Another Age: the Macedonian Poetry of Nikola Madzirov

Poetry may be the most difficult of all literary forms to translate, and yet the beauty and depth of poetry are appreciated beyond the bounds of any given language—thus, poetry begs to be translated. Some of the greatest poets commonly read in English—Rimbaud, for example—are translated from another language and yet their books out-sell the works of many English-language poets. To think however that a contemporary Macedonian poet’s work would be the focus of a popular press, a non-academic volume, and still be furnished the care and expertise expected for a major academic work is impressive—nearly outlandish—and yet that is exactly what BOA Editions has provided with their book of poems by Nikola Madzirov, Remnants of Another Age.

Born in 1973, Madzirov is of an especially adept age: old enough to recollect the harrowing times of Communist rule and the broken, uneven, transformation from Soviet models toward a new day of post-Yugoslavic independence; and young enough to view his Macedonia as acute, immediate, and not nostalgic, what it is and what it will be, without coloring it in Soviet tones. An accomplished writer, Madzirov has gained serious attention in the world arena for someone not writing in a majority language and this new volume is not his only work to be translated. Still, he is very much a living Macedonian writer and not simply a writer from Macedonia: the tenor and tone of his native language are plenty apparent in his work, even in translation, and obvious is the crucial importance of his native language in how he constructs his poems. With that in mind, any attempt at translation of Madzirov is going to be a delicate and complex undertaking. Beyond the aspects of language and native culture, it also must be noted that while a poet, Madzirov is a writer with vast interests—like the Russian journalist William Pokhlyobkin, Madzirov is keen on political issues but mostly in their relation to personal, social, and daily discourses of life.

When Remnants of Another Age arrived in the post from BOA, I flipped it open and noticed it itself was a work of translation: the original Macedonian Cyrillic appears on the left side with the translated English text on the right. Though I’d heard of Madrizov, somehow I didn’t make the connection with this book, at first; glancing quickly at the Cyrillic I played the game all who read Russian do—it was, obviously, non-Russian Cyrillic, so what is it? An exciting moment, discerning which of the other, less-common, languages that employ noble Cyrillic we had here on the page! When I realized it was Macedonian, I was even more excited: my own research foci within the Slavic languages are Bosnian and Serbian, so seeing a contemporary work of poetry in translation from Macedonian was a rare treat. Having the original source text aside the English translation was, without any overstatement, a powerful experience in pedagogy and literature for me. It also showed BOA’s courage and willingness to take a risk: selling any $16 book of poetry in today’s economic climate is a challenge, and one with half the pages devoted to a script few readers may be able to read is a greater venture yet. However, it is a challenge that should have ample rewards as BOA is doing a great service in making Madzirov’s work available in the United States and elsewhere.

Carolyn Forché provides an essay of introduction to this volume, a well-written and tersely cogent account but one laden with Forché’s personal experiences in meeting Madzirov. To introduce work of this caliber in such a manner from a poet from a nation that not all readers may know is imperative. To do such in as sublime a voice as Forché provides is a real credit to the poet and publisher alike.

While Madzirov has not set out to write poems that provide a history or atlas of his native land, it is important to understand how life differs in the Balkans from elsewhere. There is a powerful synergy in the Balkan states forged by years of Communism and more years of other empires, other means of rule. There are proud divisions of language and culture, but also a unified sense of understanding that goes well beyond the conflicts recent or long-past that have visited this region. The geography of mountains and verdant farms retains the lingering presence of Ottoman rule and even the pull of Turkish pop music on local “turbo-folk” dance techno and other influences is strong today with Macedonian, Bosnian, and Kosovar youth.

The second poem in this volume lives under the ungainly title of ”When Someone Goes Away Everything That’s Been Done Comes Back”, a title that portends much and a poem that provides even more:

In the embrace on the corner you will recognize

someone’s going away somewhere. It’s always so.

I live between two truths

like a neon light trembling in

an empty hall. My heart collects

more and more people, since they’re not here anymore.

If I am to find any error or complaint with Madzirov’s book, it is that this poem is given to us second, and not first. It is a perfect introduction to his world and some of the leading themes throughout the book. That said, ”After Us”, the poem that in fact opens the book certainly works well, too:

One day someone will fold our blankets

and send them to the cleaners

to scrub the last grain of salt from them,

will open our letters and sort them out by date

instead of by how often they’ve been read.

