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July 20, 2019

     Coming across new vocabulary is one of the great pleasures of translating, and I can’t help but share my delight in coming across the word srėbtuvė. A bit of explanation: the ending -tuvė is often used in nouns that describe a place where some work is done, for example spaustuvė, a printing house (made from the verb spausti, to press), slėptuvė, a hiding place (from slėpti, to hide) or virtuvė, a kitchen, (from virti, to cook). It’s also frequently used for tools, like keptuvė, a frying pan (keptis, to fry), or trintuvė, a grater (from trinti, to rub or grind.)

     Well, then, let’s talk about the verb srėbti, which makes up this delightful word srėbtuvė. Although the Lithuanian dictionaries give its first meaning as “to eat a liquid with a spoon,” I think of it most in connection with its second meaning, to slurp, probably from childhood admonitions on how not to eat. Does this begin to give you an idea of the definition of srėbtuvė? Yes, indeed, it means your mouth, or lips! (It is also used to mean a drunkard. The list of Lithuanian synonyms for drunkard is undoubtedly astounding.) 

     Examples of usage from the dictionary include:

srėbtuvę paleisti, “let your srėbtuvė go,” or start screaming

srėbtuvę aušinti, cool off your srėbtuvė by talking needlessly

srėbtuvę uždaryti shut your srėbtuvė

     I’m trying to think of a way to make a good English equivalent. Slurparium? Although slurpette almost sounds for real...

March 26, 2019

     I feel rather silly that I hadn't thought of looking for magpies on youtube before. After all, Pica Pica Press in interested in all things relating to its namesake. I do try to avoid the ones of pet magpies, though—they tend to make me sad. Here's some brief reviews:

     This one features a pause to give a sweep over the location—the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, a "this is where this guy lives" kind of shot. I'm pretty damn envious of the view, bird, but a parking lot is still a parking lot. And then the magpie seems to be stamping its feet, which comes long after you've begun to wonder — is that damn bird trying to talk? (See pet videos.)

     A troublesome magpie tries to get the attention of a dog by whimpering. The dog isn't having it and uses univeral inter-species body language to say: I don't see you, ergo, you don't exist. Go away.

     Magpie flight is about what you would expect: in slow motion, they really do look like thugs surveying their territory. The landing, however, is utterly spectaular, a magnificent slap in the face to the pathetic earth-bound creature they've just left behind. 

Enjoy your trip down the rabbithole...

August 13, 2018

     Let me explain. These are nouns that are common in the sense that they are both masculine and feminine. (Ahem—some may actually remember the concept of masculine and feminine nouns from your high school foreign language classes.) But these nouns are certainly not ordinary; you don’t come across them very often in writing. Most often they’re pretty insulting. In the course of indulging my fascination with them, I started a list that I kept stuck to the refrigerator. I’ve had native Lithuanians look it over and express amazement that they were so many they’d never heard of, which makes me suspect that many are dialectical. Nevertheless, quite a few fall into the category of my favorite words. They are all, so far as I can tell, nouns for people (or animals) with particular characteristics, and very useful indeed for insults, although they can also be terms of endearment.

     Take naktibalda, for example. Made from a mash-up of naktis (night) and baldyti (to knock, to bang or to roam, to gad about), it’s a wonderful word for the teenager who likes to stay up late at night. Another one I love is čiupna, from čiupinėti (to finger, to touch, to handle). This perfectly describes my son, who, as a child, could not keep his hands off things. He would usually finger them into fragments, so setting anything down on the kitchen table was an invitation to disaster. But I’ve known adults who were just as bad.

     As you can imagine, it is sometimes very difficult to come up with an appropriate translation for words like this—if anyone can come up with a direct translation for čiupna, I beg you to let me know, and I’ll add it to my list! They often don’t even appear in translation dictionaries, and the Oxford American thesaurus is too polite to include entries for insults, so you’re left hunting your memory for the really appropriate ones. After all, a lout is not necessarily the same as an oaf. And sometimes there is a direct translation that somehow seems lacking: I cannot tell why, but žiopla seems much stronger than “gaper.” I suppose “gaping fool” is closer, but now we’re into multiple words.

