Guest Writer’s Series #7: Adam J. Sorkin

Translating Ioan Es. Pop:
A Book Bound in New Skin

I recently translated the first poetry collection by one of the prominent voices of the post-communist period, Ioan Es. Pop’s No Way Out of Hadesburg (in Romanian, Ieudul fără ieșire –I’ll comment on the title later), working with Lidia Vianu of the University of Bucharest. It will appear from the University of Plymouth Press in Plymouth, England, later this year, the second of three books of poetry Vianu and I were asked to do for the series Twenty Romanian Writers, a selection of influential and award-winning authors chosen for the Romanian Cultural Institute by a panel of critics and scholars. My comments here are heavily based on my introduction to the book.

To start, a little background. Pop’s collection appeared in 1994 in Bucharest from the prestigious Cartea Românească publishing house (now part of Polirom). The volume was immediately recognized as significant by reviewers, and the Romanian Writers’ Union awarded Pop its prize for a first book of poetry. As its title implies, No Way Out of Hadesburg is claustrophobic, psychologically confined, about lives measured in “years of / death, from . . . birth till now”; the experience of the poet’s lyrical persona is central to the sequences. Were it not at moments wry and surprising, I might call it a dispiriting book as well, full of dark truths illuminated by tragic assumptions about life. These are centered in the story of the protagonist who taught in the town called Ieud, as well as the elegiac story of the death of Mircea, the speaker’s double with whom he lived in unbearable cold one long winter, without wood for heat. At one point, the poet says about Mircea’s death, in a verbal gesture of frank authenticity, “i haven’t wanted to write about anything else since.”

I could go on, but this is enough background. In my comments, followed by part of the opening sequence of poems from the book, I want not to talk about the character and strength of Pop’s book, but about some translation issues. Always with such projects, in fact, with any translation, there are decisions in approximating what can, or (the translator judges or feels) should, be done in English to capture elements of the original. Language decisions are at the same time decisions about tone, effect, quality, register of diction, clarity of metaphor, dominant thematics, internal consistency, and a sense a style. Unavoidably, they are interpretive choices, what meaning to emphasize, whether an allusion can be evoked, if this or that irony can be carried over – and how. Here, I plan to comment on a few specific challenges to the translation.

The English title of Pop’s collection, No Way Out of Hadesburg, adapted a bit freely from Pop’s first volume, Ieudul fără ieșire, gave the translators much occasion for thought. The latter two words of the Romanian title, “fără ieșire,” can be rendered a number of different but accurate ways, some rather drab, others more allusive: “without an exit,” “lacking egress,” “dead end,” “blind alley,” “cul-de-sac,” as well as the equally idiomatic but evocative Sartrean “no exit.” I myself felt strongly that this last possibility seemed so very obvious, with the poet himself having in fact used the phrase in English as the title of a collection of his original-language poems, that it approached literary cliché. Finally, “No Way Out” presented itself as the best choice, three emphatic monosyllables, a turn of phrase in everyday speech that sounded right when combined with the English equivalent of the book’s imaginary place (or no-place).

Though the name of an actual place, Ieud, the book’s fictive locus, not so much physical as metaphysical, presented its own translation dilemma. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to the author about his book, and his perspective was useful, as I usually find in working with authors, who sometimes seem less set on specific verbal formulas in English than I’ve found some collaborators. In reality, Pop remarked to me with a touch of amusement at the disparity, Ieud is a pretty town, nothing like the way he makes it appear in his book. I myself know the region from a trip by car nearly thirty years ago as a gorgeous wooded terrain of mountains, valleys, and streams, with a number of unusual, historic wooden churches. Alas, translations aren’t travelogues (although cultural knowledge and a sense of topography and locality are often of help in reimagining the original in its new-language context). More to the purpose for the poetry, the name Ieud is a pun in Romanian, a near homonym for a common term for hell or Hades, “iad.” It is this association which led the translators to interpret the place-name in English rather than, as is our usual practice, to use Romanian nomenclature, as in the town of “borșa” which appears in the poems, the “dâmbovița” river, or the partially rendered village “big șomcuta” (“șomcuta mare”), carrying the names over directly for the sake of specificity or perhaps, in some readers’ perspectives, an exotic touch of elsewhere. Despite the connection to biographical data of the poet’s life, the translation had to consider the pun as the paramount thematic feature of Pop’s use of the village name in the title. Pop encouraged the translators to think this way, as well. Thus it became important to carry across for readers in English its not so hidden meaning. Hence (with a slight nod to Mark Twain): Hadesburg.

