Mihaela Moscaliuc, author of Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), was born and raised in Romania. Her poems, translations, reviews, and articles appear in The Georgia Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Arts & Letters, Mississippi Review, Connecticut Review, Absinthe, Poetry International, Pleiades, and Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She teaches at Monmouth University (NJ) and in the low-residency MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation at Drew University.
Mihaela Moscaliuc interview, with John Hoppenthaler
How would you describe the situation of poetry in Romania these days? Is there a trend one might be able to point to as a dominant period style or, as it seems to be here in the U.S., is there a wide variety of poetic aesthetics afoot? Are Romanian poets influenced much by U.S. poets?
It’s pretty difficult to gauge the situation accurately from across the Atlantic. I have access to some Romanian literary journals, but not all, so I usually have to wait for my visits home, every other year or so, to get a real taste of it. One of the great excitements, at that time, is the bookstore dive. I surface from my favorite bookstores in Iasi and Bucuresti with troves of poetry books by contemporary poets, especially poets whose work I do not know. In between trips, I trust my friends, Adam Sorkin, America’s premier translator of Romanian poetry, and Carmelia Leonte, whose poetry I’ve been translating, to keep me attuned to what’s new and exciting.
From what I can see, poets identifying themselves with the generation of the ‘80s (the ones I’m most familiar with), and writing out of, and to a certain extent in response to this grim period of censorship and severe deprivation (not knowing if or when you’d be permitted hot water or electricity, having sex in the privacy of your home as some sleazy sellout—possibly your office mate—is waiting to relish the tapes in the Securitate local headquarters) continue to experiment, deconstruct, construct, and revamp, with playfulness as well as seriousness. They’re detonating conventions and tradition while having a good time. Paul Doru Mugur remarks interestingly in “Fragile Bridges” that the eighties generation “cured the mysticosophical revelation syndrome of the modernists with a plain, solid postmodernist laughter.” In terms of responses to American poetry: I know the Beats and Frank O’Hara continue to excite and inspire many contemporary Romanian poets, but beyond that, I really don’t know.
All kind of trends and movements (such as the Fracturists, the “Letters 2000,”and the “Workshop[pers]”) have been reshaping the poetry scene in Romania over the last decades, though much good writing continues to be done by poets who have kept away from any such affiliations One of my current favorite volumes is Ioan Es. Pop’s No Way Out of Hadesburg (In Romanian Iedul fara iesire) in Adam Sorkin and Lidia Vianu’s translation.
With your husband, poet Michael Waters, you’ve done a fair amount of translating over the past several years. Can you tell us about the process? How do you work together? Can you tell us what your philosophy is when it comes to translating the poems of others?
Michael and I’ve started translated after Michael’s first visit to Romania, in the summer of 1996. I had picked a number of poetry books by Romanian writers I hadn’t read, and we sampled them in rough translation before deciding on a couple of poets. For a while, the process became part of our plane-train-boat routine, as we travelled from one place to another, in the U.S. and abroad. I see now that we were taking the idea of translation—as in “carrying over,” “transferring”—very literally, though we did not necessarily privilege a “literal” approach as we were adopting (and sometimes slightly adapting) the Romanian poems into English. I started translating a few years before penning my first poem, when poetry was still a strange beast to me, and I had little confidence in my English and less so in my ear. Therefore, I did the first drafts, with all linguistic and interpretative possibilities in the margin, then we worked together on subsequent versions. We were particularly concerned with giving each piece all the chances of becoming as good a poem in English as it could be, without sacrificing the original meaning. Over the last couple of years, I have been translating on my own, though Michael continues to give me invaluable feedback.
Carmelia Leonte has been helpful in providing clarifications when I absolutely need them, but since her approach to writing is so unique and also disarming—for a translator—she has given me free hand, saying that in translation the poems were no longer quite hers. She thinks of the syllable—not the line, or the sentence—as the integral unit (which is also a meditative unit) of poetry. Now how does one translate that? As I translate each poem, I try to honor, the best I can, each syllable, the intensity and sense of purposefulness she brings to the world, syllable by syllable.
I believe a good understanding of a poet’s works and his/her aesthetic is absolutely essential as you embark on a book-length translation project. Then you know what you can afford to sacrifice and where to compromise, if need be.
About translating, in a Green Hill Blog interview, Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort has said, “I do think that poems lose in translation but at the same time they gain a lot, things that might not have been in the original but come out in a foreign language, because this is how the language of poetry is different than everyday language. In the poetic language, behind every word there is the whole mythology of the culture, so when you translate it only the word goes through—the mythology stays, but then there’s the mythology of another culture that comes in and it breathes something new into the poems.” Your thoughts on this?
