Sean Cotter, Translation Is the Art of Dissonance


Meet the translator of Nichita Stănescu’s selection of poems under the title Wheel with a Single Spoke (Roata cu o singură spiță), Mircea Cărtărescu’s Orbitor, and most recently Mateiu Caragiale’s Craii de Curtea Veche. Professor Sean Cotter teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas, USA. He specializes in the practice, theory, and history of translation.

an interview by Dana Bădulescu

He has developed a special interest in Romanian and East European literature. His critical book, Literary Translation and the Idea of a Minor Romania, studies translators and national imagination following the imposition of Communist rule by the Soviet Union after World War Two. Professor Cotter teaches a range of subjects, such as East European Literature, International Modernisms, critical approaches to translation, and undergraduate and graduate translation workshops. His courses explore the transcultural aspects of literary works, for example, the conflict of Christian and classical traditions in Augustine’s Confessions, the Iberian Arab and Jewish influences on troubadour poetry, or the international reception of Don Quixote.Professor Cotter is one of the translators participating in this year’s edition of FILIT, and before the start of the festival Dana Bădulescu met him and e-mailed him the questions in this interview. Professor Cotter’s answers shed light upon the translator’s ambivalent engagement in translation, which brings about most bizarre experiences and most cherished dreams. (Fitralit|)

DB : Reading an interview you gave some three years ago about Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding, I  came across a highly ambivalent attitude you seem to have towards the translating process: you love it and you hate it at the same time. Can you think of two moments – one of intense love and one of fierce hatred – or maybe one in which the two combined? How did it feel?

SC: The best analogy for these feelings that I know is familial: marriage, or siblings, or conjoined twins. But let’s stick with marriage, since I have no siblings, no twins conjoined or severed. A marriage begins with intense love, a feeling that you share so much with another person that your relationship becomes a third thing, beautiful on its own; the translator and the original novel decide to make a little English text together. In marriage, this euphoria lasts, maybe, four years? Your readers can decide. In translation, it lasts somewhat less time. Then one morning at breakfast, your wife looks at you and says, ”I hate the way you chew.” The translator looks at the original and says, ”If you use ’un fel de’ one more time, I’m punching the monitor.” My point is that translation is the most intimate experience one can have with a literary text. The proof is the fact that this intimacy feels much like other examples of intimacy.

The translator and the original novel decide to make a little English text together

In ”The Roulette Player” („Ruletistul”), Mircea Cărtărescu’s narrator, who is a writer, complains that literature is a reservoir of archetypes, which prevent one from writing about self and personal experience. As a writer, one cannot escape the archetypes and the pre-existing forms. He writes: ”With the very first lines you put on paper, a sneering hand which is not yours slips into the hand holding the pen, like into a glove, and your image in the mirror of the page splatters all over the place like quicksilver.” („De la primele rânduri pe care le așterni pe pagină, în mâna care ține stiloul intră, ca într-o mănușă, o mână străină, batjocoritoare, iar imaginea ta în oglinda paginii fuge în toate părțile ca argintul viu /…/”) With a writer it can be the anxiety of pre-existing archetypes or that of the desert of the blank page in front of one’s eyes. A translator’s anxieties are  different. The image is there, in the mirror. The words are there, on the page. The page is full of signs, it is not empty. Has there ever been a line, a passage, a chapter that gave you nightmares?

I’ve always loved „Ruletistul.” Yes, there are plenty of times that the encounter with signs and pages can affect not only your dream life, but also your waking life. I was under intense time pressure when I translated the first volume of Orbitor. My wife (my real wife) was worried for me, and she suggested among other things that I work outside the house. I took my laptop over to the libary of a local university, a beautiful neo-classical building with a large cupola. There I translated this climactic scene, in which an enormous round room, one that has appeared many times throughout the novel, is revealed to be in fact the interior of a huge eyeball, the lids of which are opening for the first time, allowing a slice of preturnaturally bright sunlight to enter and annhiliate the inside. As I was looking up at the ceiling, trying to think of a word, I realized that the library’s reading room was perfectly round in shape, a tall blue dome, pierced through several small windows by bright sunlight. While I knew rationally that I was not in danger of annihiliation, my nerves were overwhelmed by the coincidence. I shut my laptop and ran to my car.

From one translated book to the next, translation may become an addiction. Is that your case? Are you addicted to it?

A doctor should answer this question, instead of me. I know that I am still curious about translation. It is an art of dissonance, and this dissonance is different each time I bring English words to match the Romanian words, English images to match the Romanian. So far, nothing else seems so interesting to me.

You have completed the translation of a book which has been on your mind for a long time: Mateiu Caragiale’s Craii de Curtea Veche. How many versions, full drafts and rounds and revisions has it taken? (In the interview you say Cărtărescu’s Blinding took you six)

Many–I don’t remember precisely.