A couple of further remarks about translation decisions begin with the fact that in our translation of Ioan Es. Pop, I insisted that we pay attention to rhyme. Pop’s poems are not heavily rhymed, and the author in fact suggested to me that finding correlative rhymes in English was not essential. Yet his style is neither flatly conversational nor colloquial in effect (one great exception is the thoroughly vernacular prose poem among those that follow, “the ordeal,” full of grammatical solecisms and odd slang – the problem was to find English usages that kept the poem going as well as the sense of oral, nonstandard speech, while not pegging the effect to any identifiable region or class or dialect). Likewise, Pop’s self-projection in his poetry is neither biographical in the sense of being limited to actual facts about the living Ioan Es. Pop nor revelatory in the sense of its being intimately confessional. Rather, details, despite Pop’s inventiveness, absurdity, and illogic, are raised to a dramatic intensity imbued with a ritual, indeed mythic quality in part through the repetitions, the verbal and imagistic rhythms, the internal echoes, the heightening readers expect of poetic discourse. The moments of rhyme are a component of this highly charged lyric intensity. In a contrary effect, the translators chose to leave Pop’s sometimes prosy lines and prose-poem passages as truly prose-like, more or less as they are in the original; Pop told me in Bucharest in the summer of 2009 that his poems can be “stories in disguise.” I took this to mean that his authorial confidence risks encompassing episodes that gravitate toward story-telling more than poetic music-making. Additionally, the translation preserves authorial idiosyncrasies such as words hyphenated between syllables at the end of some lines, small train-wrecks of words smashed together and fused, or occasional broken-off, intentionally unfinished phrases (elliptical, but likewise puzzling).

Finally, one particular verbal formula demands comment, Pop’s repeated use of the Romanian “amic.” This informal, obviously Latin-derived term for “friend” can’t help but be seen in Romanian literary usage as characteristic of the eminent late nineteenth, early twentieth-century comic satirist in the theatre and in prose sketches and stories, I.L. Caragiale, whom the poet thus evokes by this gambit (this is but one of a number of allusions in Pop, in fact; these are impossible to capture without extraneous textual maneuvers or explanations or extra-textual devices such as footnotes, neither of which, I believe, is part of what a poetry translation should be, unless, of course, the poem itself used such notes). The word “amic” plays an important role in No Way Out of Hadesburg, and the translation takes a bit of liberty in rendering it by different equivalents as tone, grammar, and rhythm require, e.g., “buddy” or “pal,” or as an address, “my friend” or “good buddy,” and “amigo” – this last was suggested by Pop’s character “the san-jose louse,” who appears twice in the poem, “No. 15 Olteț Street, Room 305,” entitled with the address where Pop lived in a kind of dormitory for single workers when he first came to Bucharest. Later, “the amigo” takes on a special prominence as the moniker for the dirty, drunken beggar who at Christmas drags a cross, “that stick of wood on his back” throughout the city of Bucharest, “a man more foolish and more down on his luck than we.” This drunken beggar, “too much like us” either to dismiss or respect, captures the poetry’s human empathy mixed with seriousness of purpose. He winds up a suicide in the city’s Dâmbovița River but is ushered by totemic animals to meet god (who turns out to be “a runty little guy, mostly bald, cross-eyed”).

It is hoped that these translation choices enhance the poems’ richly metaphoric textual microcosm. They are indeed choices, and as the native English-language expert in the translation term, I take final responsibility for them. I myself might have some theoretical objections to, say, translating the same term (as with “amic”) in different ways. I try to be keenly aware of repetitions of words or of word roots in nouns and verbs, for instance, and to honor their use out of my assumption that among all writers poets are best attuned to what I think of as the heft of words, their value, weight, contour, and music, and this should be respected. However, in some instances, my scruples pale beside the higher necessity that a poem should sound like a poem in its linguistic transformation.

