Shakespeare & Eminescu – Measure for Measure


Without a doubt, Shakespeare is the most universally celebrated national poet. Eminescu*, widely celebrated by Romanians worldwide, may well be the most unknown great national poet to the English speaking world.

Adrian. G. Sahlean
Adrian. G. Sahlean

To a large extent, the poor quality of the Eminescu translations into English is to blame. This paper will consider, “measure for measure,” translations in both directions to suggest a solution for improving them.

The Bard’s renditions into Romanian are abundant and of excellent quality. This is not only a reflection of the translators’ skills and competence but equally of the characteristics of the language itself.

Romanian doesn’t have the large circulation of English, so it is often labeled ‘folkloric’– bluntly put, a language lacking complexity, with vocabulary unfit for subtleties, and with limited functionality. In reality, the vocabulary is quite rich; apart from sharing a foundation with the other Romance languages, Romanian assimilated words from the migratory peoples and temporary conquerors, and through the interactions with the languages of minorities and neighbors. Thus, not in the order of importance, Romanian acquired words from French, Italian, Slavic languages, German, Greek, Turkish, Hungarian, and others. There were also important contributions – from mid-19th century on – by Romanian writers and cultural luminaries who studied abroad (especially Paris, Vienna and Berlin). They had extensive knowledge of foreign languages, were well read in philosophy and European literature, and had the foundation of Greek and Latin taught in school at the time.

The latter is not unlike what happened in Shakespeare’s time. Apart from the direct Norman French influence after the conquest of Hastings in1066, writers expressed new ideas and distinctions by borrowing or adopting words and phrases from other languages. The process, known as neologizing, added nouns, verbs and modifiers from Latin, Greek and modern Romance languages.

Of course, Shakespeare made his own special contribution, inventing over 1700 words by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising wholly original words.

This is worth mentioning because Shakespeare’s outstanding density and richness of vocabulary ranks quite high among the challenges for translators. Shakespeare wrote all his plays using about 15,000 words and, by comparison, Milton’s works were done with 8,000 words, while the Old Testament has 5.642 words. Shakespeare’s vocabulary is also fuller, more varied and expressive than his contemporaries (Marlowe, for instance), with finer shades of meaning.

(I will mention in passing that the average person has a recognition of about 5,000 words, with 15,000 for the highly educated. Shakespeare’s full vocabulary has some 30,000 words in his all his published works.)

It is quite plausible to think that contemporary readers and audiences – apart from language buffs – cannot understand all the Shakespearean words they read or hear, but infer the gist of them from the context. A mitigating circumstance is that many of those words have since dropped from common usage, or have new meanings. The list is too long for anyone except philologists, and I only want to mention – for the amusement of our audience – that “marry” was, among others things, a mild swear word in Shakespeare’s time expressing surprise, indignation, or emphatic assertion.

But, from the view point of the number of words alone, Romanian is more than capable of handling Shakespearean vocabulary. I am not aware of any statistical study about word units used in Shakespeare’s translations into Romanian, but I believe the results would be an eye-opener.

There are other characteristics of Shakespearian vocabulary – like the inflected endings of verbs (hath, doth, goeth) that were forms in transition from medieval to modern English. However, they do not really represent a problem for either the educated native speaker or the translator, since they are quickly recognized as archaic. The most common include: thee, thou, thy, thine for you and yours; art for are, dost and doth for do and does; hast for have; ’tis for it is and ’twas for it was; wast for were; wherefore for why; oft for often; aught for anything; yon, yonder for that one there; ay and nay for yes and no; hie for hurry.

But these are merely words. The characters in Shakespeare’s plays make use of them to express thoughts with exuberance and the pleasure of verbal games. The Bard’s taste for elaboration is reflective of the Renaissance delight in language, the combination of denotation and connotation producing powerful images and metaphors.

How is that handled in the Romanian versions?

