Learning Cyrillic / Ћзрилица

“Learning Cyrillic” is the title of a story by David Albahari, in a translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac, published in Words without Borders, January 2007. It is also the title of a book of short stories, soon to appear in a US edition (David Albahari told me this on April 10, 2013, in the Snezana Cafe in Belgrade).

Presented in 37 numbered paragraphs, the story is told by a Serb who has emigrated to a cold, Canadian city where he teaches Serbian to children of emigrants. The sly genius of the story lies in juxtaposing two lost causes: the impossible task of preserving Serbian language and culture in a context in which the target children are avidly assimilating to the English language and Canadian culture and the equally impossible attempt to preserve Siksika language and culture in a context where they are known only as Blackfoot Indians whose remains are displayed in a museum.

The priest in whose church the cyrillic lessons are given is conflicted but nevertheless committed to a purity of language and belief. The narrator, a somewhat diffident teacher, is fascinated by what Thunder Cloud (whom he encounters, somewhat mysteriously, in the first paragraph) tells him about the Siksika. Thundercloud, like the priest, clings to the remnants of his culture.

My retelling bypasses the surprises and lacks the ironies of the story (which can and should be read HERE). But it brings me to another story about learning cyrillic.

When I went to Belgrade a year ago, I took with me a little notebook in which I had juxtaposed two alphabets:


I did this because my little dictionary / recnik was a product of a unified and thus homogenized Yugoslavia and thus had no help for the Cyrillically challenged.



Later, in Cologne, my notebook fell open to that page while I was having coffee with Zarko Radakovic and Nina Pops. Zarko noticed the two alphabets and, smiling, showed the page to Nina. She smiled too. My attempt to gain access to their language and culture was pleasing to them as they, like me, sat in the foreign land of Germany that itself broadened our ways of being ourselves.

Months later Zarko sent me an essay he had published in a literary journal in Novi Sad.

It’s in Cyrillic, he wrote in German (our common language). It is a response to your thought, he continued, written as a dedication in the book you sent me [Wild Rides and Wildflowers], that you can’t read my books although you desperately wish you could. My essay is titled “We (About Friendship),” and is a text about the two of us, about how I experienced us at a given moment in time. It too will join the set of our texts that remain foreign to each of us.

This Sunday morning, however, after having read David Albahari’s “Learning Cyrillic,” I thought I would learn Cyrillic too. And I would do it as a key to Zarko’s text about us.

I installed a Serbian Cyrillic keyboard. I opened Google Translate. I opened my little notebook. I copied the first paragraph of the text. And here is what I found:

Жарко Радаковић / Zarko Radakovic

МИ (О пријатељству) / We (About friendship)

Ноћ у Ба ји ној Ба шти. По ро хлад на, ти ха, ми ри сна, не ка ко зна чај но све ча на. По пу- стим со ка ци ма там не сен ке жбу но ва шим ши ра ис пред ула за у по за тва ра не ку ће. Пас за ла је са мо на рет ке на ле те ве тра ко ји по кре не гра не ста бла ја бу ке и, као пре ну те из дре ме жа, до ср жи пре пла ше не, отре се зре ле пло до ве на тле об ра сло тра вом оро ше- ном све жи ном ве че ри у ко јој су сви при сут ни про ме ње ни.

I can read the first word, night, because I recognize it from Zarko’s translation of Peter Handke’s novel The Moravian Night: Моравска Нођ. So far so good. But then, through Google Translate, I run into trouble. The first two sentences come out like this:

Night at Ba Ba ji Eastern residents. According ro the shade, you ha ri me sleep, not to who knows no tea at all cha.


This may take longer than I thought.

I scroll down the file Zarko sent me and find, on the eighth page, something I understand, a photo of the two of us taken by Anne Kister (the spot on my cheek turned out to be a squamous cell carcinoma and required surgery!):


And I can even read the caption:

Жарко Радаковић и Скот Абот

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Changing Seasons and Changing Names

The last geometries of winter:



And the brilliant flowers of spring. First the dogtooth violet (obvious how it got its canine name):


And then, when it’s open, it becomes a glacier lily (it really is a lily, and not a violet):


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After Maholy-Nagy

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Schreibheft: Zeitschrift für Literatur, the #82 February 2014 issue is devoted to translation.


The issue includes a poem by Vladislav Petković Dis, a Serbian symbolist poet who died near the end of WWI, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Zarko Radakovic and Peter Handke, followed by their conversation about the poem with the editor of Schreibheft, Norbert Wehr.

