On Translating Miljenko Jergović
Russell Scott Valentino is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Rod by Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Croatian writer Miljenko Jergović. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
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 book’s six sections, each with its own title and genre label, pose translation challenges, but also offer up their own adventurous beginnings and poignant endings. I find the resulting panorama inspiring each time I open the book. The first section, “Where Other People Live: A Presentation,” sets out the author-narrator’s position in contemporary society as well as some of the characters whose lives will be explored subsequently. The second section, “The Stublers: A Family Novel,” is a nearly free-standing novella comprised of 18 titled chapters of approximately five to 15 pages each. The chapters have names like “Here is What We Looked Like on the First Day of the War” (about a photo taken in Dubrovnik on April 6, 1941) and “The Long Missive of Mihajlo Fleginski” (of a family friend imprisoned by the Soviets in the Gulag). The third part is entitled “Miners, Smiths, Drunkards, and their Wives: Quartets” and continues the compilation of vignettes of characters in miniature, but adds a formal constraint: each of the seven pieces is shaped as four short chapters, never more than one page in length, sometimes as a single paragraph. Part four of the book, “Mama Ionesco: Reportaža,” is a single, 125-page long treatment of the life and death of the last Stubler, Javorka, who was born in 1942 and died in 2012. The fourth section is entitled simply “Inventories,” though the words (inventarna knjiga) could also suggest a degree of invention. It is the longest section of the book and echoes the pattern of earlier vignettes. Section five is “A Calendar of Daily Events: Fictions,” though if these are fictions then everything preceding might as well be thought of in the same way, since the familiar constellation of characters returns, and the events of previous sections are danced around, augmented, commented upon. The final section, “History, Photographs,” is comprised of 21 photographs of things and persons associated with earlier parts of the book—for instance, the bed in which several members of the Stubler family died, family photos, and wartime memorabilia. Each is accompanied by a description and commentary ranging from a paragraph to a page. The resulting mixture of materials, a thematic as well as a structural choice, creates a whole from the necessarily fragmentary aspects of family life, spiraling outward from a center and creating story upon story, adventure upon adventure, in the process.
Miljenko Jergović is a Bosnian-Herzegovnian and Croatian prose writer. As a novelist, he is considered one of the most exciting voices to come out of the South Slav region, and translations of his books have been published by Archipelago books. His poetry awards include the Goran Prize for young poets and the Mak Dizdar Award, and his short story collection received the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize.
Russell Scott Valentino has authored two books about Russian literature and translated seven literary works from Italian, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, and Russian, including Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada (2000), Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric (2005), and Predrag Matvejevic’s The Other Venice (2007). His work has appeared in an array of magazines and journals. He served as editor-in-chief at The Iowa Review from 2009 to 2013, and is currently President of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), senior editor at Autumn Hill Books, and Professor of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
Russell Scott Valentino’s translation is forthcoming from Archipelago Books.