I started translating Eminescu out of sheer love. I know now it was also a need to exorcise my intense nostalgia as an immigrant by offering the American readers a glimpse into the beauties of my native land.
Although long frustrated by the limits of translatability, I still wondered how Eminescu's musicality and ‘simplicity’ of expression could be rendered in English. Eminescu’s poetry owes its moving power not to a small degree to its sound in Romanian. Its elusive but instantly recognizable 'music' is akin to reading Shakespeare aloud or listening to Bach, Chopin or Vivaldi. This major challenge for any translator underlies the resigned feeling, shared by many, that Eminescu is untranslatable.
I wondered if this music could at least be suggested. What if I approached it from the 'concord of sweet sound'? I had the ‘hunch’ that transposing the 'music' will keep me closer to content. Besides, how could I give up on ‘Luceafarul’-- a poem which has, perhaps second only to ‘Mioritza’, an almost mythical status for Romanians?
Truthfulness to content, on the other hand, opened a Pandora’s box of questions about the wildly divergent realities and expectations of the two languages and cultures. I found that the naïve projection that other people think or feel the same way as you do as a matter of course, only with words that sound different in the other language, is more widespread than is commonly believed. With a ‘national poet’ like Eminescu, this projection affects to a larger degree both the translation process and its acceptance.
In Romanian, Eminescu’s depth of thought and feeling is achieved through simple vocabulary, archetypal imagery and specific musicality. The vocabulary is simple without being simplistic. Indeed, it is the coincidence of familiar locutions and the unexpected depth of meaning that is uncanny. Can simple words be combined in English with similar musical effect, without sounding simplistic?
This question is particularly relevant when we think of Eminescu as ‘Romantic’, since 19-century English poetry established certain stylistic conventions and expectations from Romantic poetry. The model made Romanian translators systematically wary of ‘common’ words. To fit him in the picture, Eminescu was dressed in the royal attire of traditional British poetry. The result was sophistication of language and a syntax akin to Byron or even Shakespeare. British translators clearly adopted that style reflexively, because that was their norm for ‘Romantic.’ Sylvia Pankhurst’s renditions are a good example of this most natural misrepresentation.
While embellishing Eminescu’s vocabulary, his music was abandoned from the start. It was a ‘given’ that English poetry strives toward efficiency, actively avoiding superfluous syllables like definite articles. In Romanian, flexionary forms are unavoidable and used intentionally as musical material. For this reason, Eminescu’s ‘sound’ was not expected to survive in English by either Romanian or British translators, although Keats or Blake or Shakespeare had revealed rich musical potentialities in their style.
And yet, even while leaning toward archaization, both Romanian and British renditions from Eminescu did attempt rhyming prosody. Why? To me it is a matter of course. ‘Prosody’ comes from Greek and it means ‘song sung to music’. The pull toward rhyming is deeply rooted in the genetic tie between poetry and music. Everyday language shows this subliminal understanding when we say things like ‘sounds good to me’. Obviously, how the content sounds is more important for the overall meaning than generally acknowledged.
Casually splitting this unit, the current US literary criticism strongly favors blank verse and modernization of the translation language. Meter and rhyme are deemed too conventional. To be effective, the argument goes, translations need to match the spontaneous emotional outbursts of contemporary English language and poetry. Lyrical pleasure is expected more from surprise of information than from harmony of matching sounds. For anyone attempting a meter and rhyme translation, such programmatic ‘effectiveness’ is disheartening.
This ‘fear of rhyming’ is not confined to translations and it is understandable: most rhyme combinations, now tabulated in dictionaries, have been used up after so many years of word matching. Moreover, in a pervasive media culture, journalism and commercials further fostered their clicheization, accelerating their natural rhyming inflation. As a result, while contemporary poetic form follows a freer verse, a faulty assumption has grown, namely, that 'obsolete' rhyme-and-rhythm is fit only for facile content.
But how can written translations rival the invasion of movies or mass media’s more immediate impact? Contemporary life expects more instantaneously gratifying artistic forms. Poetry itself has moved towards shorter forms, favoring depiction of affect over meditation. The perceptual, especially the visual, dominates contemporary productions, with affects passing like fleeting snapshots on a screen. Meanwhile, the interest for the literature of past centuries is kept alive mostly through screen productions and audiotapes. Along this line of thought, ‘Luceafarul’ would have a better chance as a Lloyd-Weber musical than as a written translation. This is not very encouraging for Eminescu’s fans.
Considering the odds, rhyming Eminescu in English for the sake of his music sounds crazy. Why translate him at all, in this day and age? Linguistic considerations tend to bring into focus limits of translatability; the English contemporary context frowns on obsolete poets and styles; Eminescu‘s national importance in Romania creates unrealistic expectations; misused expertise, acting on questionable perfectionism, would rather inhibit new translating attempts than pool resources towards a better result, a.s.o. The Eminescu translator lies between the rock of idealized expectations and the hard place of a reality full of unquestioned assumptions.
The answer is ultimately personal. I discovered that my love for the poet of my youth was bigger than any reason inhibiting my desire to share him with others…. That helped me find a voice of my own rather than follow the accepted directions or expectations mentioned above. My intention was from the start to give English speakers a sense of Eminescu's unique ‘sound’ and style rather than fit him into ready-made clothes. Paradoxically, this approach allowed me to be truer to the content.
My translations did not attempt to modernize either vocabulary or grammar. Some formulations may sound contemporary but this is also the case with the poet in Romanian. Other locutions are 19-th century but neither vocabulary nor syntax is archaic. I intentionally avoided forms like 'doeth', 'thou', 'did speak', 'thy', etc. While such conventions characterize Romantic English poets they would not be useful to suggest Eminescu's much more natural vocabulary.
To me, Eminescu is akin to the music of Mozart or Vivaldi: the sound combinations seem simple and predictable but the cumulative effect has serenity and a soothing depth that cannot be explained through its components. The sum is bigger than its parts. The harmonies, ‘commonplace’ from contemporary perspective, do not make the music any less enjoyable.
Eminescu's music had to be reinvented in English. But no more than any transposition for guitar of a Bach cello suite has to explore sonorities not customarily used by the new instrument.
The above is meant as an invitation to listen to the sound of Eminescu in English beyond hearing content. Read it aloud.
Adrian George Sahlean