The Complex Meaning of Chlebodarca: “The Giver of Bread”
October 9, 2015
Since the June release of In Poems, we have run a weekly post from the translation of the work of Milan Rufus. For the next month we will continue the focus on Rufus each Friday with excerpts from my translators notes of In Poems. Below, I explain the meaning of the Slovak concept of Chlebodarca.
The Slovak concept of chlebodarca figures prominently in these poems. Chlebodarca is a Slovak word that can literally be translated as “the giver of bread.” The Latinate “provider” is used in English to mean something similar to chlebodarca, but has a different literal meaning at its roots – “he who looks ahead.” The English “breadwinner” is perhaps a closer literal translation to chlebodarca, but does not carry the same cultural value. “Putting bread on the table” is more similar but still a far cry. Along the same line, “company” or “companion” literally refers to those with whom one shares bread. Aristotle references members of household as “sharing the same bread,” and while that moves in the correct direction, it does not help achieve an effective English translation. The concept seems to have a much greater importance in Slovak culture than it does in the English speaking lands.
Providing basic material needs for a person figures prominently in Rúfus’s final book of poetry and figures prominently in a society that has seen long periods of poverty in recent memory. This selection contains poems from Ako stopy v snehu (Like Footprints in the Snow), that deal especially well with the topic of chlebodarca.
Chlebodarca is the one who provides for the family, or in a more general way, one who provides for others. Rúfus, in his final book, writes about the important step that one takes in life when he moves from being an “eater of bread” to a “giver of bread.” In the midst of these poems that are partially about coming of age, the distinction between “eater of bread” and “giver of bread” is the most significant line Rúfus draws between childhood and adulthood.
To move past chlebodarca for a moment and focus on just one aspect of the concept, as simple as the term may seem, the hardest word to translate in the entire collection of poems is the word chlieb – “bread.” There is a certain depth to the Slovak word that I have yet to encounter in all of my time as a teacher of English and Slovak culture and language, in all my time as a cultural essayist in my blog 52 Weeks in Slovakia, and in my time spent abroad in Slovakia, Slovak expatriate communities and the many English-speaking lands. Chlieb and bread do not hold the same weight in the English and Slovak languages. Chlieb and bread are not synonymous except on the most superficially literal level.
Bread is so significant in Slavic culture that bread is given along with salt to a visitor in the Slavic lands, as a symbolic gesture of giving the visitor “the best the land has to offer.” What foreigners may see as a measly piece of bread holds significant cultural weight in Slovakia. This is an old and cherished custom.
In 2004, the U.S. President on a visit to Bratislava for a summit callously shook off this gift of bread and salt. That was among the first interactions that the U.S. President had after stepping foot off of Air Force One. It was an image broadcast on Slovak television and rehashed in family discussions around Slovak dinner tables. Under no circumstance should that have been the response to this most important show of hospitality, especially from the world’s most important head-of-state. The following day, the image of his Russian counterpart, stepping foot on Slovak soil, stood in stark contrast in the minds of onlookers when the Russian President graciously accepted the gift of bread and salt. One embraced the important cultural symbol; the other did not.
Slovaks are so kind to visitors that the faux pas was soon dropped from conversation, but it was certainly a vividly memorable faux pas nonetheless. I wonder if there is anything in American culture that could have been publicly offered, so abruptly denied, and so brutally symbolic.
Wonder Bread, a symbol of 20th century American achievement, despite being fortified with vitamins and minerals, and perhaps the inspiration for the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread” just doesn’t compare. Soup accompanies lunch and dinner in Slovakia. Hearty loaves of bread accompany soup. It is ever-present at the table. Potatoes are important, rice less so, but bread is a symbolic staple in Slovakia in a way that the other two are not.
It was hard to come up with a word in English loaded with the meaning carried by the word chlieb in Slovak. Lacking a better term, it would have been wrong to use any other word than “bread,” because bread is certainly the correct literal translation of chlieb. With great pride I submit for your reading a translation of the work of the unofficial Slovak poet laureate. With great apology, I submit the translation absent of a word as strong and as meaningful as the word chlieb in Slovak.