Vielleicht schläft sie (“Perhaps she is sleeping”)

. . . the first stanza:

Vergessen habe ich heutfrüh ein Lied,

Ein Lied im Traum, dem ich nachtlang lauschte:

Daß ich es wiederhöre! Vergeblich habe ich’s versucht,

Als sei das Lied mein ganzes Glück gewesen.

Vergessen habe ich heutfrüh ein Lied.

. . . here my translation from the German:

I forgot, early this morning, a song,

A song in a dream, heard through the night:

To hear it again! In vain I tried

As if the song had been my fortune.

I forgot, early this morning, a song.

It’s a beautiful poem, translated by two gifted translators. It evokes Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, who wakes from a dream about a wonderful blue flower that reveals the face of his beloved. When he recounts his dream to his parents, they declare that Träume sind Schäume / dreams are froth or foam. “Was my dreaming nothing but foam?” Dis’ persona asks.

He gathers scraps of the lost dream, including images of a lost lover and her lost grave, and with this he resembles the grieving persona of Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, whose Sophie has appeared in a dream as he stands by her grave.

With its repeating first and fifth lines enhanced by repetitions throughout (a song, / A song . . . / As if the song . . . / . . . a song), with its conjectures that attempt to cross the boundary between waking and sleep, the poem is itself a dream created from the foam of the real dream. Dis has translated the unremembered dream into a dream poem.

As I mentioned, this issue of Schreibheft focuses on translation, and specifically on translation of texts that are impossible to translate. Nearly impossible. The impossibility a function of their utterly foreign nature. Of the predominance of sound. Of meaningless and thus meaningful sound.

The work of American Jerome Rothenberg makes up one section of the journal. A poet himself, Rothenberg has translated the untranslatable poems of Paul Celan, Eugen Gomringer, and Kurt Schwitters, and, as featured in this number, has done what he calls a “total translation” of Frank Mitchell’s “Horse Songs” from the Navajo. Norbert Lange translates the American English, itself a translation from the Navajo, into German. The first line of the “Dreizehnter Horse Song”:

Sind ‘ne Pracht N wnohu nnnn doch sind ‘ne & sind in mein Wnahus wnohu nnda gaheegkomnen

Concealed in the sound of this line is this: “They, the splendor, came into my house.”

Or (in my quick back-translation):

“A splendid N hnus nnnn a & caemen into my Hnos hnohu nnda into”

Rothenberg describes, again translated into English by Norbert Lange, his work with sound and repetition and the meaning beyond meaning.

It reminds me of what Walter Benjamin called “pure language” in his “The Task of the Translator”:

While that ultimate essence, pure language, in the various tongues is tied only to linguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted with a heavy, alien meaning. To relieve it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the symbolized, to regain pure language fully formed in the linguistic flux, is the tremendous and only capacity of translation. In this pure language — which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages — all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished. This very stratum furnishes a new and higher justification for free translation; this justification does not derive from the sense of what is to be conveyed, for the emancipation from this sense is the task of fidelity. Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation bases the test on its own language.. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. (trans. by Harry Zohn)

And, of course, it reminds me of the sounds of the Navajo language I grew up with in Farmington, New Mexico, check-to-jowl with the Navajo Reservation, of what seemed to me alien chants on the radio broken now and then, abruptly for me since I could hear only the sound, by scraps of advertisements like JACK’S BOOTS AND SADDLES!


This issue of Schreibheft also brings “total translations” of the untranslatable Brazilian Haroldo de Campos and the equally untranslatable American William Bronk.

The arrival this week of Schreibheft #82 was well timed, as I’ve been thinking a lot about translation. I’m currently translating Mendel’s paper in which he first reports on his hybrid pea plants (together with a friend who is a Mendel specialist in the field of genetics). And I recently finished the first English translation of Peter Handke’s book-length poem Gedicht an die Dauer / To Duration for Last Books, Amsterdam. April is the projected release.

Phil Baber, Last Books editor and book designer, sent me this image from the German Literary Archive in Marbach, a page from the notebook Peter Handke wrote in while he was thinking about duration:

dauer-notes 6

The 2 March 1986 entry begins with “The poem about duration: What has duration and what has no duration? (I would like to begin writing right away).”

Reading Peter Handke always makes me want to begin writing right away. I’m not sure just why. There is something inviting about his texts, something that raises questions about writing, something that provokes a response—not just a readerly response but a writerly response. I read his Die Wiederholung and want to follow the narrator across the border into what is now Slovenia, want to write about the experience, want to write, with Zarko Radakovic, what became our Repetitions. I read his Gedicht an die Dauer and set my pen to a translation.