What resources of the English language and literature in English did you put to use in translating Craii de Curtea Veche?

SC: I relied heavily on the Oxford English Dictionary, where I looked especially for words that marked the rough Latinity of English in the 16th and 17th centuries, when tremendous translation projects were underway, projects which transformed English of that time. These collisions reminded me of the Turkic vocabulary in Mateiu. I also found help in early English translations of Huysmans’s À rebours. Almost two decades ago I spent long time studying James Joyce’s drafts of Finnegans Wake. I tried to emulate his method, which he called ”tunneling,” of creating etymological complexity while enhancing the music of the text.

Do you feel closer to the threads in the yarn of the Romanian language now that you have translated Craii de Curtea Veche, a book which you say, in another interview, is saturated ’with words taken from Turkish and elaborate, aristocratic rhetoric’?

I wonder if you are thinking of Wittgenstein’s image of language as a rope, one which is composed of many threads. Even though every thread does not travel the length of the rope, the rope is still strong. I am also thinking of a fractal image: as we separate a language into threads, each thread becomes a new rope which we separate into more threads, endlessly, until we realize there is more space in a rope than threads to bind it. My love of Romanian is endless, even as I feel closer to the space between than to the threads.

As we separate a language into threads, each thread becomes a new rope

Is there a sentence or a passage in The Rakes of the Old Court that you find most accomplished? – A syntactic gem which (maybe) encapsulates the stylistic refinement of the whole novel? Something that may have the effect of a paralysingly beautiful sentence, rhythmically flowing into the next and conveying the deepest sadness in the human soul, which for me is this, in Joyce’s ”Eveline”? – ”All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.” What did it feel like to translate it?

Those audible notes of dischord, themselves communicate the ”deepest sadness of the human soul

I was not sure I could translate Mateiu, until I came up with English for this very famous passage:

Aș fi deschis eu vorba dacă lăutarii n-ar fi început tocmai un vals care era una din slăbiciunile lui Pantazi, un vals domol, voluptos și trist, aproape funebru. În legănarea lui molatecă, pâlpâia, nostalgică și sumbră fără sfârșit, o patimă așa sfâșietoare că însăși plăcerea de a-l asculta era amestecată cu suferință. De îndată ce coardele încălușate porniseră să îngâne amara destăinuire, sub vraja adâncă a melodiei, întreaga sală amuțise. Tot mai învăluită, mai joasă, mai înceată, mărturisind duioșii și dezamăgiri, rătăciri și chinuri, remușcări și căințe, cântarea, înecată de dor, se îndepărta, se stingea, suspinând până la capăt, pierdută, o prea târzie și zadarnică chemare.

This is my English version:

I would have started conversation, if the musicians had not begun precisely that waltz for which Pantazi had a weakness, a slow, dragging waltz, voluptuous and sad, almost funereal. In its mollitious oscillation, it traced a nostalgic and endlessly somber passion, one so rending that the very pleasure of listening to it became a kind of suffering. When the taut violin strings began to mimic a careworn confession, the entire hall, in profound enchantment, fell mute. Ever darker, lower, and slower, describing dolor and deception, wandering and pain, rue and regret, the song, suffocated in nostalgia, drifted away, withered into a whisper, to a lost, tardy, and pointless cry.

The first FILIT I atteneded had a tremendous impact on me. I have never attended a more successful festival.

I am sure you will spot the many differences between the two versions. What I am after is not identity, but dissonance, the kind of musical matching I imagine Pantazi felt as he heard the violin mimic the confession. I have heard an expression for dusk, „când se îngână ziua cu noaptea.” That is that atmosphere I hope my translation creates când se îngână cu Mateiu. You asked me to choose a line that I think is emblematic for Crai. While I don’t think this passage is a bad emblem for Mateiu, I am actually offering you a passage that is emblematic of the relationship between Crai and Rakes. Perhaps you will feel, as I do, that the inevitable differences between the original and translation, those audible notes of dischord, themselves communicate the ”deepest sadness of the human soul.”

What is the next book in Romanian you are dreaming of translating?

While in Iași, I am working on a proposal for a collection of Nichita Danilov’s poetry. While on Earth, I am dreaming of a translation project that will allow me to encapsulate the experiences of mourning and joy that typify our interior lives. I dream of finding the appropriate form to express the entire, endless depth of literary translation.

What does FILIT mean to you? SC: This will be my second FILIT. I have enormous respect for FILIT, its organizers, and all those who participate. Anyone knows me has heard about the festival. The first FILIT I atteneded had a tremendous impact on me. I have never been so energized, so engaged, so convinced that what was occured was not only a celebration of literature and translation, but more importantly, it was literature and translation. We were creating culture through our interactions in panels, over breakfast, over beer late at night. I have never attended a more successful festival.


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