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.


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.