Films, Literary Translation, Recommendations, Translation, TV series

New Words #9: Meet My Pal Hyacinthe

Folks, it’s high time I introduced you to this fine fellow.

A nineteenth-century lithograph depicting an older man with a large white mustache sitting on the floor and playing a small stringed instrument.
Lithograph of “Hyacinthe Maglanovich” by F. G. Levrault, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There he is, in all his glory: Hyacinthe Maglanovich, outlaw turned cowherd, renowned poet, virtuoso of the gusle, the finest bard in all of Dalmatia, and my unlikely companion through the early days of the Covid pandemic.

Hyacinthe is a central figure in La Guzla, a notorious collection of “Illyrian” folklore and travel narratives published in France in 1827. It was not, as originally claimed, the product of an anonymous translator’s effort to share what he’d learned while traveling in his mother’s homeland, but an early work of fiction by French author Prosper Mérimée, whose familiarity with the Balkans was . . . well, “minimal” would be putting it generously.

I first read La Guzla in grad school and was charmed by the sheer audacity and improbable success of Mérimée’s endeavor. These stories are melodramatic to the point of absurdity, and they rely heavily on Western European stereotypes of an exotic and unknowable “other” living beyond the Alps, yet readers bought it. I don’t mean people literally bought the book—it was far from a popular success—but certain folks who ought to have known better fell for the hoax. Scholars of Slavic literature attempted to translate the tales back into their “original” language, and Pushkin translated a selection of them into Russian. Even after the volume’s claims of authenticity had been disproven, Mary Shelley translated a few of the tales into English and wrote glowingly of the author’s depiction of “the rustic and barbarous manners” of the region’s inhabitants, their “wild energy,” and the near absence of “any vestige of civilization” in the narrative. (Yikes, Mary.) Aside from short excerpts, however, La Guzla had never been published in English.

Three years ago this week, I hurriedly returned home from an ill-timed trip to France and figured I’d use my two weeks of quarantine to get started on a project that had been on the back burner for too long: revisiting La Guzla with a view to translating it. The book was both more fun and more complex than I’d recalled. I still found the phony folklore and Hyacinthe’s convoluted biography enjoyable, but I was most intrigued by the copious footnotes provided by the alleged translator, whose often erroneous explanations of the tales’ history and their cultural and geographical context reveal more about him—the book’s anonymous and nearly invisible main character—than about his supposed area of expertise.

As La Guzla made its way into English as Songs for the Gusle, I had to contend with the existence of the internet, which presents both a resource and a challenge that Mérimée couldn’t have anticipated, especially when it comes to proper nouns. When Mérimée’s narrator told nineteenth-century readers that he traveled to a village called Poghoschiamy, they had no reason to question it, but a reader today can google that name and easily discover that it does not exist outside the context of La Guzla. Likewise, Mérimée’s contemporaries would not have balked at the Frenchification of character names like Hyacinthe and Jeannot, but an English-speaking reader today would find it more believable that Hijacint and Vanja (rather than Hyacinth and Johnny) were cavorting around the Adriatic coast in the early nineteenth century.

My goal, then, became to present character and place names that would feel plausibly authentic (Croatian-adjacent?) to most English-speaking readers without, of course, actually being authentic, which is impossible. (At one point in the translation process, I had a Post-it at my desk that read: “Don’t put more effort into this than Mérimée did.”) Was “Poghoschiamy” a French spelling of the actual village of Pakoštane? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s plausible enough. Googling it won’t spoil anyone’s suspension of disbelief. Mérimée probably threw a dart at an old Italian map and misspelled what he saw on it. Stop thinking about it! Just say Pakoštane!

The official release date of Songs for the Gusle is this coming Tuesday, March 21, and pre-orders are available at a discount through Monday. In the meantime, feel free to read an excerpt here and watch me read one of the fake folktales (minus the all-important footnotes) here. And please spread the word to anyone who might like to spice up their bookshelves with some tragic elopements, historically questionable assassinations, and practical tips for dealing with the vampires in your neighborhood.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.

An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) is the first Irish film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and that milestone hardly seems sufficient. As David Fear noted in his review for Rolling Stone, “In a just world, it would be up for a dozen other categories as well.” The film is full of sensitive performances and gorgeous cinematography, and the screenplay is a brilliant adaptation of Claire Keegan’s story Foster. Check out this interviewwith director and screenwriter Colm Bairéad about the process of adapting an English-language story into an Irish-language film, then watching it find a global audience.

The Reluctant Traveler (Apple TV+) follows Eugene Levy to some of the world’s most unique hotels, which his producers force him to leave so he can interact with the locals and have adventures he finds terrifying. (“The words seaand plane,” he notes during his stay in the Maldives, “only make me think of the words plunge and debris.”) Along the way, he befriends an orphaned elephant, steps into a typhoon simulator, and brushes up on his guitar skills to accompany a fado performance. The whole thing is delightful. And speaking of delightful . . .

Here, Look at My Cats

The world is a mess, your eyes are puffy because you’ve just sobbed your way through An Cailín Ciúin, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats, who provided invaluable editorial assistance on Songs for the Gusle.

A dilute tortoiseshell cat is sitting, more or less like a person, on a couch. She is holding a black ballpoint pen between her toes.
Alexis is a paws-on line editor.
A tuxedo cat sits on the photographer’s lap, on which a manuscript printout is partially visible. The cat looks over his shoulder up at the photographer with adoration.
David thought this draft was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. To be fair, he says that about everything I write.

Thanks as always for reading! See you back here soon.