What do you call a Slovenian Chicken?
By Claudia S Roland, on 10 December 2019
Our evening class student, Carol Griffiths, shares her experience of translating a short story from Slovene into English in the Slovene Advanced Plus course.
Here’s our challenge. In our SSEES UCL Advanced Plus Slovene class we were presented with a short story by the writer and activist Suzana Tratnik. Translating it on the surface seemed pretty simple, but Suzana is herself a translator and I would be reading our class’ translation in front her at the 100th anniversary of the University of Ljubljana celebrations at the Slovene Embassy. No pressure there then.
Suzana’s story is a beguiling tale about a hen which begins to speak. The writing which had seemed simple at first glance, proved pretty challenging for us to translate. First we had to pick our way through an evocative description of chicken behaviour, a subject on which we had previously not spent much time. Then we hit the name puzzle. The chicken’s name was Bejla – that translator’s nightmare, a play on words. How can you translate this chicken into English where the word for white is actually white? Eventually we decided to call the bird ‘Whitey’, which captured some of the essence of the Slovene name and felt like a credible option.
Having worked this out we then had a vigorous debate about how to render Slovene chicken-speak into English? Some of us felt that as the original had a clear meaning in Slovene the expression would have to make sense in English; others disagreed and wanted to leave it in the Slovene original.
In the end we opted for a transcreation (‘advertising-land speak’ for adapting a message from one language to another). This went some way to making sense of the bird’s utterance, but only Suzana really knows if we pulled it off or not!
So it was, like so much translation, a puzzle that needed unpicking. I love this kind of challenge: working through a text in close detail; divining the author’s intention; trying to ensure that every nuance is acknowledged and captured; and delivering all this in correct and fluent English. For me this really detailed work is a relatively painless way of picking up grammar and is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our Slovene class.
Suzana kindly said that she enjoyed the translation, so I breathed a sigh of relief, picked up a glass of the aptly named Krasno (which I’ll translate here as ‘wonderful’) Slovene wine and toasted my co-translators Maria Jansen, Martin Leeburn, Aidan Rush and Izidor Talampoikas, and our krasna teacher Maja Rančigaj Beneš.
KO SPREGOVORI BELA KURA
Stara mama je kot furija privihrala v kuhinjo. Naslonila se je na podboj vrat, zajela sapo in z žarečimi očmi vernice izdahnila:
»Bejla je spregovorila.«
Trenutek tišine je pretrgal stari oče: »Kaj pa je rekla?«
»Rekla je beee,« je vneto pojasnjevala stara mama. »In potem še nekaj takega kot teee-beee, ampak s človeškim glasom.«
Oče, mama, stari oče, podnajemnik in jaz smo stekli ven na dvorišče in se vsi ustavili pri kurniku. Obraze smo prislonili tesno ob žičnato ograjo in se zastrmeli v Bejlo, ki je živčno premikala glavo, negotovo stopicljala, kakor da bi ji bilo nerodno pred vsemi človeškimi pogledi izza ograje, in slednjič obstala z eno taco v zraku.
»Poslušajte, poslušajte, ljudje!« je rekla stara mama, ki je prihitela za nami, in tedaj se je bela kura s taco, ki jo je prej molela v zrak, popraskala po svoji ušivi glavi.
»A zdaj pa je ne boš zaklala, stara mama?« sem vprašala.
»Molči, sicer je ne bomo slišali govoriti!« mi je ukazala.
In potem smo še dolgo dolgo tiščali obraze ob žičnato ograjo in čakali, da Bejla ponovno spregovori. Kot nalašč se je sprehajala po kurniku in nas gledala postrani, vedno z leve ali z desne, kot so pač k temu primorane vse kokoši, ki imajo oči ob straneh glave. Včasih je kljunila kakšno zrnce ali smet na tleh, včasih kakšno drugo kuro, ki je od presenečenja zafrfotala s perutmi. Vmes je tudi dvakrat zazehala in pokazala trikotni jeziček, toda spregovorila ni več.
Vsi smo se zdrznili od vzklika za našimi hrbti in nekateri smo se prijeli za srce.
Tam za nami je stal poštar in rekel: »Prišel sem vam samo povedat, da tudi danes ni nič pošte za vašo hišo. Da me ne boste zaman čakali.«
Potem je visoko zavihtel desno nogo, se usedel na svoje vedno bleščeče se moško kolo, se v pozdrav s prstom dotaknil svoje poštarske kape in se odpeljal naprej po ulici.
Mi pa smo zrli za njim z vtisnjenimi sledovi žičnate ograje na obrazih.
WHEN THE WHITE HEN BEGAN TO SPEAK
Grandmother burst into the kitchen like a fury.
She leant on the door frame, took a deep breath and with the blazing eyes of a believer, gasped: “Whitey has spoken”.
Grandfather broke the moment of silence that followed: “So what did she say?”
“She said meheh,” grandmother excitedly explained. “And then something like meheh-beyey but in a human voice.”
Father, mother, grandfather, the tenant and I ran out into the yard and we all stood by the henhouse. We pressed our faces tightly against the wire fence and stared at Whitey, who was nervously moving her head, stepping uncertainly from one leg to the other, as if she were uncomfortable with all these humans looking through the fence, and finally she stopped, with one foot in the air.
“Listen, listen, everyone,” grandmother said, hurrying after us, whereupon the white hen scratched her lice-ridden head with the foot she had previously held off the ground.
“And now you won’t kill her, grandma?” I asked.
“Quiet, or we won’t hear her speak!” she ordered me.
And then we pressed our faces for a long, long time against the chicken wire and waited for Whitey to speak again. As if on purpose she was walking around the henhouse, looking at us askance, always from the right or left, as all chickens are obliged to do, their eyes being on either side of their heads. Sometimes she pecked at a grain or some scrap on the floor, sometimes she pecked at some other hen, which fluttered her wings, out of surprise. Meanwhile she twice yawned and showed the triangle of her tongue, but spoke no more.
We all jumped at the shout at our backs and some clutched at their hearts.
There behind us stood the postman, who said “I just came to tell you that there’s no post for you again today. Just so you won’t be waiting in vain.”
Then he swung his right leg high, mounted his always-gleaming bicycle, touched his postman’s cap in farewell, and pedalled off up the road.
We just gazed after him with the mark of the chicken wire imprinted on our faces.
Translated in the SSEES UCL Advanced Plus Slovene course by Carol Griffiths, Maria Jansen, Martin Leeburn, Aidan Rush and Izidor Talampoikas