The idea of nebo as sky and as heaven

I remember Fulvio Tomizza making the claim—this was during the only meal we ever shared together, at his home in Trieste—that he aimed for five ideas per page. An idea, I understood, was a turn of some sort, either in reasoning or character depiction or language, some new thought that generated new interest on the level of the page while the entire book was working towards its larger aims. You might block out how you wanted the book to go, but ideas of this sort were discovered in the writing.

Translating an author’s work—a serious author who wields ideas in something like the manner Tomizza intimated—often means getting a feel for how the author thinks, the sorts of connections he makes. Otherwise, the turns leave you feeling baffled. This is true especially when the ideas are embedded in language play.

Here is an example from a passage in “The Match Juggler”:

As we have repeated on multiple occasions and demonstrated through the depiction of multiple episodes from his life and the memories of other members of the Stubler household, Rudolf Stubler was a believer. Chance (or God) had so willed it: the Stublers were divided into deep, authentic, which also means naïve, believers, and complete unbelievers. There was never a loss of understanding between them—about God there could be no misunderstanding. It was just that for some of them the sky was blue and for others heaven was empty.

This was an earlier draft, when I hadn’t figured out how to deal with the use of nebo, which can of course mean both sky and heaven. In context, the English sort of makes sense, but it is murky and leaves me feeling like the author (the translator channeling the author) is trying to be clever but not succeeding. One can sense a thought behind it, but without knowing that nebo has this double meaning in the source, the thought remains distant and not quite realized in the English version.

I haven’t been counting, but it feels like this sort of turn or one like it happens at least five times per page in Jergović’s prose, and I suspect it is one of the main ways that he manages to get us to be patient—he is very patient—with him as he makes his way towards the book’s larger aims. I have been thinking a lot about patience as I work my way through his book. It is a distinctive quality that he shares with writers he references often, like Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš.

Patience also helps me to resolve such issues, as I set them aside but return to them later, and, in this case, see that heavens (plural) can of course have a similar double quality, though by contrast to nebo, which begins with a secular sense and expands to a religious one, heavens begins with a religious sense and allows a secular one. It’s a difference I can live with, and my solution becomes: “It was just that for some of them the heavens were blue and for others they were empty.”

I believe my author will appreciate the zeugma.


translating digital versus print

It has happened several times now that I have found a story from my author’s book online, either at the website of a newspaper or journal, or at the author’s own site. It did not occur to me until recently–after having translated two Jergović pieces for the New York Times–that it makes the work go faster when I have a digital version of the text to work from. Why has to do with the pure mechanics of working with a print volume versus one that is already in the same medium that I will be using to create the English version. When you have to go back and forth between print and computer, there are extra steps, mostly having to do with flipping pages and typing. In a short text this does not make much difference in terms of the time involved. But with longer texts, it can make a very big difference. There are also font issues that have to do with adding diacritics–one must change keyboards to insert ć or č, š, đ, or ž into the English text in the case of people’s names and toponyms. This takes additional time.

As this book is 1000 pages in length, the simple mechanics change things quite a bit in terms of time. Now that I’ve found the e-version of “The Match Juggler” online, I can use it to make faster progress, and if you’re reading this Miljenko, it would help me to have e-versions of “Dnevnik pčela,” “Parker 51,” and “Sarajevski psi” as well.

Art of the Litany

Jergović uses lists often and to great effect. Some are longer than others. I think it is litany rather than catalogue, though I could see someone arguing for the latter. Litany has an effect of prayer or incantation, and these seem more like that to me. It would be strange to focus on their informational quality.

This one, from a remarkable, seventy-page story called “The Match Juggler,” conveys well what I have in mind:

He would sit in the park, his back turned toward the fountain, his thumbs pressed against the back of a bench, as he flicked the matches with his fingertips, one after another, miniature torches that would burn out in the air, leaving no trace of themselves behind. They would turn to smoke and dust, just as the Jewish people, in a year, or two, or three, would turn to dust and smoke. And this would be a wonder, in which no one would believe, for to whom would it occur to do away with six million largely peaceful and unarmed people, harmless castoffs who stepped aside for others, small shop owners, mean money-lenders, gullible bankers, and industrialists, rabbis, village lackeys, shoemakers, lottery ticket salesmen, small time crooks and con men, idealists, communists and Zionists, soft-spoken worshippers afraid of life but even more of what comes after, famous doctors, surgeons, pediatricians, and psychoanalysts, disciples of Doctor Freud, whom the Nazis did not kill when they found him in his Vienna apartment, exiling him to London instead, for Doctor Freud, too, was a match juggler, the professors of biology who created the most beautiful herbariums in the history of Europe, archivists, librarians, and village teachers, whose worried wives concealed their Jewish heritage, great German poets and travel writers, who had journeyed all the way to India and Nepal in order to leave their testimonials to the German culture, circus performers and circus owners, village carpenters, proprietors of pawnshops and rare books, chemists and manufacturers of poison, barbers, mystics, tricksters of great imagination, quacks who for tiny sums would make the rounds of apartments in the center of town, performing abortions on the underage daughters of the city’s solicitous gentlemen, philosophy professors, peaceful and smiling like the Buddha, in whom the idea of world revolution and rebirth fermented, of a happy time for humanity, which would arrive once it had passed through the frightful twentieth century, building custodians, owners of small kosher restaurants at the border of the ghetto, where non-Jews were also welcome, handymen, servant girls, midwives, the authors of the first Aztec, Turkish, and Aramaic grammars, blind and deaf painters, idlers, dreamers, and devoted bookkeepers, industrialists with no heart for their workers or their workers’ rachitic children, who would not live long, rag merchants, peddlers, roofers, ice cream vendors, loafers, porters, dish washers and dish dryers in communal kitchens, where the Jewish poor found food, philanthropists, sponsors, coin collectors and counterfeiters, false prophets, proselytes and neophytes, who changed faith late for by then Nazism had come along? To whom, really, would turning all these people into smoke and ash have occurred? Or a better question: who would have believed that someone who desired to make all these people disappear would come forth and that his desire would be realized?

This is one paragraph. The manner in which the wonder (čudo) of the match juggler’s art and the wonder of the Holocaust is tied together, with a nod to Freud’s match juggling artistry, is rich and full.

The list is a bit like an aria in the midst of the recitative of the narrative proper. Time stops, and we’re invited to reflect and feel. This as a rule takes me longer to translate, and I feel the need to look up words I know. I’m not sure why. Maybe it affects my own sense of time as I’m trying to create the English as well.