Every good translator (and appreciator of international literature) knows that a work in translation carries more than the weight of a language’s technical nuances and abnormalities. Like an immigrant to a new nation, it grapples in a no man’s land between the culture in which it was born and the new culture it is trying to make an authentic connection with. Recently, we sat down with Romanian novelist Norman Manea and Oana Sanziana Marian, the translator of a new English edition of Manea‘s novel, The Lair, to discuss some of the ways they understand translation as a cultural encounter. Both are émigrés from Romania (albeit with very different stories), which only added to their ability to speak to translation on the levels of personal, profession, and political experience.
Yale University Press: Professor Manea, your works have been translated into over twenty languages, and The Lair is available in Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, among other countries. How do you account for the universality of your narratives? Are some languages more “fitting” than others for the translation of your prose? Are there specific challenges to translation associated with a particular language or culture? Do you find instances in which the Romanian cultural landscape is so distinct from American culture that no linguistic and contextual equivalent can be found?
Norman Manea: Of course, Latin languages (Italian, French, even Spanish and Portuguese) are closer to the language and culture of this author. The linguistical transport into Anglo-Saxon is more difficult, not to mention Hebrew, Chinese, even Estonian, Hungarian, Swedish. This an unavoidable difficulty, not only in literary matters, but in a broader sense, translating all kind of texts from or into other languages or old religious texts (Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Indian, Chinese etc.) whose translations into modern languages is still continuing, improving, with every new edition.
Certainly, the Romanian cultural landscape, old and new, is distinct from the American, as it happens with a lot of other countries and cultures, and even more so, but this doesn’t mean that such a barrier cannot be overcome. You need a good professional translator – which means that you need a serious, national preoccupation with cultural exchanges and studies, with the cultural level of your citizens. Unfortunately, the United States is not at its best regarding cultural information and knowledge about the outside world, it keeps a rather provincial, self-sufficient mentality, despite the fact that it is a big power and despite the fact that it’s a country of immigrants, the majority of which have a low level of literacy and knowledge. What can we think about the fact that the amount of translations in the US is at the level of Greece, a UN report tells us?!
Oana Sanziana Marian: If I may add some thoughts here, I would venture that the humanity of the characters and themes overrides the specificities of the Romanian cultural landscape. Even when dealing with the past, it’s not really a novel about Romanianness. The story is really a translation itself, or maybe about a failure to translate one’s specific former life in the “old country” into an adequately corresponding specificity here, in America. Floating, living on, in the wake of that failure.
YUP: Do you think readers need to be reminded in the course of the novel that they are reading a translation, or should the translated work create an illusion of the original? (Indeed, people are often unaware that they are reading a translated work– perhaps the ultimate affirmation of the translator’s merit).
NM: They should be able to totally immerse themselves in the text; a few odd clues about the linguistical transfer are not a disaster.
OSM: Again, I’ll add in, if I may. This question is likely to make a translator defensive! But it’s a good question. I don’t think any writer or translator would want to remind the reader, forcibly, that she is reading a translation.
In The Lair there are several elements of style, content and “foreignness” that will do this, nonetheless. For one, the story deals with exiled characters living in America, meaning that there are already English elements in the original. Or, when a non-native character living in New York speaks, should he sound foreign? And how do you convey that in a way that doesn’t just sound wrong? Foreignness in this novel is particularly important because the characters are foreign in the story (what’s more, the characters themselves are preoccupied with other non-English writers, Mann, Borges, Kafka, etc). There were opportunities to convey this in some of the dialogue, less so in the first person narrations. Something I liked very much, about which I now feel rather strongly, was the editor’s (Dan Heaton’s) suggestion to preserve all the names of the original exactly as they are.
Another element, the “detective novel” aspect, also posed some questions. This style deals specifically in veils and concealment, gradual discovery, smoke and mirrors. Obviously, the words themselves do this; it isn’t just about the way the information of the plot is arranged. But sometimes veiling things in the same way in English muddles the sense too much. We debated even just the first three lines several times; do we say, “the yellow trunk,” or “the yellow cab?” In the Romanian, it’s a “trunk,” not because that’s what cabs are called, but because that’s what Norman was calling a cab. It may seem like an unimportant detail, but Norman’s language, in general, is very playful, and since I wanted that playfulness to be a part of the English translation, this challenge reappeared on many occasions.
On the whole, it seemed best to try to let the text read as naturally as possible, while preserving the characters’ inherent idiosyncrasies, as well as the idiosyncratic style of the original text itself.
YUP: Professor Manea, you have written all your books in Romanian. In one of your interviews you have said that “Language is home and homeland for a writer.” What does writing in Romanian mean to you? What is the experience like reading your own work in a different language?
NM: Yes, I also said that being forced to leave my homeland, I took with me the only wealth I had: my language. It was and it is my mobile home, as the snail’s home in his wandering. It remains to this day my homeland, my intimate refuge, my “lair” where I try to regain myself and my writing, where I protect myself against the cacophony of the exterior chaos.
