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  • ZiN Daily

Translation Notes No. 1

Photo by Zoran Žmirić

It just so happened that in its first weeks, ZiN Daily has tackled a number of translations from Croatian to English. In all instances we were dealing with poetry, though by distinctly different authors of distinctly different poetics. One thing they have in common: an awareness of what can be clumsily termed as “the size of the language” and a certain reluctance towards translation (if not even outright defiance towards it).

First was the case of Simo Mraović, a jovial, witty poet who used simple, everyday language to add an unexpected dimension to a seemingly routine existence. Simo's poetical strategy consisted of a gradual destruction of the sentence that culminates in a simultaneous breakdown of the expected meaning and the crystallization of new meanings.


... Moram priznati nekad izmaštam veliko. Bogatstvo iako sam švorc pa posudim.

Samo za cigarete kad popis spadne. Na nulu padne neka lovusina i ras. Poredi se po dugu tako vam je to.

We translated this as:

... I must admit sometimes I make up a huge. Fortune though I'm broke so I borrow. For a pack of smokes when the list reaches. The zero meets with sudden riches and gets high. Spirited across the debt and there you have it.

Using simple rules of standard communication (a sentence must begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop), Simo actually undermines the notion that successful (poetical) communication relies on rules. But in order not to turn breaking of the rules into a new rule, in the last two lines of the poem he plays one last trick... on an unsuspecting translator and not his reader. The thing is that Simo's Croatian reader has no trouble splicing the verb “rasporediti”, the word Simo has snapped into “... ras. Poredi...” but any translator needs to check whether the prefix “ras” has any meaning on its own. Yes, you've guessed it—it does. According to Veliki rječnik hrvatskoga jezika by Vladimir Anić, “ras” is (also) a noun referring to 1. high dignitary in the Ethiopian court, and 2. A jargon term for any top-ranking party or government official. Therefore, the last two lines can (literally) be translated to mean that both “big money” (lovusina) and some “big shot” (ras) fall on that “zero” (nula) in the poet’s pockets while spreading itself/themselves across the accumulated debt (po dugu). And there you have it. Tako vam je to. The meaning itself is clear and straightforward but is created by breaking up the words, rather than organizing them in a traditional (predictable) order. However, the main challenge in attempting the translation is to carry the meaning of both fragments (ras + poredi = rasporedi) across the pesky full stop. What we have come up with may not be ideal, but there is no such thing as an ideal translation, just as there is no ideal original utterance. The primary purpose of language is not to deal with ideals, but to throw semblances of ideal into the pot of communication. An utterance that cannot be expanded, reworded or, yes, translated is an absolute that does not invite a reply, or a reading. Treating poetic language as an unchangeable absolute means to deny its conversational character, especially in the case of poetry such as Simo’s, in which having a continuous chat with the entire world is the main incentive for putting one word after the other.

In the second case we dealt with Kitajske pitalice/Chinese Riddles, a poem by Dinko Telećan. Being an experienced translator himself, Dinko certainly has sympathy for all poor devils who tango with the (seemingly) untranslatable.

This only means that, rather than openly resisting translation, the text contains discrete but telling potential snags. After all, this is a poetic account of “an untranslatable empire”—a Croatian poet is travelling through China and the actual language barrier is the size of the Great Wall. Even in the title, Dinko opts for the archaic “kitajske” (Cathay) and not the more common “kineske” (Chinese). The name Cathay, once used by the travelers of old such as Marco Polo, referred to the North of the country and got replaced by China in the 16th century after the South of the country was reached by Portuguese sailors. So why not go with Cathay Riddles? A part of the answer might lie in the fact that English can never not be a language of colonialism; by using the adjective kitajske in the original text, Dinko may be juggling with the references to Marco Polo (who, according to some, was born on the Island of Korčula in present day Croatia), but Китай is still the commonly used name for China in Russian (or Kitajska in Slovenian), and for a Croatian reader, it can have a whole other set of historical and political reverberation. For this reason, we selected the more common/contemporary variant. By doing so, the readers of the translation might better appreciate the fact that in Dinko’s poetic gaze upon (or snapshot of) the “untranslatable empire” there really is no (neo)colonialist (mis)appropriation.

Of course, chances are that Dinko’s choice is less historical/political and more musical/philosophical: after all the name Kitaj in Croatian rhymes with imperative forms of verbs skitati (to roam) and pitati (to ask, from which the noun pitalica or “puzzle” is derived). Thus, in a way, the name of the land becomes an invitation to roam and to ask/discover: Kitaj=skitaj=pitaj. Occasionally, Dinko does actually resort to rhyming to undermine the potential prose-yness of free verse (“Lao je ovo znao:” or “Lao knew this to be true:”), but his few rhymes in Croatian can seem effortless and almost accidental, whereas translating them to English requires a bit more pretense. Hopefully, by doing so we did not turn something that intentionally lacks seriousness into something serious.

The third case we would like to discuss, however, was possibly a very serious one. After all, a poem by Neva Lukić that we decided to tackle is titled Gospodine Huxley: Manifest koji nikad neće bit preveden na Engleski/ To Mr. Huxley: A Manifesto that will never be translated into English.

The biggest gamble was in the fact that we went ahead with the translation without first making sure Neva would be okay with it. After all, conceivably, an author could insist on their work never being translated into a particular language (or into any language). We’re still not sure if that was Neva’s intention (though we did receive her permission to translate this poem). To be sure, this is not a stubbornly untranslatable poem, any barbs that a translator might feel are few and far between, although on one of them, we did get stuck for awhile. In two consecutive lines Neva refers to “svijet” (world):

Nekakav svijet na cesti Nekakav ispupčen svijet

Some sort of a world on a road Some sort of a bulging world

The reference to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is straightforward enough, but by placing the “world” on the road, and having it bulge (in Croatian it is “ispupčen” which shares the root, no pun intended, with the word “pup”, a bud, so also a budding world) and by playing with the similarity of sounds s and c (voiceless alveolar sibilant affricate - t͡s), Neva is doing a number of things: creating an untranslatable pun, but maybe even hinting to Cvijet s raskršća, a novella by Antun Gustav Matoš, a classic of Croatian literary modernism, whose work is required reading for Croatian high-school students, but who is virtually unknown to an average reader of the English translation. Consider further that Neva’s original also has more than a few “I”s where “i”s (conjunction and) should be—the result of that pesky auto spellchecker that keeps capitalizing the letter for the non-English speaking part of the world—and it becomes clear that certain subtleties do get lost in the translation.

As translators we are always facing the challenge of discovering/searching for that untranslatable part of a poem, when we stare at and are stared back at by, as Dinko Telećan would say, “a pair of sparkling eyes / (unquestionable undoubtable untranslatable eyes)”. This ‘untranslatability’ being at the same time a mark of longing and an instance of fear, both intrinsic elements of one’s identity.

A poet vehemently protects that untranslatable particle of oneself, of me, my poem, as a space of freedom, as a space where (my own) language is born, where non-conformity, creative stubbornness and, as Russian formalists would say, zaum moments reign, untranslatability as a way to be comfortable with one’s own self, one’s whims, one’s authenticity.

But at the same time, untranslatability is always a call for communication, a desire for the other to discover what I am attempting to say. It is a call for collaboration and mutual discovery.

Thus when a poet or their poem states: this is untranslatable; it suggests to the translator/reader/the other: leave it this way, don’t fragment me more than I can handle, leave me whole in that spark of possibilities. Nevertheless, as Neva Lukić’s poem confirms, every poem invites a translator to follow author’s (sub)conscious aspiration of transforming into a new utterance, new language, to create a new world/semantics/meaning.



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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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