The history of Albanian letters is at once long and short. Albanian literature claims a tradition stretching into the medieval era, with the ballads and heroic songs—always sung to the spare musical accompaniment of the two-stringed çifteli—that some have claimed to be directly related to the Homeric epics. On the other hand, the Albanian language only adopted a standardized orthography in 1908, after centuries of borrowed, modified, and hybrid alphabets, including mixtures of Arabic, Greek, and Cyrillic. The codification of Albanian corresponded to what is termed Rilindja, or the Albanian Renaissance. Centered mainly in Prizren (now Kosovo), it was one of the last of the European romantic-national liberation movements, based on linguistic commonality and a shared antipathy towards the decaying Ottoman Empire, and bringing with it a flowering of intellectual and literary activity among its main actors. Albania only enjoyed a brief few decades of independence, before it was invaded by the Italians under Mussolini, and then fell under German occupation. After World War II, under the communist reign of Enver Hoxha, Albania not only broke off relations with the USSR after Stalin’s death, and turned only to Communist China; it also underwent one of the harshest systems of censorship and most aggressive programs of socialist realism in any of the communist countries. The linguistic and political situation in the other Albanian-speaking regions of Southeastern Europe—Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia (and the long-standing Albanian-speaking minority in Italy)—is similarly fraught. In any case, the fact remains that Albanian had not much chance to develop a strong modern literary tradition of its own before historical events emerged to handicap it severely.
Since 1989 the Albanian language and literature is enjoying what might be called a second renaissance. Many Albanians will express either rue or pride at the “poverty” of the language: a lack of extensive word bank, for example compared to English where Latin and the Germanic words often exist side by side, and where many words can be broken down into numerable fine differences. But a lack in one area often indicates a strength in others. While Albanian is neither Slavic nor Latin nor Greek nor Turkish nor Finno-Ugric in origin, and is also more isolated and thus immune to change than its linguistic neighbors, it is also marked by its geographical position and history of cultural exchanges and borrowings from Turkish, Latin, and Slavic languages—and increasingly, of course, also from English—which create possibilities for changes of register and meaning.
Yet the simplicity of vocabulary is matched by a complexity of grammar: Albanian is one of the rare languages, for example, with a verb mood existing solely to express feelings of amazement, wonder, or surprise. Saraçini’s poetry, for its part, makes frequent use of the similarly rare ablative case, which among other things expresses origin, provenance, what something is made of or what something belongs to. In this way she achieves a breathtaking economy of words—although this is of course not due to the particularities of language alone. My tendency was thus to keep the spareness and the strangeness of the language as I heard it, even if the English is more distant from “normal” English style than the original is from its equivalent. I also took liberties. I fought with my co-translators, for example, about the meaning of “kudo sido,” a motif repeated throughout Saraçini’s book, Dreaming Escape. Literally, it means “wherever however,” but I thought that “any old how” best conveyed the cynicism and disgust of the book as a whole, as well as the colloquial quality of the particular phrase. In “The Grass,” on the other hand, “ngeloj peng” not only means “hold captive” or “hold hostage,” but is also the very normal way to say “hold in suspension” or “be pending,” or even, “wait.” I opted to emphasize the former in order to fit with the motif of frozenness, shock, and imprisonment, if only imprisonment by one’s own frustrated desires.
Valentina Saraçini was born in Skopje, Macedonia. Since 2000 she has been based in Prishtina, Kosovo, where she is an external contributor to Deutsche Well, and a news reporter for RTK (Radio Television Kosova/o). She is the author of the poetry volume Exercising Loneliness; her work appears often in Albanian-language literary journals and anthologies. The poems translated here are from her second collection, Vjedhnajë Ëndërrimi (2002), forthcoming as Dreaming Escape from Ugly Duckling Presse in Spring 2008.
Erica Weitzman is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University, working primarily on Central and Eastern European literature, political theory, and rhetoric. She began learning Albanian while working for an NGO in Kosovo in 2000.. She wrote a monthly series for the Albanian literary journal Ars (in which this interview appeared in Albanian), and has had translations published in Two Lines, and the online Portals: a Journal of Comparative Literature. Her full translation of Valentina Saraçini’s volume Dreaming Escape, is forthcoming in Spring 2008 from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Her co-translators are Rudina Jasini, an Albanian lawyer currently on staff at the International Criminal Court in Hague and Flora Ismaili, a consultant working for the UN in Albania.
Valentina Saraçini Poems >
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