Tuesday Apr 23

Radulescu Stella Vinitchi Radulescu is the is the author of numerous collections of poetry published in the United States, Romania, and France, including Last Call (March Street Press, 2005), Diving With the Whales (March Street Press, 2008), Insomnia in Flowers (Plain View Press, 2008), and All Seeds & Blues (forthcoming in Spring 2011). She has received two international poetry prizes from the Société des Poètes et Artistes de France, awarded for her books Terre Interrompue (Les Papiers de Lune, 2007) and Un cri dans la neige (Editions du Cygne, 2009). Her most recent collection is Le jour en équilibre (Editions du Cygne, 2010). Her poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Pleiades, Karamu, Louisville Review, Rhino, Laurel Review, California Quarterly, Visions, and Asheville Poetry Review, among other magazines, as well as in a variety of poetry reviews in France, Belgium, Quebec, and Romania.
Luke Hankins has served as an Associate Editor at Asheville Poetry Review since 2006. His poetry, prose, and translation have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cortland Review, New England Review, Poetry East, Southern Poetry Review, and The Writer's Chronicle, among other places. A chapbook of his translations of Radulescu's poems is forthcoming from Q Avenue Press. His blog is here.

Translator’s Note: Stella Vinitchi Radulescu was born in Romania and left the country permanently in 1983, at the height of Ceausescu’s communist regime. After seeking political asylum in Rome, she immigrated to the U.S. She received an M.A. in French from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Philology from the University of Bucharest. She has taught French, first at Loyola University, then at Northwestern, since 1989.
Radulescu began writing poetry in Romanian at an early age and published several collections in Romania. As she puts it, “Writing poetry was risky—it could have been ‘a political manifesto’ against the regime!—but it was also a refuge.” She faced a crisis of sorts when she left Romania because she was uncertain how to continue writing in a new language. However, she discovered that she could write in English and enjoyed discovering other dimensions of expression through writing in a new language. She attributes part of her success in this area to her study of philology. She also began to write in French, which was always “la langue de la poésie” for her. She points to the fact that Samuel Beckett wanted to write deliberately in French, and asserts that “there is always something mysterious about the language.”
For Radulescu, it is difficult to translate her own poems. As she puts it, “I feel, think, act, perceive, smell, touch differently according to the language I write in.” She has been kind enough to allow me to begin translating her French poetry, and I gratefully acknowledge her partnership in finalizing the translations that appear here.
These poems are selected and translated from Un cri dans la neige [A cry in the snow], winner of the Grand Prix de Poésie Noël-Henri Villard 2008, awarded by the Société des Poètes et Artistes de France. Radulescu received the Grand Prix “Art et Poésie” from the same organization in 2007 for her book, Terre interrompue. Her English volumes of poetry include Insomnia in Flowers (Plain View Press, 2008) and Diving with the Whales (March Street Press, 2008).
Luke Hankins Interview, with Monica Mankin
When and why did you decide to translate poetry? Can you talk a little about your process for translating poetry? I mean, I’ve encountered various attitudes toward poetry translation over the years. Some people believe it can’t really be done, that the poem can only truly exist in its original language and in the forms of that language. Other people, and clearly you are part of this camp, believe that the poem can translate. What is it that has to translate? To elaborate on this question: Radulescu “asserts that ‘there is always something mysterious about the [French] language’.” What do you understand her to mean by this statement? Do you agree with her assertion? As you work to translate her poetry from the eternally mysterious French language into the English language, how do you translate the mystery? How do you preserve the essence of meaning that the original language creates within a poem?
The poet Basil Bunting famously said that “poetry is a sound.” I never agree with hyperbolic, reductive statements like this—however, they can be useful for emphasis. It is true that the greatest poets are highly attentive to sound, and the best readers of poetry are as well. The more one reads and writes, the more one can become aware of many effects that the very sound of language has on one’s emotional and even intellectual responses, effects that go largely unnoticed unless one trains oneself to attend to them.

