Treachery and Translation

  • 0
  • March 24, 2010

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