Translator Relay: Sean Cotter

By Sean Cotter

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For June's installment, Ellen Elias-Bursac passed the baton to Sean Cotter, whose translations from Romanian include Mircea Cărtărescu's Blinding, Nichita Stănescu's Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems (recipient of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry), Liliana Ursu’s Lightwall, and Nichita Danilov’s Secondhand Souls.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I learned Romanian while teaching English for the Peace Corps in Bucharest. The emphasis was on speaking and hearing, and to this day I read first for voice. I began to study the literature by talking with the high school Romanian teachers, people with astounding levels of preparation, widely read, some of whom had published textbooks and books of criticism. I lived in Bucharest again as a graduate student, working on a degree in Comparative Literature.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

The cheeky answer still has some truth to it: all words are untranslatable, since they exist within a language system, and changing systems means the words are no longer the same. Speaking emotionally, however, certain words transport me so entirely to Romania, Romanian texts, or conversations with Romanians that I have trouble translating them into English: "mda" is a favorite. It's a pause for thought before affirming, "da," an indication that "yes" and "no" don't exhaust the complexity of the issue at hand. But there's no pause on "da," no more hesitation. In English, "okay, yes" is a possibility, or sometimes, "Hmmm. Yes." I don't have a set solution. But I enjoy the problem.

Do you have any translating rituals?

I used to. I worked on what became my first translation as a student in two different cafes: one in winter in Ann Arbor, in a dark, odd-smelling corner by the gas fireplace, and the other in summer in Staufen, Germany, beside a window overlooking a creek, the Cafe Decker where octogenarian waitresses brought me cake on enormous silver trays. My rituals involved espresso, a wire-bound notebook, and constant cake. All that remains of those days is the steady caffeine, now coffee with chicory. The most I can say is that I try to keep a regular work schedule.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

It depends. If I'm talking to someone while balancing a tiny plastic plate and a glass of wine, I say that reading the original is like listening to a piece of music. It's possible to enjoy a piece and say intelligent things about it. But translating a text is like performing the piece again, on a different instrument. That's not usually how the process feels to me, however. The process of translation feels like playing chess with a more talented opponent, who makes a seemingly mysterious move with the rook. Maybe a piece is left unguarded as a result, maybe the position seems more awkward, and I stare and stare at the board, trying to guess the point. Why this enjambment? Why didn't the character respond to the flashing light? Why put the word "dentures" in the middle of the sentence, rather than the end? I experience translation as a type of concentration.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

There's a "holy grail" project I've been working on: finding the right English for the outrageously complicated Romanian of Craii de Curtea-Veche, Mateiu Caragiale's 1929 novel, which a group of critics in 1995 voted the greatest Romanian novel of all time. Rakes of the Old Court has never been translated into English, largely because the book's ornate style presents a great challenge. Mateiu saturates his text with words taken from Turkish and elaborate, aristocratic rhetoric. The book offers something hard to find--a particular flavor of Central European decadence, a perspective from the border of Europe and "the East." Rather than looking back on a fallen nobility, the novel wonders whether a culture born at the crossroads of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire could ever rise to noble stature.

Ellen Elias-Bursac's question: Do your translations of poetry influence your prose translations? If so, does the same hold true for the reverse? Do you make an effort to keep the two separate?

I don't make an effort to keep them separate. I look for interesting work. When I began to translate, poetry was the reigning genre of Romanian literature, the place of prestige and energy. Today, most of the most interesting works are prose. The major difference for me is the number of words. I revise better than I write, and the longer a work is, the fewer revisions I can do. I find that frustrating. It's difficult to point to a qualitative difference--narrative structure or character voice, for example--since so many of these prose works question language and representation in ways we associate with poetry. The line between the genres of translation becomes very thin, and on most mornings, I experience it as a question of quantity.


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