Peter Handke’s “Head Coverings in Skopje”

On a bright November morning, with hope for relief from nationalist and xenophobic provocations by our current red-hatted narcicist-in-chief, I offer this translation of Peter Handke’s paean to “and” as opposed to “or” (from the book Once Again for Thucydides).

Head Coverings in Skopje

A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as, for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodby to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). It was snowing in southernmost Yugoslavia and thawing at the same time. And then a man passed by with a white, crocheted forage cap shot through with oriental patterns under the dripping snow, followed by a blond girl with a thick bright stocking cap (topped by a tassel), followed immediately by a bespectacled man with a beret, a dark blue stem on top, followed by the beret of a long-legged soldier and by a pair of peaked police caps with concave surfaces. A man walked past then with a fur cap, earlaps turned up, in the midst of swarms of women wearing black cloths over their heads. After that a man with a checked fez — slung over his ear, in magpie black and white, Parzival’s half-brother, piebald Feirefiz. His companion carried a leather-and-fur cap, and after them came a child with a black-and-white ear band. The child was followed by a man with a salt-and-pepper hat, a black-market magnate suavely making his way along the Macedonian bazaar street in the slushy snow. The troop of soldiers then, with the Tito-star on the prows of their caps. After them a man with a brown-wool Tyrolean hat, front brim turned down, the back brim turned straight up, a silver badge on the side. A little girl hopping by with a bright deerskin hood, lined. A man with a whitish-gray shepherd’s hat wound by a red band. A fat woman with a linen-white cook’s scarf, fringed in the back. A young man with a multi-layered leather cap, each layer a different color. A man pushed a cart and had a plastic cap over his ears, his chin wrapped in a Palestinian scarf. One man walked along then with a rose-patterned cap, and gradually even the bareheaded passersby seemed to be equipped with head coverings — hair itself a covering. Child, carried, with a night cap, intersected by woman with slanted, broadly sweeping movie hat: there was no keeping up with the variety. A beauty in glasses walked past with a pale violet Borsalino hat and sauntered around the corner, followed by a very small woman with a towering cable-knit hat she had knitted herself, followed by an infant with a sombrero on its still open fontanel, carried by a girl with an oversized beret made in Hongkong. A boy with a shawl around his neck and ears. An older boy with skier’s earmuffs, logo TRICOT. And so on.  That beautiful And so on. That beautiful And so on.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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4 Responses to Peter Handke’s “Head Coverings in Skopje”

  1. Alex Caldiero says:

    ON READING TRANSLATIONS

    Whenever I’m confronted with a text in another language that I don’t understand, a language unknown to me, the first thing I wonder about is the accuracy of the translation, and so I begin to compare translations trying to almost divine or ferret out what the original might mean,
    all the while having no idea of what the real original is saying, so as I read I try to pick out, or rather, certain features begin to stand out about language itself, some of these features are awkward wordings, ungrammatical sentences, fractured syntax, that just don’t feel right or sound right or mean right in the language of the translation — a translation by it’s very nature is an approximation of something you don’t know; the translation is a sort of glimpse of the unknown; the unknown text of the original — I’ve asked myself often about the original and weather the text that it was first written in if all the thought of the expression was first expressed is not the original but in itself is already a later version, even as it is coming forth from the author, a confrontation with something unknown deep inside or do you also know them so that we never really can really talk about an original, that there is no original text, but that’s a thought for another discussion.

    So, when I get this excerpt sent to me by my friend Scott Abbott seized from Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides, regarding the head coverings in Skopje, and has made a translation of that excerpt, so let me read the very first sentence:

    A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montage” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodbye to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/ Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). It was snowing in southernmost Yugoslavia and thawing at the same time. And then a man passed by with a white crocheted forage cap shot through with oriental patterns under the dripping snow, followed by a blond girl with a thick bright stocking cap (topped by a tassel), followed immediately by a bespectacled man with a beret, a dark blue stem on top, followed by the beret of a long-legged soldier and by a pair of peaked police caps with concave surfaces….

    Let me stop right there—–

    Let me read the first sentence of the same text in a translation by Tess Lewis who am assured is a good translator and a very fine translation.