Rúfus places the importance of bread or chlieb, within a greater moral context regarding the raising of children in “The Little Great Ones.” The text “They live from your bread” means they live from your work. They live from your deeds. They live from your actions. It also means they literally live from your bread. In that poem, the children also gather pollen from their parents. What their parents give them spiritually and materially is what those children become.
Continuing with the theme of providers, Rúfus demonstrates the relationship between utilizing gifts that have been provided and reaching an intended goal or outcome. In “My First City Clothes,” a mother brings her son along a mountain to collect cranberries to sell in order to buy new clothes for her son to wear to school. Nature providing, the mountain providing, even here in this poem we see the concept of chlebodarca – the chlebodarca arguably being the mountain. Perhaps the mother here is the chlebodarca, showing the son how to use ingenuity and hard work to achieve desired goals. “Who provides for you?” is a question that comes from a time before virtually everyone was provided for. It was a question of a time before survival was so taken for granted.
In “The Quiet Miracle of Motherhood” we see Mother depicted as an inexhaustible water well, not bread in this case, but again providing one of life’s needs.
“In The Road to School Through the Fields” we surprisingly even see gratitude for a road, celebrated by Rúfus as yet another gift provided for him.
These Rúfus poems present a theme of displaying great gratitude for that which is given. These poems are the recognition from a man at the end of his life, of how much others helped build him into the man that he became.
As our team put together this collection we understood the need for a name separate from the entire longer collection Ako stopy v snehu (Like Footprints in the Snow), since only a portion of the poems contained in Ako stopy v snehu are present here.
We made the decision to open up the naming of this collection of poetry to a public vote by the readers of 52 Weeks in Slovakia.
“You Allow Me to Pray in Poems” was a finalist for that name, a title that spoke to this sense of chlebodarca and the tremendous gratitude Rúfus displays in these pages: recognition of the small gifts provided to him, gratitude for those simple gifts, gifts that while simple made so much of a difference. So many of these poems uplift and give thanks for moments in life that many individuals in the typical course of a day allow to pass without appreciation. In that sense, many of these poems can be read as prayers.
Continuing in this theme of gratitude, Rúfus demonstrates how there can even be gratitude for something as commonplace as dessert. In the poem “Mom’s Lattice Crust Pie,” the son graciously recognizes the gift of Mom’s dessert stating, “Sunday lunches were adorned by it and it was unique like your hands Mom.” In “Dad,” we see Dad and his strong hands praised as unique and special just as Mom and her signature dessert are praised: “He understood pain and love, those two creatures, to which he offered his hands, in hard work.”
These poems go beyond mere wistfulness or nostalgia. Sometimes a person can find himself or herself stuck in that nostalgic state. A vague sense of longing can be a detriment and a stumbling block, keeping a person tied to the past while the gift of this present moment is ignored. There is a flip side to this coin. Value can be found in nostalgic recollections.
These poems would not be the first time I’ve witnessed a person on in years showing this kind of gratitude seen with the clarity of wisdom for moments that the haste of youth may have so easily overlooked. There’s great beauty in that flip side of nostalgia. Rúfus takes it a step further. We have the luck of having a clear-thinking, wise elder pointing out some of life’s facts to us as if we were his own grandchildren.
One of the most beautiful kernels of the collection is in the poem “Gainfully Employed.” We see an insightful look at an important moment of maturity: a man grateful to be allowed to grow into a chlebodarca himself. “The necessity of earning suddenly became a gift,” Rúfus writes. He cites joy in something some people might not appreciate, that moment where one realizes oneself “not only as an eater, but as a giver of bread.”
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.
Milan Rufus (December 10, 1928 – January 11, 2009) was the unofficial poet laureate of Slovakia. This Nobel Prize nominee has the uncommon distinction of being a poet who has regularly outsold trade paper and mass market fiction. A collection of Rufus’s poems translated by Stevo entitled “In Poems” is now available.