There’ are many synonyms in Romanian that can be employed to convey nuanced meanings. For instance, words of French origin may be used for abstract concepts, or to suggest elegant speech; Slavic words are more colloquial, or may evoke Biblical and archaic language (Slavonic was used in churches for many centuries); words derived from Turkish can be used for derision; etc. Add to that, the special case of synonyms acquired through the multiple linguistic influences generating common Romanian words that have only one English equivalent. Snow can be nea, omat, or zapada; tree can be arbore, copac or pom; love can be iubire, dragoste or amor, etc. Obviously, there are English words with no direct equivalent in Romanian, and whose meaning is rendered by periphrasis.

To sum up: in terms of word inventory and nuanced synonymy, this so-called folkloric language does not lack either complexity or functionality. And many an inspired Romanian translator, has turned to shape the form of works unknown, and given to foreign substance a local habitation and a name.

I can now turn to prosody. The dominant form of verse in Shakespeare’s plays is blank verse in iambic pentameter, while rhyme – the Cinderella of poetry – is mainly used in the Sonnets. Rhythm is undoubtedly what gives Shakespeare his unmistakable sound, but I will contend that although iamb (the metrical foot consisting of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable) is technically the correct description of his lines, musically it is not so.

Meter is ‘regularized’ rhythm where the accented syllables occur at equal intervals, but Shakesperean lines do not comprise two syllables repeated five times with marching sonority. Read out loud any two lines from the Bard, exaggerating the ‘accented’ syllable. English is an efficient language with a preponderance of mono- or bi-syllabic words, but Shakespeare distributes them in such a way that they not only have the more natural flow of speech, they are mellifluous, i.e., melodic!

Moreover, the pentameter is not mechanically followed, because Shakespeare shortens lines or makes them longer to express his meaning, and often uses enjambment – where one line flows on into the next.

Romanian has ideal tools to deal with this structure in translation, from syntax and morphology to syllabic material: nouns inflect for five cases (where English has to use prepositions, word order or possessive “’s”); inflectional morphemes modify a verb’s tense, aspect, mood, person, or number; or a noun’s, pronoun’s or adjective’s number, gender or case, without affecting the word’s meaning or part of speech.

Simply put, this results in more polysyllabic words in Romanian. They are used creatively to simulate the original Shakespearean sound. In addition, in most languages, suffixes and endings are pronounced unaccented, which in prosodic terms corresponds to the so-called ‘feminine rhyme’. By comparison, English – with fewer such devices – has fewer ‘feminine’ words than Romanian. Shakespeare’s lines using iambic pentameter typically end on the accented syllable, i.e. on the ‘masculine’ type. However, the Bard does use an 11th syllable as an exception:

(To be, or not to be, that is the question: /Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer / The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune / Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles…. / etc.),

This unobtrusive feminine syllable is occasionally added in the Romanian translation, and – as in the original – is not disruptive to the music. But, since the proof is in the pudding, listen to these famous four lines from Sonnet 116.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove…\” (Sonnet 116)

“Nu cred în piedici puse de noroc / Unirii sufletelor mari. Iubirea / Iubire nu-i când face silei loc, / Tradarii raspunzând cu parasirea” (translated into Romanian by Ion Frunzetti).

The English original above is also a good illustration of a prosodic ‘trick’ in Shakespeare’s time, i.e., words with identical ending letters were used for rhyming even if pronounced differently (in other words, they were ‘rhyming’ to the eye!)

* * * * *

Now, I will turn to Eminescu. It is only too obvious that, without translations, no writer would be known outside his own language. Even so, widely praised authors like Shakespeare do not ’scape calumnious strokes. It is hard to assign the dismissive remarks of the likes of Voltaire or Tolstoy to anything other than conscious or unconscious rivalries, or individual tastes shaped by a different language and cultural mentality.

But it should also be obvious that without convincing translations, any ‘national poet’ would be relegated to a lesser status. Eminescu barely rings a bell in the English speaking world, so I had to introduce him on my translation site as follows:

He is often described as the essence of the Romanian soul, and modern literary language in Romania is also much indebted to him. His work encompassed every genre of poetry (love, philosophical, cosmological, mythological, historical, socio-satiric, etc.) as well as prose and journalism. Eminescu is considered Europe’s last great romantic not in the least because he gave voice of such unmistakable music to the sadness of love. His legacy, however, transcends the confines of Romanticism, the literary and philosophical Western traditions, the Far East influences and even the obvious imprint of Romanian folklore. Blessed with the touch of genius, his synthesis is a personal world of meaning about the life of man and of the cosmos in archetypal images of universal worth.

