Copying or Function

author Mate Maras
interviewed by Joško Belamarić, Vera Grimmer

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Interviewed in Zagreb on 10 December 2015


Mathematician, writer and most distinguished Croatian translator, Mate Maras, has a wide scale of possibilities of expression at his disposal. He translates most complicated works of poetry applying the principles of mathematics. His translations of the complete works of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Rabelais will encourage many to read these classical works again. Awarded with prestigious Croatian and international prizes, Mate Maras incorporates the values of European literature into the corpus of Croatian culture in a new and creative way.


ORIS: Your translation oeuvre is large and diverse; it ranges from John Milton to Dashiell Hammett and Virginia Woolf. Many have addressed the problem of translation, Walter Benjamin among others; he even questioned the possibility of translation as a reflection of the original. According to him, a translation is an original, independent form, not a mimesis, but a form which can develop many meanings during the process of emanation, including the meanings which are not quite apparent in the original.


Mate Maras:  I would like to answer this question by referring to a great American poet – Robert Frost, the American icon of the 20th century. He was once asked: What is poetry? At the time he was visiting universities, without obligations other than to spend time with the students, meeting with them, and reading his poetry to them. Students asked him to define poetry. His famous answer to their question was: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Hence the widely known phrase. I do not know if it was only word play, but if we compare his and Benjamin’s attitude to those of our time, we can see a tendency to go in a different direction, backwards: not only is it believed that the translators do not imitate poets, but create something new, but a belief is being expressed that the poets themselves imitate and translate something within themselves. They have not invented language, but translate archetypes, experience, and the heritage they have inherited.


ORIS: Benjamin talks about the unthinkable; something which cannot be conceived. Maybe, paradoxically, precisely that allows the original, or the untranslatable, to be translated.


Mate Maras:  I would not completely agree. I have translated many verses, hundreds of thousands of them. Your question mostly relates to poetry. How to translate a good poem? How to translate Tin Ujević into French? When I was a cultural attaché in Paris, the French used to show me Ujević’s poems which were translated into French by Croatians. After we had become friends, they used to say to me: Is this the best poetry you have? It is worthless! I believe that only native speakers, and those who are excellent professionals, can translate poems into their mother tongue. To the uninformed reader the text which has been translated into Croatian has to seem as if it was originally written in the Croatian language, as if it is authentic, because it has to fit our tradition, our life or, metaphorically speaking, the mother’s milk we drank. Otherwise it is not good.


ORIS: It might be defined as a kind of contextualisation.


Mate Maras:  I have been trained in mathematics, and taught mathematics in high schools before I started doing what I enjoyed most – dealing with language. I believe that language is the greatest gift we have received from God, and that mathematics comes after. Mathematics would not be possible without language, but language is independent. However, these are two categories of the same structure. Mathematics is very hard to define; there is a definition which describes it as a science of structures. It teaches us how to sort out things according to their similarity, weight, colour, longevity, etc. Language uses the same method; it has to become aware of its structure, and does so using the logic which is, according to Aristotle, a part of mathematics. Let us go back to the question of translation. Although we are speaking about poetry at the moment, the same can also be said for prose, because nowadays prose is a degenerate form of poetry. In renaissance, however, prose was very similar to poetry; you can cut Boccaccio’s long sentences into verses, and thus get a remarkably harmonious text because the two forms lived harmoniously at the time. It can also be said for other great writers, such as Cervantes or Rabelais. In my opinion the 20th century has gone completely mad and has strayed, since nowadays anything can be prose, because it supposedly reflects our daily life. But what is the purpose of art if it will literally reflect my daily life? It is unnecessary; I live my daily life without it. I need more. I need sublimation, purification from banality; the core. I would like to mention my three-part rule, the golden rule of arithmetic – if we know three ratios; the fourth ratio can easily be calculated. I use it slightly differently; it basically tells me what the translation should be like. Firstly, it has to be true; what an Italian poet has expressed in Italian has to be transferred into Croatian. Secondly, the translation has to be beautiful – what is beautiful in Italian, must not be ugly in Croatian – let it be melodious so that people can learn it by heart. Thirdly, it has to be logical; no reasonable person writes to be unintelligible. However, it has become common practice recently, as if the authors conspired: let us write as unintelligibly as possible, so that we appear very smart. As you already know, this trend originated in Paris about a hundred years ago as an art movement – Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. I think it was a childhood disease of the entire society; I have never actually understood what their purpose was.


ORIS: It was more a reaction; Dadaists have reacted to the pointlessness of the cataclysm of the World War I.


