Judith Šalgo in Translation

North Dakota Quarterly would like to offer a hearty congratulations to our friend, NDQ contributor, and general bon vivant John Cox. He was recognized as the best translator of Serbian literature in 2021 by the Serbian PEN Center. You can read a bit about it here. This major literary accomplishment celebrates John’s work translating the of a group of significant contemporary Serbian authors: Ivo Andrić, Meša Selimović, Branko Ćopić, Danilo Kiš, Biljana Jovanović, Goran Petrović, and Judita Šalgo. While I can’t say that I’ve read all of his translations, I can personally recommend Cox’s translations of Biljana Jovanović’s Dogs and Others (2019). You can find that book here and read a review of it here.

By total coincidence (and a little bit of badgering on my part), we will feature John’s translation of an essay by Judita Šalgo in NDQ 89.1/2. In recognition of his recent award, we thought we should post his translation of Šalgo’s “What I Wrote About” here. Consider this your entrée into the world of late-20th-century Serbian literature.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of the new issue of Hotel Amerika which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by publishing an anthology of some its most creative, provocative, and stimulating work. Grab a copy here.

What I Wrote About

by Judita Šalgo

Translated from the Serbian by John K. Cox

I sit in a bookstore that’s overwhelmed with books: newspapers fall over each other in waterfalls all around the place, and above them floats dust like haze. There is a foam of white paper everywhere, rustling, crackling, the clap of page on page. Through the great windows the sun delivers warmth like in a hothouse. Here, I tell myself, from this profusion of clammy, nutrient-rich paper my first novel is going to hatch. My first, rudimentary, single-celled novel.

For several years I worked in a bookstore that, indeed, on hot summer days was a veritable greenhouse, humid, full of heavy vapors. It looked like the books were going to germinate all of a sudden, as though out of the fattened bindings would grow new pages and the multitude of books would go on and on, right before my eyes, reproducing uncontrollably. And I started to write, probably precisely out of fear of that abundance.

And thus, out of my paper Garden of Eden issued forth my first literary figures into the world. First of all an anonymous driver, a random creature who, literally, alighted from the pages of the maintenance manual for a car known as the Zastava 101; then, from the heap of paper, like a bubble of thick soap, the figure of a small book thief stole away, a character who—pale, papery like the goods from which he lives, and likely afraid of being returned almost instantly to the place from which he had come, to paper—tries with all of his might to assert himself as a literary character.

The unnamed driver and the book thief are probationary characters in the novel. Destined to be “unreal” and “fictive,” they need to give the impression of a certain lightness, of a soothing casualness and ambiguity, which in turn is supposed to lure, to introduce into the novel those “true” characters in whose reality people can and must believe, in spite of everything, till the last moment, until the opposite proves to be true. Well, and after that, too—especially after!

These “real” characters are, principally: my father, A. Manhajm who, suddenly grown uneasy at an advanced age (did I upset him by pulling him into my unnatural story?), clears out of his house and holes up in a homely little broom closet at a friend’s place, with the two of them daydreaming about the shared love of their youth—Einstein, and the endless territories of the theory of relativity; and then, my sister, a fifty-year-old, twice-divorced woman who after a life spent in fear of pregnancy and of life itself, suddenly (again suddenly!) “escapes” into pregnancy, a belated, pre-menopausal pregnancy from which, apparently, she will never liberate herself.

I write out of a need for justice. In order to create someone to whom it was not granted to be born, or to extend the lives of people taken before their time.

It would seem that, with this rhetorical affidavit, I (author, daughter, sister, etc.) am attempting to justify the nefarious idea of placing two human beings, already dead for almost four and a half decades, two souls who perished on the biggest killing fields of the Second World War, in the center of a novel that’s occurring now: that I should describe not (only) what they were like in their lifetimes, or even when they were at death’s door, but what they might now be like, in a kind of “life after life,” a spectral, equivocal literary existence illuminated by the light of both day and night, of sun and moon.

The novel does not cancel death, not even conditionally, but it does allow for the possibility that death, at least for a moment, can somehow be overlooked, ignored, that it can simply be transcended. Crossed over? But to what?

Pressed on all sides by reality, people have great trouble capturing for themselves a small, well-guarded preserve of the unreal. In a world of inexhaustible realistic possibilities, in which reality and existence, are the basic measures of things, the artist surrenders—what else?—to ever more substantial and narcotic doses of creative nonexistence.

“That’s all well and good,” says the reader, scanning this ‘abstract,’ “but what’s your novel about?”
I’m not certain that I could ever say what I wrote about. First, I would like to tell you what I didn’t write about. It seems to me:

that I didn’t write about myself (although while writing the novel I actually did sometimes think about myself);
that I also did not write about other people, my loved ones, either (although at times I did, thinking about myself, in fact yearn for my loved ones);
that I also didn’t write about things (although I did, yearning for my relatives, get acquainted with some far-away things);
that I likewise did not write either about any real events (although I did, coming to know some far-off things, set in motion some real events, too)…

The number of things about which I did not write is legion. Furthermore, I also did not write:

about the Battle of Kursk in 1942,
about the secret Treaty of London of 1915,
about the Boston Massacre of 1770,
about the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of 1572,
about the Seljuks losing their eastern empire in 1157,
about Leif Erikson reaching America sometime after 1000,
about the death of King David in 961,
about the fall of Nineveh in 612,
about the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt in 2850.


Source: Šalgo, Judita. “O čemu sam pisala” (undated manuscript). Jednokratni eseji, edited by Vasa Pavković. Beograd: Stubovi kulture, 2000, pp. 118-122.


Judita Šalgo (1941-1996) was an avant-garde poet from Novi Sad (Yugoslavia/Serbia) who also wrote novels, short stories, and essays. Her Hungarian-Jewish family suffered enormously during the Holocaust, and these experiences profoundly affected her writing. She worked in editing and radio and defended civil society and ethnic and religious tolerance during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. An English-language translation of her major work of fiction, The Road to Birobidzhan, appeared in 2021 with CEEOL Press.

John K. Cox (b. 1964) is a professor of East European intellectual history at North Dakota State University (Fargo). He translates widely from Central and Southeast European languages.


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