I have shown that even in the presence of prosodic challenges, the differing language structures still allow for remarkable coinages of Shakespeare into Romanian. Why then should good translations from Eminescu into English be considered impossible?

Vocabulary needs to be eliminated from the start. Eminescu’s poems tally about 5,900 word units, and his language is relatively simple, without being simplistic. Certainly, not the exuberance of the Bard. Eminescu’s equivalent style in English in closer to Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, William Blake or Oscar Wilde’s fairytales. Also, the ‘archetypal’ words he employs (I don’t use the term in the Jungian sense, but rather for universal transcultural notions like sky, sea, star, etc.) would present no denotation or connotation challenges in translation. It is, indeed, Eminescu’s uncanny ability to express depth of thought and feeling with unsophisticated words, and combine them into haunting metaphors. However, it is the ‘concord of sweet sound’ that makes Eminescu’s poetry unmistakable, much like the instantly recognizable music of Mozart or Chopin. Or, the enchantment of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, when you read it aloud!

Aye, there’s the rub! Eminescu’s ‘sound’ and rhyme, in particular, are usually invoked as insurmountable obstacles. But translations were approached differently by Romanians or by native speakers.

Romanians who translated Eminescu have been, by-and-large, the same scholars who translated Shakespeare and English/American literature into Romanian: Petru Grimm, Leon Levitki and Andrei Bantas are the leading names. The two exceptions are Dimitrie Cuclin – a music conductor who coined a version of Luceafarul around 1928; and Corneliu M. Popescu, a teenager who perished in the 1977 earthquake. All of them understood that depriving Eminescu of meter-and-rhyme would detract immensely from his charm. After all, prosody (from Greek) is “song sung to instrumental music.”

When people think of translation of content as mere paraphrasing in another language, they have no clue that fitting content into meter-an-rhyme is akin to lying in a Procrustean bed. Rhyming is by far most responsible for the inaccurate approximation of Eminescu’s content into English by Romanian translators. This is often not only awkward but, at times, hilarious to a native speaker.

Here’s a short description of the trials and tribulations of finding rhymes in prosodic translation: one starts with an inventory of the best equivalents that fit the original meaning, and the style. Since the original Romanian rhymes do not match the English words, a rhyming pair related to the content is needed. That is done by searching among synonyms or free-associating on the closest related meanings. Once that promising pair has been found, the necessary content must be fitted around it. One has the creative freedom to move words about in a way that doesn’t mirror the original line, but the syllables must accommodate the meter without distorting the natural syntax of the language. And one cannot leave out important meanings or add empty filler-words just for the beat.

This process is painstaking, and I likened it elsewhere with the effort of a prisoner quarrying stone. It is easy to understand why the translator, after finding a rhyme that seems to fit, may feel so happy that he never retranslates the verse back into Romanian to see if what is actually being said is faithful to the original. It is important to emphasize that the goal is to have poetic, not prosaic, formulation.

Scholarly translations by Romanians have never reached readers beyond foreign academic circles, for various reasons, both professional and political. Most translations by the professors mentioned earlier were done from English into Romanian. The integral of Shakespeare’s work is only a part of the many renditions from English and American literature by these academics. While English was looked at with suspicion under Communism in the context of the Cold War, translating Eminescu into English was both a patriotic duty and a professional justification for the existence of the English Department at the ‘Faculty of Germanic Languages.’ Lastly – and I say it with no disrespect – proficiency in English does not automatically entail an ability to create poetic formulations.

The translations of C. M. Popescu are a sad instance of a talent who never had a chance to reach its potential. His versions are bookish – he learned English from books, inspired by Shakespeare – but he never lived among native speakers. Unfortunately, although highly praised by Romanians, his renditions display the largest number of distortions and inadvertent hilarities.

