In conversation with Clara Burghelea, award-winning translator and academic Sean Cotter discusses the insights gleaned from his work as a translator and the ‘peculiar and almost compulsory intimacy’ the act of translation offers.
Clara Burghelea: Writing is inherently a solitary act. Translation, also. However, when in the process of translating a book, do you reach out to the author, if living, or to any other native speakers? Is it mandatory in the practice of translation?
Sean Cotter: I like that translation constantly reaches out, constantly brings Romanian into my mind. Sometimes I hear a particular person speaking lines from the original, a friend stopping mid-sentence to read a text, or an actor swearing and hitting the brakes. I love the gestural in language, the ordinary words someone says while thinking about other words. “Păii…” or “știi și tu” or “mda”—we can translate these as “well,” or “you know,” or “um, yes,” but I value the Romanian words for the memories they evoke. Something similar happens when I smell dill and diesel exhaust at the same time. My mind snaps back to Calea Moșilor in the center of Bucharest, walking with a friend below an apartment building while a truck passes. In this sense, writing is not a solitary act. It does involve being alone at a keyboard, but language is social. Translation highlights the fact that as we write, we are working with shared words.
Clara Burghelea: Are there any highs and lows of cross-cultural collaboration?
Sean Cotter: Working with living authors is a high of cross-cultural collaboration. I don’t know if it is mandatory, but it is certainly stimulating, and fun. I’ve been fortunate to have uniformly positive experiences with the authors I’ve translated, some strong professional relationships and some friendships where the translation is just as important as coming together to eat and chat. But more broadly, I’m always taken aback by the status of literature in Romania. It has changed since I first arrived, in 1994, but I can still strike up a conversation about the latest Mircea Cărtărescu novel in Romania, in ways I can’t about US books at home. I’ve never recovered from the moment when a taxi driver offered to take me to the airport for free, as long as we talked about nothing but poetry.
Clara Burghelea: You have got a couple of books in translation under your belt. How is your relationship with your published work? Do you ever feel the need to revisit with a critical eye? Or do you think of them as finished projects?
Sean Cotter: I’ve recently sent off two projects, two novels—the authors have the same initials, strangely: Mateiu Caragiale and Magda Cârneci. Stranger still: my older daughter is also “MC.” The translations were both challenging in different ways, and I went through the texts many times. For Mateiu, the last step was writing 4300 words of notes, checking every prince he names and every count and noble decoration. For Cârneci, the last step involved testing out small changes to repeated phrases, listening to their cadences over the sequence of chapters, still trying to grasp the book’s architecture. And in both cases I had the sense, just after I hit “send,” that I was finally ready to begin the translation. Now I knew enough about the themes, now I had figured out the confusing sentences, now I had found the pulse of the prose. Now I could start. So that’s my relationship with published work: when I’m holding the book in my hand, I’m excited and proud, and I wish I would live long enough to translate everything again.
Clara Burghelea: I know certain writers follow creative rituals when it comes to place, time and other specificities. How do you feel about this?
Sean Cotter: I hope it helps them. I don’t have rituals, but I do try to keep a regular schedule. Dogs are better behaved if they know they’ll get a walk at 5pm every day. My mind is better behaved if it knows it’s going to translate for four hours before lunch. As the words accumulate, I feel the muscles of translation get stronger. On the other hand, I often think about the opposite of rituals: special places where I translated intensely and never will visit again. The Café Decker in Staufen, Germany, overlooking a creek, ordering coffee and cakes that ancient waiters carried on heavy silver trays. Mogoșoia Palace, escaping from summer heat in Bucharest to look out from a 17th century arcade onto green grass. The snow slush of a Michigan winter, trudging through car exhaust and prickly winds, carrying the wire-bound notebook where I translated Goldsmith Market. The crummy, wobbly desks I’ve nailed together from scrap.
Clara Burghelea: Do you have books you keep returning to, regardless of the genre? If so, does your optic change from one reading to the next?
Sean Cotter: The first book that comes to mind is Don Quixote, which I often teach, in Edith Grossman’s translation—it’s a universe. At first, I was captivated by the portrait of male friendship, but lately, in the context of racist and anti-Islamic violence, I’ve been thinking more about the book’s portrait of Ricote, a Muslim expelled from Spain. The second is a book I love, Sam Hammill’s translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, which I re-read last summer, on the occasion of giving a copy to a friend. Your question has given me a new optic, because I can see Cervantes and Basho are both travel narratives, a big book and a little one. And even further: I gave the Basho to my friend in honor of her pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, a Basho-biblio-Sancho to her Quixote.
