In conversation with Clara Burghelea, Adam J Sorkin generously shares what it means to be creative and co-creative in the translation process, focusing on the joys and challenges of artistic collaborations.
Clara Burghelea: I watched you recently participating in the Translating Romania Seminar as part of Romania Rocks, the Romanian-British Literature Festival. How was this experience, sitting next to some of your collaborators such as Lidia Vianau, Diana Manole, and Andreea Iulia Scridon?
Adam J Sorkin: Lidia Vianu and I have worked the most among these three, starting in the 1990s. But I’ve completed books with all three of them, and all three are a joy to work with, for they have an excellent grasp of English, a sophisticated sense of Romanian poetic tradition, and a native speaker’s broad and subtle command of Romanian – which I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have, although my Romanian on the page is better than it is conversationally. Working with collaborators with knowledge of Romanian poetry is a great help; being able to ask, what’s the poet doing with his or her style here, is that an allusion there, have I flubbed an idiom with this wording? Those sorts of things, in order to try to devise commensurate effects in English. They have all crafted translations on their own, good ones. Moreover, I’m not so vain as to believe that what I suggest is necessarily the ideal or most effective solution. I’m happy to accept a collaborator’s solution when I think it works better than mine, in sense, sound, rhythm, tone of voice, syntax.
I realize that I’m not quite answering your question. First, I really wish we had all been sitting next to one another, after a hug and a peck on the cheek, rather than Zoom’s simulation of human contact. Human and personal. I hope we haven’t forgotten that what’s online or e-this-or-that is impersonal. But sitting next to collaborators (not at Zoom-distance) and going over the possibilities and results together, as I’ve done with numbers of fellow translators and also with Romanian poets whose knowledge of English permitted this, is a very effective way of honing translations. And making friendships. I’ve worked with both Lidia and Diana this way, With Andreea, I’ve exchanged a lot of emails with her over the recent year and a quarter, more or less, as we worked on poems first by Traian T. Coșovei and now, underway, a book by Ioan Flora, although I did meet her briefly after a reading for Poem journal in London that I’m surprised, I just looked at my records, it was four years ago. I’d say we’ve become friends this way. So maybe I’m contradicting myself about online contacts. I do think of joint translation as social as well as, in the individual times of establishing a first English version, private, creative, or maybe performative, like reading the translation aloud. I know this well from revising and editing joint work; I’ll put on a music CD while working, and if I’ve concentrated well, I’ll realize at some point I hadn’t heard a note of it.
Clara Burghelea: How important is it to take part in such events, and allow your readership to listen to you? How crucial is it for them to listen to experienced voices?
Adam J Sorkin: Readership? Translations usually sell so poorly that I sometimes think I surely know both of my readers, and maybe have met the third, if there is one. I’m exaggerating, but for example, Leslie Bell – the publisher of Mica Press (Wivenhoe, Colchester, Essex), who two weeks ago published Aura Christi’s The God’s Orbit in a translation I did, not side by side but email by email, with Petru Iamandi in Galați, Romania – recently emailed me that he had seven advance purchasers, all in the U.S. This, by the way, is the third of books of poetry in translation that I’ve seen published in the last four months. I can’t resist interjecting a plug for the other two, Lavinia and Her Daughters, A Carpathian Elegy, a book-length poem by Ioana Ieronim, mostly in prose poetry, the English version of which I did with the author, who also modified her poem in the process (Somerville, Massachusetts: Červená Barva Press); and A Spider’s History of Love, a selection of 51 poems by Mircea Cărtărescu translated by me with seven Romanian co-translators (New York: New Meridian Arts).
To me, poetry should work aloud or it can’t resonate. I would hope that a reading helps both committed readers and potential readers/purchasers appreciate what a poet is up to. I’ve done a lot of readings and, as in the classroom, I kind of learned on the go how to present poetry. Poetry books need all the help they can get, and I hope my presentation as translator of the poet’s style, cadences, metaphors, themes, tone of voice is helpful.
And by the way, it is also useful to the translator. After a reading, I always tinker with the poem a bit more if I’ve read from, a not yet published, copy. And usually I wish I could change a text already in print. Who was it, Verlaine? who’s credited with the widely quoted apothegm, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I’d think the same thing about a poetry translation. Sometimes when I read translations from years ago, I want to say, “Hey, Sorkin, whatever were you thinking?!
