Sean Cotter is Associate Professor of Literature and Translation Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, Center for Translation Studies. He has translated many works of Romanian literature, including Nichita Stănescu, Wheel with a Single Spoke (Archipelago Books, 2012), the winner of the Three Percent Best Translated Book Award. He is the author of Literary Translation and the Idea of a Minor Romania (U of Rochester P, 2014), winner of the Society for Romanian Studies Biennial Book Prize.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about translating Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding. How did you decide you’d translate this book? What has been the feedback from the translation world?
Sean Cotter (SC): I decided to translate Blinding after providing a sample for a publisher. Only the first chapter—before doing the sample, I hadn’t read any further. But there is an arresting moment near the beginning, when the narrator looks out his window over Bucharest as a storm passes, and the sun penetrates the crack between the grey of the buildings and the charcoal of the clouds. Once I found the English for the colors of the sun dazzling the horizon, I felt I could translate the novel. I read the book after I signed the contract, and I discovered that I had had no idea how demanding the rest of the book would be, how horrifying and how sublime. Even Cărtărescu has admitted he got off easy in comparison with his translators: he only had to write the book once (in a single, handwritten draft). His translators (maybe twelve of us, in the various languages) each had to rewrite the book, several times. I think I did six versions, counting full drafts and rounds of revisions with the tremendous Jill Schoolman at Archipelago.
The book has generated more feedback from the translation world (and beyond!) than any other translation I’ve done. Jill collected the reviews. People wrote truly interesting essays—Sharon Mesmer’s splicing of Bucharest with Chicago recreated Cărtărescu’s technique perhaps more thoroughly than the translation itself. Scott Esposito predicted the book would “piss off a lot of people”, but so far, the only reaction of that type I’ve seen is the “Goodreads” reviewer who posted a picture of Cărtărescu and typed over and over, “I do not like Mircea Cartarescu… I do not like Mircea Cărtărescu…”—while Mircea, with the intensely calm eyes of a martial artist, stared back, “yes, you do… yes, you do…” I wish I had heard from more pissed off people, because I’d enjoy the company. No one gets more frustrated with a book than its translator. It’s a sibling’s hatred, or perhaps a conjoined twin’s.
LK: Which poem from Nichita Stănescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems was the most challenging to translate into English from Romanian? Why?
SC: Stănescu’s poems are difficult to translate for many reasons: their metaphysical scope, playfulness, emotional intensity, rhymes, their embeddedness in Romanian literary history—the list is endless. But one of his shortest poems was difficult for a more personal reason: it was the first poem I translated from Romanian. While I was in Romania with the Peace Corps, the language trainers held contest for translations of “Poem” by Nichita Stănescu, which begins, “Spune-mi, dacă te-aş prinde intr-o zi….” (I’ll give my translation below.) Two trainees entered and we both won. I would later make that poem into a pseudo-translation exercise for my undergraduates (in which I gave them a word-for-word English version). Every response to that exercise, 450 so far, resonates for me with decades of living with Romanian poetry. Even later, when I came to translate the poem for Wheel, I found it difficult to settle on one version, not only in chorus with my students but also the millions of Romanians who know the simple work. As a nod toward those voices, the title, not “Poem” but “A Poem,” came from a student. Then, at the public launch of that collection, in New York, in the last row of seats, was the woman who had been my Romanian tutor in Bucharest and was now an American citizen. I hadn't seen her for fifteen years.
Tell me, if I ever caught you
and kissed the arch of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after that
for fear of crushing my kiss?...
LK: Why translate from Romanian into English? Can you discuss your passion for the language? Did you always know Romanian?
SC: I did not always know Romanian, or English for that matter. The simple answer is that I first learned Romanian while living there with the Peace Corps and continued to study it through graduate school and other sojourns for research and relaxation. But there are many bilingual speakers; that’s not the same thing as becoming a translator. A translator has to love the language into which she translates, at least as much as the original language. Michael Heim, provocatively, would call knowledge of the original, “a technical detail.” I am always haunted by the knowledge that understanding the original is difficult, perhaps impossible, but it is even more impossible to bring all I do see into English. My English is driven, in the end, by my sense that these Romanian authors are doing something different, something irreplaceable, toward which my translation just gestures.
LK: Which book is on your nightstand?
SC: Part of Julia Kristeva’s Possessions, which begins with a translator lying decapitated on her living room floor. I don’t actually keep books on my nightstand, since I read on a chair by a window. But since you asked, there on my nightstand, for some reason, is just the book’s dust jacket, as though I had decapitated the book, in revenge.
LK: If there was one book or collection of poems you’d like to translate from Romanian to English, which book would that be? Why?
SC: There’s not just one book, of course, there are hundreds. For many years, I’ve been obsessed with Rakes of the Old-Court, a 1929 novel by Mateiu Caragiale that many regard as the best written in Romanian. It is thoroughly “in Romanian,” in that its style exploits so much of the etymology and cultural history of the language that it seems impossible to translate. I think I have the angle, however. It involves slathering my translation in recherché gems from the Oxford English Dictionary, while adopting the tantalizing and compelling style of Mateiu’s original.
Happy National Translation Month! And don’t forget to read, write, and share translations during the month of September.