Translating Svetislav Basara’s Chinese Letter

Context N°19

by Ana Lucic

It’s not an exaggeration to say that after translating Kinesko pismo (Chinese Letter) into English, I felt as though previous readings of the book in the original Serbian were somehow insufficient or incomplete, and perhaps even inaccurate. I feel as though it was only through the process of translation that some of the gaps in the text of were filled for me, as a reader.

When you’re faced with the task of translating each of a book’s sentences into a different language, you start looking at those sentences from a different perspective, from a different linguistic viewpoint: you start twisting and turning them in your head until new nuances and possible meanings start coming out—aspects that might have remained obscure during the course of an “ordinary” reading. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I have come to this conclusion: if you really want to read something carefully, you should start translating the text into a different language.

When you add to this the extremely careful and thoughtful editing process that the book underwent after my initial pass, another conclusion began to impose itself: the translation process itself gives the text a chance to be reinvented, rediscovered: it adds a new element to it, giving a book the much-needed possibility of evolution, of change. If you think of the amount of effort and deliberation that goes into the translation of even a single novel into, let’s say, ten languages, this means that at least ten different translators and ten different
editors have had to read the novel with extreme care and precision, whereas a novel that hasn’t been translated into a different language suffers from what I would call “monolingualism”: the readers, critiques, and appreciations it might receive come from a group sharing, sadly, only one language.

The new nuances and meanings that I kept finding throughout the text of Chinese Letter were, for the most part, subtle instances of humor that, it seemed to me, were there waiting to be discovered. Its humor was what initially had led me to recommend this book to Dalkey, but now it had gained another dimension, become more profound, and was waiting for me around every corner. According to Henri Bergson, writing humorously is the most difficult task imaginable for an author, and yet the humor that you try to produce should feel natural and spontaneous. Chinese Letter is one of the few books I’ve read that is funny throughout, and, at the same time, the mechanisms that put this humor into play stay unobtrusive. My intention as a translator was to tease out the subtlest nuances of humor in the text—nuances that, in my opinion, were hidden even in the Serbian.

One possible way of summarizing Chinese Letter would be: short sentences, colloquial language, and dialogue. Judging by this, it would seem that its translation wouldn’t be a great challenge. And yet, regardless of the book’s apparently simple style, when I got down to work, I found the task surprisingly daunting.

Here are some of the difficulties I was facing.

First of all, it’s not easy to translate quick, absurdist humor. The feverish rhythm of the text—coupled with its unforced and spontaneous humor—presented the main challenge. So much depended on syntax and word choice.

Secondly, Chinese Letter contains a great many details that don’t seem to make sense if you read them in isolation, and yet, in their proper context, come alive and become tremendously funny. For example:

In my apartment I found the past perfect tense: my sister and her mongoloid husband had been sleeping enveloped in a heavy, sweaty smell, and then it all suddenly turned into simple past tense: with all my strength I kicked their bed and they woke up.

Or the way a new chapter begins: “And during that time that quite irrelevant thing that was happening—happened. It FELL. Boom! It was a flowerpot. I guess it didn’t hit anyone.” Or: “What am I? It’s impossible to say anything about me. Whatever I say, it’s not me anymore.”

Sentences like these are deceptively simple on the surface, but cunning and complex on the inside. You can be misled
by believing that a literal rendition is always the best route: more often than not, the only way forward is to take liberties with the text. Let me give an example of what I mean by this. In the sentence: “I shouldn’t be on this Earth at all. If the Earth is where I belong, I guess it would have felt good to be here. But I just feel anxious on this Earth.”

The sentence “But I just feel anxious on this Earth,” is not a literal translation from the Serbian. Other possible translations would be: “But I just feel fear on this Earth, or “I am just trembling on this Earth,” or “It’s only trepidation that I feel on this Earth.” Or, simply, “I am just afraid on this Earth.” All of these variations could work, but the set of connotations each of the abovementioned words bring with them (“fear,” “trepidation,” “afraid,” “anxiety”) are slightly different in English than in Serbian. Rather than producing a word-for-word reproduction of the text, the editor and I went after the “spirit” of the book. We concentrated on the “sway,” the curves that the text was making, the ways it was leaning as it progressed, and ultimately the overall impressions that we thought the text was producing. While this is basically what all good translators do, in the case of Chinese Letter this “sway” was very often a matter for debate. Because of Basara’s many digressions and the highly fragmented nature of the text, the “curves” were frequent and subtle. We did our best to keep up with its pace.

Another major challenge I was facing is that I’m not a native speaker of English. Although I have a long history with English, when I started translating Chinese Letter into English I had spent only two years in America. The prevalent theory is that you shouldn’t translate into a language you haven’t been born to. While I recognize the importance of being a native speaker, I took heart at the following comment from William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation:

Arndt is scornful of those who try to translate from a language to which they are not native, and there is no doubt that such a practice frequently leads to errors, some of which he properly points out, though we could use a little less gloat and glee, since he deals with every mistake as if he has caught a criminal. In my opinion, it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem.

This said, of course, it was invaluable to have an opportunity to work with an American editor with a great ear for Beckett-like, deadpan, absurdist humor. The process of editing the text became another great learning experience for me.

As far as phrases, words, and sentences that simply don’t translate very well into English, the text wasn’t lacking in these either.

Let me give one example. In Serbian, the first-person singular is not capitalized, while in English it is. In Chinese Letter, though, in a few places “I” is capitalized as a way of giving the narrator of the text a feeling of importance, which in the end results in the following: “My I is small anyway. Italicizing it does not mean that I want to emphasize and enlarge it somehow. It’s a truly psychological moment. A pretty unconvincing method, I have to admit. The I knows best how much emphasis I put on it. What it knows—that’s what it is.”

In Serbian, “italicizing” is “capitalizing,” but since capitalizing I in English is the rule, we used the word “italicizing.”

To make things even more complicated, the narrator occasionally talks about two different “I’s” in his book:

I can’t write anything about how I felt about this. Still, let me try. I might have experienced a temporary split in my personality. As if there were two separate I’s inside my ordinary, worn-out I.

In Serbian, these two “I’s” are distinguished in the following way: one “I” is small and the other is capitalized.

In both cases, we opted for italicizing “I,” and thus had to significantly diverge from the original.

There’s something uncanny in trying to translate a book that—among other things—emphasizes the impossibility of writing anything down and conveying the experience through language. The following sentence, taken from one stream-of-consciousness paragraph towards the end of the book, may be the best expression of my overriding feeling about the translation process:

“. . . the sentences are so strange fluttery casual . . .”

When the English-language version came out, I received an email from the author (I’d been looking forward to this with a combination of anxiety and excitement) in which he expressed satisfaction with my work, and added that the English version actually sounded more “concise” and “condensed.”

It’s this “concise” and “condensed” that will continue to haunt me. I have heard many comments on the “concise” and “precise” quality of the English language. So, was it just a characteristic of the language itself the author was noting? Or was it the efforts of the translator, or editor? Or all three? Or could it just have been an accident that the English language version became more condensed?

Whatever the case, I was more than happy that the text, if nothing else, had been invigorated by whatever new element we’d brought to it through the process of being rendered in English. The question remains, however, how the text would sound if translated by someone else: what new qualities it might acquire, and which new gaps it might open up or close.

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