Macedonian ‘Moby-Dick’ Translator Ognen Čemerski, 42, Was a Meticulous Linguist and Engaged Educator

Ognen Čemerski with his friend and colleague Jasna Koteska during the Student March, November 14, 2014. Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA.

The death of linguist Ognen Čemerski on August 24, cut down in his prime at age 42 by cancer, has shocked the Macedonian public. First his friends, then a wider circle of colleagues and admirers of his work have taken to Facebook to express their grief and reminisce about his fruitful career as translator and academic.

Čemerski served as a lecturer (assistant professor) at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje within the “Blaze Koneski” Faculty of Philology and distinguished himself as one of the founders of the Professors’ Plenum that gave open support for the student protests of 2014 and 2015.

As a translator, Čemerski left a lasting cultural legacy by providing a new translation of the classic American novel “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, and most media outlets stressed that within their obituaries.

The challenges of translating a maritime novel into a ‘landlocked’ language

Čemerski spent about 12 years working on the translation of “Moby-Dick,” a project initiated during his undergraduate studies at Graceland University in Iowa, USA. He conducted it as a scientific endeavor, and used it as basis of his masters’ thesis in linguistics.

“Moby-Dick or the Whale” by Herman Melville, translated into Macedonian by Ognen Čemerski. Photo by GV, CC-BY.

This was not the first translation of “Moby-Dick” in Macedonian. There was one edition published in the 1980s, translated from Serbo-Croatian, which did not produce a lasting impact.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.

As he pointed out in a podcast published by Graceland University staff in 2016, Čemerski also had to deconstruct the nuances of the English language used by Melville. This included influences of earlier authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, and the use of dialects of the Quakers – a religious group that ran the sailing industry — which sounded archaic even to mid-19th-century American readers. When dealing with literary references, he relied on translations of classic English works by other Macedonian translators and archaic language found in preserved writings by Macedonian authors from the same time period and in religious literature written in Old Church Slavonic.

By far the biggest challenge faced by Čemerski was the lack of Macedonian vocabulary for everyday terms used by American sailors to designate parts of the ships, which had become commonplace words in the English language. By researching the origins of these words, he was able to find equivalents in the Macedonian words used by various craftsmen, from carpenters to masons to farmers, since all technology used on sailing ships originated on land.

Fishing boat from Ohrid, Macedonia, museum reconstruction.

A reconstruction of traditional fishing row-boat used by Ohrid Lake fishermen until early 20th century, in Ohrid Lapidarium Museum. Photo by GV, CC-BY.

He also investigated fishermen jargon stemming from the dialects used by Macedonians living around the three big lakes in the country (Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran). Historically, these people used various kinds of row boats to go about their trade, and their terminology could be transposed to parts of sailing ships. Additionally, Čemerski compared the development of maritime terminology in other Slavic languages, in particular those used along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Leading Macedonian peer-reviewed literary and arts journal Blesok | Shine published a sample of Chapter 9 in 2012. Before the translation was published, Macedonian Twitter users were enthusiastically anticipating it, due to Čemerski's reputation. For instance, in this thread from 2013 they discussed how he spoke to Ohrid fishermen to find the most appropriate terms.

His efforts paid off, as the resulting translation echoes the time period when “Moby-Dick” was first published.

A man who spoke up for what he believed was right

Čemerski didn't consider himself an activist, even though as a professor he participated in activities demanding reforms such as restoring academic freedoms and university autonomy. On social media, he discussed issues affecting ordinary Macedonians at a time of deep tension in the country.

On May 19, 2015, during the period of intense anti-corruption protests occurring near his house, he related an experience that serves as a testimony of the impact of living in a country whose social cohesion has been dangerously damaged by years of populist propaganda and a government with authoritarian tendencies:

Вчера, во маало, еден припит комшија, кого го познавам уште од кога бев дете, се обиде да ме денунцира пред специјалци што си купуваа сладолед во маалската пилјара. Не реагираа ама баш ич, но се згрозив кога видов како сосед може да покаже со прст кон тебе и да лаже, во очи да те гледа и да лаже дека си тепал полиција, дека си зборувал на бина, па уште и да вика до небо баш додека полицајците се мачат да се решат кој сладолед да го изберат од богатиот асортиман. Вака, од дистанца, неговиот испад е комично нарушување на слатките изборни маки на полицајците и на мојот мир, ама страшно е кога ќе видиш дека, ако затреба, има комшии што би ти пресудиле со лага. Никаков мирен разговор не помага кога ќе им се вкрват очите.

Yesterday, a somewhat inebriated neighbour, whom I have known since I was a kid, tried to denounce me in front of riot police who were buying ice cream in our local grocery. They didn’t react at all, but I was horrified to see that a neighbour could point a finger at you and lie, that your own neighbour could look you in the eye and lie, saying that you had assaulted the police, that you had made a speech on stage, and it was appalling to see him rip the skies with shrieks just as the police were struggling to decide what ice cream to choose from the rich assortment. Now, in retrospect, his outburst seems but a comical disturbance of the police officers’ sweet travails surrounding their selection process and of my peace, but it is dreadful to know that, should the need arise, there are neighbours who would be happy to lie in order to have you condemned. No calm reasoning will ever help once their eyes get bloody.

In 2016, Čemerski joined the protests against the presidents’ decision to provide amnesty for suspects of high-level corruption. He published a public request addressed to President Gjorge Ivanov for him to stop using a hall adorned with monumental mosaics made by Čemerski's father, renowned painter Gligor Čemerski (1940-2016), because he “spit on all the values they represent.”

Throughout his life, Čemerski drew inspiration and promoted the legacies of the various struggles for freedom in the past, both local and global, in particular the World War II anti-fascist movement. For instance, the poster on his chest pictured in the photo at the top of this post references the last words of a teacher during the 1941 Kragujevac massacre, while his pose references the iconic move of Yugoslav hero Stjepan Filipović. He channeled some of his concerns through witty articles about the process of translation and the interplay between language and society.

Čemerski is survived by his wife and two children.

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