Stella is clearly, in my opinion, intensely attuned to the nuances of language, both its sound and its sense (and its silence and its nonsense). There’s a reason she writes poetry—in three languages, no less!—and there’s a reason she studied philology (an older term for linguistics)—and this is probably the same reason that she finds it impossible, or at least undesirable, to translate her own poetry (though, thankfully, she does offer input on my translations). Consider, for instance, the violent extremes of tactile response to language in “a cry in the snow”:
I want to remain silent but my cry attaches itself
to a sliver of light
the snow covers it
with its suffocating coolness      a loving gesture
before the cold
in the burning mouth
In many other poems (not included here in Connotation Press), words take on very physical manifestations. This happens all the time in both her French and her English poems (and, I assume, in her Romanian ones as well, though I can’t read Romanian)—to such an extent and with such passionate insistence that I actually believe her when she writes in another poem I’ve translated, “I was afraid of vowels    their paleness.”

What does this mean for the endeavor of translation? The essential issue is that of meaning. Meaning is incredibly complex—far more complex than we could ever understand or articulate—and sound is a way of meaning, just as appearances are a way of meaning in visual art. This is especially true of poetry because of the degree of intentional use of sound, though it is vital in prose as well, sometimes as much so as in poetry. (Genre distinctions are counterproductive to this discussion, so I’ll leave those behind.) I think, therefore, that we have to say that, in an ultimate sense, the meaning of a work in translation is not the same as the meaning of the original. The sound of the English translation is not the sound of the French original. There are, however, degrees of similarity in meaning (including elements of sound), and I happen to be rather old-fashioned in terms of the idea of being “faithful” to the original text—which means, for me, approximating my perception of the meaning of the original as closely as I can in English, and using whatever strategies best allow for that. But, in a sense, a translation is always a unique work in itself. It can be usefully viewed as a collaboration between text and translator (even when the original author is not involved) producing a novel work that is related as closely as possible to the original.

Is this endeavor worthwhile? Well, threaten lovers of literature with the removal of their native-language versions of Don Quixote or Wyslawa Szymborska’s poems or Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and see how they respond! The value, to me, is self-evident. But the value is not simplistic and should not be misunderstood as inhering in a “reproduction” of the original text. A translation is a movement across and between languages, and if the old adage of something being “lost in translation” is true, it’s equally true that many things are gained in translation. A translation means in a different way than the original, but that does not imply that it means less than the original. For these reasons, we are richer for having a large variety of translations of any given text available in our native languages.

I see that I’ve neglected the question about Stella’s idea of there being something mysterious about the French language. There is nothing in me that doubts that that is absolutely true for her. And I think that’s all she means—for her, there is something mysterious about the language, and that’s why it is “the language of poetry” for her. I don’t think she’s claiming that there’s something inherently mysterious for all people about the French language as opposed to other languages. All language is mysterious, in fact, its workings subtle and invisible, its origins ancient and shadowed—in the view of many, it is literally a link between the material world and the spiritual. This is true of English just as much as it is true of French, just as much as it is true of every language. I’m only grateful that Stella writes poetry in the language that is for her most endowed with mystery and power. We’re beneficiaries of her sensitivity to that language. It’s something to be admired and to be sought after in the languages that we use ourselves. There is great power and great richness in developing that kind of sensitivity. Why do we think literature exists, after all? It is a reaching toward mystery, an embrace of mystery rather than an attempt to do away with it.

The colon appears prominently in these poems. For instance, the poem “first mornings” concludes, “: the men who set out at sunrise to meet their lives.” We see the colon again in “a cry in the snow (2)”: “: there is still a cadaver to identify / : there is still a life to live and then from which side will the snow / begin its white its long funeral.” And also it sets off a list in “posthumous inventory”: “: the evening like a buffalo / : the sea like a breath / : your face like a candle.” How do you feel the colon working in these poems? Additionally, you have chosen to adhere to the formal appearance of the original poems. What sorts of challenges did that present for you? Can you speak to any favorable moments those challenges produced?
Ah, don’t think I haven’t noticed the way you’ve incorporated colons into your question about colons! Well played! But seriously, in my view, Stella uses the colon to increase silence. I think language has a multitude of silences that are essential parts of language itself. A certain kind of silence can be achieved with line breaks in a poem. When one comes to a line break, there is a moment of silence, a break in the stream of words, a blank space. If a colon were placed at the end of a line, it would not have the effect of increasing the silence but would simply be incorporated into the silence already there. (Notice that this occurs once in “posthumous inventory.”) But when you come to one of Stella’s colons at the head of a line, it takes you by surprise—you’re expecting the stream of words to continue. Instead, what you get is a meaningful silence added to a meaningful silence.
I shout my sovereign cry
which smashes the silence
: there is still a cadaver to identify
: there is still a life to live and then from which side will the snow
begin its white its long funerals
As for the appearance of the poems on the page, yes, I have tried to approximate that appearance most of the time in English. In some poems not included here, I have taken more liberty with some of Stella’s techniques, such as the way she adds white space between words on the same line. I have sometimes included white space in English where there is none in French because of differences in the way the English syntax operates. But my aim is always to achieve an effect that is as faithful to the effect of the original (its effect on me, I should say, in order to acknowledge subjectivity here) as possible. Oftentimes, I find that it’s possible to remain very close to the shape of Stella’s poems. This is due partly to the fact that her poems are largely fragmentary, containing many lists of nouns and many (so-called) incomplete sentences that don’t require as much syntactical reordering as longer, more linear sentences would. The experience is very different from my experience translating the prose of Philippe Jaccottet, for instance, in which a lot of reordering and reshaping of sentences is necessary (see my translation, “Blazon in Green and White,” in New England Review #31.3.)