Clara Burghelea: How important is this exposure to a budding translator, someone who is trying to find their way into this field and learn the importance of listening to experienced voices?
Adam J Sorkin: Of course, now there are programs and courses in translation, MA’s, MFA’s, even PhD’s. I myself started by chance, because I was exposed to the experience. I wasn’t even dormant at that point, let alone budding. I’ve told this story elsewhere, but it explains what I mean. In the spring of 1981in the second half of an academic year during which I was granted a residence as the American Fulbright professor in the English faculty at the University of Bucharest, a young colleague whom I and my wife still know and visit, Irina Pana, asked if I’d go over her version of a book of poems by the Timișoara poet, Anghel Dumbrăveanu. So we sat together at the desk in the American lecturer ‘s office overseen by the requisite photo of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, no doubt with a microphone somewhere nearby, and we went over the book poem by poem, word by word. And I was hooked. To me, this was much more interesting and sustaining than researching and writing yet another academic article. It was creative, or co-creative, not just my collaborator and me but the poet and me, the writer’s words carried over, transferred (to use the word in English from the past participle of which in Latin the term translate is derived). This takes respect for the original and not only some sense of what can be done in the target language, but a knowledge of the culture, the references, the imaginative contexts, which I sort of learned in the process, and elements of the real-world context, too. Perhaps not so oddly, the fact that my wife, my daughters and I all squeezed into our often recalcitrant used VW Beetle and drove around a lot of Romania during the academic breaks that year gave me, at times, a visual and aural sense of what a poem set in that landscape or that city was aiming to convey, and triggered more direct, and (I hope) not at all inaccurate, responses in my translation choices as I grew as a translator. I also realized early I needed at least short, written permissions from the writers to aid in publication in the English-speaking world. And I was lucky in that the English Department of Penn State University “counted” translations for the purpose of tenure and promotion, just as poets’ and prose writers’ work did.
Clara Burghelea: You are a scholar, a translator, a professor. How do these roles inhabit your life?
Adam J Sorkin: I’m retired now (that’s what the “emeritus” really means, that I wasn’t sacked for cause but retired honorably having earned one of the professorial ranks). Many years ago, my translation activity replaced the scholarship in terms of essays or academic books that I might have written in another life, as it were, but I still write translator’s forewords and biographical presentations of the poet, for the books I do. I used the say I had at least three different jobs, wore three different hats: (1) teacher at a campus of a major university but one that didn’t offer graduate studies and had relatively few English majors, and that in my area expected faculty to offer three or four essay-writing courses each academic year, often quiet rewarding when students became more fluent but labor intensive in the grading load; (2) translator, which includes working with co-translators – I guess this is the production side of translation, and it gets to be quit time-consuming, just as original creative work can be; (3) and my own agent so to speak, placing the translations in literary journals and publish them as books.
Clara Burghelea: Many of your projects are collaborative. How do roles and responsibilities get assigned when working alongside two other translators/poets/writers?
Adam J Sorkin: When I start projects, I kind of know, and so do my co-translators, both about roles (mostly, given that I’m very slow in translating the initial English version, and I can really goof, I’ll ask my collaborator to do a first version) and credit at the end. As the native speaker, I always claim final authority. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with quite a number of Romanian poets, translating their works together with them. Occasionally, I’ve been the recipient of a frustrated putdown, more or less “you’re ruining my poem” (I won’t say who, and we’re still friends), and occasionally, I’ve met with a response that what I proposed in English was an improvement, and the poet said he or she was going to change the original. The reliance of English on syntax necessitates an increased clarity in some passages, and so does the fact that verbs usually have to have explicit grammatical subjects, one can’t trust to the inflected verb form to imply the subject. I’ve had poets ask, do you have to say he or she? Yup, that’s English.
I should add that suggestions of which poets, which poems, often come from my collaborators. Working with people much better read than I in Romanian literature and whom I can rely on for advice about poets and poems is extremely helpful, as you might imagine.
Clara Burghelea: You have sixty-five books of Romanian translation in print and accepted for publication next year. Was this intimidating to your students at Penn State Brandywine where you were Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English?