     Other Lithuanian words do have plenty of English equivalents to pick from, like, for example, the multitude of words for a chatterbox (čiauškalas, kliauga, niektauza, pačiauška, papliauška, and many more). Another set of words that seem equally popular in both languages are those for stupid people. Then there’s this charming Lithuanian word: švėna, for someone who talks nonsense, slowly. Now that’s getting pretty specific, but it does sound like a particularly hellish combination.

     The Lithuanian words I find most difficult to find English equivalents for are the ones that describe a person’s physical characteristics. Let’s be totally not politically correct! Curiously, or perhaps not given the cultural background, there are a lot of them. Whereas English seems to restrict itself mostly to height and weight, in Lithuanian there’s words like tursa, a stooped person, and gūra, a large, stooped person; sketra, someone who swings their arms as they walk; and pampla, a short person with a potbelly. There are also quite a few that describe a person, or let’s hope more frequently an animal, in terms of their health. So you have gargalas, someone who wheezes when they talk, or is short of breath; susna, a scabby, mangy creature; gaišena, a sickly, weak person or animal (from the word gaišti, which is used to describe an animal dying); alseika or dusna, a breathless person; and išdvasa, dvasna, or džiūsna, a dried-up, weak, shriveled person. Or animal. The Lithuanians were farmers, after all! 

     The Lithuanian’s Yiddish neighbors seem to have had a similar taste for nouns to describe people, and to our good fortune, a number have come into English: just for starters, there’s klutz, kvetch, nebbish, schmuck, schmoe, schnook, schlepper, schlimazel, schlemiel, schlub—(why do so many start with “sch”?), and zhlub. Undoubtedly other neighborhood languages are rife with these as well. Perhaps a comparative dictionary is in order?

     If anyone is interested, drop me a line at info@picapica.press and I’d be happy to share my list of these special Lithuanian nouns.

February 15, 2017

      I have often been tantalizingly informed that the characters in Ričardas Gavelis’s fiction are recognizably based on real people in Lithuania. My ears always perk up. Oh? Really? I would find this a bit difficult to imagine if I hadn’t, in my lifetime, come across some pretty bizarre characters myself.

     There’s something about certain places that seems to attract the oddballs, and Vilnius is certainly one of them. Strangely, this doesn’t always remain a stable thing. Maybe it’s just something about the period and not the geography? Take San Francisco, for example. Although my last visit there was brief, the place even smelled differently than it did in the early 1970s, and was most certainly much tamer. The oddballs, I’m afraid, have been chased out. Instead of listening to a cynical old black guy on the bus muttering, “I think Ray Charles can see,” I find myself crammed into a space in a sidewalk cafe and forced to listen to two young women interminably discussing their latest shopping finds.

     Gregory Rexroad’s stories about Carl Ellis, otherwise known as “The Swami,” would have seemed completely outrageous if I hadn’t occasionally had the opportunity to see Carl and his followers on the streets of Urbana, Illinois (also in the 1970s). And quite a sight it was, too. For some reason it’s mostly his bare legs – fat, pasty white, with scraggly dark hairs – sticking out beneath his too-short robe that stays with me. Carl himself has made his way into literature: I’ve some across at least one mention of his exploits in the campus heating tunnels, in Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. I’ve not read enough of David Foster Wallace to know if Carl might not have made an impression on Wallace, too, who was a boy in Urbana at the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

     So as I said, I’m always curious about the people Gavelis found intriguing, but seldom seem to get any solid names. So I was delighted to read Loreta Mačianskaitė’s article “Balys Sruoga as a Character: A Few Texts by Ričardas Gavelis in the Light of Cultural Memory” available (in Lithuanian with English summary) here. In the article, she argues that the portrait of Professor Bolius in Vilnius Poker is based in part on Balys Sruoga, who wrote about his experiences in the Stutthof concentration camp in Dievų miskas (translated into English as Forest of the Gods) and in part on Rapolas Mackonis, who had the misfortune to be imprisoned in both Stutthof and the Gulag.

     Even more intriguing, in a footnote Mačianskaitė mentions the sculptor and painter Teodoras Kazimieras Valaitis (1934–1974), who mysteriously died in a fire, as the basis for the character Teodoras Žilys in Vilnius Poker. The painting above is an example of Valaitis’s work from the Lithuanian National Gallery. Whose portrait, I wonder—Lolita’s, or Stefa’s?