Mate Maras:  It was a reaction to something terrible, yes, but it resulted with nothing. It was merely an interesting experiment. I do not think it enriched the mankind, as did Dante or Shakespeare. Let us go back; the translation has to be understandable; it has to be clear to the reader, no matter if this slightly reduces its beauty and authenticity – firstly, it has to be understandable, and then true and beautiful. This is very difficult to achieve because besides these three goals, the structure of the poem has to be taken into account, as well. Its length, its meter, whether there are rhymes or sound devices, the position of caesurae, the way the words are lined, whether there is an iambic pentameter or a trochee in the original, etc. There are hundreds of other little things a translator needs to know as secrets of his trade. Also, he cannot start translating whatever he comes across; first he needs to know something, learn the trade. Like Ivan Meštrović, who started sculpting small tombstones, and even before that – learned to hold a chisel and a hammer, the anatomy of the stone. You must get to know the secrets of the trade which are not apparent to laymen.


ORIS: No matter who speaks of you, they always emphasize the experiences you acquired in your childhood; the rhymes recited by your mother, sententiousness of Dalmatian Zagora, epic decasyllable, ganga songs, etc. We are interested in the first images you can remember. When we look at the great names of world literature you have translated – from Dante and Shakespeare to Rabelais, Milton and now Sannazaro, we can easily notice that their oeuvres are amazing reservoirs of images. I wonder, however, if your childhood in Studenci near Imotski, with all the familiar literary influences, has also produced images you have searched for in the library of the books you have chosen to place on your table, probably according to the preferences you derive from the area of your childhood.


Mate Maras:  It is about acquiring images about the world. Every child experiences it in their own way, depending on the area they grow up in. I was lucky, or unlucky, to be born in a rather primitive area; when I was a child, there was no power, no cars, radios, newspapers, not anything. We were growing up the same way the children were growing up there 300 years earlier, in the age of Alberto Fortis who wrote Travel into Dalmatia. When I was translating this text, I felt as if the Italian monk was describing my village. I also felt something else, and it was the biggest experience of my childhood – when I saw the sea across from Dubaci for the first time; it shattered me for good. I suddenly realised that the world was something completely different; that there were bigger, higher, better, nicer and more beautiful worlds than my valley situated among the mountains, between Biokovo Mountain on one side, and Zavelim Mountain and Tušnica Mountain on the other, Bosnian side.


ORIS: When we speak about your authorial works – let us mention only the most recent book Pisma od smrti – is it your return to Ithaca?


Mate Maras:  It is a melancholic theme; I have written a novel to honour the memory of my father. My father was very disappointed in his son; he had given me education, but I acquired nothing. I had no house, no car – well, I had a Russian Lada – but I was over 50 and had nothing. I was a really big disappointment to a man who had struggled his entire life and, eventually, emigrated. The book is a novel about a life, a story of a man who lived throughout the 20th century. He was born in 1903 and died in 1985; he lived a long life and saw a lot. He wandered as Odysseus; he spent his youth in Australia, earned money and returned to his Ithaca. He always carried the money attached to his waist to make sure that it was there. He was touching his waist all the time so that his mother used to say to him My dear Peter, you must be in pain! He left his home, built his own house, got married, and started a rich life. He was the first in the village, the leader; he had money, was strong as a bull, and married the most beautiful girl in the area.


ORIS: When we read your Shakespeare or Rabelais, there are so many places where we can imagine you doing the translation using the fund of words of your birth village Studenci. And then we read Belli’s verses, translated into a jargon spoken in Studenci, which are pure magic, or your The Merry Wives of Imotski. Rarely there are such examples of a successful and persuasive placement of something so universal and cosmopolite into a completely different and concrete environment; the unique civilisational reservoir of Zagora. The work is also extremely funny.


