines, the cracklings will have been salted and left to cool in the summer kitchens on wide, black baking pans, the cats will be gorging themselves around the courtyards on the pig spleens and the little bits of their animal insides that a person can’t manage to swallow, and everyone will be dead drunk, singing Croatian songs about the Velebit Mountains and Ban Jelacic, and when the rakija has wiped away their minds completely, they’ll take courage and shout to the memory of the Ustaše Jure Frančetić and Rafael Boban, to the glory of the Poglavnik Pavelić, and neither the People’s Militia nor any village informants or spies will be there to report the songs or the singers, for they too will in that moment be feasting on their slaughtered pigs, singing different Croatian songs or maybe the same ones.

It’s not the longest sentence in the book, but there are quite a few like this. Some of the active verbs in the source I’ve changed into participles to make the thing hold together. Hidden footnotes are peppered throughout (the word mountains, for instance, and the word Ustaše and the names Frančetić and Rafael). He also uses a fairly specialized word for pig spleens, which is slezina, and which maybe ought to be “milt” in English, but who knows what that means? Pig spleens rings true and is appropriately disgusting.

That Wondrous Paragraph

And, oh my, Miljenko, you have some lovely paragraphs, which I knew already of course, but when I get to write them again in English, I feel them in a way that makes me new:

In the winter of 1945, while Vjekoslav Luburić was cooking people alive in the basement of a Skenderija villa, and the Independent State of Croatia was, with the blessing of our Archbiship Ivan the Evangelist Sarić, squaring accounts with all those not living in accord with Jesus Christ and the Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, my Nona—who knows where or how in Sarajevo then—had her final abortion. If they had captured her, she and whoever had helped her would have found themselves among those hanging from their necks along the boulevard in Marijin Dvor. It was the final moments of the Croatian state and no time to be fooling around by throwing some woman into the camps at Jasenovac. It was also the final moments in which an abortion could have been carried out, for a month or two more and the fetus would have been too large to dispose of. Thus was the birth of my aunt or another uncle avoided at the final moment.

There are too many things to love about this, the personal subtly mixed into the historical, the ironic deftness, that splendid repetition of final. It is so good. I have added the explanatory Vjekoslav and Ante and camps, for the source is appropriately eliptical there, and there is something darkly hilarious about the part about Jesus Christ and—in the source, article-free—Poglavnik Pavelić, which allows for the possibility of thinking of Pavelić as the administrative superior of Jesus Christ (I hope my rendition does not eliminate completely that possibility), but that twist at the end is so like a Shakespearean couplet that closes a soliloquy, a little rhyme to say here we are together, see? Now on to what comes next.

Otata and Omama

Miljenko Jergovic uses the words “otata” and “omama,” which it took me a little bit of research to figure out are actual regionalisms for “Great-grandpa” and “Great-grandma.” They are used especially by Croats of German background, I assume as a kind of pidm_92787gin that takes the “o” of the German “Opa” (grandpa) and “Oma” (grandma) and combines it with the “tata” (father) and “mama” of Croatian.

I am still thinking about how to deal with this in translating from a text that uses these terms a lot—the male character (otata Karlo), who rather sets the tone for the family, is a Swabian from the Banat; his wife is half-Italian and half-German or Slovene (whether German or Slovene is something of a mystery). One option would be to leave them as otata and omama and assume, over the course of the thousand pages of the book, that readers will at least get used to them, if not learn to derive some of the same warmth of family feeling with which they are used in the book.

At the other end of the spectrum would be translating them as Great-grandpa and Great-grandma, which, while a little long, are not at all unwieldy in English. In my sample for the publisher, I used Great-grandpa—hadn’t got to the Great-grandma yet—and it worked fine, even if it loses some of the local color. It does get a bit long, however, when the first names of the characters are added. “Great-grandpa Karlo” and “Great-grandma Johanna,” repeated many times, start to “cut my ear,” as the Russians say.