Within the bleak suggestion of Ioan Es. Pop’s poetry that life in the world is no more than life imprisoned in the local and universal hell of “your own flesh. you can’t take if off,” its sometimes psychotic and strange, sometimes homely and absurd imagery, its deep seriousness conjoined at one and the same time with a bittersweet, gently mocking black comedy, ultimately Hadesburg is everywhere and nowhere, “boundless” – a psychological state. Pop’s poetry offers No Way Out of Hadesburg as a kind of catharsis of pain and futility, where “the end” takes refuge in the persona’s apartment (“only you take me in when i’ve no home”), life is a progression of beds (the final one “has a lid”), and the dream self has to venture forth to assist in bearing its own body for burial (“your father’s / already on his way to fetch you. . . . / go help him lift you up, for / you’ve been lying there three days with no living breath”). Life and death seem both agony and a reciprocity of temporary anodynes: “here / life gets swigged down, death forgotten.” What must remain is the essential, the poetry itself living as the body of work of the author. Pop inverts this truism in typically skewed, zany fashion. To conclude, I’ll borrow a striking metaphor from the poem “job. iova. jonah. ioan.” The speaker’s friend, the mad, grouchy writer Iova (I take him to be a version of the writer Gheorghe Iova, though I never bothered to confirm this with Pop), announces that an ultrasound has shown him the grave literally expanding inside him and goes on to imagine his future as the future of his written work. Similarly, Pop’s poetry suggests that writing is the only thing that holds out the hope of transcending the impossibilities and limitations of mortality: “one day . . . ,” the poet taunts the world and its travail, “i’ll be a book bound in my own skin.”

The translator, ideally, captures the flesh and blood, the bone and muscle, the words and rhythms, the life and vision of a writer in his or her new skin, in a new book. I think it is the intent of translators that a poet become many books bound in as many different new skins as they can create, or if you want to quibble, recreate.

by Adam J. Sorkin

From No Way Out of Hadesburg:

No. 15 Olteț Street, Room 305


like a huge, bitter seabird
misfortune hovers over the block of flats
at no. 15 olteț street.

only those like us live in these rooms. no families. here
life gets swigged down, death forgotten.

and no one ever knows who or whom, who with
whom, when or what for.
sometimes the wind blows the smell of smoke and the tumult of battle
from the catalonian plain.

when you come up to see us, buddy, watch out: you’ll be met at the doorway by the san-
jose louse. he’s our keeper. he’ll wag his tail at your feet, he’ll
greet you, hey, amigo, slip me five to ferry you across. the door’s
always bolted, these guys keep locking me out, they imprison me outside.
don’t believe him, pal, you’ve no idea. the janitor came yesterday
and made him chief of the landing, he’s in charge of
this room now – this accursed ship the waters have tossed here,
marooned on the third floor.
pay him, my friend, he’s the helmsman. he still rocks on his sea-legs
as in the old days when the ship leapt through the waves.

if he swears, listen piously: when he swears
he’s really praying. as they all do here.
as you’ll soon do.

only those like us live here.
life gets swigged down, death forgotten.

at rare intervals of contrition, of faith, inevitably at night,
the walls grow thin, stretch this way and that, reach higher,
as if a fluttering shroud draped over an unworldly body.

but nobody awakens and in the morning again the building is
a rumpled shirt out of the pockets of which we alone can leave,
only we.

only those like us live here.
life gets swigged down, death forgotten.

2. group photo

seated around the table after supper. maybe pensive. maybe just
exhausted. fallen to the floor, its shirt open – a
rotten peach – lascivious dancer of these nights.
first on the left – zoli. with a reddish beard propped
on his fist. an empty glass overturned half out of the picture. his eyes
blurred. maybe just exhausted. maybe pensive. behind him
you can see the turned-up collar of my coat, as
though a hood. i always forget: no one’s watching us anymore.
i walk as if wrapped in someone i’m not.

on the right end – hans. he’s something. he’s
thirty-eight. he’s pillowed his head on the table.
once he had money. he had theresa. he’s thirty-eight.
the guy had a pal, the pal had
theresa, theresa had hans’s money. hans has
pillowed his head on the table. the table wobbles, us along with him.
he was thirty-six at the time. now he has size-ten boots. a new life, and
cirrhosis of the liver wait for him in bed. among us,
hans is the only accomplished man.

mitru: no work for a year. fit for apostleship.
found shelter here. this flophouse takes in anybody.
once had a wife and a home, but done with those.

smack in the middle sits the spider with a cross.
always moody, wrapped in a shroud of his own silk
as in a gentle halo of flame.
“day breaks, night falls again,” he says,
“and none of them will awaken to betray us.”

