Treachery and Translation

Traduttore traditore…so say the Italians, and after several months in Romania, fully engrossed in such acts of treachery, I have new appreciation for that sentiment.  At the same time, I’ve come to see how the betrayal of translation impacts poets who don’t get translated as much as those who do.

Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s national poet, provides a good example of this.  Most American readers probably know very little about Eminescu, and with good reason.  Translations of Eminescu into English prove few in number and erratic in quality; what’s more, he’s typically dismissed in the west as a minor Romantic poet.

Of course, to Romanians he’s much more than that, much of which gets (terrible pun coming here) lost in translation.  Romanian writers and critics are nearly uniform in their praise of Eminescu, and many go so far as to say he “invented” the Romanian language, at least the language of their poetry.  His poems display a clear technical brilliance but are equally notable for their innovations, melding archaic language and traditional forms to create new models that proved profoundly influential to his peers and those who came after him.

Of course, these same features make Eminescu difficult to translate and, as a result, lead to him being translated so infrequently, and as a result, to being little known or understood by western readers.  And this is not an isolated example as many “difficult” poets suffer a similar fate.  I’m not suggesting that translators shy away from these poets/poems out of laziness but rather that they do so out of respect and care for the work they’re translating, adopting a kind of a “do no harm” philosophy that may inadvertently do some harm, failing to accomplish what I see as the main goal of translation—bringing greater exposure to the poets who most deserve it.

All that being said, and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I can’t generate a good translation of Eminescu right now.  However, one day I will, and I’ll start with Eminescu’s sonnets; several poets have told me these represent some of his most interesting work, and one friend claims that Eminescu invented the “Romanian Sonnet.”  Nonetheless, these poems remain the most infrequently translated of his already infrequently translated work.

I even know which poem I’ll start with—one which I’ve found only a single translation of.  The translator is Corneliu M. Popescu, a Romanian prodigy who did some wonderful Eminescu translations into english before dying at 19 in the 1977 earthquake that rocked Bucharest.  While Popescu obviously didn’t have time to fully develop his craft, the poems he did translate demonstrate remarkable maturity and palpable ambition; in straining to replicate Eminescu’s distinctive music, he demonstrated little fear, showing a boldness that’s not reckless and a reverence that’s not timid.  Those are exactly the qualities I aspire to as a translator.


Mighty Venice how has fallen low,
One hears no songs, no sound of festive balls;
On steps of marble and through gateways falls
The pallid moon’s unearthly silver glow.

Okeanos there his sorrow calls…
In him alone eternal youth does blow,
Yet on his bride would he his breath bestow;
The waves break plaintively against the walls.

The town is silent as a burial ground;
Only the priests of bygone days remain,
Saint Mark tolls sinister the midnight round;

In somber tones his slow sibylline strain
He nightly speaks with smooth and cadenced sound;
“the dead, my child, no more come back again.”

by Mihai Eminescu
Translated by Corneliu M. Popescu

–Martin Woodside


  1. Martin Woodside’s comment is indeed admirable: based on extensive information as well as cultural finnesse and understanding of this Romanian poet and his translatability. I think that what Martin, as a foreign poet – and potential translator from this Romantic poet – has to say is also valuable for us Romanians, in our own discussions about Eminescu, and Eminescu vs the world.

  2. Martin Woodisde should be commended for his candid remarks. After all translations attempts of Eminescu’s work are only intended to take a crack at it.

    The problem with any translation of the great poet’s work is that the people, who understand the subtleties of Eminescu’s original language, may not command the same grasp of the English language.

    Then comes the hardest thing at all. The translator has to be a poet too. He or she has to rhyme the poems, because if not, the poems are just text.

    I’ll give you a sample. Please compare the poem “The first letter”, written by a young translator and this translation written by me, an older man of over 50.