Another option, would be to use the German Opa and Oma, especially since the author uses “nona” and “djed” for the grandparents—”nona” I plan to keep as Nona in English, while “djed” will likely be Grandpa—and so using the German words would not be confusing to readers as they would be the only characters referred to in that way, and using in effect three languages for the names of all these characters would suggest something of the linguistic range of the family. A disadvantage is that Opa and Oma are in themselves pure German and miss the mixture in the Bosno-Croatian version.

Another option would be to come up with something in English that is somehow like these other terms but more immediately accessible to an English reading audience, something like Opapa and Omama. Basically, Omama would be the same as in the source, and Opapa would be a root-based translation (tata becoming papa) combined with use of the German-derived “o,” which will be familiar to some English readers by association with Opa and Oma. Opapa and Omama would also match the rhythm of the source, and as I read them back the ring in my ear is rather nice.

These discrete entries are going to be a lot of help to me as I make my way through this monster of a book. In the meantime, I would love to receive any suggestions anyone might have.

Big New Book

I’ve just signed a contract to translate a 1000-page novel. It is due to the publisher in May of 2017, so I’ll be working steadily on it for the next couple of years. The publisher (the visionary Archipelago Books) asked for a sample, but I had not read the book, which came out in 2013, so I asked if they had a print copy they could send me, and they agreed. I knew the author’s work already and had actually approached the same publisher about another of his books, Buick Riviera, which I like a lot, but they indicated that they wanted to publish several other works by him before they got to that particular book. They had already at the time published his Sarajevo sarajevoMarlborough, an exquisite collection of short stories about the war, translated by Stela Tomasevic. Then came this request.

I read some reviews online and then read, when it arrived, through the book—I wish we could use the Russian imperfective verb for such expressions, as it suggests more “I engaged in reading” than “I read the whole thing” and that would be closer to how I read in this case—and decided I liked it and wanted to try my hand at it. I was very busy with a host of other things and had trouble squeezing out the 5,000 words from the beginning that I eventually sent them. I got a note back immediately from the publisher. Could I do the whole thing?

A friend later said I should have talked to him before signing the contract because he “could have talked me down off that ledge” (he had done a similarly massive project and it had taken a lot out of him), but I didn’t have anyone to do that at the time, and the book seemed to be calling. It is Rod, m_92787by Miljenko Jergović, which I’m translating as Kin, for now at least, as maybe a different title will surface as I go. The source language is what we refer to these days as Bosnia-Croatian-Serbian, or BCS, and some people add Montenegrin to the mix lately, making it BCMS. The author is a Bosnian Croat from Sarajevo, the publisher, Fraktura, is based in Zagreb, but much of the usage is older and regionally specific. Jergović is very sensitive to such nuances and likes to pepper his prose with them, often with ironic intent.

The title Kin seems good to me now, a very short title for a very long book. Kin, moreover, has many of the connotations that rod has, as well as many of the root associations. Rod is much richer, however. Rod is at the heart of roditi, to give birth or, when reflexive, be born. It is in the word for relative, relation, and cousin. Kin, in turn, is in kindred and kindergarten, and kind. It also has a very old feel, something almost primordial, and this is true of rod as well, a Slavic root that reaches to concepts such as parenthood, fertility, maternity, and motherland. I don’t know that English has a single word that can do that, so kin might have to do.

One of the reasons I like the book and have agreed to work on it is that it dovetails with some of my own thinking about cultural mixture, crossing, hybridity, especially in families, including my own of course. So I suppose there is a “simpatico” element to my motivation. I often feel that I know what the author is referring to beneath the surface layer of the words of a sentence. These thoughts come to me in my sleep or the next morning as insights into the book or the language or life in general.

I’ll be writing about this work from time to time, as it will be occupying my mind. These pages will allow me a forum for expressing things as they pass that otherwise would disappear in the invisible revision process from one “save” to the next on my screen.