November 9, 2016

     I’m afraid recent events are, as usual, intruding upon the subject of translation, or is it the other way around? But how could you possibly find a more appropo book to be translating in the year of Trump than Sun-Tzu? Here I offer up a paragraph from the chapter on Minister Mureika. See if you don’t agree:

    "He resembled a giant plastic bag filled with sticky starch paste. That bag was bizarrely twisted and had a multitude of nooks, weirdly similar to human body parts. He was even expertly painted in the color of a human body. In the dimness you could even be fooled into taking that bag, widening at the bottom, for a human being. A tall, sturdy man with clumsy paws and giant, clean buttocks. The man who first called officials the Great Buttocks had undoubtedly seen Mureika in a dream...

     ...He gave off the smell of the starch paste that filled him. He could splash himself with some suitable toilet water, but he couldn’t hide that smell—at least not from me. To me he seemed like a large and disgusting secret of nature. I always wanted to comprehend him, rummage around in his guts and research his structure. But I was afraid that nothing but fatty, thick starch paste would ooze out of him. It seemed hideously disgusting to get my hands soiled with him."

April 12, 2016

     My friend Giedrius Subačius asked me a question I ponder often: which books or writers I’ve translated were the most difficult? The glib answer is, the bad ones. And it’s true: there’s nothing so difficult as making a readable sentence out of poorly-thought out one. Into this category, unfortunately, fall several of the academic articles I’ve done.

     But there’s a flip side to this question, too, which is why are some writers such a pleasure to translate? Ričardas Gavelis stands out in this regard. I can’t say translating his writing is easy, but I can most definitely say it is not boring. But the oddest thing is how life keeps intruding into the book, or his book into your life. Here’s an example. It started with a news item that showed up on my Facebook page, about the millionaire Swiss (formerly Russian) 52-year old widow of Robert Louis-Dreyfus giving birth to twins. For real?

     I spent a good five minutes staring at this woman’s picture in absolute horror. I've come across victims of plastic surgery in person, but I can never bring myself to actually look them in the face, it's so dreadful. Somehow, television disguises it fairly well, or at least it did before high-definition. There's thousands of pictures of her out there, but I don't see any in which she doesn't look like a human prosthesis.

     And then what is the title of the next chapter of Sun-Tzu? Why, “The Intentions of the World Hegemony of Prostheses.” Now, how can you not have fun with a text like that? In it, Gavelis indulges us in every last bit of horror we could possibly have on the subject. For a treat, here’s just two paragraphs (very early draft!):

     "But that afternoon I just swallowed my saliva in despair, not daring to open my mouth. My first father’s family were enjoying life. That’s the way I remember them—like in some Lithuanianized Bruegel painting. A white tablecloth with long fringe was spread on an outdoor table. My first father sat there, a plate set next to him of an exhibit not yet catalogued in his deconstruction room, something resembling the dismembered paw of a frog. My legless uncle, as always, didn’t even take a plate of food, just a sizable glass of vodka. Grandmother flitted about the table; even back then she liked to fly. And just the yellowish prosthesis glared at all of them from under its disgusting prosthesis eyelids. By no means was it a fake piece of Uncle’s body; it was an independent predatory beast lying in perpetual ambush. It was a yellowish hyena feeding on corpses. That hyena was relishing the taste of my uncle’s corpse in advance; it had already infected Uncle’s body with poison, and knew the day of his imminent death.

     That prosthesis rubbed the stump of my uncle’s leg raw and injected its poisonous saliva into the little cut. My thunder-voiced, noisemaking uncle thought it nothing, but in reality it was a mortal bite. My uncle was hit by a lightning-fast sepsis; he didn’t even manage to grasp that he was dying; he just got delirious, and then he didn’t even know he was already dead. Uncle lived by himself, so no one missed him until the neighbors couldn’t stand it anymore because of the unbearable stench of the corpse. All that week or longer, the yellow prosthesis hyena ate his corpse. They say it chewed off the entire stump of his leg, up to the hip, up to the very crotch, and even started eating his right gonad. My first father kept that bitten, blackened testicle in his collection. Sometimes he would look at it for a long time, trying to understand the writing only he could see on that macabre exhibit. I don’t know how my father understood that story of the prosthesis, but there was a great deal I grasped all too clearly."

