Henry Finch’s poetry appears in The North American Review, The Sugar House Review, The Massachusetts Review, jubilat, The Seattle Review, Prelude, Forklift Ohio, Transom, The Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Appalachian State University. He lives in Vermont, US, where he is currently translating a collection of stories by Urmuz.
Ethically, to translate is to put the life of a text at risk
Interview by Andra Rotaru
Your first encounter with a book written by Urmuz in Romanian had a very particular destiny. And so did your encounter with the works of Sesto Pals. How did you discover these two avant-garde writers, the latter being only recently rediscovered in Romania?
I was working in the Admissions office at Waynflete, a private day school in Portland, Maine, the day Tomaž Šalamun died in December 2014. I wanted to honor him in some way, do something to bring him and his voice into the air, so I stopped at the public library on my way home and picked up a Slovenian-English dictionary. There was one in circulation, a small paperback. That night at home, I found a few of Šalamun’s poems in Slovenian on the internet and began to translate—one word at a time. The process was very tedious, but it made me happy to participate in something as wild as the utterance of a Šalamun poem. I branched out to try other poems, then to try other writers. Over the next weeks I tried my ear and hand at César Vallejo, translating from the Spanish side of a bi-lingual edition. Ellen Doré Watson had recently sent me a packet of poems by Adélia Prado in the original Portuguese, along with her translations into English. So I tried Portuguese. Watson, the Poetry Editor at The Massachusetts Review, had recently published my poem, “Always Together,” in an issue with Mateiu Caragiale’s short story, “Rake’s Congress,” beautifully translated by Sean Cotter. I read the story one morning at the photo-copier, producing stacks of material for Admissions packets. At one moment in the story the narrator describes a member of his coterie with such brutality that it caused me to guffaw there in front of the copier. I shared the sentence with members of the Admissions staff, whoever was in the immediate vicinity. The sentence goes, “This white clown had the soul of a dogcatcher and gravedigger.” To me this was such a beautiful, realistic, and complex insult. Inspired by the speech and tone of the story, I translated a few of Caragiale’s poems, but the strangeness was lacking. In my few translations of Caragiale, I noticed the poems focused more on the idea of people and things. His prose, from what I gathered from Cotter’s translation, showed working class people behaving and encountering consequences. The interior of “Rake’s Congress” renders life by casting others into it.
Because of my translation and frustration of Caragiale’s poems, I researched other writers of Romania’s Interbellum period (between 1918-1939). The first writer I stumbled over was Sesto Pals, though his work extends beyond World War II. I translated a couple of poems, and in them I heard a similar strangeness as I sensed in Caragiale’s prose. Pals was wilder. Sometimes reading a poem is like startling up a fox in the woods. That’s how I think of Pals. I enjoy that feeling. It could well be a result of the translation process, too. At least the way I translate. Everything is a glimpse.
Urmuz sprung up while reading about Pals. I first translated Urmuz’s “The Chroniclers,” a short enigmatic poem. I had several iterations of the last line, with Urmuz’s heading of “Moral.” I settled on a version that reads, “The pelican or the vocal sack.” This Absurdist gesture—its use of a nonsensical or juxtaposed question as the moral of a story—was like hearing a bell ring. I heard in this line, in its relation to the rest of the poem, the mechanics of Šalamun. Urmuz produces the sort of juxtapositions that allow the writing to cause a sort of startling physiological response. If Pals’ writing was glimpsing a fox as it’s startled up from rest, then Urmuz was glimpsing the fox and realizing it’s an entire town, a single person, that you, too, are the fox. You and I became connected soon after. I shared some of my translations with you, and that affirmation sealed my fate.
And then you received the book Pagini bizare (Cartier, 2009), illustrated by Dan Perjovschi. You started translating the stories with a dictionary and a lot of patience. How can one translate without mastering the source-language? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?
I laughed with delight when I arrived home to find that book in the mail. You sent it to me, from Bucharest to Maine, in an ordinary large paper envelope, standard rate. Only one of envelope’s four corners was intact. Not long after the book’s arrival—a month or two—I went to live at the Tinder Hearth Bakery in Brooksville, Maine. I played piano and sang with The Soulbenders/Living Daylight, a band consisting of the baker’s family and close friends. We had a series of local performances in the summer. During the day I’d sit outside and translate. The band would rehearse or perform at night. Then I’d translate until just before dawn. For the first month, I slept in a room above the bakery, and woke to Alen Taraljić, the great Bosnian baker, pounding out butter for the day’s pastries at dawn. Alen and I shared many a coffee, and he would tease me, fumbling through a dictionary one word a time. I was curious to know what Urmuz was up to, what he left us. One afternoon, there arrived a friend of the bakery, Oana Havris, a Romanian Eurhythmics instructor and lover of literature. The owners of the bakery, Tim and Lydia, were very excited for me to meet Oana and discuss Urmuz. Eventually I mustered up the courage to ask her to read some of my translation. It was the opening paragraph of “Funnel and Stamate.” She may have only said “Good,” but she didn’t say “Bad,” so again affirmation buoyed me.
