NEA Literature Fellowships

Elizabeth Novickas

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(2011 - Translation)

from Frank Kruk by Petras Cvirka

[translated from Lithuanian]

"An incident with a pig"

It happened one fall when the pigs were being butchered. The dickens only knows how or why, out of all the decent Krukelis pigs, there arose one mischievous, unutterably disobedient pedigreed sow, who thought up all sorts of trouble for the Krukelises, as if the devil himself had in truth beset her and wagged her tail. Zidorius's pigs were always white, but this one was as black as tar. True, she did farrow twelve at a time, but then she'd crush half of them, and even eat a few. If you left the door open for a second, the sow would run inside, knocking over the benches and the table. One time Zidorius returned from the fallow field to find the sow lying in the bed, and around her, wiggling all at once were black, spotted, and even white piglets! Full of gratitude and fatherly joy, Zidorius called to his wife:

"Just look, what a lady! She even knows to put her head on the pillow! Really now, Elziuk, what a clever little thing!"

He counted them up -- there were twelve, but four were already crushed to death. When they tried to get her out of the bed, the proud lady showed her teeth, since all her family were spoiled that way: Zidorius's farrowing sows were always put in a warmer and softer spot. Zidorius and Elzė decided to leave the sow indoors for a few days, while they settled down for the night in the kitchen or the granary. What ungratefulness! The next morning the sow chewed up Zidorius's Sunday coat. There was a leather wallet and several dozen bills in its pocket.

"She ate it, that creature of the devil!" Zidorius screamed, shaking the empty wallet.

"Maybe you put it somewhere else Zidorius; why would a sow think of eating money?"

"She ate it!" Zidorius screamed even louder, "and three silver rubles, and my documents!"

Zidorius cursed roundly, which he rarely did. He cursed a blue streak.

His matchmaker Šešiapūdis, when he heard Krukelis cursing, would say: "Whoa, what a curse! Is that decent cussing!?"

Truly, on occasions when Šešiapūdis started bellowing, the windmill would start turning on even the calmest day. He didn't call his hirelings by any other name but toad, booby, or bandy-legs. And if he took to cussing out an animal, it would run off. More than once his cows had miscarried or dried up. The crows and storks never settled in his yard, perhaps because of his mouthing off.

But at this moment of terrible fury Zidorius could pour out all sorts of words. He was immensely angry. He started in to kick and shove the sow, and, not knowing what more to do, he lay down on top of her under the table and bit her in the back. Bristles stuck in Zidorius's teeth. The sow rushed about inside, and after knocking over the pot with cream jumped out an open window.

Excerpt in Lithuanian

About Petras Cvirka

Petras Cvirka (1909-1947) is a Lithuanian writer whose tangled legacy forms a metaphor for all the paradoxes and complexities of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe. He falls into the category of writers whose talents and idealism you can't deny, but whose active involvement in supporting the Bolsheviks mars his current reputation. He was widely lionized during the Soviet era: there was the postage stamp issued in his honor, a documentary film, several monographs, a 10-volume collection of his works, and numerous translations into languages all over the Soviet Union. The work I will be translating, Frank Kruk, a comic novel that tells the story of an ordinary farm boy who emigrates to America, is remarkable more for its perspicacity than its minor inaccuracies, despite the fact that Cvirka never visited the United States.

Elizabeth Novickas came to work as a translator by a rather circuitous route, even if she started off on the right foot. Born in Chicago to WWII refugees from Lithuania, she never actually spoke the language as a child, although she certainly heard plenty of it. Instead, her father had her memorizing Hamlet's soliloquy -- perhaps an odd choice for learning English, but it had its effects: she received a bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana in 1976 with a major in Creative Writing.

Various distractions led her to take a job as a graphic designer at the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, and later as a computer administrator at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2006, she  earned a master's degree in Lithuanian Language and Literature at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her translations include Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker (Open Letter, 2009) and Kazys Boruta's Whitehorn's Windmill (CEU Press, 2010).

Photo by Henry Rexroad

Translator's Statement

One of the many delights of learning a language is the ability to explore its literature in depth: this especially holds true for Lithuanian, which has very few works translated into English. To me, translating is the best kind of work there is, to be reading a text and to be so caught up in the voice, its cadences and inflections, its surface and its undercurrents, that it either comes bubbling up in English with remarkable ease, or presents you with a nut whose cracking must first be pondered, and then explored -- sometimes hesitantly, sometimes wildly throwing variations about, sometimes with dogged stubbornness. I also consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have lived to see the day when all I have to do is type in a word into my computer and immediately come up with its entry in the 20-tome Dictionary of the Lithuanian Language -- a true treasure trove! -- containing a remarkable mix of spoken and written examples collected from all over Lithuania. In effect, this probing of language and literature gives us insight into life as it is lived in another universe; granted, a life different than ours, but our obsessions, our triumphs and disappointments, remain the same. All I can do is hope the English reader feels it ring in the depths of his soul, as I do.