    Peter Mamara

    First Letter

    When at night, with a sleepy eye I blow the candle,
    The length of time’s flow, only the clock can handle.
    And as I pull the drapes in my room to the right,
    The moon engulfs everything with its warm light.
    It retrieves from my memory, endless thoughts.
    I feel the whole lot like in dreams that come in lots.
    You move on Earth’s dome, Moon you, mistress of the sea.
    You give life to one’s thoughts, and you lessen one’s misery.
    Virgin one you, thousand of wildernesses glow in your light.
    How many forests hide shimmer of water in their shade?
    As on top of the rough vastness of the seas you drift,
    Over how many thousands of waves does your light shift?
    How many blossoming shores, what forts and castles too,
    Which flooded by your beauty, to yourself you put on view.
    Into how many thousands of homes, you gently touch?
    How many heads full of thought, you quietly watch?
    You spot a king, who webs the globe with plans for one century,
    While a poor guy dares not to think about the next day…
    While a new rank was drawn from the urn of fate for each guy,
    Your ray and the skill of death, rule them in the same way.
    To the same chain of passions both guys are addicted,
    Be they weak or strong, stupid or smart.
    Some guy looks in the mirror and his hair he styles,
    Some other guy seeks the truth in this world, and in these times.
    From stained old files, thousand small pieces he folds,
    Their short-lived names he writes down on the script he holds.
    And some guy at his office desk carves up the world, and he tallies
    How much gold, the sea is hauling in its dark ships’ belies.
    And there is the old professor, with his coat faded at the elbows,
    He searches, and in an endless count he assesses.
    And he buttons up his old robe, of cold he freezes,
    He sinks his neck in his collar, plugs his ears, and he sneezes.
    Skinny as he is, frail and feeble as he appears,
    The vast Universe is in his reach, and it nears.
    Since at the back of his brow, the past and the future unite.
    On files he makes sense of the eternity’ deep night.
    Like the Atlas* of ancient times, who propped the sky on his shoulder,
    So, our professor props the space and the eternal time in a number.
    While over the old scripts, the moon lights with its glow,
    His thought takes him back billions of years, right now.
    To the beginning, when a living or nonliving thing there was not,
    When life and will, lacked for the whole lot.
    When hidden was nil, though the lot was out of sight,
    When weighed down with wisdom, the Hidden One* relaxed His might.
    Was it a deep rift? Was it a sheer fall? Was it a vastness of water? Right…
    A conscious world, or a mind to figure it out, wasn’t in sight.
    Because there was dark, like a sea without a ray of light,
    But there was nothing to look at, nor eye to see into the night.
    The shape of the un-formed did not start yet to work loose
    And the endless peace rules at ease…
    But all of a sudden, the first and the only one, a point stirs rather…
    Look how out of the chaos it forms a mother, and it grows to be the Father.
    That point of motion even weaker than a bubble,
    It has total control over the entire Universe, without any trouble…
    Since then, the endless night sorts out in galaxies.
    Since then, come to light the Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the stars…
    Since then, up till now, colonies of lost worlds — with tales —
    Come from grey valleys of chaos on unknown trails.
    And they spring in swarms that glow from outer space.
    And by a boundless craving are lured to existence.
    And in this vast deep-space, we the tiny world’s brood
    We put together anthills on our globe, and we think it’s good.
    Tiny nations, kings, soldiers and the well read,
    We come in generations and we think we know everything from A to Z.
    Like flies that live one day in a tiny world that is measured by the foot,
    In that deep space with no end, we spin following the same route.
    And we quite forget that this entire life is a poised instant,
    And at the beginning and at the end night is revealed, although is distant.
    As specks of dust move about in a ray-of-light’s field,
    Thousands of brisk specks waste away with the light.
    And so, in the on and on night that never ends,
    We have the instant; we have the ray that still stands…
    When it will switch off, everything will vanish, like a shadow into the night.
    Since the hazy deep space is a dream of nothingness. But wait…
    Now, the thinker doesn’t stop his search, and in the twinkling of an eye
    His contemplation takes him billions of years to the future to see a ray.
    The Sun that now shines, he sees it dim and red, like veiled in dust,