Adam J Sorkin: Well, as before mentioned, I’m retired now (that’s what the “emeritus” really means, I wasn’t sacked for cause but retired honorably with one of the professorial ranks). And the “distinguished” was earned, as is the practice at Penn State, due to the quality, I like to think, as well as the quantity, of the translations I published, and the recognition I was awarded. That was relatively late in my career, as you might expect. I’m not sure a lot of students really paid very much attention to rank and title. Where I taught, many were first generation college students, and in fact didn’t know what these to them esoteric tokens might mean. Do I call you Mr.? Do I call you Adam? Do I call you Doctor? – that was often the main worry. A certain kind of classroom formality is long gone, to be sure. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, faculty used Mister or Miss and students’ last surnames. No first names – which I didn’t permit, anyway. After all, I wasn’t their pal.
Clara Burghelea: Are these good times for a translator? Restrictions on travel and limited access to social life have reshaped the concept of leisure time. Do people read more and if so, has work in translation become more alluring?
Adam J Sorkin: I’ve no idea. There are a lot of presses, both large and small, that have been publishing translations and how well they sell (this is of course what keeps it going) I just don’t know. Judging by the increase in the number of young translators who, over the past five years or so, have been coming to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), at least up to this point, translation has become a more attractive possibility than in the past, to both newer scholars and creative writers, including those in grad programs now. But I haven’t seen statistics about whether people read more in these troubled days, and what they read. Numbers of small bookstores have been on the brink of closing, and major ones, too: in fact the famous Strand Bookstore in New York had to make an appeal to its many customers to buy books, for it was in financial trouble. The response was overwhelming, by the way. But will this increased popularity of translation among students last? The cynic in me says, yeah, if we get a vaccine that keeps people translating, as well as safe from Covid. Anyway, we humans do better than machine translation.
Clara Burghelea: You have been working for so long in an acquired language, Romanian. I was wondering about how you see yourself in relation to the language and culture? Can you tell us something about the challenges of living between languages?
Adam J Sorkin: I don’t quite live between languages, but that’s what I try to do in the psychological moment of working on translations. I’ll adapt your question a bit. I always set the Romanian original and the draft English version from my co-translator side by side and go over them and go over them, using most a Romanian-English dictionary to help, but often as if a thesaurus, a repository of possibilities, but also my English dictionary (usually Webster’s Collegiate, but the OED online for when I need it), and my trusty hardcover Roget’s Thesaurus, taped back together years ago. After 2 or 3 or more drafts, or 4 or 5 (I can’t get up anyway, I’m weighed down by too many reference books), I am indeed between languages, and when I read the resulting English versions the Romanian kind of clings to them in my mind.
Clara Burghelea: Mircea Cărtărescu, one of the most renowned Romanian writers and poets, called you “the re-inventor of Romanian contemporary poetry in the English-speaking world”. Do you feel responsible for the American literary perception of Romanian literature?
Adam J Sorkin: That was extremely kind of Mircea, whom I’ve known at least since the early 1990s. I’ve always found him gracious. You know, his phrase, “re-inventor,” is a pretty good metaphor for what translation accomplishes. However “true” the foreign-language version is in relation to the original, the translator’s own knowledge or lack of knowledge, sense of style and (let’s take poetry) the possibilities for situating the original writer’s work most effectively within the possibilities of poetic achievement in it new linguistic guise – well, that can be called reinventing it, in a kind way, and it’s a role (and I mean this without ego) I take seriously. I don’t aim for a self-promoting “imitation” of the original poem, to use a term that goes back to John Dryden when he spoke about translation forsaking the words and the sense of the original, both. On the other hand, word for word translation – a trot, a pony, a crib – is usually dull at best. Getting the sense and the connotations can mean interpreting and maybe moving a bit away – one wants a voice, passages that can be read aloud, and to re-create a Romanian poem that sounds like poetry in its English garb and character, but nonetheless (this is a different sort of betweenness) transmits the Romanian original, at least in the mind of this reader. Yes, it’s a set of extremes, as is customarily noted: faithful dullness versus faithless beauty. There is space between.
Clara Burghelea: What work in translation are you reading these days?
Adam J Sorkin: Funny that you ask because, although I’ve read sections of the book before, and I’m a bit chagrined to admit this, I happen to be reading (at long last, I can hear in my mind someone snarky hissing at me) Sean Cotter’s excellent English translation of Mircea Cărtărescu’s novel, Blinding. Reading it and admiring it. But instead, as I work on Romanian poets, I’ll often read a variety of British and American poets, kind of to play off phrases, diction, metaphors, juicy verbs, and so forth, not translations.
Clara Burghelea: Thank you, Adam, for agreeing to share your thoughts with The Blue Nib readership. We look forward to your future projects.