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Interviews

Romanian Translation’s Johnny Appleseed: An Interview with Sean Cotter

In October 2022, Deep Vellum published Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid, a novel by the renowned Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu. In this interview, Clara Burghelea talks with Cotter about the translation process, his working relationship with Cărtărescu, and how he got his start as a translator.
Left, the Romanian cover of Mircea Cartarescu's Solenoid; center, translator Sean Cotter; right,...

Clara Burghelea (CB): First, congratulations on your recent English translation of Mircea Cărtărescu’s novel Solenoid. This is your second translation of his work, after Blinding, published in 2013 by Archipelago Books. How was the experience?

Sean Cotter (SC): Thank you for your congratulations! I am pleased the book is out in the world, in a beautiful edition from Deep Vellum (French flaps!). Translating Solenoid was a different experience than translating Blinding, though that project was an enormous help. Blinding taught me Cărtărescu’s style, his characteristic motifs, his obsessions and passions. While both are great works, I enjoyed Solenoid more. I found it more self-assured, more powerful, the balance between spectacle and narrative surer. Of course, it’s satisfying to see a novel through to its completion. What we’re calling Blinding is in fact just the first volume of a trilogy, so I didn’t create an English version of the end of that book. The whole trilogy is probably as many words as Solenoid.


CB: Mircea Cărtărescu is one of the most well-known Romanian novelists and poets, and his work has been translated into various languages. How did you discover him?

SC: He was already well known in 1994, when I arrived in Romania for the first time. When I became interested in translation and contemporary Romanian authors, he was one of the people I contacted. It’s a slightly embarrassing story, but I somehow had a list of mailing addresses of various Bucharest writers (probably from Adam Sorkin). I printed a series of requests to translate on slips of paper, and I walked through Bucharest tucking them into writers’ mailboxes, scattering my ambitions across the capital like a translation Johnny Appleseed. I don’t think I had Cărtărescu’s address, but the daughter of the family I was staying with had a friend taking classes with him at the university. She arranged a meeting for us at the erstwhile Efes Pub near Lahovary. Unfortunately, we missed each other.  


CB: Did you work with his team of translators around the world?

SC: I did, and I am grateful to everyone, especially to Laure Hinckel, Cărtărescu’s French translator, who saved me many days of research. Her blog, La part des anges, unraveled countless mysteries—the syntax of certain sentences and the truth about Dagmar Rotluft, an enigmatic entry in the narrator’s list of important authors. Many of his translators are connected via Facebook, where we celebrate each other’s successes. 


CB: Can you share a bit about the process of translation? Was it challenging throughout, or were there parts that raised more questions than others?

SC: The translation began during the pandemic, so I was working at the dining room table, which my daughters, suffering through school online, had separated into quadrants with blue tape. They were at their laptops, I was at mine, all of us were stressed. The intensity of Cărtărescu’s prose demanded my attention, and I welcomed the demand. It’s a novel whose great theme is escape, and I was longing for a way out of that anxious time. Bit by bit, like pulling myself up a staircase by the banister, I worked through the first draft, and my girls finished their year of school, and we all survived. I wrote three drafts before sending the fourth one to the press.


CB: Did you collaborate with Cărtărescu? Were you able to exchange thoughts and ideas about the work?

SC: Cărtărescu was, as he had been with Blinding, very responsive to my questions. I think I sent two, maybe three, rounds of queries. These helped not only with details but also with interpretations: is this ironic here, is this supposed to be grotesque, etc. Cărtărescu has also translated (a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics), so he is sympathetic to the problems of rewriting in another language. One of my favorite responses came when I asked about a particularly difficult sentence. His response began, “Wow, ce frază! Săracul de tine!” [Wow, what a sentence! Poor you!]


CB: Solenoid was published by Deep Vellum, with which you’ve collaborated for a long time. Tell us
a bit about your working relationship with Will Evans, a translator himself. Was translation an affinity that sparked your cooperation?

SC: Will is just good company. We’ve been friends for a while, hitting the delicious vegetarian food joints in Dallas while we look for a good project to do together. That first project turned out to be Magda Cârneci’s FEM, and everything went really well. If I had my druthers, I would live closer to the center of Dallas, so going to meet Will at the bookstore in the Deep Ellum neighborhood is a tattooed treat for me. Will has built, over the past seven or so years, a press that looks like it’s always been here, always been a landmark. And he brought literary Dallas back from the beyond.


CB: Were you involved in developing the publicity campaign for this major work? How important and necessary is it for a translator to watch over the work past its publication?

SC: Will, Sara, Walker, and the rest of the Deep Vellum team are terrific to work with. We are developing a project that I hope will delight Solenoid’s readers, give them a way to participate in the world of this searching, questing novel, to manipulate the text of the translation in an unexpected way. But a surprise it remains, for the moment.