3. the ordeal

he says, look, says i’ve got this box of matches, lifted them the other night from my aunt. he says, i’ve lost my spider, can’t be nowhere else, he says, ’cept in 305. keep your eyes peeled, he says, watch the entrance, whistle when he goes out, he says, he’s you name it and then some, got long legs, goes about in nothing on, only underwear, he says, bowlegged, makes like some snotty big shot, speaks through his nose, boy, weaves them incredible shirts. he says, you know, i and my sister with him, you know, and all that jazz. seen ’er one day, seen ’er next day too. so i pay ’em a visit one night. she, he says, she’s wearing the cat fur – and was she meowin’! the little bitch purred, too, he says, so i’d take ’er for a pussycat. and the guy next to ’er, in bed. then, he says, i pulled the clock down off the wall and banged hell’s bells out of it till next morning. then they came around and found ’er there, washed ’er, dressed ’er to be a bride. you know, they said, you’re hot for him, well, you got him. all your life, gonna be a spider’s wife. all right, take the weirdo, take your monster home. and she reaches for him. but, no, the spider shillyshallies, don’t want her, no, he’s too young, no, he needs her ear, so he can weave bridal blouses in it.

(and einshtein went to see this lady, his friend since forever. einshtein was old now and in one ear and out the other. einshtein saw this spider, the lady friend had raised him since he was tiny, like her own child. he liked the spider, this einshtein did. they hit it off right away. poor lady, oh mama. she went to the kitchen to bring sweets to her distinguished guest. then the old humbug – he snatches the spider real quick, stuffs it in his mouth, and starts to chew it up.

then his lady friend comes back. dangling out of the corner of einshtein’s mouth there’s an unswallowed leg.

what’s that, she asks. nothing, the tip of my moustache.

they never seen each other again after that. she couldn’t never forgive him.)


we hired two guys from room 24. look, man,
they pray for us night and day, we’ll be for-
given, no doubt about it. we can
keep drinking.


four junipers with beards tour our block of flats.
the janitor chases them away with open scissors.
we’re priests, they yell, nobody can cut our hair.
we’re magi, you’ve no right.
for three months we’ve been travelling to his room
to see the miracle in three-hundred-five –
we’re magi, you evil-smelling herod. we’ve come
to witness his birth and carry him to his tomb.

8. the hans bird

a bird flew in through the window at night
i knew for sure it was hans.
it was bald and dead drunk.
hey, he said, here’s 50 lei, they’ve got
some kick-ass brandy across the road. nevermore, i replied.

he says: since i went away from you, they
hired me as night watchman at the cemetery. i have
a first-class flashing light. i sleep by day. i work with
the police. i’ve money enough to bury you. i’ve become minerva’s
owl. i open my eyes only at nightfall.

they promoted me. i now have large epaulets
on my liver. i had them since the time
here with you. oh! my wounds remain sore.
get going, man, let’s have a little something to celebrate.

hansi, i told him, nevermore.


i still think now i could have gone awry in a worse way
than how bad i really became.
and what happens today may be the same tomorrow,
the same yesterday. but the san-jose louse showed up,
pushed in belly first, hands behind his back,
speechified the whole day long. i asked, he answered, i found out
he’d been appointed emperor of no. 15 olteț street.

i clapped my hands. i caroled. it’s a new age
at no. 15 olteț street. everybody’s happy.
we’ve got long tongues in our boots and in our bells. as during
the time of our beloved gaddafi
who’s in cuba and eats his vietnamese rice
out of korean sugarcane.

for tomorrow, we’ve been promised chloroform. tomorrow the world will turn
more ethereal, more refined. it will waft from us
as through gauze.
it will be a lot more pleasant on the operating table.
even there, truth will hide behind our back.

they will remove from us only the outside world.
death will stay intact inside us.
life will stay exact inside us.

from tomorrow on, we promise to stop drinking,
stop making trouble in the block,
stop using the skeptic system.
from tomorrow on, we promise to stop drinking.

but tomorrow is another today – what a disappointment!
tomorrow will never be tomorrow.

by Ioan Es. Pop

translated from Romanian by
Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu

Adam J. Sorkin recently published Memory Glyphs: Three Prose Poets from Romaniapoems by Cristian Popescu, Iustin Panța, and Radu Andriescu (Twisted Spoon Press); Mircea Ivănescu’s lines poems poetry (University of Plymouth Press, UK, translated with Lidia Vianu), both in 2009. He is the main translator (with the poet) of Rock and Dew, poems by Carmen Firan (The Sheep Meadow Press). With Vianu, he was awarded The Poetry Society’s Poetry Translation Prize for Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge (Bloodaxe Books, 2004). Sorkin is Distinguished Professor of English, Penn State Brandywine.

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