Clara Burghelea: Do you consider translation as a mode of existence? Does this alter the way you approach any piece of writing or life in general?
Sean Cotter: In my daily life, I think my practice of translation helps me to understand other people who work between languages. In Dallas, where I live, over 270 languages are spoken, and more than 40% of households speak a language other than English. This means that many of the people I encounter in a given day are not working in the language they prefer. They may be translating what I am saying, or they may spend a lot of time translating for someone else. The better my Romanian becomes, the more I appreciate the amount of work living in another language entails.
Clara Burghelea: You translated two volumes of poetry by Liliana Ursu: Lightwall and Goldsmith Market. Is there something special you find in women’s voices? What attracted you to her work?
Sean Cotter: Translating Liliana spoiled me for life. She is a translator, a poet, and an adventurous person, and she has become a collaborator and a mentor. Goldsmith Market was the second book I translated, so from early on, she taught me to explore translation’s possibilities, given me a true openness. Adam Sorkin invited her to the 1997 ALTA conference, where I was working as a graduate student, picking them and a Turkish poet up from the airport. The next summer, I visited her in Bucharest, where she handed me a copy of Piața aurarilor from a stack of books in her living room. The cover had been printed in 1980 on a delicate gold-dusted paper, and the books were packed with pieces of newspaper in-between the copies, to keep the gold from rubbing off. Over time, the news stories had transferred onto the gold. So Liliana gave me a book that already bore a second text, a kind of translation (mismatched in content, printed in reverse) on its cover. This auspicious sign was confirmed by working with her: proximity to Liliana’s work changes ordinary writing into gold.
Clara Burghelea: How do these times of isolation inform your translation practice?
Sean Cotter: At first, when quarantine began, I couldn’t work at all. It was as though my future, all the hopes that I inhabited, was stripped from my mind. We had tickets to take our two daughters to Romania, for the first time. I refused to cancel the tickets until Romania banned foreign travel. I had no brain for scholarship, but after a while, I found that I could spend an hour translating. The original kept me company, held out its hand, as I parsed one phrase after another. Bit by bit, I worked my way up to ten pages in a day, then ten in half a day. I was working at the dining room table with my daughters, who were on their computers for school. We all wore headphones. They marked the table into quadrants with blue tape, one quarter for each of us. I liked looking up from my work to see them scowling at a project on the science of baking or the biography of Scott Joplin. We were all anxious and irritated, but we were all together. My Covid-time has been gentler than many people have had, and translation has helped make it so.
Clara Burghelea: You said that ‘translation is the most intimate experience one can have with a literary text’. I think the same about the fiction or poetry that really seduces me. What is the difference between the two roles -reader and translator? Do they experience the same level of intimacy?
Sean Cotter: I’m not the first to make the claim, and your question gives me the chance to examine the nature of that intimacy. I think it’s true that because the translator is making choices about each word (in light of the work, the author, “the whole surround” in Rosemarie Waldrop’s phrase), the translator is in a peculiar and almost compulsory intimacy with the work—intimate, yes, but not always interesting. In contrast, the seductive absorption of reading a book without translating it may lie in moments of not reading: I can stop when the emotion wanes, I can skip over dull parts, I can rush ahead to the end—“like a priest gulping down the Mass” in Richard Howard’s translation of Roland Barthes.
But there’s something else. I have a translator mode of reading Romanian, in which I’m trying out English versions in my head as I go, wincing at the author’s puns, rhetoricity, dalliance, dialog, all the things that will be difficult to translate. There’s another language, there in my head, one I have to work to turn off when I’m reading Romanian for pleasure or research. The focused attention of translation is intoxicating, but it’s also a constant comparison between the myriad of things the text is doing and the non-identical myriad of English possibilities. That overlap of languages, an almost audible dissonance, is different than reading in one language.
Clara Burghelea: Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.
Sean Cotter: Magda Cârneci’s FEM is coming out with Deep Vellum in February. The book is a sequence of intensities, the drama of her address to the lover she’s leaving, the revelation of multiple planes of knowledge through stories of coincidence and visions. The book has true narrative power, including the most harrowing description of menstruation I have ever read. I had long admired her poetry and her political activism, but this novel was a surprisingly profound literary experience. I’m also happy to be translating a book for the first time for Deep Vellum, a press which has transformed the literary scene in Dallas.
Clara Burghelea: Thank you, Sean, for giving us such a detailed insight into the processes involved in translation. It’s been an inspiration.