Before publication, the translator is often the work’s agent, all the hustle of the sample and pitch. And given the fact that most translation happens with small presses, with limited and overwhelmed staffs, it’s often the case that the translator is not just watching over the work after publication but in fact driving the promotional process. We shall see if the hype in the United States reaches the levels Cărtărescu garners in Colombia, where he needed a police cordon to get through his crowd of fans, some of whom were dressed as characters from Solenoid.


CB: Your interest in Romanian language and culture is well known. Do you find it compelling to frequently immerse yourself in the culture? Visit the country, touch base with old friends, get a taste of everything that makes it relevant to your linguistic pursuits?

SC: My enjoyment of Romania goes beyond its rich language. I go back as often as I can, given that I also have a life here in Dallas. Indeed, I miss my close friends in Romania very much. Bucharest, for all its faults, is still the most energetic and plentiful cultural location I know. And like Cărtărescu, I’m a sucker for its modernist architecture. While the art deco curves and jalousies are enticing, I find that the bold, unadorned geometries of the 1930s buildings look more human as they crumble, barely held together by vines and trees.


CB: Your prior work in translation was Magda C
ârnecis FEM, a lyrical feminist novel, published in 2021 by Deep Vellum. Did you work on FEM and Solenoid simultaneously? How do you make room for different projects and different authors? Is there a different approach when the works diverge in style, or do the voices overlap?

SC: Cârneci and Cărtărescu are from the same generation, though her trajectory includes an extended time working in Paris, editing an art journal and writing this one novel. I was surprised by the number of themes they share, their interest in the significance of chance events, the cosmic importance of our longings and dreams. Their discursive methods are distinct, however, with her voice direct and insistent, and his superlative and visionary. I think I had signed the contract for Solenoid before I translated FEM, so I was conscious of their connections. The authors make their own space, their own rooms in the house of fiction, and translation tries to cohabitate in their capacious works. 


CB: Finally, tell us about a current or future project.

SC: I am working on an article about the translation of Katherine Verdery’s study of Romanian intellectuals, National Ideology Under Socialism. The Romanian translation appeared in 1994, just two years after the original, and in a time of reckoning. I’m interested in the dissonance between her richly nuanced theoretical model and, for example, the Manichean Romanian title, Compromis şi rezistenţă: cultura româna sub Ceauşescu [Compromise and Resistance: Romanian Culture under Ceauşescu].


Copyright © 2022 by Clara Burghelea.

English

Clara Burghelea (CB): First, congratulations on your recent English translation of Mircea Cărtărescu’s novel Solenoid. This is your second translation of his work, after Blinding, published in 2013 by Archipelago Books. How was the experience?

Sean Cotter (SC): Thank you for your congratulations! I am pleased the book is out in the world, in a beautiful edition from Deep Vellum (French flaps!). Translating Solenoid was a different experience than translating Blinding, though that project was an enormous help. Blinding taught me Cărtărescu’s style, his characteristic motifs, his obsessions and passions. While both are great works, I enjoyed Solenoid more. I found it more self-assured, more powerful, the balance between spectacle and narrative surer. Of course, it’s satisfying to see a novel through to its completion. What we’re calling Blinding is in fact just the first volume of a trilogy, so I didn’t create an English version of the end of that book. The whole trilogy is probably as many words as Solenoid.


CB: Mircea Cărtărescu is one of the most well-known Romanian novelists and poets, and his work has been translated into various languages. How did you discover him?

SC: He was already well known in 1994, when I arrived in Romania for the first time. When I became interested in translation and contemporary Romanian authors, he was one of the people I contacted. It’s a slightly embarrassing story, but I somehow had a list of mailing addresses of various Bucharest writers (probably from Adam Sorkin). I printed a series of requests to translate on slips of paper, and I walked through Bucharest tucking them into writers’ mailboxes, scattering my ambitions across the capital like a translation Johnny Appleseed. I don’t think I had Cărtărescu’s address, but the daughter of the family I was staying with had a friend taking classes with him at the university. She arranged a meeting for us at the erstwhile Efes Pub near Lahovary. Unfortunately, we missed each other.  


CB: Did you work with his team of translators around the world?

SC: I did, and I am grateful to everyone, especially to Laure Hinckel, Cărtărescu’s French translator, who saved me many days of research. Her blog, La part des anges, unraveled countless mysteries—the syntax of certain sentences and the truth about Dagmar Rotluft, an enigmatic entry in the narrator’s list of important authors. Many of his translators are connected via Facebook, where we celebrate each other’s successes. 


