The Romanian Riveter: Translating Romania by Alistair Ian Blyth

I have lived in Romania since just before the end of the last century and have been translating from the Romanian for about sixteen years, mostly fiction, but also non-fiction, drama and poetry. Before the 2000s, most of the Romanian literature translated into English was poetry: the anthologies of Eastern European poetry that appeared immediately after the fall of communism, but also volumes by individual poets. One of the reasons for this was that at the time there were few translators able to take on a large-scale project such as translating a novel, but it was also not until the 2000s that post-communist contemporary Romanian fiction finally came into its own, with a whole generation of unique and talented voices emerging. Many of this new wave of Romanian novelists are published by Polirom, based in Iași, north-eastern Romania. Since 2006, I have translated an annual catalogue of excerpts from fiction by Polirom authors. As of last year, the catalogues have featured 123 writers in total, and the publisher’s website (www.romanianwriters.ro) provides an excellent introduction to the sheer range and quality of contemporary Romanian fiction.

The 1990s was a decade of social, economic and political chaos in Romania, with the psychological scars of the Ceaușescu personality cult and one of Eastern Europe’s worst totalitarian regimes still raw. Much of what was published in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the regime was non-fiction, an attempt at an historical reckoning with a communist past that refused to go quietly. It was not until the second decade of post-communism, from about 2000, and with the benefit of greater historical distance, that writers were able to begin to explore Romania’s traumatic past through fiction. One outstanding novel in this respect is Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s Matei Brunul (published in English under the same title by Dalkey Archive Press, 2018), in which the Stalinist regime cynically tries to mould into a communist ‘new man’ a naïve young puppeteer who has lost his memory as a result of brutalisation in prison after being convicted as an enemy of the people. Filip Florian’s Little Fingers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is also set in post-communist Romania, but its tale of the discovery of a mass grave becomes an allegory of all the unresolved traumas of the past. Florian’s second novel, The Days of the King (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), is a tale of baroque imagination told in luxuriant prose, which takes us back to the mid- nineteenth century, when Romania was emerging as a nation state. Also set in the nineteenth century, a time of hope and promise for Romania before the catastrophes of fascism and communism that the next century was to bring, Ioana Pârvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday (Istros Books, 2016) evoke Bucharest’s belle époque in a tale of mystery and romance that ingeniously plays with the conventions of genre and literary fiction. One of the most important novels of the post-communist period, Varujan Vosganian’s The Book of Whispers (Yale University Press, 2017), spans a century of Romanian history, as seen through the lives and stories of Romania’s Armenian community, and is also a harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide.

As well as the contemporary novelists mentioned above, it has also been my privilege to translate one of the most important Romanian literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century: Dumitru Tsepeneag (b. 1937). Tsepeneag was the founder of ‘oneirism’, a literary movement that during the post-Stalinist partial ‘thaw’ of the late 1960s challenged the official literary culture of realism (socialist or otherwise) and that was banned during the totalitarian crackdown of the 1970s. Tsepeneag was forced into exile in France after his citizenship was revoked by presidential decree in 1975. His books vanished from Romanian literature until after the 1989 revolution, and his collected works are now being published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press.

It is worth remembering that Romanian literature is more than just literature written in Romania. Tsepeneag and Bruckstein are individual examples of Romanian literature in exile, but there is also the Romanian literature of Moldova, a country that shares the same language but whose historical and cultural experience has been vastly different. In 2010, I contributed translations to Archipelago, a Moldova PEN Centre anthology edited by writer Vitalie Ciobanu as an introduction to the highly distinctive literary tradition of Romania’s smaller neighbour. For me, it was a unique opportunity to discover Moldovan literature, which is all too often overlooked or unavailable in Romania, and my work on the anthology led to translations of short stories by Moldovan writers being included in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction series. My translation of Iulian Ciocan’s novel Before Brezhnev Died was published this year by Dalkey Archive Press, along with Emilian Galaicu-Păun’s Living Tissue. 10×10. Both novels are set in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia during the Brezhnev period. For me, translation has been an endless journey of discovery, and Romanian literature is far from having given up all its riches.

By Alistair Ian Blyth

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian Riveter

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