author of Zeppelin Jack
and MARC VINCENZ
author of Sybilline
Translators of the Poetry of Ion Monoran
(Read three of Monoran’s poems here)
Interviewed by Dzvinia Orlowsky Solstice Editor of Poetry in Translation
Introduction to Ion Monoran
(1953 – 1993) Born in Petroman Village, Timis, Romania, Ion Monoran was a poet and publisher. His first poems were published in 1976 in Forum studenţesc magazine. He lectured at the Pavel Dan literary circle of the Student Culture House in Timisoara and collaborated and published with Orizont, Amfiteatru, Echinox, Luceafărul literary journals. None of his books were published during his lifetime. Monoran was an icon of Timişoara’s bohemian artists and became a cultural hero after the revolution. His prizes include the Orizont magazine Poetry prize (1987), “Nichita Stănescu” prize for Contemporary Poetry (1987), the prize for Literary Creation (Satu Mare, 1987) and the Literary Union Debut Prize. For his work, Locus periucundus, he was honored by the municipality of Timișoara. His published collections are: Locus periucundus (Ed. Marineasa, 1994), Ca un vagabond într-o flanelă roşie (Ed. Marineasa, 1996), Eu însumi (Ed. Cartea Românească, 2009) and Dragă poezie (Ed. Brumar, 2014).
Dzvinia: I’m interested in earliest beginnings. What first drew you to Monoran’s poetry and to each other as collaborators? Had you worked together on any other projects before?
Marc: Marius and I first met somewhere on the web. I believe Marius had stumbled across some of my poems in online journals and had sent me an email asking if he could translate a few of my poems into Romanian. Initially there was much back and forth, but Marius eventually placed some of these in Romanian journals. Eventually, I asked him if he was interested in translating a whole book of my poems. The culmination of that collaboration, or rather Marius’ translation of one of my early books of poems, The Propaganda Factory, or Speaking of Trees was finally released by Tractus Arte Press (Bucharest) in 2015. Meanwhile, Marius had sent me some rough drafts of translations from the Romanian into English that he had been working on. I began by editing the English versions, but eventually, we agreed we would begin co-translating Romanian poets into English. I do believe Ion Monoran’s work was the first we looked at.
Marius: Yes, precisely. Actually, I had been waiting quite some time to render Monoran’s work in English. Aside from the fact that I translated Marc’s work into Romanian, several of the themes that Monoran addresses seemed to me to resonate also within Marc’s own poetry. Very few of Monoran’s poems had been translated into English previously—single poems in small journals here and there, but nothing substantial. As I soon discovered, also, was that Marc’s father was not only Swiss, but also a Raetoromanish speaker. Raetoromanish, a Swiss language spoken by probably less than 20,000 people, has much similarity to Romanian. This obscure fact made the collaboration with Marc—a talented poet in the English language with a very fine-tuned ear for language in general—a natural fit.
Monoran belongs to the 80’s generation of Romanian poets—possibly one of the most imaginative, oneiric and substantive eras for Romanian poetry. What drew my own attention toward Monoran was the tough, cold-fisted reality depicted within his poems … the poems wrestle with the plight of his generation, with a deep-seated will against the oppression felt by all his contemporaries in Romania during that time.
Marc’s poetry also tackles the realities of propaganda and dictatorship, of solidarity and love of fellow man. As you likely know, he was born in Hong Kong during China’s own “cultural revolution” and later lived there under its present communist regime. Marc came to Monoran’s work with something of a deep perspective.
Dzvinia: Our Solstice editors are particularly pleased to include your translation “Untitled” in our new anthology, Solstice Selects: Two Years of Diverse Voices. That opening stanza is particularly evocative:
What an evening, Lord, I am like a wooden effigy.
My body is blind and my palms are riddled with worms.
And somehow I feel how the sky-nailed moon
inflicts a heavy damage within my voice.
When he speaks of “my voice”, do you feel he’s referring to himself specifically or the universal creative voice?
Marius: Indeed, for me, this is one of Monoran’s most beautiful yet surreal poems. The first stanza somehow makes me think of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. I think the “my voice” refers more to a poetic condition and the “damage” preceding it is more like a metamorphosis between two dual states. The plasticity reflected within this first line and the dual condition underlined by the next two, show Monoran’s detachment and the maturity of his voice.
Marc: Interestingly enough, in the original Romanian, it is unclear as to what material the “effigy” or “statue” was made of, but when I found that hand riddled with holes—as though eaten away over time, I knew the effigy had to be wooden, and in fact, it brought back memories of my own childhood studying in a Benedictine monastery in the Swiss Alps, and a particular wooden carving of Christ on the cross, that I was forced to pray in front of every Sunday. I could see that “effigy” and beyond it the moon framed in a stained-glass window, rising out of the arms of the Alpine forests … obviously it resonated. It seems to me that Monoran is praying, and this is why the “sky-nailed moon” has inflicted damage to his spiritual voice (as he tries, for a few moments to escape the madness of the day in Ceausescu’s totalitarian Romania).
Dzvinia: I’m heartened by Dylan Thomas’s quotation: “The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.” The same can be said about a good translation. This may even be truer in these turbulent times as it is through translation we connect to other people and cultures we might not otherwise experience.
In your opinion, what do you feel Monoran as a Romanian poet would want today’s readers of his poetry to become most aware of regarding the act of creation under a totalitarian regime?
Marc: Absolutely. When Marius first introduced me to Monoran’s poetry, I knew almost after the first poem that to translate him was a necessity. Monoran’s art helped him to face and de-mythologize the demons he faced on the streets, in the factory. It was his pivot to maintain his sanity.