The native English translators from Eminescu fit another picture. First, they did not know Romanian, and used intermediaries for the content: Sylvia Pankhurst (1928) worked on literal translations by I. O. Stefanovici, and Brenda Walker (1990) teamed with Horia Florian Popescu. The other notable, the American McGregor-Hastie (1968), declared from the start (as Brenda Walker did later) that he would not even attempt meter-and-rhyme. His effort produced rather bland renditions of content, at times inaccurate, destined from the start for library shelves.

Sylvia Pankhurst is the exception. She was a poetess in Bernard Shaw’s circles and an active socialist militant. Aroused by Eminescu’s Emperor and Proletarian in draft version by I. O. Stefanovici, she worked on a prosodic version of the poem. She later added a few other prosodic translations, published in 1928, with some truly poetical formulations. Unfortunately, her versions are difficult to follow, due to the embellished language, archaic syntax and mannerisms that she deemed appropriate for a ‘Romantic’ poet. This was most likely an honest mistake, since she assumed that the Romanian author had to be translated in a style replicating the language of the British romantics. Obviously, that is in sharp contrast to the simple elegance of the originals.

Can Eminescu’s style be rendered with better accuracy? That is the question.

Given the compatible elements between the two languages that allow for Shakespearean musicality to be successfully achieved in Romanian, there is way to suggest Eminescu’s style and sound in English.

Translation is an exercise in finding equivalences, not identities. I find an illuminating analogy in the many successful transcriptions of a piece of music to be performed on different instruments.

Let me illustrate this using piano transcriptions for classical guitar, with which I am quite familiar. It is important to note that they are both polyphonic instruments, capable of producing both the melodic line and harmonic arrangement simultaneously. They have different construction capabilities (piano has 88 keys and covers 7 octaves, guitar has 6 strings with a range of 3 octaves); different techniques for generating sound: the pianist uses 10 fingers to press the keys that, in turn, hammer strings to produce the sound mechanically; the guitarist uses a maximum of 4 fingers from one hand to pluck the strings, while pressing against the frets with a maximum of 4 fingers from the other hand; the piano sound is significantly louder than the guitar’s and can also be prolonged using the pedal.

And yet… The melodic line can be replicated on the guitar, and the equivalent rhythm and harmony at least suggested. While the piano score typically doubles various notes for the accompanying harmony, the guitar can determine the tonality using a minor or major ‘third’ with fewer of them. The softer sonority of the instrument can be enhanced with the use of arpeggios or ‘rasgueado’ in the presence of the same melodic line; and so on.

I find this analogy to English translations from Eminescu to be highly relevant. I will admit that not “everything Eminescu” is translatable, as not all compositions can be transcribed between instruments. The potential exists, although creative inspiration is needed to implement it. Personally, I cannot see this accomplished without close collaboration between Romanian translators and English writers, such as the prosodic renditions tried by Sylvia Pankhurst a century ago. We may need someone as creative as A. S. Byatt, the author of ‘Possession’, but that may be too much to ask.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation,” Robert Frost once quipped, an excuse invoked by academics in the U.S. to avoid meter-and-rhyme. It is an irony that they see no contradiction when translating blank verse as part of their professorial work. Obviously, the effort to work with prosodic translations would be considerable and painstaking, and – if the result were mediocre – one would risk derision or contempt.

This problem is coupled with the dwindling interest in the English speaking world for poets of yesteryear. An American professor put it to me bluntly in a private conversation: “Who reads Poe these days?” Robert Bly, who liked my English version of Luceafarul / The Evening Star, wondered sympathetically, whether those older formulations “might fall emotionally dead on contemporary ears.”

Shakespeare is too well established to ever be questioned that way. Promoting Eminescu, with only a handful of credible translations, is a different story, despite or, perhaps, because of contemporary globalization of communication. Book readership increasingly follows the supply and demand model. Only 3% of books published in the US are translations, and only 3% of all published books is poetry. I have no data for ‘poetry in translation,’ but we can easily imagine how small that percentage is. Perhaps the e-Book format will come to the rescue in some cases.

Given all of the above considerations, can Eminescu gain more recognition in the English speaking world? It would be wrong to blame only the translators for the current situation.