I stayed on at the bakery after the summer and accepted a job as delivery driver. I performed with the band, took on private music students, taught poetry in an elementary school. Urmuz was always there.
Without knowing Romanian, I was free to examine each word as I might an instrument, or a key on some infinite keyboard. Translation is a kind of compositional procedure. Each word or phrase generated in the act of translation produces a unique sequence. As much as I appreciate purely Chance-generated work, I am compelled in my writing – and translation, especially – to resolve dissonance where I hear it, in pursuit of a sequence in tune with the frequency of the world of the text as I perceive it, as it’s generated. There’s room for improvisation, for slight tonal adjustments. Urmuz is an Absurdist, and as a participant in this tradition, I translate expecting and welcoming some degree of grammatical, syntactic, and narrative failure. It is frustrating to lack fluency, and thus not inhabit Urmuz’s language and ideas more fully. I have heard his writing in Romanian, but it is not the same as producing the sound myself. Urmuz’s world is bizarre, so it is my responsibility to translate its bizarreness in the ways I deem most effective. It is in the spirit of Dada and Absurdism to not “get it right.”
You’ve met writers who also (re)edit and bring back the works of certain Romanian avant-garde writers. One of them is the essayist and Physics and Astronomy professor Michael Finkenthal. What are the new perspectives brought to you by the direct contact with avant-garde specialists and what was their impact on the method of understanding and translating Urmuz?
Michael and I met in Bucharest the summer of 2016. I had just returned to Bucharest from Constanța and the Black Sea. Michael just happened to be in Bucharest on a sojourn. We met outside a café at the Universitate stop and drank cappucinos in the mild air one afternoon. Michael was most generous and inquisitive. Meeting him was a singular moment in my time Romania. As we walked the city together discussing my translation of Urmuz, we spoke of music and Dada, of my experience at the bakery, of what principles I maintained in translation. When one studies light, he told me, one learns as much about light as the instrument used to study it. And so I cannot hide behind Urmuz, Sesto Pals, or any other writer. If I am the one sounding their words, then I am accountable for how I sound them, for what qualities I bring with the translation and how I interpret them.
Our time together was brief, a handful of hours before dinner. We visited a poetry bookstore. I don’t remember its name, only that in walking there, Michael and I took quite a winding route. It was a haven, and Michael directed me toward books by more avant-garde writers from the Interbellum period— in addition to more Urmuz and Sesto Pals, Michael led toward the work of Geo Bogza and Ion Vinea, two of Romania’s great modernists. On the way to his hotel for a final coffee before parting ways, we discussed Sesto Pals and literary stewardship. Because there is little scholarship or discussion of Urmuz and Sesto Pals, we exchanged our ideas and interpretations, of which Michael possessed an encyclopedic knowledge. My ideas regarding Urmuz were still forming (still are!), and Michael was encouraging, even as my authority wavered in naïveté.
A week prior to meeting Michael, I attended the final night of the Dada centennial, Dada 100: Poetry Without Verse, at the Excelsior Theatre (your recommendation). I witnessed performances by Jaap Blonk, Tomomi Adachi, Mugur Grosu, Jöel Hubaut, Claudiu Komartin, Angelika Meyer, Enzo Minarelli, and Hannah Silva. Witnessing an evening of Dada texts in performance was empowering—see the texts come to life, see them living, and enjoy the humor of strangeness. After the performances, it was my great fortune to join everyone for dinner, accompanied by the great poet and critic Simona Nastac, curator of the festival. The tableful of us sat outside and talked into the night. Walking south along Calea Victoriei to my apartment, I had never felt more confident with risk. What I described as shortcomings in my translation process, the others at the table saw as opportunities.
The next day I shared a meal and a pint with the Romanian poet Felix Nicolau, before our reading at the Galeria Întâlnirilor. Felix’s kindness is matched by his intellect, and to speak with him at length about the contemporary Romanian perception of Urmuz was helpful in tuning my own expectations and interpretations. As part of our reading, we had an open discussion of Urmuz, along with Daniel Sur and several other Romanian poets. If I was ambivalent, their encouragement and surprise in my unconventional approach gave me renewed faith in such a mercurial project.
Predecessor of “tragedy of language”, as Eugen Ionescu named him, Urmuz creates mechanomorphic characters, with monstrous traits, replacing, by compensation, the real world with a parallel universe. As a translator, you have developed a certain empathy for Urmuz’s characters. How does the relationship with a book change translation?