CB: Can you share a bit about the process of translation? Was it challenging throughout, or were there parts that raised more questions than others?

SC: The translation began during the pandemic, so I was working at the dining room table, which my daughters, suffering through school online, had separated into quadrants with blue tape. They were at their laptops, I was at mine, all of us were stressed. The intensity of Cărtărescu’s prose demanded my attention, and I welcomed the demand. It’s a novel whose great theme is escape, and I was longing for a way out of that anxious time. Bit by bit, like pulling myself up a staircase by the banister, I worked through the first draft, and my girls finished their year of school, and we all survived. I wrote three drafts before sending the fourth one to the press.


CB: Did you collaborate with Cărtărescu? Were you able to exchange thoughts and ideas about the work?

SC: Cărtărescu was, as he had been with Blinding, very responsive to my questions. I think I sent two, maybe three, rounds of queries. These helped not only with details but also with interpretations: is this ironic here, is this supposed to be grotesque, etc. Cărtărescu has also translated (a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics), so he is sympathetic to the problems of rewriting in another language. One of my favorite responses came when I asked about a particularly difficult sentence. His response began, “Wow, ce frază! Săracul de tine!” [Wow, what a sentence! Poor you!]


CB: Solenoid was published by Deep Vellum, with which you’ve collaborated for a long time. Tell us
a bit about your working relationship with Will Evans, a translator himself. Was translation an affinity that sparked your cooperation?

SC: Will is just good company. We’ve been friends for a while, hitting the delicious vegetarian food joints in Dallas while we look for a good project to do together. That first project turned out to be Magda Cârneci’s FEM, and everything went really well. If I had my druthers, I would live closer to the center of Dallas, so going to meet Will at the bookstore in the Deep Ellum neighborhood is a tattooed treat for me. Will has built, over the past seven or so years, a press that looks like it’s always been here, always been a landmark. And he brought literary Dallas back from the beyond.


CB: Were you involved in developing the publicity campaign for this major work? How important and necessary is it for a translator to watch over the work past its publication?

SC: Will, Sara, Walker, and the rest of the Deep Vellum team are terrific to work with. We are developing a project that I hope will delight Solenoid’s readers, give them a way to participate in the world of this searching, questing novel, to manipulate the text of the translation in an unexpected way. But a surprise it remains, for the moment.

Before publication, the translator is often the work’s agent, all the hustle of the sample and pitch. And given the fact that most translation happens with small presses, with limited and overwhelmed staffs, it’s often the case that the translator is not just watching over the work after publication but in fact driving the promotional process. We shall see if the hype in the United States reaches the levels Cărtărescu garners in Colombia, where he needed a police cordon to get through his crowd of fans, some of whom were dressed as characters from Solenoid.


CB: Your interest in Romanian language and culture is well known. Do you find it compelling to frequently immerse yourself in the culture? Visit the country, touch base with old friends, get a taste of everything that makes it relevant to your linguistic pursuits?

SC: My enjoyment of Romania goes beyond its rich language. I go back as often as I can, given that I also have a life here in Dallas. Indeed, I miss my close friends in Romania very much. Bucharest, for all its faults, is still the most energetic and plentiful cultural location I know. And like Cărtărescu, I’m a sucker for its modernist architecture. While the art deco curves and jalousies are enticing, I find that the bold, unadorned geometries of the 1930s buildings look more human as they crumble, barely held together by vines and trees.


CB: Your prior work in translation was Magda C
ârnecis FEM, a lyrical feminist novel, published in 2021 by Deep Vellum. Did you work on FEM and Solenoid simultaneously? How do you make room for different projects and different authors? Is there a different approach when the works diverge in style, or do the voices overlap?

SC: Cârneci and Cărtărescu are from the same generation, though her trajectory includes an extended time working in Paris, editing an art journal and writing this one novel. I was surprised by the number of themes they share, their interest in the significance of chance events, the cosmic importance of our longings and dreams. Their discursive methods are distinct, however, with her voice direct and insistent, and his superlative and visionary. I think I had signed the contract for Solenoid before I translated FEM, so I was conscious of their connections. The authors make their own space, their own rooms in the house of fiction, and translation tries to cohabitate in their capacious works. 


CB: Finally, tell us about a current or future project.

SC: I am working on an article about the translation of Katherine Verdery’s study of Romanian intellectuals, National Ideology Under Socialism. The Romanian translation appeared in 1994, just two years after the original, and in a time of reckoning. I’m interested in the dissonance between her richly nuanced theoretical model and, for example, the Manichean Romanian title, Compromis şi rezistenţă: cultura româna sub Ceauşescu [Compromise and Resistance: Romanian Culture under Ceauşescu].


Copyright © 2022 by Clara Burghelea.

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