Marius: A nail-biting question. Monoran was first and foremost, a freedom fighter and he fought for it even outside his poetry. It is difficult for those who have not lived under the oppressive hand of a totalitarian regime to comprehend how it moves. This is one of the crucial reasons that Monoran’s poetry resonates so deeply with me. Even if I was a child during Ceausescu’s regime, many things are deeply engrained in my mind. For example, I recall how my family had to go about procuring basic necessities; how saying certain things out loud was taboo (my parents taught me to be extremely careful with voicing my opinions). My grandparents also shared many of their experiences during the Soviet occupation with me. These events are seared into your memory—as Monoran well knew …
Marc: In the same fashion that a moon might be nailed to the sky—religiously.
Marius: Religiously … I am sure that Monoran would have wanted his readers to be aware of all these restrictions of freedoms, that thousands had died needlessly for their beliefs, that thousands of families were broken, and that in this era few could be trusted …
Marc: A message that most certainly applies today—but, of course, has always applied. Perhaps creation is the only saving grace under such oppression: a release, a vent, at times an escape—but also, most certainly a facing-off-with, with one’s own limited tools on one’s own terms.
Dzvinia: Are there any specific passages or images from other poems you’ve translated that point to this?
Marc: Oh, many …
Marius: There’s another untitled poem from Like a Vagrant in a Red Sweater (1996) that is very evocative in this way and speaks for itself:
When you have nothing else to do,
collect all the words on your tongue
and start talking of freedom.
As long as poems about freedom
you have nothing else to do
but continue what you started.
As long as you are flat out
convinced that after you
there will be others to carry on
who will likely manage to call things by name
more bluntly than you did so yourself.
Marc: Yes, he was always collecting words, but never quite reaching the end of his poems—perhaps that’s why so many remained untitled. The fight for freedom goes on in the words, or the agglomeration of words that you hand on to the next poet … or translator.
Dzvinia: What did you find to be the most challenging aspects of translating from Romanian into English?
Marius: For me, the most challenging thing is developing a sense of the colloquial in the English, a feeling for the natural flow. To remain true to the Romanian original, yet still manage to make the translations appear as if they had always been written in English. This is naturally where Marc as both a poet and translator of other languages comes in. With us working together, the translations seem to come together easily.
Marc: Well, there some socio-cultural facets (in particular in relation to Romania’s context during the Ceausescu) that I had to do some research on. Romanian has a slew of cultural references that on first sight appear to be very difficult to translate. Romanian is also rife with wordplay and double-entendre. Marius and I emailed back and forth many times, honing in on potential English equivalents in a few of these instances.
Yet, Romanian, of course, like French, is a predominately Latin-based Romance language. Given my own background, my Father’s Raetoromanish, having learned both French and Latin at an early age, translating it posed far fewer obstacles than I originally imagined.
Marius: Yes, the process was really surprisingly smooth.
Dzvinia: Are you currently working on new translations of Monoran’s work? If so, can you share with us something about that work? If not, are you working on any other translation projects either independently or as collaborators?
Marc: A whole host of new projects.
Marius: Yes, we are translating more of Monoran’s work. In fact, the plan is eventually to put together a selected collection of Monoran’s poems. I expect at the current rate, we may be ready in a year or so.
Marc: So far, outside of Monoran, we have translated three or four other contemporary Romanian poets—almost all of whom have never before been seen or heard in English. A folio feature on 10 as-yet-un-translated Romanian poets is also very much on the cards.
Marius: And recently, I have been translating some of Marc’s new poems into Romanian, for a new Romanian-based international literary magazine. Apart from that, I have also been collaborating with Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO) on English to Romanian translations of Fady Joudah’s and GC Waldrep’s poetry.
Marc: Aside from the collaborations with Marius, I am also working on Audible Blue: The Selected Poems of Klaus Merz (1963 – 2016), on Casting a Spell in Spring: The Selected Poems of Alexander Xaver Gwerder—both Swiss poets I am translating from the German. I also have several translations from the French currently underway, and my own, most-recent original collection, tentatively titled, Unspeakable Desires, is currently seeking a publisher.
Dzvinia: Thank you Marius and Marc for illuminating the history and less familiar passages of Ion Monoran’s remarkable poetry. We look forward to your future collaborative projects.
MARIUS SURLEAC is a Romanian physicist and poet. His translations from English into the Romanian include the poetry of Marc Vincenz, Valzhyna Mort, Peycho Kanev, and in collaboration with Chris Tanasescu, G. C. Waldrep, Fady Joudah, Cornelius Eady and several others. He has published an original collection of poetry in Romanian: Zeppelin Jack (Herg Benet, 2011) and a bi-lingual collection of translations, The Propaganda Factory, or Speaking of Trees / Fabrica de Propaganda, sau Apropo de Copaci by Marc Vincenz, (Tracus Arte, 2015).
MARC VINCENZ is the author of nine books of poetry; his latest are Becoming the Sound of Bees (Ampersand Books, 2015) and Sibylline (Ampersand, 2016). He is also the translator of Romanian, French and German-language poets including Herman Hesse Prize winner Klaus Merz, Werner Lutz, Maram al-Masri, Erica Burkart, Ion Monoran, Alexander Xaver Gwerder and Jacques Chessex, and has published many books of translations—the latest are Secret Letter by Erica Burkart and Lifelong Bird Migration by Jürg Amman. His translation of Klaus Merz’s Unexpected Development is forthcoming from White Pine Press. His novella, Three Taos of T’ao, or How to Catch a White Elephant, is soon to be released by Spuyten Duyvil. He has received grants from the Swiss Arts Council and a fellowship from the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. His own work has been translated into numerous languages.