This is definitely the case with certain poets, certain poems; they bring into the host language a culture, or at least an encounter with a culture, and that translation of difference may definitely compensate for what cannot find an ideal equivalency in diction, form, music. However, sometimes what’s likely to be lost in translation is what makes that poetry particularly appealing in the original language, and I’m thinking here of contemporary Romanian poets whose certain kinds of linguistic playfulness and experimentation, while timely and exciting in original, would not be that compelling in English. My early attempts to introduce our national poet, Mihai Eminescu (1849-1899), to English speakers--in other people’s translations--met with the same response, “So why is he considered the national poet?” Some poets’ work just seems to lend itself to translation better than others’.
Your first collection of poetry, Father Dirt, was published by Alice James Books last year. Have you thought about translating it into Romanian?
No, not at all, and I know I never will, though I also know that my parents, who do not speak English, have been asking various colleagues to translate some of them. I started writing poetry after I came to the United States, directly in English, and the process itself has been closely connected to the need to recreate my other life in the English language. If I were to ever write in Romanian, it wouldn’t be these poems.
You now teach translation in Drew University’s low-residency MFA Program. Tell us about that experience? How is it different than teaching poetry writing? How is it the same?
Conducting translation workshops has been one of the most exciting, probably my most exciting teaching experience in twelve years. I love the poetry workshops, absolutely. However, there’s something to be said about the kind of animation, intellectual and creative energy, generosity, but also blunt honesty people bring to the table when the work under discussion is twice removed; the translator’s work is a labor of love, just as writing one’s poems is, but this is love for a distant other and for the process. You translate because you want others to share your delight in someone else’s work. Because the workshop brings together people translating from various languages (such as Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew) and with various approaches to the process, the engagement with each poem is both unique and intense, branching into discussions of purpose, choice, impasses, culture, and historicity, as appropriate.
I can’t think of a better way to become intimate with language than through the process of translation, so in the Drew low-residency MFA program, all students, not just those pursuing the translation track, are exposed to the process, either through craft lectures, or through “open” translation workshops. I believe that one can become a better writer by engaging with the process of translation.
Delirul iniţiatului, igrasie a pustiului,
nu lasă trupul să mintă.
Tinereţea calcă greu. Îşi taie limba
ca Sfîntul Maxim Mărturisitorul.
Nu încape trădare.
Nici marea de amar,
nici pustiurile de sub pămînturi
nu cred că
iubirea începe mărturisindu-se pe sine.
Faţă către faţă.
deshumezi amintirea aproapelui
şi aproapele nu există.
Unde-s vînătorii de iluzii ?
purtîndu-şi casa în spate prin soarele fierbinte,
ei calcă greu,
cu trupul schimonosit de tinereţe.
The neophyte’s delirium, mildewed void,
gives the body’s secret away.
Youth tramples with unease. It severs its tongue,
like St. Maximus the Confessor.
No room for betrayal.
Neither bitter waters,
nor the deserts beneath the earth
believe that love starts by confessing its deed.
Face to face,
you unearth the memory of your kin,
the kin who won’t exist.
Where’re the pipe dreamers?
hauling their house on frail backs through scorching suns
they trample with unease,
bodies contorted with youthfulness.
v-au îngropat pînă la genunchi
în pămîntul putreziciunii.
genunchii avizi de victorie.
Argintiu ca un războinic,
ţipătul ia forma trupului de vietate bolnavă
zeu cu două feţe,
una muşcînd-o pe cealaltă,
insomnie a clipei,
Argintii, tremurători, nesiguri.
Pînă la brîu, pînă la umeri îngropaţi
în pămîntul care e viitorul de carne
Frumuseţe, iubire eroică,
Bolile voastre îşi găsesc locul
în bucuria viperei.
zei condamnaţi la veşnică întrupare.
Disease and irreverence
have buried you to the knees
in rotting soil.
knees hungering for victory.
Gauge your thought!
Silvery like a warrior,
the scream takes the shape of love’s
god with a double face,
one biting into the other
till it bleeds,
insomnia of an eye-blink,
Silvery, tremulous, hesitant.
You are buried to the waist, to your shoulders,
in this earth: the flesh of this future’s future.
Beauty, heroic love,
your diseases befit
the viper’s desire.
gods sentenced to eternal avatars.