The Macedonian ‘Moby-Dick’ Translator.

Filip Stojanovski reports on a remarkable translator:

The death of linguist Ognen Čemerski on August 25, cut down in his prime at age 42 by cancer, has shocked the Macedonian public. […] 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 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.

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.

No wonder it took him over a decade. Thanks, Matt!


  1. I wonder if Moby Dick has been translated into Japanese, which has adopted its sailing ship nautical terms wholesale from English. (Moby Dick has inspired a Japanese animated television series set in outer space called Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick.)

  2. Yes a remarkable effort of translation. As a boatie I have to disagree with

    … since all technology used on sailing ships originated on land.

    Sailors on long voyages had plenty of time on their hands, both to observe areas for improvement and nut out the solutions. That’s where most technology innovation originated. OK the ships were built and outfitted on land. That’s applying the technology, not originating it.

    There’s a church roof in Whitby, North Yorkshire (a fishing port where James Cook learned his craft), which is modelled on an (inverted) boat hull. I wouldn’t be surprised if cranes and pulleys were developed from boat spars/sail handling, rather than v.v.: note the pyramids were built without pulleys, whereas Greek and Roman construction did use pulleys, and both cultures had sophisticated marine power.

    The origins of the terminology is probably mixed inextricably.

  3. I wonder if Moby Dick has been translated into Japanese

    Apparently so.

  4. I’m pretty sure it was translated well before 2015. I knew the title 白鯨 from the 1970s.

  5. Here is a list of Moby Dick translations into Japanese, with the first dating from 1939.

  6. The book was also translated recently into Mongolian, another language erroneously thought to lack maritime tradition.

    Mongolian translation is very fitting, I believe, since main protagonist in the novel has nickname “Old Mogul”.


    I think not…

  7. another language erroneously thought to lack maritime tradition.

    Like that landlocked mountainous country in the middle of Europe’s Société Nautique de Genève.

  8. Incidentally, I realized I hadn’t heard from Paul Ogden in ages and sent him an e-mail asking how he was doing; I got back “Address not found” from both his e-mail accounts. I then discovered that redirects to a Server Default page (“If you see this page it means: 1. hosting for this domain is not configured, or 2. there’s no such domain registered in Plesk”). I greatly fear this obit is for him. Anybody know anything definite?

  9. Moby Dick has been translated into Bulgarian a few times, and Bulgarians have a sea coast and I assume maritime vocabulary. I suppose it would be politically insensitive to just crib from the Bulgarian?

  10. AntC: There’s a church roof in Whitby, North Yorkshire (a fishing port where James Cook learned his craft), which is modelled on an (inverted) boat hull

    There is a church in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (Canada), which I first visited around 1990. I don’t know much about ships, but when I stepped inside, the magnificent wooden vault immediately made me think that it had been built by ship carpenters. (Lunenburg, formerly renowned for building wooden sailing ships, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church in question burned down a few years later but was rebuilt in exact detail).

    Your comment about the Whitby church roof reminds me that I have seen at least one roof of this description, in Alençon, France (where I grew up), where it covers a former church, now a public library which could be listed among the most beautiful libraries of the world.

  11. LH: Paul Ogden

    I am pretty sure the obit is for him. I used to hear from him a couple of times a year or so, usually commenting on some French language point, and lately I had been thinking I had not heard in a while. RIP.

  12. RIP indeed. Damn.

  13. Very sorry to hear about Paul O.

    I had the same thought as Vanya re Bulgarian. Seems mildly implausible that Adriatic vocabulary from more distantly-related tongues was objectively more cromulent than Black Sea vocabulary from what is only debatably a separate tongue.

  14. George Grady says

    …a podcast published by Graceland University staff in 2016…

    Despite what might be thought, Graceland University has nothing to do with Elvis. I interviewed for and was offered a position there in 2002, but didn’t accept because I was offered another similar position much closer to my family. They’re affiliated with the Community of Christ, which had just changed its name at the time from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and there was still quite a bit of controversy amongst the faithful about the renaming at the time (and there still might be, for all I know). Historically, they’re a group that was left behind in the Iowa area when the larger part of Joseph Smith’s followers went with Brigham Young’s group further west. They, instead, considered Joseph Smith III, the son of the more famous Joseph Smith, as the legitimate leader.

