Thursday Dec 07

hoppenthaler As Gregory Rabassa claims in his essay “No Two Snowflakes are Alike: Translation as Metaphor,” and I believe this to be true, “All poetry is translation.”   That is, a poem is an imaginative rendering of experience into language; the poem itself can never be the experience itself that set the synaptic causal chain of imaginative documentation into motion.  Schlegel argues, in Translating Literature, that [t]he human mind can do nothing but translate; all its activity consists of just that.”  For a very long time in the United States, it’s seemed—judging from much of the poetry we’ve written since the end of the sixties—that all we’ve had to translate has been the satisfied quotidian, the egoic self, and the occasional isolated moment of domestic strife.
I’ve known Mihaela Moscaliuc as a friend for many years now.  Hers is a brilliant success story of an immigrant making good in America.  Yet, such success comes with a price, and when I read the poems included in her first collection of poems, Father Dirt, I am fascinated by the work of translation, how Mihaela is not only translating experiences from her life, but how she is as well translating that experience from her native tongue to the language of the other, an other with which she has chosen to throw her lot.  As she explains in the following interview, “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.”
The Romania Mihaela was born into, and in which she lived for much of her life, was one of dramatic turmoil and change.  By the end of World War II, Romania had fallen under the communist rule of the Soviet Republic.  My mother and uncle, our family story says, were two of the last young people the Russians allowed to leave Romania, as my grandmother had already settled in America.  Whether this is true or not, my mother—the victim of a stroke and dementia who now lives a in a world largely of her own creation—to this day warns me against visiting Romania, a place that she is convinced is the heart of darkness.
Under Ceauşescu, postwar Romanian writing was placed under tremendous political pressure to reflect the Communist agenda. One of the most popular poets of the time, Adrian Păunescu, wrote poems flattering Ceauşescu.  However, an independent movement slowly emerged, and the poets and other writers of this movement were subjected to all manner of retribution in the years before Ceauşescu's overthrow. The Iron Curtain finally dissolved, however, and the 1989 Romanian Revolution began the difficult process of political and economic reform.  As has been the historical case with such reform, the poets had their role to play and played it with great courage.  As U.S. writers indulged themselves with navel gazing, the poets of Romania, people with their very world at stake, did the important and dangerous job they had chosen, to translate these experiences for posterity, to make sure any politically-motivated erasures would not go unchecked, and this is the world that has brought us Mihaela Moscaliuc.  The translating she does of this experience—in her own poems and in the poems of other Romanian writers—helps us to understand such strife, such sacrifice, what it costs and why it’s worth the price.
In the Middle East, downtrodden people have begun again the deadly negotiations for human rights.  As I write this, it seems the these negotiations have begun in the United States as well.  Whatever one’s politics, the tea partiers, the hard-working union members in Wisconsin, the rumblings that have begun in Ohio and elsewhere, these are the drum taps slowly building in volume.  It’s now time that our poems become as the guns Whitman writes of in his poem:  “Unlimber them!  no more, as the past forty years, for salutes for courtesies merely; / Put in something else now besides powder and wadding.”  It’s not that we can’t still write love poems; it’s not that we still can’t write poems that are light.  However, if what we’re doing as writers will be seen as valid by those who, in the near and far future, will read our translations, then we need to write poems that demonstrate risk, that challenge and call out.  We need poems that are loaded with bullets.