. . .  for more about Radakovic and Handke and their translation of Dis, see THIS blog post.

. . . and finally, HERE a short film of the reading.

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Nina Pops’ Cutouts

Nina Pops continues to make her cutouts.

Here a couple of new ones:



I find these cutouts as interesting as anything I’ve seen recently. Whether in a book, in a frame, or simply on a table, their simplicity makes a heart stand still (nunc stans) while their complexity makes a mind juxtapose an unexpected third dimension against the expected two. Back and forth between stillness and motion, my eye/mind (my mind’s eye) makes me smile and when I look again—makes me think of grace.

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Wile Rides & Wildflowers: Caveat Lector

There’s a very nice review of the book in this morning’s Deseret News (or Deseret Snooze as my friend Elaine Jarvik — their best writer until they downsized her — calls it).

As the newspaper always does, it warns potential readers:

“The book contains moderate swearing throughout and has occasional mild references to sex.”

Moderate and mild won’t sell many books, I tell Sam.

The author of the review, Elizabeth Currey, is a generous reader:

“Abbott is a professor of philosophy and is a German literature scholar, and Rushforth is an ecology professor and botanist. The authors manage to weave together two such disparate subjects as philosophy and botany with skill, ease and a dose of humor.

“Though it’s tempting to gloss over the detailed, often technical descriptions of flora and fauna, that would be a mistake. These passages and their subjects often become metaphors and life lessons, and some of the most poignant observations come mixed in with these sections on wildflowers.

“Likewise, the book becomes about more than riding bikes and admiring nature throughout the four seasons. It also provides an intimate glimpse into the minds and hearts of two men, and the outcome is both surprising and refreshing.”

Read the entire review HERE.

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Invitation to a Book Launch: Wild Rides & Wildflowers

Invitation to a Book Launch: Wild Rides & Wildflowers

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Surveillance by Barbed Wire

1885 Glidden Barb-Fence Journal (“Why Barb Fencing Is Better Than Any Other”)

It is the cheapest; it is the most indestructible; it is proof against wind; proof against flood; proof against fire; proof against snow drifts; proof against vermin. It casts no shade; it does not exhaust the soil. It is not stolen for fuel. It does not decay; boys cannot crawl through or over it; nor dogs; nor cats; nor any other animal; it watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down and lengthwise; it prevents the “ins” from being “outs;” and the “outs” from being “ins;” watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long; it is the lightest to handle; the strongest when erected; the easiest to transport. It saves lumber, nails, labor, vexation, time, patience, profanity and the crops. It answers all requirements of a perfect fence; it is in fact the only perfect fence.


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Find the Cat (Bella)

Find the Cat (Bela)


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Smiling American

Why, the author asked him over the third (or was it the fourth?) bottle of wine, after midnight in the deserted dining room of the Hotel Moskva in downtown Belgrade, why, the author asked him, why are you always smiling?

He didn’t know what to say.

Why do you smile like that? Why are you constantly smiling? Why do Americans smile so much.

We learn it in school, he finally answered. It’s part of our American curriculum, he claimed.

He was unable— and this, perhaps, proved the author’s point — to respond with aggression of his own.

He had wondered about this.

Why was he so anxious to please? Why did he always express interest in the other person’s work while the other person ignored his own? Why was a smile his default response in company?

He drank his wine (the author’s choice—white wine—not his own) and pondered the author’s question while cursing the author for having asked it, for having asserted it, for having assaulted him with it.

Why did he smile so much?

He didn’t smile much when alone. He was no longer the optimistic enthusiast, the naively hopeful young man he had once been. He lived, rather, with depression. More often than with joy. Thinking that fact, he lamented the loss—and welcomed the insight.

Why then did he smile so much? The author was right, he thought. And he wished he were wrong.

Did his friend Zarko think he smiled like a silly American? Like a weakling? Like an idiot?

Did he really smile so much? Too much?

If he did, did that mean he was shallow? That he had no center, no will, no force, no purpose other than to please?

His friends (Alex, Sam, Steven, Zarko) were difficult, troublesome, cantankerous, brilliant men. Was he their friend because he smiled so much, because he put up with their assertiveness?

Was he a dog who wagged his tail in the presence of anyone who might have something for him? Was he the author’s dog?

Jebi ga! he thought. Fuck it! he thought.

And then he smiled again at the grim-faced author.

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