Deconstructing Language: A Conversation About Translation
I asked recent MFA grad, Tom Hatcher, about his translations of Romanian poetry. Tom began his translation work in David Keplinger’s seminar on translation when he was introduced to the Romanian poet, Claudiu Komartin. Tom’s translations of Komartin’s work have been published in Poetry International and Pleiades. You can read some of Tom’s work here.
How did you connect with your poet? What initially drew you to his work?
I was quite lucky. Early in the semester David Keplinger invited a guest speaker, the Turkish poet Yaprak Oz. My colleague Nancy Kidder translated Yaprak’s work the year prior. I’ll never forget that day when David asked Yaprak to recommend poets we might translate. She wrote down Claudiu Komartin on the chalkboard, underlined it, and said, “He is genius.” My sister-in-law is Romanian, so I took this as a sign! I found Claudiu on Facebook that night and shortly after he sent me a PDF of his third book, Cobalt. As I scrolled through the book, I was blown away by his attention to detail and by the amount of variations in form.
As you were crafting these translations, were you communicating with Komartin and seeking his input? How collaborative was this process?
David Keplinger had us write three variations of each poem—a literal, formal, and connotative—which we then workshopped. I sent Claudiu copies of my translations only after the workshop and subsequent revision process. After reviewing my translations, Claudiu sent me some notes over Facebook Messenger and we had an incredible three-hour conversation as we sent ideas back and forth. Shortly after, I sent the poems out.
Did David Keplinger’s Seminar on Translation help you develop a specific theory on translation? What about the course helped guide you as you worked with Komartin’s poetry?
David Keplinger’s Seminar on Translation was not at all what I expected. I initially thought we would be studying the grammars of other languages, but instead we took a more heuristic approach. David showed us new ways of deconstructing language. We read excellent examples of translation. Above all, David taught me the joy of alternate word choice. He would have us try to translate idiomatic expressions—the untranslatable—and I loved the exercise of finding words that fit the puzzle. Ultimately I learned that there can never be a perfect translation, so it provides a forgiving place to experiment with language.
How has translating affected your writing practice? Do you find there is a difference in your work because you’ve done these translations?
Translation helped me understand my motives for writing. I found that the creative energy I exerted in translation was much different than in my own writing. Because I didn’t need a muse to get started, I was able to develop new approaches to writing. And because I didn’t have a creative axe to grind, I could focus entirely on the language. It reinvented my revision practice in my own writing. It showed me I could write without worrying about having everything figured out.
What were the greatest challenges in translating Komartin’s work? Does Romanian present unique language challenges that cannot be precisely replicated in English?
Being a Romantic language, Romanian translates rather smoothly, besides the vague gender pronoun “it.” Komartin’s poetry toes an interesting line between traditional and modern. While his poems are contemporary and filled with references to technology, they sometimes include archaic gestures. For instance, in the yet-to-be-published “Simple Poem,” Komartin mentions two women burying leaves, which is a Romanian ritual that demonstrates shame. Of course, we have no such tradition here in America, so I had to come up with a way of demonstrating this. I chose “burying leaves, burying someone’s shame,” which is about one of many great options Claudiu’s voice afforded me.
In “Preparations”— an incredibly stunning poem, that I love—the speaker addresses a woman who claims “that she does not understand and does not wish to understand something from my poems.” While I’m also deeply moved by some of the subsequent language in the poem (in particular, “turning the skin of a young turkey inside out”) these opening lines stick with me as they seem to fly in the face of the goal of a translation, an act that opens up a poem to new audiences so that they can comprehend what was originally indecipherable to them. What drew you to this poem, and did you think at all about what it might mean to translate a poem that contends with, at least in my interpretation, the idea that words and poetry may prove meaningless and “baffling?”
Claudiu Komartin loves to write about writing. He often writes about his own creative process and his frustrations with writing in a humble way. I find this meta approach to be one of his most charming qualities—he does not pretend to be anyone but himself. This poem feels like it was written after a particularly disheartening poetry workshop.
What formal elements in “something essential about dreams” did you want to preserve in your translation? In a way, the poem reads as a sort of sleepless stream of consciousness, and feels almost dream-like. Did this poem have a similar appearance in Romanian?
I’m glad it gives you that feeling—that certainly was Komartin’s intention. This was the poem that most struck me from Cobalt. I love the way the dual medial caesuras pass by each other like stalactites and stalagmites in a cave of words. I did my best to replicate the original, which was arranged by a graphic designer. That version has more crisp white space. The limitations of using Word made formatting this poem one of my greatest challenges during translation.
Were there elements of these poems that felt “untranslatable?” Did you have any particular difficulty in crafting some of these poems most memorable and beautifully unique lines?—I’m thinking specifically of “insect with a nanny soul” in “(I want to believe you)” and “You and I were two knives thrust in the grass together,” in “Together 1000 W.”
Those lines are the literal translations! My translation workshop wanted me to re-think “an insect with a nanny soul” and, believe me, I thought about it for quite a while. But David championed the line, and I just fell in love with the sheer weirdness of it. That’s when I knew it was as close to perfect as a translation can get.
Image: Free Word Centre
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.