The interplay between expectations and reality in promoting the poet in Romania is depressing. Most Romanians have no understanding of the dubious quality of translations offered abroad, and his stature as ‘national poet’ creates naïve and unrealistic expectations about his acceptance. Literary critics and cultural personalities are no exception. Since traditionally the French language dominated Romania’s cultural milieu (and German in Transylvania), the understanding the more recently ‘adopted’ English language falls short of subtleties.

One contemporary historian, Lucian Boia, who is quite popular these days with books dispelling “myths” about Romanian history, recently approached the subject of the “mythisation” of Eminescu in the country. He disputes the universality of the poet’s writings with this (summarized) argument:

Translations of Eminescu’s poems have been offered to the world since early 20th century (the first 1939 anthology included no fewer than 19 languages) and a “considerable promotional effort was also made under communism.” Despite the large number of translations, “the impact has been practically nil.” Because the impact is what really matters, not “the formal display of a cultural icon,” Romanians should be resigned to the idea that Eminescu is destined to be nothing more than an “encyclopedia entry.”

This reasoning is flawed primarily because any literary work can have universal value even if it is not popular across borders. Boia’s argument is akin to a manager judging the efficiency of product sales. I agree with his assessment on the impact of Eminescu’s translations. However, a sales manager might look at the quality of the product offered to the market, and see where the weak link in the chain lies.

Boia is not alone in displaying this blind spot, shared by Romanian cultural institutions as well, typically interested (like him) in “the formal display of a cultural icon.” What is annoying and discouraging for me is that he pontificates: “In fact, poetry is generally untranslatable. Eminescu, if we can say it, is even more so. What is lost in his case – even more than images and ideas – is rhyme and musicality, that incantation of saying it aloud which makes his poetry inimitable. We’d be better off without the translations: they present to the world a commonplace poet – far, very far from what Romanians keep struggling to explain. Let’s cool down: nothing can be done, Eminescu will remain for others a simple “encyclopedia entry.”

Boia is neither a translator nor an Anglicist, but this sounds like a judgment that cannot be appealed. I have heard similar things repeated by intellectuals in the media when tribute is piously paid to Eminescu on his anniversary.

On the other side of the spectrum are the Eminescu’s defenders. These include writers, poets, journalists and literary critics who enthuse about “each new hatched, unfledged” rendition that appears in other countries or the Internet. Typically, they are translated by well-meaning Romanian immigrants who, in their turn, fall short of a literary understanding of English.

There is no Supreme Court to argue my case. Meanwhile, the seventeen branches of the Romanian Cultural Institute worldwide typically promote Eminescu pro forma by organizing activities attended mostly by Romanians, with an impact akin to a political rally attended only by the party faithful. There have been salutary attempts to change this situation in New York City in recent years, but much more effort along this line is needed.

At this moment, not one of the branches of the RCI– including their headquarters in Bucharest – has named the institute for Eminescu, although he is without a doubt the most important cultural personality Romania has ever had. It would be a cost-free promotion, making Eminescu at least a recognizable name associated with Romania. This is in fact what other countries do, proudly naming cultural institutes after their national icons – Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, etc.

To summarize, Eminescu’s status as the most unknown great national poet is due to both a limited number of good translations and the misguided promotions by Romania’s cultural institutions. The overall picture I have presented is depressing, but I would not have written this without the hope that something different can be done. I, for one, will not stop trying.

* Mihail Eminescu (1850-1889) is often described as the essence of the Romanian soul, modern literary language in Romania is also much indebted to him. His work encompassed every genre of poetry (love, philosophical, cosmological, mythological, historical, socio-satiric, etc.) as well as prose and journalism. Eminescu is considered Europe’s last great romantic not in the least because he gave voice of such unmistakable music to the sadness of love. His legacy, however, transcends the confines of Romanticism, the literary and philosophical Western traditions, the Far East influences and even the obvious imprint of Romanian folklore. Blessed with the touch of genius, his synthesis is a personal world of meaning about the life of man and of the cosmos in archetypal images of universal worth.