    A possible brief epic: the different hats passing by in large cities. For example, in Skopje in Yugoslavian Macedonia on the tenth of December, 1987. Even in the middle of the of this city, there were those passe-montagne or mountain climbing hats that cover the nose as well as the forehead, leaving only the eyes free….
    Let me stop right there—

    A possible minor epic versus a possible brief epic. What made these translators choose those deviant translations, wordings? I must say that minor epic must be the more correct version because I’ve encountered that combination minor epic several times in my readings of native English texts whereas a brief epic is almost strange, so I choose minor epic as opposed to a major epic etc.

    The next phrase to look at is the different hats versus the various head coverings — here head coverings is very awkward in English, you could even be more accurate literally but it’s more awkward and I find different hats more natural and the better translation — and so I proceed sentence after sentence, juxtaposing one translation with another and using those criteria that I used for those two examples as guides towards the accuracy of one translation vis-à-vis another.

    I must confess that I ask myself over and over if the above is a good way of reading any text, piece by piece, phrase by phrase, any text, translator trying to get at the original (aura), or is it better to read on and on and on paragraph after paragraph and let the overall feeling and the overall rhythm and the overall meaning come across — these are questions that I’m still puzzling over, that is, how to best read translations to figure out, or divine, or even guess feel the original.

    —-a.(a.)f.caldiero

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    • Scott Abbott says:

      Alex, thanks for these thoughts on translation and on my translation. They are doubly interesting coming from another translator.
      Let me continue the conversation with the original opening sentence:
      Ein mögliches kleines Epos: das von den unterschiedlichen Kopfbedeckungen der vorbeigehenden Menschheit in den großen Städten, wie zum Beispiel in Skopje in Mazedonien / Jugoslawien am 10. Dezember 1987.
      My translation of that sentence:
      A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987.
      Lewis’s translation:
      A possible brief epic: the different hats passing by in large cities. For example, in Skopje in Yugoslavian Macedonia on the tenth of December, 1987.
      Let’s start with the hats you mention. Like “head coverings,” the German “Kopfbedeckungen” is more comprehensive than hats (German has the cognate “Hütte” Handke could have used) and includes the hood and the Palestinian keffiyeh and shawl that appear as the essay continues.
      Next the sentence itself that flows to describe the possible minor epic until it gets to the year. Why Lewis breaks this up into crisp, short, Hemmingwayesque semi-sentences, I have no idea. Her “the different hats passing by in large cities” cuts out two prepositions where Handke has three. Read my three-preposition version and you’ll find it more leisurely, not in such a hurry, more like the people that are about to pass by. Handke has long chosen the rhythms of long and convoluted sentences and it feels important to me to reproduce that in good, flowing English sentences.
      Additionally, she has the hats passing by as if they were Gogol’s nose. There are no people in her version, just the hats. The various hats represent the various people. This isn’t a description of the various hats in a hat shop but of a wonderfully diverse set of human beings.
      Further, that Handke mentions Macedonia first, and then Yugoslavia, gives it a touch of independence from the larger state…important to the people in Skopje whose native language isn’t Serbo-Croatian, the official language of Yugoslavia.
      You’ve led me, Alex, to question my choices as a translator and to compare them to hers. So far, I think, mine is the better of the two.

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  2. Alex Caldiero says:

    Scott, the next portion leaves me totally perplexed, when confronted by alternate translations. Who can I trust? How am I to know?

    Abbott:
    There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montage” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodbye to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/ Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried).

    Lewis:
    Even in the middle of this of this city, there were those passe-montage or mountain climbing hats that cover the nose as well as the forehead, leaving the eyes free. The small black skullcaps of the cart drivers passed among them, while on the sidewalk an old man, wearing a hood covered with pointed gables like those on Islamic windows and pillars, said goodbye to his daughter or granddaughter from Titograd, Montenegro, or Vipava, Slovenian (the daughter or granddaughter was crying).

    Scott, in your response, you sort of hint at a very important consideration. The use of the term “hat” in your translation, you give “caps” (glued to their skulls vs. skullcaps).