Still, translation always poses challenges, and approximating the shape of the original poems is only possible because of innumerable small changes in terms of which syntactical units appear where. I’ll look at one tercet from “a cry in the snow” as a brief example. Here it is in Stella’s French and in my English:
ma présence semble causer l’inquiétude
des roses
dans le jardin
my presence
seems to make the roses tremble
in the garden
As you can see from this example, it’s not entirely accurate to say, as you put it, that I have “adhere[d] to the formal pattern of the poems.” In order to remain what I call “faithful” in this instance, I felt that I had to both maintain the three-line stanza and attempt to use line breaks in a way that would emphasize what is emphasized in the French. Thus, I want “l’inquiétude” at the end of a line at all costs, as it seems vital to me in terms of the effect of this stanza. On the other hand, ending a line on “les roses” seems less significant to me. (You can see how this is subjective and how another reader/translator might have a different perspective.) There is no way to (1) maintain the long initial line in the stanza, (2) maintain a line break on “l’inquiétude,” and (3) retain the three-line stanza without wrenching the English out of order or having undesirable lines (e.g., “in the / garden”), creating effects that would be antithetical to the effect the French text would have on a native-language reader. So, I had to let the idea of a long initial line go. In translating, you have to prioritize; you have to let some elements go for the sake of more important ones. I chose the elements that were most significant for me, and the shape of the stanza was dictated by the means of expressing those elements. This is the case for every stanza, every line, every word of a translated poem.

Which are your favorite lines from these Radulescu poems? Why?
Some of my favorite lines are these from “posthumous inventory”:
consciousness awakening        the pillow sinks
in a dreamlake
and these from “a cry in the snow (2)”:
: there is still a life to live and then from which direction will the snow
begin its white its long funeral
What draws me to the first set of lines is the contrary, simultaneous motion: consciousness awakening and the pillow sinking in a dreamlake at the same moment. To me, it conveys the sensation of waking, but waking into a dream. I also am fond of using dreamlake as a single word as a translation of “l’étang d’un rêve”—it seems just out of the ordinary enough, just weird enough to convey the strangeness of the moment in this poem. The second set of lines is striking to me primarily for the figure of snowfall as a funeral ritual, which I think is apt because of the quietness that we associate with snow. (Notice how the violence of the sound in the title “a cry in the snow” and in the first poem of that title is intensified because of this association.) Many have often experienced the way snow can muffle the landscape and accumulate quietly, falling more slowly than rain, so that it can indeed seem mournful.

