Oh boy, here goes
I've been working on this for quite a while, and it's still so maddeningly frustrating.
What is it?
Oh, just something that, I think, is of the most brilliant Romanian pieces of writing of the past century. Scratch that: EVER. Concocted in the terrifyingly deep mines of genius harbored by Cartarescu's brain. Mind-blowingly erudite fun, engaging in its vortex the whole history of Romanian literature--and of the Romanian history for that matter. I still remember when I first read it (back in...oh...1992, probably, two or three years after its initial publication)--it was like somebody lifted the top of my skull, like a detachable lid, and had exposed the inside of my brain to the most potent, delectable literary drug that ever existed, and I had the chance to absorb directly into my nervous system. I read the whole book in one sitting, and then reread it again several times. And my brain's been cracked open ever since.
Unfortunately, it's a totally untranslatable book. And I don't mean that in the sense that nothing can be completely and fully translated, that there will always be meanings in the original that will be inevitably lost in translation, that hey, all you can do is just approximate at best, and try to get the readers to have a good idea of the original.
No, this is bad. Levantul (The Levant) holds, I believe, the distinction of being the most untranslatable book I've ever seen (or heard of). No matter how hard I, or anyone I know, will try, this book will remain impenetrable to a foreign audience. And it's not even the fault of the translator, really.
It's just that the kind of literary pastiche and irony and literary colportage that Cartarescu does in this epic, cannot be understood without 1) an intimate understanding of Romanian history and its literary beginnings; 2) an intimate knowledge of all Romanian poets, past and present. Cartarescu recalls practically all the major literary influences, all the "landmarks" in our short and troubled history, and plays with them, quotes them, borrows them, twists them, copies and imitates them in a maddening dance, with such juicy linguistic skill that--well, see above re: mind being blown. It's a sort of Romanian Finnegan's Wake--only more readable. And it also rhymes. Yeah.
But I am nothing if not the Don Quijote of translation! The defender of imaginary, long-lost causes! But only because I'm so truly, madly, deeply in love with Cartarescu's text (oh, my Dulcinea!), that I cannot, simply cannot bear the thought of it being lost forever to other languages--trapped in its own culture, unrecognized globally for its uberbrilliance. Many of Cartarescu's other books, both of poetry and fiction, have been translated in all major languages (and some minor ones); this one, people knew better than to touch it.
Did I mention I'm a fool, though? A double fool, at that, not only because the text is untranslatable, but also because I'm running the real, considerable risk of ruining it forever for English speakers with my shoddy translation attempts. I don't wanna do that, though. So consider the following translation a game of mine, that only reflects the beauty of Cartarescu's original in the same way...say, the moon reflects the sun's light. I'm guessing the comparison in the shine factor between the sun and the moon is almost right in this instance. Except if you maybe replace the moon with a tiny candle? Yep, that's probably more like it.
Here's the beginning, in which the hero thinks of his beloved Levant. I'll discuss some of the "untranslatable" factors after:
Floare-a lumilor, val verde cu lucori de petre rare,
“Flower of the worlds, green wave with shimmers of rare precious stones,
Where to begin? First of all, let me confess: I'm not a very good connoisseur of Old English (just got a book, I'm working on it!), and I'm not a very good connoisseur of 18th and 19th century spelling conventions, either.Cartarescu lets loose and uses archaisms or archaicizing (ok, not a word, but here's what it should mean: word forms that sound "old" although they may have never been used as such) forms--to give his epic that old, brassy, Homeric feeling. Every word that can be archaically spelled, basically is; archaisms and neologisms coexist happily, for this is just a game. So, let's make a short, incomplete inventory:
- lucori (pl.) archaic form for "luciri" or "straluciri"--shimmer(s)
- petre (pl.) archaic plural form for "piatra" (stone/rock)--instead of "pietre"
- scortisoare (pl.) (cinnamon)--the plural does not exist in modern Romanian--it doesn't exist in modern English, either, which why I used it!
- d-aur: archaic contraction for "de-aur" (of gold)
- piepteni (pl.) archaic plural form for "comb"
- imparfumat --archaic (or archaic sounding) participle for "perfumed" (modern Romanian: parfumat, without the prefix im-)
- ceriu (sky), nouri (clouds), sei (his), umfle -- archaic plural and verb forms, off by a vowel (modern Romanian: cer(ul), nori, sai, umfla
Etc. This is just a morpho-syntactic level, but many words carry pragmatic and semantic meanings that are pretty much idiosyncratic. For example, the whole tenor of this rant (especially the part about "the melancholy bleak soul") is an ironic nod to the exaggerated Romantic response to --well, just about everything. If one digs deep enough, one could probably find almost the exact same phrase used in some obscure "little Romantic" Romanian poet. And to understand that, is to know that Romanian Romanticism was really delayed, and came into bloom with the 1848 Revolution. You do know about the importance of the 1848 Revolution in Romanian history, don't you? I thought so. So then you can understand (or not) the righteous indignation of this young man, so bitter that his homeland is going to the dogs (well, wolves, in his formulation), as well as the thick layers of irony that Cartarescu piles on, given that the state of Romania at the time he was writing this, in the late 80s, was not much better--Ceausescu's communist rule was in many respects just as stifling and woe-provoking.
But let me not get ahead of myself. The beginning is actually EASY in comparison with what there is to come. I mean, how do you translate Cartarescu imitating Blaga in the middle of a mock-epic written in perfectly executed trochaic octameters with an aa-bb-etc. rhyme pattern--how, sweet Gods of Rhyming, HOW? The better question, yet, is: how do you do it in a way that readers will actually UNDERSTAND? Get? Relate to? And possibly--maybe--ENJOY???
I'm telling you, it's not possible. And yet here I am, battling the windmills of a linguistic labyrinth and getting all tangled up in my complex metaphors. I'm guessing I would need a translation partner who's as erudite in matters of literature as Cartarescu is, and who would helpfully offer me suggestions. "Sure, Shakespeare used to spell "trail" "trayle." Go ahead, be thy quill speedy henceforth!" Oh, I'm rubbish at Medieval talk, and I know it. But this hypothetical partner would set me straight. Will offer me alternate spellings and words that only Byron had used to describe the cause of Eleutheria (oddly relevant in this context), and will hold my hand and apply cold compresses when it all becomes just too unbearable.
At any rate--consider this my first, enormously flawed, installment of Levantul. Which is to say, expect a few more similarly flawed installments on a regular basis.