    You both particularize the next occurrence of “hat” as “hood”

    (you: while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodbye to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/ Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament…)

    (she: wearing a hood covered with pointed gables like those on Islamic windows and pillars…)

    —and am again perplexed as how you two can come to such different renderings.

    Your explanations in defense of your translation, are good and you make your point by going back to the original German. And I wonder how Lewis would use the German in defense of her translation.

    But what I’m looking for is the symptoms in each variant translation that point to the condition of the original, and at the same time having no access to the original. Is such a task possible, or must we all be forced to go to the original?

    They (whoever they are) have said that certain writers/poets cannot be translated: Rilke/ Pushkin/ even Dante comes off poorly translated. Yet we have translations, multiple fo each of these. Lately, I could add Pasternak as untranslatable— and Handke??. It bugs me. If there are translators there’s gotta be translations. —- Lemme stop here. — I feel I may be entering a labyrinth, and I aint got no Ariadne’s thread. —– alex caldiero

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    • Scott Abbott says:

      I’ll start with the German again and then the varient translations:
      Es gab sogar, mitten in der Metropole, jene “Passe-Montagne” oder Gebirgsüberquer-Müthen, über die Nase unten und die Stirn oben gehend und nur die Augen freilassend, und dazwischen die Radkarrenfahrer mit schwarzen kleinen Moslemkappen, die fest auf den Schädeln saßen, während daneben am Straßenrand ein alter Mann Abschied nahm von seiner Tochter oder Enkelin aus Titograd/Montenegro oder Vipava/Slowenien, vielfache Spitzgiebel in seiner Haube, ein islamisches Fenster-und Kapitellornament (die Tochter oder Enkelin weinte).
      Abbott:
      There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodbye to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/ Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried).

      Lewis:
      Even in the middle of this city, there were those passe-montagne or mountain climbing hats that cover the nose as well as the forehead, leaving the eyes free. The small black skullcaps of the cart drivers passed among them, while on the sidewalk an old man, wearing a hood covered with pointed gables like those on Islamic windows and pillars, said goodbye to his daughter or granddaughter from Titograd, Montenegro, or Vipava, Slovenian (the daughter or granddaughter was crying).

      First point: “niece” is a mistake on my part. Lewis is right with “grandaughter”
      Second point: Lewis jumps from “schwarzen kleinen Moslemkappen, die fest auf den Schädel saßen” — literally black little Muslim caps, that sat firmly on the skull — to “the small black skullcaps” (and again makes the caps pass by rather than the people wearing them). See how Handke is more directly observing, describing the thing rather than slotting in the common word for the thing? They are indeed skullcaps, but she loses Handke’s way of describing them with that jump.
      Point three: Handke’s descriptions flow in a single sentence from the Passe-Montagne caps or hats (either works here) to the bicyclists with the Moslem caps that alternate with the first and to the old man next to them. A whole picture in a single sentence rather than Lewis’s two sentences. The rhythms of the long sentence contrast beautifully with the following short sentence: It was snowing and simultaneously melting in most-southern Yugoslavia.
      Fourth point: Lewis rearranges the last part of the sentence to make it more efficient. Handke, however, has constructed a passage ripe with tension: first, we don’t see a head covering and when it appears we have to think twice what just happened; finally the (afterthought); and the beginning: “next to them at the edge of the street,” which connects the persons rather than Lewis’s “while on the sidewalk.” There’s no sidewalk in the original.
      Fifth point: Lewis’s “wearing a hood covered with pointed gables like those on Islamic windows and pillars” adds the verb where there is no “wearing”; “covered” is unfortunate, for the gables are “in” the hood; her “pointed” is probably better than my “steep.” She leaves out the “ornament” Handke has and thus misses the idea that the hood with the gables is seen as the ornament.
      So, what’s a translator to do? Create what feels good/economical/immediately understandable in English although the German is full of uneconomical quirks that sometimes require a second reading? For me the genius of Handke’s writing is in the rhythms of the sentences and in the clarity and immediacies of the descriptions. It feels like Lewis ignores those rhythms and condenses the descriptions into abstractions.
      If you read our two translations of this sentence aloud, you’ll get a sense for that, I trust. Lewis may have the more readable version. I, at least I hope I do, have a sentence that brings Handke’s choices into English

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