    Their most famous alumnus, by far, must be Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner. When I was there for my interview visit, they still made a big deal about this, and they had pictures of him all over the place in athletic parts of the campus. I wonder what they have in that regard now…

  15. I’m sorry to hear about Paul, a jovial member of the Hebrew commenter contingent here.
    Ruvik Rosental, Israel’s foremost slang researcher, has a weekly column/blog (Hazira haleshonit, ‘the language arena’), within which Paul had a sub-blog, “Paul Ogden’s corner”, with links to interesting linguistic news from around the world. His last entries were from Jan. 11, about the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, and on Jan. 18, about recent advances in Google Translate. I haven’t checked if any LH entries fed his blog, but surely some must have. In April, Rosental restarted Paul Ogden’s Corner, keeping its original name.
    His photo and biography (in Hebrew) is here. To summarize: Paul studied journalism, started out in Canadian Jewish News and was co-owner for three years of Wheelspin News, a car enthusiast publication. He later became a communications consultant, emigrated to Israel in 1994, and continued working as a bilingual communications consultant ever since. He spoke Yiddish until age 4, studied Hebrew in Jewish school, and Latin in High School. For many years he did linguistic editing for “The Good Word of the Day” column at

  16. To summarize

    Thanks very much for that! It was strange feeling so strongly the loss of someone about whom I knew almost nothing beyond his devotion to LH. עליו השלום

  17. David Marjanović says

    They, instead, considered Joseph Smith III, the son of the more famous Joseph Smith, as the legitimate leader.

    Shiites! Mormonism has its own Shiites!

    I guess religious history, too, repeats once as a tragedy and once as a farce.

  18. The Shi’a/Sunni split was practically farce from the get-go. The split is based on a dispute that was resolved within a generation of Muhammed’s death, yet has somehow continued on for well over a thousand years more.

  19. Resolved by some, not by others. Few things are genuinely resolved in human history.

  20. David Marjanović says

    I like to say “once as a farce, once as a farce”… but the schism in Islam has led to a lot of (ongoing) bloodshed, while the Mormon one so far hasn’t to the best of my knowledge.

  21. Well, the exact actions of 1054 which are considered to be the beginning of Great Schism are no better than farce either.

  22. Yes, pretty much everything in human history looks like farce if you’re sufficiently removed temporally and emotionally.

  23. Not really, no. I have no emotional connection to the fall of Cartage or discovery of the Eastern passage to India, but both were really big deals. Or, if we talk about schisms, Charlemagne’s division of his empire was not farcical the least bit. And my point above was that the Great Schism itself was a great deal, but not exact events of 1054.

  24. Well, you’re clearly not sufficiently removed. I assure you there are plenty of people who can contemplate the fall of Carthage with complete equanimity.

  25. @D.O.:. Clearly, you must have missed our discussion of Carolingian mafia nicknames.

  26. marie-lucie says

    LH: It was strange feeling so strongly the loss of someone about whom I knew almost nothing beyond his devotion to LH

    Indeed. But long-term Hatters are almost like family.

  27. It’s funny. After rereading an old Post in which Paul mentioned that he had grown up in Toronto, I asked my friend and University of South Carolina colleague Alex Ogden if they might be related. (Both Jews who grew up in Canada.) Alex told me they were not cousins or anything. And then, the same weekend, I learned Paul Ogden had died, which made me sad.

  28. you must have missed our discussion of Carolingian mafia nicknames

    The second or so during which I read that as “Carthaginian mafia nicknames” was quite a roller-coaster.

  29. You don’t want to mess with the Carthaginian mafia. They have worse punishments than sleeping with the fishes.

  30. “What nice little children you have there. You don’t want Baal to become hungry, don’t you?”