  1. @ Elena Dan: Va multumesc pentru pentru gandul bun si frumoasele aprecieri. Subscriu la ceea ce spuneti despre universalitatea poetului, si cat de profund “initiat” il arata intreaga sa opera. Personal, in ciuda atentiei pe care au primit-o eseurile si traducerile mele eminesciene in Romania in ultimul an – sunt tot mai sceptic ca se va face ceva la nivelul institutiilor guvernamentale pentru promovarea lui Eminescu (sau a patrimoniului literar, in general). Dv. sunteti impatimita de poet, ca si mine. Pentru strainatate, Eminescu va ramane cel mai necunoscut mare poet national si pentru ca argumentul lui Boia reprezinta un simptom al unei viziuni mioape impartasita de multi in diversele sale ‘derivate’ (poetul e intraductibil, sau e depasit – desuet si nu mai intereseaza in lumea de azi, etc… )
    Sunt onorat de propunerea dv. dar formularea “orice cititor interesat” mi-a trezit instantaneu gandul cinic ca nu s-ar gasi prea multi….
    Toate cele bune,
    Adrian G Sahlean

  2. Prezint scuze cititorilor pentru avântul școlăresc cu care am impregnat comentariul meu, dar, așa cum spunea poetul Christian Morgenstern, citat de filozoful R. Steiner, (citez din memorie), omul nu poate trăi la nesfârșit cu abecedarul cunoașterii sub căpătâi, fără să-i treacă prin cap c-ar trebui să-l deschidă și să-l învețe. Sper că nu mai sperie pe nimeni ideea de a folosi grila științei spirituale pentru a măsura întinderea cunoașterii unui scriitor, a cărui menire este tocmai asta: de a-i învăța pe oameni despre lumea spirituală, pe care el, scriitorul, o descoperă în lumea fizic-senzorială. Sacrul în profan, cum zicea Mircea Eliade.

  3. Este supărător ce a lansat drept concluzie de neînlăturat, în legătură cu o cunoaștere fie și sumară a poeziei lui Eminescu, domnul Boia. Sunt de partea domnului Adrian Sahlean care speră într-o soluție salvatoare. Propun aici o astfel de soluție : poeziile lui Eminescu să fie tipărite în același volum cu un studiu actual despre estetica eminesciană, adevăruri absolute în poezia sa, studiu de circa două-trei sute de pagini, din care să se vadă că poetul și omul Eminescu au statură cosmică și că nu se poate spune despre marele poet c-ar fi român sau englez ci că este un cetățean al Cosmosului. Lucrez acum la o astfel de carte, am propus-o editurii Cartea Românească și până la sfârșitul acestui an o voi preda editurii. Se va tipări în 2017 și va depăși considerabil tot ce s-a scris despre Eminescu până acum, arătându-se, cu argumentele esteticii și științei spirituale, cât de înalt este Eminescu în calitatea sa de poet și în cea de om. Dante a scris Divina Comedie după ce Brunetto Lattini, un inițiat al Misteriilor, l-a învățat tot ce știa el; deci Dante era un inițiat. Goethe era un inițiat; Ibsen era un inițiat; Shakespeare era un inițiat. Eminescu era un inițiat. Nu este cu nimic mai prejos decât Shakespeare sau Dante sau Goethe. Poezia lui abundă în cunoaștere spirituală și asta e ceea ce trebuie să fie spus lumii, mai întâi, despre el, după ce vom arăta aceleași lumi că orice om, fie și unul cu o conștiință obișnuită, trăiește în același timp pe pământ și în Cosmos, adică în lumea spirituală. Apoi îl putem traduce și în proză, dacă nu vom găsi și alți traducători care să lucreze cu dragostea și dăruirea domnului Săhlean. Dar deocamdată, slavă Domnului, îl avem pe domnul Săhlean, căruia eu, prin acest comentariu, îi propun o viitoare colaborare de acest gen: o carte alcătuită din două părți: una despre Eminescu, cealaltă cu Eminescu. Orice cititor interesat l-ar putea înțelege, în acest fel, mai bine.

    Sunt Elena DAN, membră din 10 decembrie 2015 a Uniunii Scriitorilor.

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