Taking the opening lines of these two poems, we can quickly discern a sense of not only longing but an expansive exploration of emotion wrought from shared experience (and the fact that those experiences may not always remain intact). Slightly further into the book, in ”Shadows Pass Us By”, Madzirov appears to offer some level of solace or at least climax, though, to this process of lonesome removal:

One day, the wind won’t

change direction.

The birch will send away leaves

into our shoes on the doorstep.

The wolves will come after

our innocence.

The butterflies will leave

their dust on our cheeks.

We may have a hint of resolution here, yet we also have such wolves after our innocence. Here, as often in Madzirov’s poetry, there is a sense of escape but also a sense of the imperative for such escape. The characters who people his poems are half the time in transit, in flight, and half the time already gone. There is a sense of autumnal winsomeness yet also a feeling of suspense in his work. Back in ”When Someone Goes Away”, Madzirov reminds us of the acute nature of the never-ending, long-standing, process of transition:

We forget

things even before we lose them –

the calligraphy notebook, for instance.

Nothing’s ever new. The bus

seat is always warm.

So it seems like a circle, a circle each person takes part in, knowingly or not, a circle that we all have a cycle within—even those wolves. From this cycle, this circle, we garner the remnants of all ages. His poems, though short, are deep, sturdy, robust creations. After reading four or five , one may feel as if in the midst of something grand—something of a heavy tome rather than this book of only 104 pages. This is to suggest that the translations demand attention and time, and for the reader who can make them out, Madzirov’s originals in Macedonian invite a contrast to the translations. All in all, it’s enough to keep you up at night with the book for a long while.

For the American reader, it cannot be stressed enough that Madzirov comes from a place where history isn’t something just learned in a textbook or considered on the Fourth of July but something as natural as leaves and bone in all fabrics of life, just as geography isn’t confined to a map but etched in lives old and young alike. Or perhaps better than using etching as a metaphor, we should consider serigraphy: the silkscreen process that deposits ink in thick liquid layers on paper or cloth. For that mechanism of coating, of printing, is how history and geography intersect in the Balkans. Macedonia, itself a nation just by a thread and a prayer; the Macedonian people, proud but with a language contested even by their Bulgarian neighbors (who believe Macedonian is in fact a mere dialect of Bulgarian), strive long and hard to legitimatize their very being. Geography and history, however, do not always offer evidence in their favor.

Given Madzirov’s original Macedonian included in this edition, I tried my own hand at translating some of his poems and then compared my efforts to those of the official translations. The translators on this project—who include several native speakers—have done a stellar job in imparting their translations with the sound, feel, and gravity of Madzirov’s pen. In places Madzirov’s language seems simple yet his ideas are sprawling and complex; the cultural application of language was probably a challenge to the translators in rendering Madzirov’s poems in language as simple and forward as his own, without  losing the nuanced undertones of his meaning. It certainly was a challenge to me. Madzirov is tough to read in places, and tougher still to translate: back in 1999 I published an article in the ATA Chronicle regarding the cultural challenges in translating contemporary Slavic literature and those points I feel are just as true over a decade later. The Slavic languages are filled with subtle metaphors and historical references that are treasures to discover yet do not lend themselves to a ready translation. There are places here and there such as the ”calligraphy notebook” mentioned in ”When Someone Goes Away” that could benefit from footnotes or other means of explanation. The Macedonian original is somehow more lovely though. It refers to the exact same and literal thing as the English, and through it all we still are unsure what a ”calligraphy notebook” is: for is it a workbook for learning calligraphy or a personal journal filled with beautiful writing? Madzirov’s sleek original here though deserves repeating:

Нештата

ги забораваме уште пред да ги изгубиме –

тетратката по краснопис, на пример.

The translators have expectedly left certain mysteries, but their work overall is superb and brings to life in English everything Madzirov seems to have intended. I expect he is happy with these translations and as a reader, I am happy, too. Someday I do hope for a scholar’s edition of Madzirov though—no doubt he will deserve such attention—where his contributions to Macedonian literature and the specifics of his native language alike will be detailed. Madzirov is a first-rate poet who deserves worldwide attention (and he is thankfully finding it), and the Macedonian language and its literature also deserves such attention. This slim volume is a noble introduction to both this poet and the larger Macedonian realm. For anyone with the background to read even some of the Macedonian text, it’s a joy to take on and proves rewarding. This volume provides that experience plus the experience of top-shelf contemporary poetry in translation.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Sunday Poem – Nikola Madzirov « Kim Moore

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