Ivo Andric’s Morning


(Dan jedan praznih očiju i zamagljena čela.)

Toga je jutra crna ptica pjevala u srcu mom:
bila je – bila! Tvoja mladost
i sve je prošlo s njom;
ne pohodi nas dvaput radost:
Crvljivo voće brzo zre;
a sužanj ne zna sunca ni neba
već brzo stari i brzo mre. –
Toga je jutra zlatna žica prepukla u srcu mom.


Ivo Andrić was one of Yugoslavia’s most famed writers and a Nobel Prize winner best known for his novel “The bridge on the Drina”; he also wrote poetry throughout his life. Born in 1892, Andrić spent most of WWI in prison or under house-arrest, which was when he drafted this particular poem. It’s odd to think that he was only 23 when he wrote it, in that he talks about a past youth; perhaps it was more a feeling of losing out on his youth during formative period in his life and in his country’s history.

His strong emotions are described as physical presences in his chest – the black bird singing and golden wire snapping in his heart. He also uses two images to compare to this sense of bygone youth and happiness. Firstly, by saying that worm-filled fruit ripens fast, and I’m not sure I follow this: is it that once the worm has had his share, there’s not much left of the fruit (as if happiness and youth could be used up the same way)? Is he suggesting that an eventful youth makes one grow up faster, grow wiser like a ripened fruit? Is the worm a symbol of the external forces which ate away at his youthful innocence?

Secondly, he says that a prisoner with no access to the outside quickly grows old and dies. This seems more straight-forward and is clearly an undisguised comparison with his own situation. There is something of a lack of subtlety in this poem, although the last line about a golden wire snapping in his heart is more ambiguous and suggestive. In any case, this is just a first, brief introduction to his early writing.

The first scene-setting line, which appears in parenthesis, seems to be a suggestion of his gloomy state of mind when writing the lines that follow.



In the poem, the black bird (not a blackbird) sings “bila je – bila!” (literally, “it was, it was!”) in reference to the poet’s youth. I had to find a word or two that worked in English (“once! / bygone! / passed!” etc.) and settled on “gone!” which comes across as slightly onomatopoeic, it somehow reminds me of Poe’s Raven squawking “Nevermore!”.

If we ignore the first line in parenthesis, then the poem has an ABABCDCA rhyme scheme. It helps that in Serbo-Croat, “youth” rhymes with “happiness” (“mladost/radost”) – not so in English… I tried out a rhymed translation but came up with pretty overused, unsatisfying rhymes (sky/die, youth/truth, heart/part). I preferred the freedom of the second, non-rhymed version (on the right).

Here I altered the punctuation and inverted the line about worms and ripe fruits so that from “Worm-filled fruits ripen fast” it becomes “As ripened fruits are home to worms”. Since, as mentioned above, I’m a little unsure as to the idea behind this line, it’s possible that this inversion goes a bit too far in altering the intended meaning of the image.

And what about that golden wire (thread/chain?) snapping in his heart? Why is it gold? In the Serbo-Croat there’s a nice balance between the repetition of sounds in “crna ptica pjevala” (“the black bird sang”) and “zlatna žica prepukla” (“golden wire snapped”). The first and last lines echo each other both in their structure and in this mirroring of sounds and rhythm. It leads me to imagine the black bird perched on the imaginary golden wire in his chest.

I couldn’t imitate this effect exactly in the English version, but a similar effect is created through the repetition of ‘b’s, ‘w’s and ‘s’s in “the black bird’s song rang in my soul”, and later, “golden wire…snapped within my soul”.




(A day of empty eyes and blurry mind.)That morn a black bird sang inside my heart:
gone – gone! – your youth
and with all else you must part;
we are happy only once, ‘tis truth:
Worm-filled fruits ripen fast;
and captives know no sun nor sky
so fast grow old and quickly die.

That morn the golden wire snapped inside my heart.


(A day of empty eyes and blurred mind.)

At break of day the black bird’s song rang in my soul:
gone – gone! – your youthful days
and all else with it too,
for happiness does come but once.
As ripened fruits are home to worms,
so captives know no sun nor sky
but quickly age and quickly die.

The golden wire that morning snapped within my soul.



Poetry on the side of love

From an unknown Bosnian poet last week, I’ve taken on a poem by one of the great Sarajevo poets: Izet Sarajlić. He passed away in 2002 having lived through two great wars, and I’m mostly drawn to the pieces he wrote in the 90s towards the end of his life. There’s an interesting interview in English with him here from 1998, in which the sadness and pessimism of his last years comes through: https://articulosparapensar.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/izet-sarajlic-poetry-is-on-the-side-of-love/

Much of his poetry is about love and home. He spent most of his years with his wife and wrote about their love until the end of his life, which came a few years after the end of hers. She seems to appear in one delicate form or another in most of his poems, in this one she is just suggested by the “loving you” in one line, by the “we” in another.

In the poem I chose to translate, I can almost see the old man wandering through a Sarajevo in ruins, recalling the “city of his youth”, in search of a street which represents him, which might one day carry his name. It seems that although a petition was launched after his death in 2009 to make this happen, as of today I can’t find a street with his name in the city.

The poetry of Izet Sarajlić is the opposite of pompous. His words are simple. He doesn’t seek complexity in his portrayal of the human experience. A street is a street, not an avenue, or boulevard, or promenade; love is love; death is death. No metaphor, no euphemisms, no synonyms.



Šetam gradom naše mladosti
i tražim ulicu za svoje ime.

Velike, bučne ulice –
njih prepuštam velikanima istorije.

Šta sam radio dok je trajala istorija?
Prosto tebe volio.

Malu ulicu tražim, običnu, svakodnevnu,
kojom se, neopaženi od svijeta,
možemo i prošetati poslije smrti.

U početku ona ne mora imati mnogo zelenila,
čak ni svoje ptice.
Važno je da u njoj, bježeći pred hajkom,
uvijek mognu da se sklone i covjek i pas.

Bilo bi lijepo da bude popločana,
ali, na kraju, ni to nije ono najvažnije.

Najvažnije je to
da u ulici s mojim imenom
nikada nikog ne zadesi nesreća.


I walk through the city of our youth
searching for a street to bear my name.

The wide, noisy streets –
I leave to the titans of history.

What was I doing while history marched on?
Simply loving you.

I’m searching for a small, modest, everyday street,
through which, quite unseen,
we can wander after death.

At first it needn’t be too green,
nor even have its own birds.
What matters is that in it
every fleeing man or dog may find shelter.

It would be nice if it were paved,
but in the end, that’s not what matters most.

What matters is
that in the street that bears my name
no one ever comes to any harm.

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.