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CURRENT ISSUE 2007

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Erica Weitzman

 

Jagged Season: translations from Valentina Saraçini's Dreaming Escape

Erica Weitzman (with Rudina Jasini and Flora Ismajli)
New York University

Within the past few decades, with the collapse of the Communist Hoxha regime in Albania and the (partial) end of Serbian repression in Kosovo, writers writing in the Albanian language have embarked on a project of self-regeneration. Under Ottoman domination, work published in the Albanian language was forbidden: what little pre-20th century work there is in Albanian is either in the oral tradition, written by expatriates (primarily in Italy), or a product of Catholic clerics. Throughout most of the late 20th century, there was little more in Albania than the officially-sanctioned Social Realism (more strictly followed, according to several sources, than it was in the countries which fell within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, and without a real Samizdat to speak of); Kosovo's literature faced different, but similar difficulties, perhaps the biggest obstacle a rural culture with other interests than creating a national canon, but also the difficulties of the Tito years and the post-Tito suppression of the Albanian culture and language.

Nevertheless, the past decade has seen a small explosion of publishing houses, literary magazines, and websites devoted to literature and language. One of the projects of Albanian writers has always been to make Albanian into a literary language (a standard orthography—along with a consequent quashing of regional linguistic differences—was only adopted in the early part of this century). However, both deep anxiety and great optimism about the possibilities for literary production remain.

Two themes that reoccur in any discussion of Albanian literature with native speakers are the difficulties of standardizing the language (the alphabet was only codified in 1909; meanwhile, questions of dialect continue to make any discussion of standard literary Albanian a sometimes contentious and politicized one) and the so-called poverty of Albanian. What is meant by this poverty of the language is, for the most part, a relative lack of vocabulary in comparison to languages like English, and perhaps a corresponding dearth of synonyms, nuance and fine gradations of meaning, etc. (Needless to say, Albanian also contains words with similar meanings and fine differences that English is unable to render without predicates or paraphrasis.) What this poverty also means, however, is that Albanian has the possibility to be a language of great concision and precision of a kind. Words in Albanian are often made to carry more weight than in English, and one term often could be translated by any number of corresponding words, depending on the context. The question of lexicon is one I've run up against in translating Dreaming Escape in particular. Saraçini uses many of the same words and images over and over, raising them to the level of leitmotif or even private allegory. In English, however, it is not always possible to retain the repetition, and hence I have often been forced in my translations to lose the leitmotif and the particular sense of a specific poem.

A further difficulty of translations is the fact that the syntactical structures of Albanian, relying heavily on declensions of adjectives and nouns to create the sense of a phrase, tends to lend itself to more productive ambiguities than does English. Saraçini particularly uses the ablative case(already somewhat rare in Albanian, but often used to designate something of, out of, or from something, as well as to turn nouns into modifiers, for example concrete jungle, or lunch hour) in a way that is logically possible—but not, by that light, usual; thus creating a particularly economical synaesthesia of objects, affects, and signs. Dreaming Escape already compromises the translation of its title. It should more accurately communicate the dream of stealing away (vjedh means to steal), or rather the imaginary landscape into which steals away (najë, a suffix Saraçini uses frequently, essentially means a large general area: e.g. akull: ice; akullnajë: glacier): the greenness (blernajë) and blue (kaltersi) that contrast to the grays of the present world.

In general, I have tried to retain the ambiguities of Saraçini's language, opting for a more literal and less naturalized translation, despite the inevitable losses (or rather, impositions) that this entails. Another choice I have made in translation is to keep to the spare, compressed sound of the poetry to my ear—recognizing that a certain line might actually sound more normal to a native speaker, even pulling lines back from a more paraphrastic to a more literal reading. Nevertheless, I have been assured by my co-translators that Saraçini's language is also strange in the original, playing on words and straining the syntactical features of the Albanian language past the point that it would go in everyday speech. What obtains is a style both dry and ethereal, warped—but not broken—by trauma both collective and individual.

Dreaming Escape is Saraçini's second book of poetry. It is divided into five sections, which more or less form a narrative arc, if not a narrative per se. The first section, titled Antimythic, contains, as the title might suggest, poems of bitter, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) political, commentary. The world is imagined as a landscape in which the Greek gods are not yet dead, but merely surviving with Olympus displaced: a nightmare of megadeath and anesthetization. Similarly, Saraçini both uses and takes apart national myths. I undid the Canon's geography, she writes in one poem, referring to the famous Canon of Lek Dukagjini, a medieval legal code that is considered in many ways to be the founding document of the Albanian nation, and a continued source of national identity. From the wreckage of these master narratives, the book moves into poems of primarily personal loss, poems dealing with the fantasies of love and the dissolution of the self that accompanies the loss, not just of the love object, it or himself, but above all of those very fantasies that the presence of the beloved makes possible.

Valentina Saraçini is alive and well and living in Prishtina, Kosovo, where she is a well-known journalist for the national media outlet, Radio Television Kosovo (RTK). I encountered and began translating her work before I knew her, but I have since had the pleasure of drinking many cappuccinos and smoking many cigarettes with her in the outdoor café in front of the imposing and seemingly omnipresent structure of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. Among other things, she told me that she hoped to write a novel about the recent war, the political and social consequences of which are still very much up in the air: but it is too soon, too close. The status of the novel, like the status of post-war Kosovo itself, is pending. But the poems of Dreaming Escape already seem a testimony to the attempt to express what is, and what remains, always too close.