And I’ll be posting some excerpts, maybe passages I’m having difficulty with, or those I think are especially good. Here is a passage at the end of the book’s first section.

“A year after the fall of the nationalist government, during the coalition led by the Social Democrats under Ivica Račan, whose Europism brought a sigh of relief to Europe, and to its Croatian neighbors first and foremost, I was at a film festival in Istria. It was held in an ancient walled city on the top of a hill that was once inhabited exclusively by Italians who, after Istria became part of Yugoslavia, were given the opportunity to vote by the Communists—either to go away as Italians or to stay behind as Yugoslavs—and these people had set off on their way, bags in hand, to spend years in Italian refugee camps, leaving their Istrian homes behind forever, and so this festival, in this town, was a form of socio-political, as well as cultural ceremonial marking a new, anti-nationalist Croatia. Of course the new minister of culture showed up, whose supporters and sympathizers had taken to calling the “Croatian Malraux,” an appellation he was prepared to accept, being that in Croatia, and as a rule in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Balkans as a whole, it is common and accepted practice to name leaders and dignitaries after magnificent foreigners, Franz Beckenbauer, Emperor Selassie, Shakespeare, in short, who cares. Anyway, this minister of ours, this Croatian Malraux, was previously a lexicographer, which means he was mostly taking it easy, or having intellectual debates at the pub after he had inspected the two or three lexical items that had turned up on his desk that day. I was not fond of the way he ran the Ministry and wrote an article about it in the newspaper, though I was truly gentle, far gentler than when I had written similar articles against Tudjman’s nationalists.

“I wasn’t thinking of my article when that afternoon I approached a café table around which, in the shade of an immense Slavic tree sat a group of directors, producers, and general practice intellectuals, with Minister Malraux at the head. I knew these people, the Minister too, and I merely wanted to convey an every-day hello in passing.

“‘Beat it, you Bosnian trash! Go back where you came from so we don’t have to send you ourselves!’ shouted Malraux. I didn’t get too upset, since the previous night was filled with such hard work and exertions that the ministerial hangover extended to the afternoon. But still I stopped long enough to look carefully at a director who had been blacklisted during the Tudjman years and whose films were not allowed to be shown on television then. He was a tough dissident, as tough as Kundera if not tougher. He looked down and did not say anything. He needed to be watchful of the ministerial hangover because he wanted to make movies again, and that, in Croatia, does not happen without government money. A promising young producer also looked down, a fighter against nationalism in every form and apologist for inter-ethnic affection, and everyone else, one after another, looked down, dissidents one and all from the time of Tudjman, until, after I had stood there for far too long waiting, I turned and made my way down that Istrian knoll, the Croatian Malraux shouting behind me.

“I left, and I’m still going, as a happy man, because unlike my Great-grandpa Karlo, I’m not being led away by a couple of guys nor is a third poking me in the kidneys with his rifle. This is the important nuance in our identities, why we live where we live without belonging to the majority. Happiness keeps us in this place, and happiness—I believe this—has often cost us our lives. Reconciled to being who we are, while carrying inside us the idea of who we are not, we represent identities that cannot be defined by a single word, passport, identity card, entry pass…. The masses know who they are from a gravestone, a flag, a name, and then they chant it out, but we are left with long, uncertain explanations, novels and films, true stories and invented ones, and the need to visit a village in the Romanian Banat where there are no more Germans but where the horizon is the same as when Great-grandpa Karlo was a boy, and with empty villages in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, where people went away in a puff of smoke, and with uncertain memories, the feeling that today we are one thing, tomorrow another, that our hymns and state borders constantly elude us, and with repentance and long, painful remorse because a relative of ours lived and died as an enemy, and because we are ourselves something of an enemy, and with faith in what we hide beneath our language, the truth that our homeland is no more, and maybe never was, because for us every foot-length of the world is foreign country.”