Mate Maras: The Merry Wives of Imotski will be staged at the Croatian National Theatre in Split. I believe it will be very successful because Split did not have anything similar in a long time, since Tijardović... Belli, a 19th century Italian poet, wrote only sonnets; he wrote a few thousand sonnets in the Roman dialect. He worked as a bookkeeper in the Roman Curia – at the time when the Curia, as well as the state, was disintegrating, when Italy was uniting. In the Roman dialect and very ironically, critically and mockingly he described everything he could; from the Pope and cardinals, dukes and counts, generals and warriors, to soldiers and the lowest layers of society. He prefers the poor, those who know nothing, but do know how to live – who barely manage to survive and have a special place in Belli’s heart. His sonnets rhyme, have a regular form, and are beautiful. Let me digress a bit; Tonko Maroević has encouraged me to start with the translation. He told me about Belli whose poetry he fell in love with during his stay in Rome. He told me: Dante is the best, but Belli is the next, at least if you ask the Romans. He did not know how to translate them, he tried to use the dialect of the island of Hvar, the dialect of Split, but nothing fit. I listened to him and thought about it and one summer, I solved the problem: I will place Belli into Studenci! If the poetry is good, if it describes human virtues and faults, it has to fit everywhere. Because, other things are merely small details that make us different. I believe that you can also confirm that you have been in specific situations when you have realised that these ordinary people are just the same as us, the intellectuals who think that they are very special. Some of these sonnets answer the fundamental questions we have always asked those who know more, like the question of the end of the world; what will happen, what it will be like on the horrific Judgement Day… The simple Roman provides the answer in this sonnet I love; I think I know it by heart:  Four archangels with trumpets at their lips Will take their places, each in his corner, and blow: Then, in a terrible voice, they’ll all begin To say: ‘step up, everyone! Let’s go!’ Then will ooze up out of the earth a slime Of skeletons, crawling on all fours, To put on the shapes of human beings again – A helpless brood around a mother hen. This mother hen will be the blesse`d God Who’ll separate them into black and white One part for the cellar, one for the roof. At the end, a bell-collar of angels Will appear, and, as if everyone Were off to bed, they’ll turn out the lights. Good night![1].


ORIS: The balance you achieve between a cultivated literary language and the easiness with which you find new idioms is fascinating.


Mate Maras:  The original makes me do so. There are these authors, you mentioned Rabelais, who created hundreds of words which have become a part of the French language, but there are also those which are alive only in his work and, to be honest, in my translation.


ORIS: It would be very nice to hear your impressions from your student days; when there was a pleiad of professors at the Academy of Dramatic Arts; Gavella, Spajić, Habunek… Were the information they had transferred to their students also their experiences and realisations? Today information are easily accessed by everyone, but what was it like when the information were lived, and then transferred as experiences?


Mate Maras:  If I can generalise, it was the age of innocence, so to say. We were not flooded by information. Gavella founded the Academy in the 1950s. He gathered a group of great professors, people who did not fit the times, nor were politically suitable. We, the students, were very fortunate – all the great actors we still remember today were taught by these great people. My favourite professor, and the one who influenced me the most, was Bratoljub Klaić. He taught accentology and the Croatian language. Since I came from the area which had completely preserved the system of accents, studied mathematics, and attended classes at the Academy at the same time, it was easy for me to form directories and structures, with all sorted out, remembered and applied. He used to say: Leave everything, come and be my assistant! It was easy for him, he probably thought that I would study for four years, graduate, obtain a PhD, and, eventually, inherit his position. But it was impossible for me, a twenty-year-old at the time, because I simply had nothing to eat; I stopped receiving the scholarship from the Faculty of Science and, as soon as I graduated, I had to start working. There was also Vladimir Filipović who taught psychology. Mihovil Kombol was also a Professor, but unfortunately he had died before I enrolled. I had his work, however; his translation of the Divine Comedy has always inspired me. Nothing has ever influenced me as his translation of Dante’s works; eventually I finished what he had not completed. A couple of months ago I was in Ravenna, in the Basilica of St. Francis, located close to the tomb of Dante, where the manifestation Serate Dantesche is held every year. They regularly invite translators from all over the world and I was there as a representative of the Croatian translation practice. In front of an audience (around 200 people were in the church), professors from the universities, organisers, Vlatka Badurina, professor of Italian language and literature in Udine and me, engaged in a discussion about Kombol, and the influence of Dante on Croatian literature and my translation. In the end I read the 31st Canto of the Paradise, which took some time. There was an actress who read before me in Italian and I carefully listened to the way she emphasized certain parts so I could present the content in the unfamiliar language at least adjusting the modulation of my voice. I am telling you all this to say that I experienced something I never could have imagined. In front of all those people I received the Lauro Dantesco Award. But let us go back to the Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was fortunate to enter into the class of Vlado Habunek, and so had the opportunity to meet Josip Torbarina. He was not teaching, but used to visit and he often said to me: I know you, you crude! He was then as old as I am now.


