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Ivan Mažuranić (1814-1890)

Ivan Mažuranić


Ivan Mažuranić was a celebrated Croatian poet, linguist, lawyer, and politician. A commoner of humble origin, his parents farmed their own land on the northern Adriatic coast. There were five sons, three of whom became well-known writers. This excellent student from Novi Vinodolski rose through the ranks to become Chancellor for Croatia at the Habsburg court in Vienna. In 1872, Emperor Franz Josef appointed him ban (viceroy) of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia. Mažuranić holds a very special place in Croatian cultural history as the first (and last) non-aristocratic ban. His realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses of Croatia’s position between the hammer of Austrian bureaucracy and the anvil of Hungarian expansionist nationalism served his country well in times of political turmoil. Under his guidance, Croatia transformed from a semi-feudal legal and economic system to a modern civil society similar to those emerging elsewhere in nineteenth century central Europe. However, in protest against Franz Josef’s policy toward Croatia, he resigned this post in 1880. Ten years later, Mažuranić died of a heart attack shortly after the death of his sister-in-law, Ruža Demeter, who raised his children after the death of his wife Aleksandra (Leksa).

On the educational front, he modernized Croatia’s educational system by creating a public school system and reducing the importance of parochial schools. This polyglot’s early education in German, then in Latin at secondary school in Rijeka, may have prompted his becoming fluent in seven other languages, with a smattering of Portuguese and Spanish. He is credited with significantly shaping the Croatian language by co-authoring the German-Illyrian-Croatian Dictionary in 1842. This 40,000-entry dictionary is at the heart of modern Croatian civilization, having codified terms now commonplace in standard Croatian, with examples of the words for bank accounting, rhinoceros, sculptor, ice cream, market economy, high treason, and metropolis.

Despite all his other accomplishments, Mažuranić is above all honored in his native land for the beloved epic poem, Smrt Smaïl age Čengića / La Mort d’Ismaïl aga, written in 1845 when he was 31 years old.  As the 1986 notes of translator Jugoslav Gospodnetić remind us, the poem’s setting on the very border between West and East highlights regional links of blood and language as well as the schisms between religions and within one religion, Christianity, whose origins are in the East.  Venetians, Russians, Turks and others over the years – to whom must the native mountain people pay homage now?  How easy it is to picture the nationalistic and religious struggle between Islam (the Turks) and Christianity (the southern Slavs) since that struggle continues to this very day all over the world.

Lines 321-325 evoke a romantic setting in both languages:

Crkva mu je divno podnebesje,

Oltar časni brdo i dolina

Tamjan miris što se k nebu diže

Iz cvijeta i iz bijela svijeta

I iz krvi za krst prolivene.

Son église : le divin firmament,

L’autel sacré : les monts et les vallées,

Son encens : le parfum du monde entier

Qui s’évapore en s’élevant aux cieux

De chaque fleur, du sang versé pour Dieu.

The poet immediately puts the reader in the middle of the action with this epic poem of 1,134 lines arranged chronologically in five sections: Agovanje (Être aga), Noćnik (Le voyageur nocturne), Četa (La compagnie), Harać (Le tribut) and Kob (Le destin).  Starting with the poem’s title, the language reflects its time and place; there are many Turkish phrases and names.  As a hymn to the struggle for freedom, it is based on the 1840 ambush and death of a local Ottoman commander and his cavalry in Montenegro.  The tone starts quite differently in lines 85-101 for this tale of tribal and family revenge:

A pak slušaj kako junak zbori

I strašljivce kako ostro kori:  

Vaj, Durače, starče stari,

Kuda’š sade, kamo li ćeš?

Sad gdje smakoh gorske miše?

Il u goru? Brđani su tamo:     

Il u ravno? Na ravno će sići;

Il ćeš živjet da izgubiš glavu?

Najbolje je bježat pod oblake.

Mišad grize, ali po tlih gmiže;

Sâm sur orô pod nebo se diže.

Penjite ga na vješala tanka,

Neka znade što mu strah valjade.

A Turčina ako još imade

Gdjegod koga ter se vlaha boji,

Popet ću ga nebu pod oblake,

Tȕ nek plijen vranom vranu stoji.

Puis écoutez comment il parle, le brave,

Et les peureux comment il réprimande:

Hélas, Durak, toi vieux vieillard,

Où fuiras-tu, où ? Maintenant

Que j’ai maté ces quelques rats ?

À la montagne ? Les montagnards y sont ;

Ou vers la plaine ? Eux aussi descendront.

À quoi bon vivre si c’est pour périr ?

Le mieux pour toi c’est de voler aux nues

Si le rat mord, il doit rester au sol;

Seul l’aigle mat vers les hauteurs s’envole.  

Élevez-le à l’élancée potence

Pour qu’il comprenne ce que vaut son

Et quelque part s’il y a un Turc encore

Qui aurait peur, lui aussi, des chrétiens,

Je l’élèverai aux nuages du ciel,

Pour qu’aux corbeaux il serve de festin.

But some say we should above all understand this poem as the poetic dream of an idealised world, a romantic vision against greed and material wealth, of a popular uprising against oppression and of the tragic personalities of tyrannical heros.  This French translation, one of only a handful in 170 years, was created by a renowned linguist, phonetician and translator born and educated in Croatia who wanted francophones around the world to enjoy this human tale.