I also think the ending of “a cry in the snow (2)” is especially powerful, though I couldn’t articulate exactly what it means—perhaps because I can’t articulate exactly what it means, but yet I sense the effect of the line emotionally. This is one of many ways in which a poem can embody mystery—when a poem strikes us as true or right but eludes our attempts to adequately articulate why. I hope that it’s clear that when I say “mystery”—both here and in my earlier response—the sense of the word for me is infused with its use in religious contexts, where it means not something that is hidden, but in fact something that is revealed but cannot be fully explained or exhaustively comprehended.
premiers matins
aussitôt l’aube
accouplement des saisons       la terre se réchauffe
le texte se lit à genoux
entre les pierres agenouillée la mer
premiers matins du monde matins lisses
matins de guerre
froid et chaleur            on va entrer dans nos maisons
de chair
les mains tendues comme de vastes horizons
on va goûter de ces lèvres
ce qui s’écrit    l’écume d’une vague la nonchalance
des signes—
comme je m’avance et mets le pied sur le jour
je vois des formes qui se dilatent
dans le miroir des heures
: les hommes qui partent au petit matin à la rencontre
de leurs vies
first mornings
at the break of dawn
juncture of the seasons            the earth warms
the text is read on one’s knees
the sea kneeling between stones
the world’s first mornings smooth mornings
mornings of war
cold and heat     we will enter our houses
of flesh
hands spread like vast horizons
we will taste what is written
on these lips    the foam of a wave the nonchalance
of gestures—
as I advance and step into daylight
I see forms expanding
in the mirror of the hours
: the men who set out at sunrise to meet
their lives
un cri dans la neige
au ras de la nuit
un feu éclate un bras me fait signe
ma présence semble causer l’inquiétude
des roses
dans le jardin
la révolte des oiseaux des tremblements
de terre
les rues s’allongent      l’ombre d’un mot
hante les minutes hante
les heures
je veux me taire mais mon cri s’accroche
à un brin de lumière
la neige le couvre
de sa fraîcheur l’étouffe          un geste d’amour
d’avant le froid
dans la brûlure de la bouche
a cry in the snow
at the brim of night
a fire leaps up an arm gestures to me
my presence
seems to make the roses tremble
in the garden
and make the birds rise up
and make the earth shake
the streets lengthen     the shadow of an infinite
haunts the minutes haunts
the hours
I want to remain silent but my cry attaches itself
to a sliver of light
the snow covers it
with its suffocating coolness      a loving gesture
before the cold
in the burning mouth
un cri dans la neige (2)
je crie mon cri souverain
qui défonce le silence
: il reste un cadavre à nommer
: il reste une vie à vivre et puis de quel côté la neige
va commencer ses blanches ses longues funérailles
j’avance sans mémoire j’ai un nouveau corps
j’adore sa nudité         imaginez le vase    ce temps
qui sans lumière aucune vous déchire les yeux
a cry in the snow (2)
I shout my sovereign cry
which smashes the silence
: there is still a cadaver to identify
: there is still a life to live and then from which direction will the snow
begin its white its long funeral
I walk forward without memory I have a new body
I love its nakedness     imagine the vase     time
in alabaster
which without any light dazzles your eyes
inventaire posthume
un homme suspendu à une rose sa gorge
qui brûle
la clé oubliée sous la porte
la pluie
et l’après-midi
trois pétales et les mots pour les dire
l’habitude de chanter sa vie
ce qui s’arrondit ce qui va de soi fléchit
l’incertitude d’être ici parmi tant de choses
qu’il faut nommer
: le soir comme un buffle
: la mer comme un souffle
: ton visage comme une bougie
une rue à droite l’autre au ciel      hélas
l’amour qui se cache dans les gares
les couleurs pâles
les amants en fleur      jonquilles cerisiers
les grands déserts
le clair-obscur
la conscience se réveille          l’oreiller sombre
dans l’étang d’un rêve
le quotidien met son chapeau de paille :
une belle journée passée en compagnie des hommes
la neige va fondre je vais me taire
vous allez piailler dans vos tombes les verbes
vont rouler libres sur la page quelqu’un
va parler comme un dieu quelque chose
va s’appeler ville
ou sable
nous allons chercher abri dans une conque
si légers si légers
presque impondérables...
posthumous inventory
a man suspended from a rose his throat
the key forgotten under the door
the rain
and the afternoon
three petals and the words for them
the habit of singing one’s life
that which polishes itself that which goes without saying
bends, articulates
the uncertainty of being here among so many things
that must be named
: the evening like a buffalo
: the sea like a breath
: your face like a candle
a street to the right the other in the sky     alas
love which hides itself in the train stations
the pale colors
the lovers in bloom      daffodils   cherry trees
the great deserts
the chiaroscuro
consciousness awakening        the pillow sinks
in a dreamlake
the mundane puts on its straw hat:
a beautiful day spent in the company of others
the snow will melt I will be silent
you will cheep in your tombs the verbs
will roll freely on the page someone
will speak like a god something
will be called a city
or sand
we will seek shelter in a conch
so light so light
almost imperceptible...