ORIS: All of these memories formed the basis of your work…


Mate Maras:  Exactly! I have never forgotten what I have heard. But the most decisive factor, the spiritual enticement, so to say, was Frano Čale. He taught Italian and I was his only student; no one wanted to learned Italian at the time, everyone wanted to learn English. At the time Čale was busy with Petrarch; he finally undertook the task of translating his complete Canzoniere. He used to say to me that translating was very difficult, sometimes even impossible. Since I was trained in mathematics, I said to him: Difficult? It is just copying or function – you simply have to transfer something into something else. There is a given set of Italian words and, if there is a counter-set of Croatian words, you merely have to perform a function, find appropriate elements, transfer one into another and there it is, an equivalent set you have had to create. It is simple, I said triumphantly, and Čale answered: Look, it is more complicated than your mathematics. Here, take this sonnet and try to translate it; let it be your task for the whole semester. I returned it translated at our next session – I have complied with all of his requests, because they fit into the structure of my way of thinking, although I did not know the meaning of most common words. I had no dictionary, only a grammar book I had been learning by heart. That is how it all began, later I left the Academy, obtained a degree in mathematics and started working in high school. Even later I wandered around the world, single, I was invited to visit Canada, etc. There a new story began, a return to the homeland after I had become disappointed with the world and myself: I actually returned to the Croatian language, although I had left to learn a new language, to master it, to speak it fluently so that I can express myself elegantly and sophisticatedly. Of course, I realised that it was impossible; you have to be born into a language, suck it in with your mother’s milk.


ORIS: You have mentioned Dante. How much does a translator need to know about the realities of Dante’s time? When Kršnjavi translated Dante’s prose, for instance, and added all the commentaries, he visited every locality mentioned in the Comedy.


Mate Maras:  Oh, it is completely the opposite with me. Let me tell you about the award I was given by the Croatian Literary Translators Association for the translation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the 1980s. The novel is set in London, and when the book was presented to the public I said that, unfortunately, I had never visited London. My colleague, who was presenting the author and the translation, was shocked, and asked me: You have never visited London? But how did you know all the streets and parks, how did you describe it all? I answered: Virginia Woolf described them. I simply translated her words. What I mean is; it is most important to respect what is written and then translate it so that it is true, because it is directed to a person who does not know the location or anything else; they will learn everything from the text.


ORIS: Yes, but every such translation, especially of Virginia Woolf, is a transfer of a specific culture into our culture and vice versa. Speaking of Virginia Woolf, maybe it is interesting and important to know her environment, her circle; the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of the Oxford wise men. It was in the 1920s, but it is still the source of different and various worldviews; from economy and critique to alternative ways of life and living arrangements.


Mate Maras:  I had never been in London until then, and I did not know much about the situation on the Island. I did not read enough; I had not even started translating Shakespeare as a basis of everything else. But I had the text before me, and I followed my three-part rule. Translate the given text, and make the translation beautiful and clear; each part of the rule had to be obeyed. If you do so, an automatic transfer of the action will happen, the setting and the time frame. Every extra explanation is a footnote, and I have always hated footnotes.


ORIS: Shakespeare did not care if there were anachronisms as long as they would fit into his poetics.


Mate Maras:  Shakespeare turned everything he touched into gold. Professor Torbarina once asked me: How could we get the energy of his verse? His every verse has a quantum of energy which is lost in the translation. I have been thinking about it for years, and asked myself how I could achieve the effect of mowing – when his verses, especially in his sonnets, line in front of the listener like the swaths of ripe wheat which fall under the sharp blade of a strong mower. My teacher strictly warned me about the sonnets: Do not dare translate the sonnets, it is impossible, you will lose face! And I have not translated a single sonnet while Josip Torbarina was alive, not a single one!


ORIS: What is your opinion of the modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s works – when they are completely transferred into our time? I will give an example; I have recently seen Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea; Nero plays gulf in a sweater, Poppea is a huge African American who sings mostly sitting in a 1970s Mercedes convertible, the stage is rotating all the time, Seneca blows his head off in a public toilet, under neon lights. The other day I saw Don Giovanni in Stockholm; in one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe. Guess where the Commendatore was killed? Again, in a public toilet. Without questioning the fact that art, especially great art, relates to the present and the future, I think that these scenes are pure blasphemy.


Mate Maras:  I think that it is barbarism; we have crossed the forbidden lines. As I have mentioned before, little by little we are becoming barbarians, first in a moral sense. And regarding the theatre; I do not know where it all started. I would dare say that the theatre went wild when the film appeared, then the Television and, even before, the Circus. It is as if the directors compete with the television and the circus; as if they want to show on stage something which cannot be seen on tv. Naturally, they fight a losing battle because it is not theatre any longer – the basis of the theatrical event – the word, the spoken, is the first which is sacrificed.


ORIS: I would like to go back to another origin of yours; the world of Zagora which has been an amazing biological reservoir; some of the most mobile Croatian intellectuals have come from the area which is today disappearing under the process of the levelling of seemingly inevitable globalisation processes. All which has shaped you – oral tradition, ambience, the word of an ordinary man who articulated his thoughts and attitude toward the world in the purest language, without stuttering, with the same assurance he had while building a stone house which lasted for generations – it all seemingly disappears before our eyes. What will happen? Can this small world be transformed according to some new values? What do you think the future will look like after you? Perhaps there will be other people translating after you and perhaps not – what do you think?


