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.

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.”