    How, like a wound among dark clouds, it goes bust.
    Everything freezes up. And in space, like rebels the spheres fling,
    And flee beyond the light’s reign, and Sun’s gravity ring.
    And the altar screen of the world has dimmed altogether its ray
    Like the autumn leaves, all the stars have gone astray.
    The ended time spreads out what’s left, and it turns into infinity,
    Since the bleak stretch is full of serenity.
    And all is quiet. All plunges into the night of non-existence.
    And in a state of ease, the eternal peace gets going again in this instance.
    From the lowest rung of the crowds, up stepping,
    And to the royal heads, climbing ranking,
    Of his or her life mystery, everyone puzzled we see,
    With no way to say, worse off who will it be.
    The same as one is in all, all is in one.
    Ahead of the others, gets the one who can.
    While others with meek heart stand-alone and sigh,
    And do not grasp that like the unseen foam they quietly die.
    Whatever they want or think, what should the blind fate agonize?
    It is like wind that blows in gales over the folks’ days.
    Shall the whole world accept him? Shall writers cause him to feel at ease?
    What will the old professor gain out of all of these?
    Eternal life, they shall say. It is true that all his time,
    Like ivy on a tree, he clings to one aim.
    “If I die”— he says to himself, like the sages —
    “My name will pass on through the ages.
    Forever, in all places they shall pass it on, all the same,
    By word of mouth, by means of my fame,
    My writings shall find shelter in a spot of some head”.
    Oh, poor guy! Do you call to mind what in life you’ve read?
    What crossed in front of you? Or what to yourself you’ve said?
    Not much. From here or from there: a sketch’s bit,
    You remember you’ve done on a scrap of paper, or a hint of a thought.
    And when your own life, you don’t know by heart how it goes,
    Shall others be so keen to know how it was?
    Maybe over one century, a fussy man with his green eye,
    He shall sit among books of no use — himself, a redundant horse, let’s say —
    Your gift of style, he shall assess.
    Your book’s dust, he shall blow from his glasses.
    And he shall stack your work on two lines, in a tiny footnote.
    On a silly page he shall put you last, with a dot.
    You can build a whole way of life. You can wreck it.
    Whatever you say, a shovel of dust shall stack over the whole lot.
    The hand that wanted the sceptre of the Universe, and higher ranks…
    And with vision to grasp the Cosmos, fits perfect in four planks.
    And with cold stares, like they are mocking you too,
    In the best funeral-procession they shall walk behind you.
    And a shortie shall speak above everybody, reading your eulogy,
    Not to praise you… to polish himself in the shade of your celebrity.
    Look what awaits you. Oh yes, you shall see…
    The time yet to come, is even with more impartiality.
    They shall clap at your life’ skin-deep tale.
    It will aim to show that you weren’t big deal.
    You were a man like they are… everyone is content.
    Much more than him or her you weren’t.
    And in literary meetings, each guy with an ironic expression
    Will widen his or her nose, when about you they talk in session.
    It has to be said sincerely,
    With words, they shall praise you dearly.
    And so, fallen in the hands of anyone, they shall assess your toil.
    Everything they won’t be aware of, they shall soil.
    And apart from that… about your life… they shall stick their nose in.
    They shall look for dirt, faults and for some sin.
    All these brings you closer to them… Not the enlightenment
    That you shed on the world, but the sins, flaws and excitement,
    And blunders, and weak moments, and guilt from the past,
    Which, are linked in a fatal way to a hand of dust.
    All the little mess of a wretched soul that you’ve got
    Shall captivate them much more than all you’ve thought.
    Among the walls, flanked by the trees that shed flowers
    In the same way the full moon glows with gentle light for hours,
    It gets back much painful feeling from the faintness of our memories
    Eased is the pain, we feel everything like in dreams.
    As, it opens the star gate to our own dimension in a twinkling,
    And once the candle is quenched, it releases much inkling.
    Many a wilderness, glares in your glow, virgin one you.
    How many a forest, hide in its shade shimmer of springs, from your view?
    Over how many thousands of waves, does your glow shift?
    When, over the rough expanse of the seas, your light shall drift?
    And everything that under the power of fate in this world stays,
    It is ruled in the same way by the skill of the death, and your rays.

    (1881 February 1)

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