Tin Ujević was a real character, a bohemian kind of chap, a storyteller who frequented cafés and bars in the first half of the 20th century. He was one of Croatia’s best-loved poets, still is in fact, though he died 60 years ago this year. His work lives on in common culture, and just about everyone can produce a quote from Tin’s poems, or even sing it!
One of my favourites is the poem Odlazak, set to music by the incomparable Arsen Dedić. Both the lyrics and the melody are haunting, and I find myself singing the refrain for days after I’ve heard it. In this year of so much painful migration, the theme is particularly poignant.
Here are the words, and our translation into English
U slutnji, u čežnji daljine, daljine;
Malena mjesta srca moga,
I blijesak slavna šestopera,
Tamo, tamo da putujem,
da čujem one stare basne,
da više ne znam sebe sama,
In foreboding, yearning distance, distance;
Small places in my heart,
The flash of glorious goldfinch,
There, there to journey,
to listen to those old nursery stories,
to no longer know myself,
Now, I have to say that there’s some serious problems in translating Tin’s very beautifully crafted and evocative poem. There’s so much in the rhythm and the combination of sounds that make the original so brilliant. So I’m going to suggest that after getting the gist of the meaning, that you listen to the musical version with the Croatian words. Sing along if you feel like it, I always do!
It’s not just the rythms that are tricky, some of the words are poeticized (if that’s a word?) and can be quite obscure, especially if he’s using Dalmatian dialect. For example, “šestopera” translates literally as “six feather” – so what on earth is one of those? I see the explanation on the internet to help Croatian schoolkids says that this refers to a six-pointed mace. Really? This man reminiscing about his idyllic childhood on Brač and Imotski is thinking about a medieval weapon of war?!! Instead, we’ve chosen to go with the lesser-known, and seemingly local informal use of šestoperac to refer to a type of gardelin or goldfinch, a bird very common and much-loved around Dalmatia. Recalling the flash of a goldfinch in flight makes a lot more sense in this scenario!
Now let’s try for a more expert translation of another of Tin’s poems, to give you a better flavour. The award-winning British poet Richard Berengarten has published a book called Tin Ujević: Twelve Poems, and he really brings out not just the meaning, but the poetry of the words. Here, with Richard’s kind permission, is one of the poems from his book.
|Zvijezde u Visini
Ne ljubi manje koji mnogo ćuti
Ćutanje kaže: u tuđem svijetu
|Stars on High
He loves no less who does not waste his words,
His silence says: in this world’s alien loneliness,
I’ll leave you with a powerful visual interpretation of departure, just as haunting and eloquent as Tin’s. It’s by the French artist and sculptor Bruno Catalano, in the port of Marseilles part of his series called “Voyageurs” (Travellers). Definite echoes of Tin Ujević!
Find out more:
That ends today’s poetry lesson, but if you’re interested and want to know more, here are some handy links to explore…
GoHvar: Tin Ujević – the car ferry and the poet (includes our translation of Bura na Braču)
Total Croatia News: Tin Ujević poetery recital on the eponymous ferry to Hvar
Wikipedia: Tin Ujević
International Literary Quarterly: Richard Berengarten bio
Shearsman Books: Richard Berengarten publications
Mediterranean Poetry: Tin Ujević (words and translations of 6 poems)
SIC Journal: Some Nimble Footing on the Coals: Tin Ujevic Lyricist, Some English Perspectives (more technical paper on the difficulties of translating his works)