When I began translating Urmuz, I was studying Medieval Christian women mystics—Hildegard von Bingen, Hadewijch, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich (thanks to the exquisite guidance and steadfast friendship of Megan Cook). Along with the Christian mystics, Urmuz produces a unique catharsis, a particular pity and fear. My relationship with Pagini Bizare changed dramatically as I worked through its drafts. Tomorrow I could work through it again and, I’m certain, the process would be more complicated. The catharsis of the Christian mystics is for me a product of awe and ecstasy—pity and fear embedded in awe, ecstasy a prerequisite of renewal and restoration. The catharsis of Urmuz is rooted in pity. As I spent more time in Urmuz’s world with his characters, I began to see them as sort of active sculptural installations. I cannot read Urmuz’s world and characters as representations of ideas. It is most pleasurable and effective for me to take Urmuz at his word, to trust in his reality, no matter how much different or bizarre it may be from my own. So as a translator, I’m embedding my internal dissonance into to the text, with an aim of carrying over its unique catharsis into English.
As Dan Perjovschi said in an interview, he doesn’t illustrate Pagini bizare, his drawings accompany Urmuz. Have you ever thought about translation in these terms?
Absolutely. The sublime function of translation is to shine a light on its source. If a translator is skilled, sensitive, lucky, or just has a run of good fortune, the resulting additions and omissions become a kind of counterpoint or superimposed melody. As with music, one hears opportunity in harmonic space as much as time space. Gounod’s “Ave Maria” was composed over Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C Major.” Gounod, in his composition, points to Bach. The source remains.
To quote Walter Benjamin, “a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks the stage of their survival.” Can we talk about translation as a stage of survival?
Ideally, we write out of urgency, and our desires, obsessions, fears, and curiosities give the language of our writing its agency. Ditto translate and translation. As I transport ideas from Urmuz’s Romanian into my English, I negotiate how much of the original I’m able to move, how much of the form must change in the process. In regard to the actual text surviving, even if I produce a failed translation, I succeed in drawing attention to the original text. The original survives by virtue of its serving as a primary source. Secondly, by translating Urmuz I am breathing life into his ideas and sharing them as widely as possible. Urmuz is Romania from 1883 to 1923. There is a risk, a potential pitfall of translation, that in doing so the text is robbed from its home and held captive by the other language—though it be survival, it is not living as fully as it was once able. I do not believe Urmuz needs to be translated by me, that he needs to exist in my English or anyone else’s. Does he deserve to be translated? Yes. For history to survive, it must be revisited. Am I revising history in my function as translator? Yes, but only in the world of my writing, in the interpretation and recording of my life. Ethically, to translate is to put the life of a text at risk. In the case of Urmuz, I am fortunate to have found a kinship that makes the endeavor feel worthwhile and successful. I think of his grave, completely obscured by vines in Bellu Cemetery, and our responsibility as writers and translators, as relayers of the intellect and stewards of the imagination, to keep the weeds of time at bay for those who may have stopped along the way.
One may say that Pagini bizare is a primitive linguistic phenomenon, which takes the reader on a continuous confusing journey. How do you transpose the simplicity of Urmuz’s prose in English?
Urmuz is a fabulist. I came to this realization during the first draft of the translation, reading from Robert Nisbet Bain’s Cossack Fairy and Folk-Tales, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. In particular, it was striking to me to notice in Urmuz a simplicity in the story-telling similar to that of the folk tradition. It is helpful to think in terms of elements, as folk forms are elemental. That a particular narrative space contains minimal elements, such as the interior Stamate inhabits in Urmuz’s “Funnel and Stamate,” the attributes and actions of its elements are amplified as a result of more fully occupying their given context. I’m drawn to the seeming flatness of such texts and their eschewing becoming didactic by lacking a moral. I have faith in the ability to infer potential consequence. I have faith in empathy as a sense. That’s the beauty of storytelling and of being told a story. Desire and its potential actions are internalized. If we recognize a feature, we project ourselves onto it, into its context, or populate our consciousness with it. As much as Urmuz distorts reality, his stories show people behaving and encountering consequence, though the consequence may read as nonsensical or illogical. An outlier he may be, Urmuz belongs in the folk tradition.
What is the next step after completing the translation? Is there an American public open to such “bizarre” things, a common history of American and European avant-gardes that might make Urmuz more accessible to the public?
It is my goal to see the translation in print, and to continue my research and translation of Romania’s Interbellum avant-garde. Urmuz’s writing is in conversation with that of Dean Young, James Tate, Charles Simic, César Vallejo, Carmen Machado, Italo Calvino, Leonora Carrington, Edgar Allen Poe, and Tomaž Šalamun. Because Urmuz has gone mostly unread outside Romania the last century, it is necessary and of great importance to further inform our history by including his voice, as the shared tenets of Absurdism, Dada, and Surrealism must evolve to survive. Ideas cannot evolve in a vacuum. Urmuz’s Absurdism, with Tristan Tzara as its Dada pollinator, was a primary source of Andre Bréton’s Surrealism. Urmuz’s juxtapositions and mechanomorphic characters do not evolve into being. The transgression of change, the morphing and warping of the hierarchies of reality and society—and by extension, one’s consciousness—occur before the story begins, whereas a Surrealist writing unfolds into its strangeness in a linear narrative fashion. To say it another way: Surrealism changes. Urmuz arrives changed.