March 8, 2016

     Well, a major read of Tūla is coming to a close, and I must admit, I feel rather sorry; it’s been so much fun. An aspect of Kunčinas’s writing that I really love is the changes of register and tone; sometimes he’s lyrical, sometimes he’s reflective, and sometimes he’s just plain chatty. And then there’s all the details, everything from the devil-shaped door handle on St. Anne’s Church (above) to the names of the Soviet-era alcoholic drinks (and quite an extensive list it is, too). I particularly liked “Senasis Ąžuolas,” which translates to “Old Oak.” An evocative name! First it brings to mind our American variants on this theme, for example, “Southern Comfort” and “Wild Turkey.” But of course, for Lithuanians it would be an oak, given their reverence for oaks, this leftover from their pagan days. What is the human urge to give sweet, strong liquors these types of names? Ethno-linguistic study, anyone?

     Hmm. The results of an internet search? In English, I turn up a rather obscure rum from Trinidad & Tobago, mostly available on British web sites. In Lithuanian, a 2009 story about police arresting someone with a trunk full of bottles of it with obvious counterfeit labels (in Russian!) and a government website listing liquor standards, which makes it look like the Lithuanians stopped manufacturing it in 1996. Bummer!

February 7, 2016

     Jurgis Kunčinas twice uses the appellation, in Lithuanian, gatvių artojai, "plowmen of the streets" in the novel Tūla. The plowing refers to the posture of this class of people; they appear, from their concentraion on the sidewalk in front of them, to literally be plowing the streets. (Perhaps it also reflects that distinctive stance of the shoulders that was so obvious to a Western eye: in the 1990s, you could spot the Eastern European immigrant standing on a train platform from half a block away, merely by the way they held themselves.) But it also refers to someone who is constantly walking around the streets of the city, looking for — a life? Just to get away from a miserable living situation? They're dirty and unshaven. They hang out in cafes.

     I've been struggling with how to translate this. I was really doubtful about a literal translation: plowmen have been gone so long from our culture that it doesn't really bring a clear picture to mind. Now if I think of Lithuanian plowmen, I instantly remember a woodcut engraving of a man at a plow from some piece of classic literature. Which book has, however, evaporated. But I suspect if I tried I could easily find more than one.

     Ah, the power of the media! Lithuanians have told me that growing up, they got really tired of reading about life in the kaimas, especially since, due to the immense migration of Lithuanians to the cities in the 1950s and 60s, they were growing up in town. For us in the United States, things happened earlier; as far as I know, Truman was the last president to have actually plowed the earth. Or else we've simply put too little emphasis on life in the country to have numerous classics of literature on the subject. Have the Lithuanians retained closer ties to the earth? Check out this wonderful video (above) of a bunch of schoolchildren on an expedition to a bee-keeping museum in Lithuania (it's all in Lithuanian, but pretty understandable, anyway).

January 1, 2016

     Once again, the twenty-tome Dictionary of the Lithuanian Language has come to my rescue, this time cheering me with one of its examples for the word kliudyti, which means “to obstruct, to get in the way.” The quote is from the nineteenth-century newspaper Auszra, 1885, p. 30:


Nieko nekliudo apsirikimai; ko vienas negal atspėti, pagelbės antras ir trečias.


     Which I would translate as:


Errors never get in the way; you still haven’t solved one, and a second or third will come to the rescue.


     Believe me, after an entire month of going over and over and over the text for Frank Kruk, that really hits the spot.

October 11, 2015

Sidetracks are a professional hazard for a translator; after all, you need to know every last bit of it, don't you? Translating Jurgis Kunčinas's 1993 novel Tūla proved particularly hazardous, and undoubtedly explains why the translation is taking so long. Take, for example, the artist Juozapas Kamarauskas. I'm not sure, but I think the aquarella mentioned in the novel is a part of his Vilnius Plan in Pictures 1923 – 1928. But I had a great time browsing Kamarauskas's other works, which seem to be widely available on the Internet. A virtual show from the Lithuanian Art Museum has some wonderful examples. The website epaveldas.lt has more, but unfortunately, the website interface is terrible, or at least, my web browser keeps getting tangled up in it.

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