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Zapisi sa Svačke: Wendy Bracewell

My time spent at the DHKP residency in Zagreb was a wonderful opportunity to sit and concentrate on my translations of Hanibal Lucić’s verse, uninterrupted, for long stretches of time – no dog begging to be taken for a walk; no sudden realisation that I need to prepare a meal for my family, but haven’t yet done the shopping; no hastily scheduled visits to the doctor or the car repair shop. Instead I had all the pleasures of being in Zagreb again – wandering aimlessly in the Botanical Gardens listening to the frogs and birdsong; buying strawberries and peonies in the market; eating štrukli. But there were more idiosyncratic pleasures too, like getting my hands on Ivan Lupić’s new edition of Lucić’s complete works, so fresh off the press that I could smell the ink.

I’ve come to expect that getting out of my usual environment nearly always leads to productive serendipity – that transformative tumble into an unsought discovery or insight. I might expect it to happen, but it’s impossible to predict where it might come from.  This visit to Zagreb was no different. Serendipity emerged unexpectedly from conversations over coffee with old friends and new acquaintances, talking about everything under the sun, but most consistently about translation and, in particular, about my translations of a sixteenth-century Dalmatian poet whose work is scarcely well known, even in Croatia.

When people ask me why I’m translating Hanibal Lucić’s poetry, I have the usual answers, no less sincere for being well-rehearsed. I translate because it is the closest, most demanding kind of reading that there is, and I translate poetry because it offers the greatest rewards for that kind of reading. And why Lucić? Because he opens a way into a Renaissance world that is too little known to English-speaking readers, who tend to think only in terms of the English, French or Italian Renaissances. Lucić introduces us to a multicultural, plurilingual Renaissance, where the Croatian vernacular rubbed shoulders with the classics in Latin and with contemporary Italian literature, and where humanism flowered under the shadow of the Ottoman threat. Lucić epitomises the astonishing efflorescence of sixteenth-century literary creativity along the Adriatic. He was a remarkable poet, precocious in his treatment of themes and topics, experimental in his use of language, appealingly ambiguous in his presentation of selfhood. Translating him into English, it seemed to me, would be a way of ensuring that his poetic voice did not remain merely local, but instead reached a readership beyond Croatia.

So I was surprised – even taken aback – when the response to my translations from Croatian friends and colleagues frequently hinged on a paradox: they said that my English versions were more accessible and easier to understand for them than were the Croatian originals, which were difficult because of their use of dialect, their archaisms, or their unfamiliar syntax. The unexpected insight was that my translations would be assessed by a double audience – those for whom Lucić and his Croatian would be completely unfamiliar, and those for whom he would be both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. How does one translate for such a doubled readership, where some read Lucić’s poetry forward through the English into an (illusory) sense of Croatian verse, while others read backwards from English into their own tongue? And all the more since, like any translator of poetry, I’m acutely aware of the compromises and accomodations that have to be made, with an eye both to the target audience (but which one?) and to the source text. Recognising this double audience makes the inevitable compromise between an accurate translation and one that attempts to convey the magic of the verses particularly fraught – and leaves me unsatisfied with practically every choice I make.

But I have taken comfort and inspiration from Lucić himself. In finishing his cycle of love songs, he conjured up two sets of readers, each reading his poems in different ways, but both to their own advantage, while he distanced himself a little from his writings:

Tko bude čtil moje bludne ove pisni, Whoever reads these unchaste songs of mine, 

   Ljuben vrid ako je tarpio kad bisni,    who's borne Love's raging wound, forced to submit,

Znam da će mojemu po sebi on umit I know he'll feel my plight, and will admit

   Vesel'ju tašćemu i tuzi razumit. that my vain joys and woes with his align.

Ako l' u ljuben dvor još nogu nî stavil, If in Love's court he's not yet shown his face, 

   Zato sam prem nadvor tej pisni otpravil abroad these songs I then dispatch to fly,

Neka bludna dila tašćinu prî vidi that lust's illusions he may yet descry,

   Nego mu pak sila bude da se stidi, before he needs must find himself disgraced,

Kako se ja stidim evo sad i kajem as I am shamed, and fall upon my knees.

   Jur kasno kad vidim i dobro poznajem Too well I see, though now too late, and deem

Svitovna da je slas kako san kî laže this world's delight is but a lying dream,

   I biga oni čas u kî se prikaže.   as soon as it appears, away it flees.

So let me take this opportunity to use his verses as an inspiration to do much the same thing, prompted by the serendipity afforded by the DHKP residency:

To those who read these loosely English’d songs,

   who’ve madly loved this poet all along:

I know you’ll understand my bitter plight,

   so too my unchaste joy when rhymes roll right.


But you who in his court have ne’er yet trod –

   it is for you I’ve sent these songs abroad.

Yet I confess, for shame doth me constrain:

   these renderings are but illusions vain.


Though now too late to stop, too well I deem

   translations are alike to lying dreams.

And so I blush, repenting on my knees,

   for once the meaning’s nailed, the magic flees.

Wendy Bracewell, May 2024

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