  31. Sorry, I’ve seen this story posted in a few places now and it doesn’t hold up. From what I understand, Macedonian is essentially Bulgarian. It was called Macedonian to prevent irredentist Bulgarian claims. I’m sure there are differences between the language contiuum which is Bulgarian-Macedonian but it’s the same language or it would at least be very easy to use or to adapt the spelling of Bulgarian terms to Macedonian.

    Bulgarian has a coast line and so has nautical terms, there were also Macedonian Slavs settled on the coast around Thessalonika. They would have had terms.

    So, linguistically, if not politically, Macedonian does have a coast line and does have nautical terms.

    Siôn J.
    Cymru | Wales

  32. I remember reading about drug cartel based in Cartagena, Colombia.

    Real life Carthaginian mafia.

  33. From what I understand, Macedonian is essentially Bulgarian.

    This is a very contentious claim and should certainly not be taken as an assumption from which to view the translation.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    Separate and apart from whether “Macedonian” is really a separate thing from “Bulgarian,” the point that before the regrettable events of the 20th century there were plenty of speakers of that particular Slavic tongue far enough south (especially around Salonika) to be on the coastline is a potentially significant one. Of course it is possible that to the extent members of that ethnolinguistic group worked on the water as fishermen etc they mostly just used Greek loanwords for all the necessary specialized jargon (which might be unappealing for purposes of this translation) and it’s also possible that there was occupational specialization within the multi-ethnic/multi-linguistic character of old Salonika such that the Slavophones simply didn’t tend to work out on the water.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s the thing, though. The late Mr. Čemerski was undoubtedly raised to believe that Macedonian was a separate language from Bulgarian – any of his teachers in school who told him differently would have been foolhardy, whether it was during the tail end of Communist rule or the early transition to a new regime that was doubling down on nationalism to substitute for Marxism. But he certainly would have been aware of the existence of Bulgarian as a *separate* Slavic language. Looking to supplement the Macedonian lexicon primarily by looking to various coastal varieties of FYLOSC (my preferred acronym for the Former Yugoslav Language of Serbo-Croatian) rather than Bulgarian instead of looking to both on an equal-opportunity basis seems to bespeak a certain nervousness about treating Bulgarian as just another separate Slavic language, doesn’t it? Although to be fair I’m not sure how confident we should be from the wording of this particular article (written by someone else, with who knows what politics of his own, after Čemerski was dead) that Čemerski didn’t use Bulgarian as a source. That might be a hazardous inference from silence.

  36. The WP article “Political views on the Macedonian language” talks about the different perspectives: Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek. In the Bulgarian perspective, Macedonian is taken to be one of the three standardizations of the same language: Standard Bulgarian, Standard Macedonian, and Banat Bulgarian (written in Latin script, etc.) However, they also see Standard Macedonian as being a highly Serbianized variety of the common language as a consequence of how and by whom it was implemented.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Of course some of the “Serbianized” features are probably just western features shared areally with Serbian. The lack of the sixth vowel ъ (…in Standard Macedonian, based on a southwestern dialect chosen to be as far away as possible from both Bulgarian and Serbian) comes to mind.

    BTW, I’m totally stealing FYLOSC.

    Real life Carthaginian mafia.

    Sort of; Cartagena in Spain is Carthago Nova…

  38. So the one in Colombia should be Carthago Novissima.

  39. Qart-ḥadašt, Qart-ḥadašter, Qart-ḥadaštest.

  40. The first part of the Paul Ogden obit from the Globe and Mail I linked to above, in case it vanishes from the archives:

    OGDEN, Paul
    In Tel Aviv, on Monday January 23, 2017. Beloved son of the late Alexander and Shirley Ogden. Dear brother of Carol and Lorne Goldstein. Loving uncle and great- uncle of Noah and Sammy Goldstein (Sienna, Cooper and Chase), Fern and Adam Brody (Henry) and David Goldstein. Funeral will take place in Israel on Wednesday January 25, 2017.


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