YUP: Oana, the reverse is true in your case: you were born in Romania, but write poetry in English. What is your approach to language and to translation?
OSM: The threat of imprecision is so great even in the language that comes easiest to a writer; I really admire writers who can write exceedingly well in an adopted language (Nabokov, Conrad, Celan, Ionescu). I think you can only do that out of a very specific, deep necessity, for example, to live, when writing in one’s native language would result in some kind of death, of the body, soul, or one’s professional possibilities. But English doesn’t function as my second language. It’s the other way around. Engaging in translation of Romanian, however, comes from wanting to have a living, continuous contact with Romania. So in a sense, I agree with Norman: Romanian is a homeland, but it’s one for which I am homesick in the same way that I am homesick for the village where I spent my summers until I was eight. I don’t feel I can ever fully recover that home, so it becomes a conceptual homeland. But what a wonderful thing to be able to have more than one home. Translation gives me that.
YUP: Professor Manea, have you ever translated your own works? Oana you have written poetry in English which was published online bilingually, yet you did not translate your poems into Romanian. Is there almost an inherent impossibility of resistance to translating your own writing? What is the experience like reading your work in a foreign language?
NM: No, I never translated y my own work and I never taught my own work. As for reading myself in another language, it is like seeing myself dressed in some odd costume in which I do or I don’t recognize myself. Yet, it seems the only way to encounter my interlocutors around the world.
OSM: I’ve never translated my own poems into Romanian because my access to the precision of expression I’d like is limited in Romanian. But I’ve had some poems translated by Dan Sociu, and I find the experience of reading them in Romanian really delightful. Dan and I have very similar sensibilities, so what I read feels like my own writing. It’s a little like cheating on a test and getting away with the high marks, since I would love to be able to have access to all of those words and turns of phrases more intuitively in Romanian.
YUP: Do you read works in translation? Could you describe this experience? Do you find yourself constantly trying to evoke/uncover the original, or do you accept the translated work as a final/independent product?
NM: Of course. The greatest part of world literature I read in Romanian translations.
OSM: Sometimes when I read poetry in translation, especially if I really love a poem, I try to find several translations. I don’t read German, but I have the idea that the combination of all the different versions of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is closer than any single translation could get (though I think Stephen Mitchell’s translations of all of Rilke are the best). But I don’t generally worry about whether a translation is satisfying. I know it can never be the same, and, if the translation is done by a good writer, something always comes across.
YUP: Does it ever happen that you prefer to read a text in translation rather than in the original, even though you know the original language?
OSM: I could joke around with Norman on this one, and I know he’d appreciate the joke.
YUP: Are translations ultimately only for those who cannot read the work in the original language or do you think there is value in reading works in translation alongside the original?
NM: Everything depends on the reader, what kind of readers we are speaking about.
OSM: Sure, why not. If you can read both languages, what a privilege! There’s meaning in each language, hopefully a lot of it is the same meaning, and there’s meaning in between them. It’s wonderful to engage with language like that.
YUP: In one of her interviews, Margaret Sayers Peden has said, “Translation is a research endeavor requiring knowledge of the language, the culture, the individual writer; and hours and hours of the time I put into a translation are spent in library research. Knowing a language does not make one a translator.” How much research went into the process of writing The Lair and of translating it? Do both endeavors require a similar kind of research? Is translation a work of analysis and creative writing?
NM: Certainly, knowing a language doesn’t make one a translator. My research for The Lair took, indeed, some time. Translating it shouldn’t require the same amount of time, I suppose, but in our “pragmatic”, speeded, money oriented time – in which culture & literature are seen mainly as a selling “product” (like potatoes, shoes, cars, transistors) and translations are badly paid and not respected at all – I doubt that there is time for researching the implicit or explicit content of a foreign book, its cultural- social-historical-political premise.
OSM: I would agree that “knowing a language does not make one a translator.” Some would argue that it’s not even necessary, as there are many Eastern European poems translated by people who have no knowledge of the native languages at all. I think knowing the language helps a great deal, but it’s most important that the translator be a good writer. Translation is still writing. It also helps to have access to the writer of the original, and in my case, it helped tremendously that the writer also speaks English. The “research” that went into translating The Lair was mostly talking to Norman about specific word choices and phrasing, but it was also useful that, when I misunderstood some contextual information, he could be aware of it and point it out. Which he always did, with an incredulous outrage (for his expectations of my capabilities were always high) that I grew to find endearing. But I suppose if I didn’t already possess some of the cultural context from my own history, I would certainly have felt the need to research it.
Norman Manea is Francis Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer-in-residence at Bard College.
Oana Sanziana Marian is a poet, translator, photographer, and filmmaker.
The Lair is available now from the Margellos World Republic of Letters series.