One Sunday Afternoon

This is a new challenge in that I’m switching translation language and looking at a poem written in Serbo-Croat. I don’t know who it’s by, I think I found it hanging in a gallery in Sarajevo years ago. It stayed with me and I’ve tried translating it before, but it is deceptive in its simplicity. The title introduces the poem, so a direct translation would be “What the City is Composed of One Sunday Afternoon”, which is a little awkward, but then it allows the form of the poem to follow as in the original “Of…. / Of…. /Of ….”. Otherwise if the title is translated as something like “What Makes up the City on a Sunday Afternoon”, the following lines can’t start with “Of”, rather it ends up being a list of elements. I’ve left both versions at the bottom so you’ll see what I mean.


Od čega se sve sastoji grad
Jednog Nedeljnog Popodneva…

Od kiše
Od golubova
Od ljudi bez posla
I metafore skrivene
Medju njima i golubovima
Od nedeljnog popodneva
Od tvog grudnjaka
Preko stolice
Od pranje kose
I dlaka
U začepljenom slivniku
Od mog i tvog djela grada
Od kolportera koji viču vijesti
U koje se nemože vjerovati
Od zvona sa katedrale
Od tvoje ljubavi i moje
Od otvorenog prozora
I napuhane zavjese
Od tihe čežnje za nečim
Što će još malo
Pa zauvijek da nestane.




If this poem made me realise anything, it’s that the sound of a word can render it utterly poetic in one language, and completely frumpy in another. A “pigeon” is a much uglier bird than its Serbo-Croat equivalent “golub”, so in my final translation it was changed to “birds”. A “bra/brazier” just doesn’t have the same tenderness as “grudnjak”, but then neither does “underwear”; “corset” seems antiquated, “nightware” is nicer but not quite the same… “clothes/clothing” was the best alternative I could come up with that didn’t jar in terms of the sounds.


The original poem talks of “ljudi bez posla”, literally “people without work”, and I was trying to figure out whether this meant unemployed people, or just people loafing about “idle/rambling/lazing/drifting”. Many times the latter is a result of the former, but knowing the local culture where people spend their days walking up and down the main promenade, I’m banking on the latter.

Interestingly, Serbo-Croat makes a distinction between hair when it is attached to your head “kosa”, and “dlake” which are either hairs on your body, or detached from your head, as when clogging a sink. The lack of this distinction in English makes my translation one line shorter.


The tone of this poem is the hardest thing to translate. The original exudes this peace and stillness, this warmth and final sadness brought on by the realisation that this perfect moment will have to end. You’re not sure if it’s ending because the lovers have to wistfully part, or because they have to go back to work on Monday morning, but at this point both options appear equally tragic. The lack of punctuation somehow adds to this sense of a single moment, the elements listed are not really individual, they form part of a whole, and your heart sinks a little with that final full stop which comes as a reminder that the moment cannot last.


I found this poem in Sarajevo, and partly I wonder if there isn’t a heavier weight to the melancholy which drifts through its lines. The poet talks of “my part of the city and yours”, of “news which you cannot believe”, and what exactly are those “hidden metaphors” on the streets? When I situate this poem in my mind, it takes place in a pre-war city, when regardless of “which part of town” you came from, you could love each other. And this moment for me is also the poet’s realisation that this is a time which is not only coming to an end, but which will literally “disappear forever”.


What I love about it is how the poet captures the simplicity of pure, tranquil happiness, a moment when even clogged drains and loud newspaper salesmen cannot put a dent in the perfection of this moment, one Sunday afternoon.

Here are both versions, the second is more polished and also more faithful to the original despite the somewhat awkward title it implies.


What Makes up the City
On a Sunday Afternoon

The rain
The pigeons
The out-of-work people
And metaphors hidden
Between them and the birds
The Sunday afternoon
And your clothing
Thrown over a chair
Washed hair
A clogged sink
Your city and mine
The paper boy shouting
Some impossible news
The cathedral’s bell
Your love and mine
An open window
Curtains blowing
And the soft yearning
For that which will soon
Be gone for good.


What the City is Composed of
One Sunday Afternoon…

Of the rain
Of birds
Of idling people
And metaphors hidden
Among them and the birds
Of a Sunday afternoon
Of your clothes
Draped across the chair
Of freshly washed hair
Clogging the sink
Of my part of town and yours
Of the paper men bellowing
Improbable news
Of cathedral bells
Of your love and mine
Of the open window
And fluttering curtains
Of the soft yearning
For that which soon
Will be lost for good.









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