TRUNGU

Kur bëhesh përmendore pritjesh
Ngre lart duart qafën gjysmëkëputur
Këmbëcung kohëve të leckosura
Të përgjërojnë erërat

Druajnë nga ankthet tua palë-palë
Nga toka jote heshtjen flori masin

Ti je me plumb
Dhembje plumbosur shekujve
Argjend zbardhur kokave të nënave nuseve
Dhe je degëkëputur pa pjekur frutat

Si foshnjë je

Luajnë me ty portrete
Londiniane Versajiane Parisiane Kremliniane
Dhëmbët zbardhin mbi përpëlitjet e tua
Të shtrojnë darkave të fshehta ekraneve

Kur të kenë kafshuar çuditen
Sa e lashtë je Arbëri
Ç'mëndje ke ç'rrënjë të forta
Ta mbajnë trungen

Arbëri me plagë zhbën mjegullën

TREE TRUNK

When you become a monument to waiting
Hands raised high neck broken
One-legged in a time of tatters
The winds beseech you

They are leery of your layered anxieties
They gauge the golden silence of your earth

You are leaded
The leaden pain of centuries
The silver-white heads of brides' mothers
And you a broken branch where no fruit ripens

Like a baby

They play portraits with you
London Versailles Paris the Kremlin
Their teeth flash at your squirming
They set out secret meals behind screens

When they bite you they act surprised
How ancient you are Arberia1
What a mind you have what strong roots
They hold your trunk fast

Wounded Arberia drive away the fog

DHEMBJE TRUNGU

Nuk kisha parë
Ethet të shkojnë marramendshëm
Trupit kokës
Lëngimet të dergjurat
Trokëllimat pa zë të buçasin

Fantazmat robëruese
Mes kuajve të bardhë
Njëri pas tjetrit
Symbyllur veshprerë
Me aurerolë gjithfarë shenjtorësh
Skëterrues anosur
Stinë thepisur
Deje degdisur

O s'kam parë ndonjëherë

Gjëma t'u ngjitet kulmeve
endlindjeve të ikura
Vetmive qiellore molisjeve
Ëndërrimtare zhghëndërrimtare
Ecejakeve mërgimtare gjirmëtare
Gjokshapur këmbëthyer
Shkretëtirës bojëzezë

Në trungun tënd
Nuk dua të shoh të paparat

PAIN OF THE TREE TRUNK

Never had I seen
Fevers raging
In the body the head
The wasting pains
The echoless knocking

Enslaving phantoms
On white horses
One after another
Eyes shut ears closed
With haloes of various saints
Pitch-black askew
Jagged season
Nerves gone far away
O I have never seen before

Disaster rising to the peaks
Of the vanished birthlands
Of celestial loneliness of exhaustion
Dreaming undreaming
In exile wandering smoldering
Bare-chested limping
To the black desert

In your trunk
I do not want to see the unseen

TRUNGUT TË ULLIRIT

Çapuritje kujtimesh kësaj vere
Plandosur vrimave të ullirit
Ngrin ëndrra Kalasë së braktisur

Të ishte si dikur
Brigjeve nuk do të hidhnim
Gjethe të thara ulliri

Detin e nxirë nuk do ta zbardhnim
Me valë të tërbuara që heshtin pa frikë
Shikimeve hënore

Dikur do pridheshim paqeve
Dhembjeve që tretnin
Herë fundit herë bregut
Detit çuditërisht të kaltër

Të ishte si dikur
Vrimave të trungut do fshehej ëndërra
Si frymë e pamatësisë

TO THE TRUNK OF THE OLIVE TREE

Clods of memories this summer
Pressed to the holes of the olive tree
The dream of the abandoned Fortress turns to ice

If it were as before
We would not cast to the shores
Dried olive leaves

We would not bleach the darkened sea
With furious waves that fall silent without fear
Of the moon's gaze

Once we were guided by the peace
Of the pains that undid us
Now to the end now to the shore
Of the strangely blue sea

If it were as before
The dream would be hidden in the trunk's hollows
Like a breath of measurelessness

E GURËRORES

Shumë vjeshta
Shtatë male e fusha
Me gurë fluturoja

Si Doruntinë
Zhbëja gjeografitë kanunore
Prore

Më shumë ndarje se takime
I kujt je DET
Kaq i paëndërruar
I ikur gjithnajave
Heshtur vjedhnajës tokësore

Në krahë shpendësh
I kthyer GUR

THE QUARRY

So many autumns
Seven mountains and fields
With stones I flew

Like Doruntina
I undid the Canon's geography
Always

More partings than encounters
Who do you belong to SEA
So undreamt
Fled from everything
Silent from the furtiveness of earth

In the arms of birds
Turned to STONE

E VEZULLAR

Ka humbur Parajsa
Do të kthehet ndoshta
Si paqe që të plasë gazin

E ti më pyet
Kur ëndrra nderej vezullimit të natës

Mund ta kem parë
Si ishull me qiparise dhembjeje
E anije që pret horizontit Pulëbardhat

Parajsa është fshehur
Apo ne humbëm blerënajave

THE FLICKERING

Paradise is lost
Maybe it will come back one day
Like the peace that breaks through joy

And you ask me
When the dream greets the flickering of night

I might have seen it once
Like an island with cypresses of pain
And a boat waiting at the horizon for the Gulls

Paradise is hidden
Or we lost it in all this green

Notes

1 Archaic name of Albania

Works Cited

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