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  • E. Novickas

Ploughing the brain

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 concentration 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).

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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 use

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