Mate Maras:  There will always be translations; the process allows communication, the transfer of culture in the broadest possible meaning. Far into the future, in a couple of hundreds or thousands of years, the whole Earth might speak in only one language, I do not know which one, Chinese comes to mind. But as long as we are here, on our piece of land, and as long as the European Community insists that we communicate with them using our language, we may have hope that our descendants will also listen to the sweet melody of the three dialects: Chakavian, Kaikavian and Shtokavian.


ORIS: In the complex matter of the translation practice asymmetry in different cultures becomes very apparent. Most of the literature of today is regional, whereas in big cultures, especially in the English speaking areas, translations from other languages are very rare.


Mate Maras:  They are rare, yes. I will give an indirect answer – all cultures have to be enriched with other cultures; especially small cultures, languages with a small number of native speakers. You might say that culture is creating something from nothing, and nations with a small number of people simply do not have enough individuals to do that. It is the same in the Croatian culture, specifically in the literary translation practice; there have been and there will be so many holes, and we statistically lack the people who might fill them. Last year I translated the work we had been owing to our community for five hundred years – Petar Zoranić’s The Mountains. We know that this work, the first Croatian novel, was written under the direct influence of Jacopo Sannazaro from Naples, but his Arcadia has never been translated into Croatian. This pastoral novel, written in verse and prose, is the prose similar to Boccaccio’s, and the verses mostly imitated Petrarch’s poems. You can read it with great pleasure even today, especially the prose. From all of the works of the extensive Sannazaro’s oeuvre, Arcadia is the only one which is being mentioned, because in this work Sannazaro returned to the bucolic topic which had not been tackled for over a thousand years. A part of my translation has been published in the Forum magazine.


ORIS: I was comparing the work of Sannazaro and Zoranić a couple of years ago, and I must say that I was impressed by Zoranić’s work; his realism, a surprising visual culture and unexpected images he created which were original; not merely rewritings of the existing humanist formulae. I believe that your translation of Sannazaro will be a first-class event, and that we will only then be able to understand the scope of Zoranić’s work better.


Mate Maras:  Here is an example of Sannazaro’s work. The prologue is very informative, but maybe it is better that I recite the paragraph from the first prose.  There lies on the summit of Parthenius, a not inconsiderable mountain of pastoral Arcadia, a pleasant plateau, not very spacious in extent, since the situation of the place does not permit it, but so filled with tiny and deep-green herbage that, if the wanton herds with their greedy nibbling did not pasture there, one could always find green grasses in that place. There, if I am not mistaken, there are perhaps a dozen or fifteen trees of such unusual and exceeding beauty that any who saw them would judge that Mistress Nature had taken special delight in shaping them[2]...  Can you hear the beauty of this introductory text? The writer will then introduce shepherds, later the ferries will appear, etc.


ORIS: Perhaps we could conclude this nice conversation with the following words. On one occasion you have discussed the ultimate purpose of your work, the notion of usefulness if you like, the common sense our work has to be measured by in the end. It is in the spirit of the words of Petar Hektorović at the end of his Fishing and Fishermen’s Conversations: And all that’s done is to God’s glory done, / For the community and my delight / And for the comfort of my own descendants, / For it is right to help and love one’s own[3].


Mate Maras: Shall we end with this, or should we mention The Song of Roland? This heroic poem written in old French has not been translated into the Croatian language. But it will finally be published this year by Matica hrvatska. It is the story of the nephew of the Charles the Great, told in four thousand and two verses. You should see the decasyllables, as if they were sung by our fiddle players! Let me tell you one more interesting thing for the end – at several places in this great song there is an abbreviation aoi, written at the end of the lines on some parchments. No one knew what it meant – perhaps it was a signal to the singer to have some rest, drink some water, or perhaps to the players to play their trumpets or fiddles, who knows. In the translations this abbreviation was omitted or left in the original. What have I done? I turned it into an exclamation from the Croatian folk poetry with an exclamation mark in the end – Aoj!




[1] La Penna, D. and Caselli, D. Twentieth-century poetic translation: literary cultures in Italian and English. Continuum, London, 2008, pg. 92, translation by Harold Norse


[2] Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia and Piscatorial Eclogues, trans. Ralph Nash, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966,


[3] From Fishing and fishermen’s conversations by Petar Hektorović, translated by Edward D. Goy, Stari Grad, Faros, 1997, pg. 39, verses 37 – 40