Translating Tănase

Corpuri de iluminat/Dark Bodies—a short guide to Romanian literature for the American audience.

Stelian Tănase | September 30, 2008
Critic: Jean Harris


Whenever I translate a Romanian text, I realize I’m translating culture. The same thing happens to everyone. A text in French (Aramaic or Chinese) exists in a cultural medium, and if the alchemy and logistics are right, an air of French-ness somehow percolates into AmerEnglish—or so the translator hopes. The situation with regard to Romanian literature is especially critical. It’s well-known that in the broadest, most non-literary sense, Romanian culture is terra incognita in the States, and therefore the translator faces the double challenge of transmitting certain aspects of the culture (inherent in the text) while aiming to create the ideal reader in the American language—which is something like summoning up perfect adoptive parents for a child born far away and acculturated there.

            Point:  a novel should read itself into us without explanations. Counterpoint: it’s also true that Americans read British and American literature with an armament of books, culture, history behind them. Decent arguments on either side. It may be that needing little annotation, Latin American magic realism has “spoiled” the American reader. We read Dostoyevsky, however, with all the foot notes we can get. Still, maternal and fuddy-duddy in this domain, I figure there are a few things prospective readers of Romanian literature might like to know.

            Capsule description: Romanians are open, friendly in social situations. You can learn all about somebody in the first five minutes, and routine disclosures are also expected of you.  Tale telling is a prominent feature of social life, and this is true in the domain of Senator, cab driver and peasant. Coming to Romania from the outside, one sees right away:  in Romania there’s a marked tendency both to make oneself known and to say to whom one belongs (down to grandparents and even before that), and this predilection combines with a tendency to recollect, out loud, a lot.  A typical Romanian party is not a status adventure. We know each others’ relatives and problems. People organize rapidly into a group of the whole. It would take an anthropology book to explain it, but history has played a hand, and all that’s worth mentioning here because what animates mores animate prose. Bottom line: Romania is a world capital of stories.         

            Put it this way, the novel (and its antecedents going back to Homer) concerns the progress of an individual through a society in a state of change—up or down. We read, among other reasons, to see how the individual tangles with the social web. The element of social significance takes part in raising the story above gossip or kitsch.  It’s not coincidental, for instance, that the heyday of the British novel coincides with the destruction of agrarian values, the creation of industrialists and a working class. Dickens and Trollope are faces of a coin, and their subject is the individual’s progress through a society undergoing increasingly rapid social change. Accelerate the change beyond what the human animal easily hauls in, and post-modern fragmentation results. Only, Romania’s not Britain, and the machinery of social change has worked in a Balkan way here.

            We’re in a world capital of stories here because we’re in the world capital of regime change. The party begins when the Romans conquer the Dacians. By the middle ages, Romanians are distributed across three kingdoms— Transylvania, Moldavia and Walachia—each facing empire-sized adversaries, namely: Austro-Hungarians to the West, Russians to the East, and Turks to the South.  Romanian history is therefore a story of escape from domination by outside empires. It’s also a history of Romanian princes slaughtering each other for the degree of rule available to them. Here we deal with a history of territory won and lost. It’s also a history of  cultural preservation, final unification.

            A few dates: in 1856 Walachia and Moldavia unite by means of a trick: they both elect the same king. In 1877 King Carol wins the War of Independence against the Turks. Between 1877 and 1914 Romania experiences a few decades of consolidation and becomes a modern state with advances in industry, agriculture, education, a flowering of modern Romanian literature. The end of the First World War unites Transylvania with the other Romanian lands.  Romania makes huge economic and cultural progress in the years leading up to the Second World War, but the growth of European fascism stains the landscape.  Basarabia falls under Soviet influence on August 1939, a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On August 30, 1940, the Vienna Diktat gives a vast portion of Transylvania back to Hungary. Victim of the big powers, Romania loses one third of its surface. World War II breaks out in 1939.  Abandoned by the Allies, Romania fights on the German side until 1944 when an army insurrection turns the country against Germany. By 1945, Russian forces virtually occupy Romania and remain until 1958. On December 31, 1947, King Michael is forced to abdicate. From this moment Romania enters the Stalinist Dark Age that decapitates the country. Leadership in all domains is cut off:  “elites” perish. The terror goes on until 1965. The death of Gheorghe Geroghiu Dej opens the way for Nicolae Ceausescu, who inaugurates a period of relaxation that lasts just six years. In 1971 Ceausescu travels to China and is smitten with Asian totalitarianism. His building program and master plan result in the mutilation of Romanian cities, economic collapse in the 80’s and the imposition of a personality cult, North Korean-style. December 22, 1989:  Romanians stage the only bloody revolution in Eastern Europe.

            Over-all results for the culture include:

·         an ages-long struggle to preserve Christianity—and Europe—from Islam to the East,

·         an underground life vis-à-vis imperial rulers first and dictators second,

·         a sense of entrapment that leads to a widespread sensation that salvation comes from the other world and can be enjoyed only in the other world—or in an alternate world in the case of the Surrealists, as I surmise.

·         massive attempts to preserve the national identity, which include sustaining Romanian Latinity and language—one of the problems being to maintain the romance language closest to soldier Latin in a mainly Slavic sea.

·         the assertion of Romanian-ness through the creation of a highly idiomatic language of spectacular idiomatic density, which, I believe, sustains a  sense of “us-ness,” of belonging inside a culture—the way slang provides “in-groupness.”[1]     

All these assertions call for essays in support, for which there is neither time nor room.

     In the long view, what counts is that the Romanian problem has been “how to survive.” Often it has been, “how not to die.” And often it has been “how to die”—finding a spiritual position that makes death a friend. In this context, story telling equals salvation on several planes. First, it exists as a means of preserving collective identity though transformations into work of “folk” and “high” art as well as through ordinary, almost unconscious transmission.[2] Second, here, as everywhere else, story telling exists to affirm individual existence. Only, in Romania telling gains in intensity. Utterance escapes. Somehow. At maximum intensity. Under terrific pressure. Literature and life churn out endless examples. The gist is this:  I recount; therefore, I am. Third, story telling can manifest in the Romanian consciousness as “the only way out”—of a trap, and not in the Scheherazade sense.  Primordial example: in the Ballad of Mioriţa, which occupies a sacred place in Romanian culture/folk art/letters, a shepherd, learning that he may be killed, constructs a beautiful lie (a “true” lie) about a cosmic marriage to minimize the suffering of the survivors.[3]

            Well and good. When I get down to Tănase, though, there’s something like beautiful vertigo, a giddy sense that the whole thing’s been put through the cutting machine—meat grinder, kitchen robot or film editing gizmo—“all of the above” in the time/space dis-continuum of this place. In Corpuri de Iluminat/Dark Bodies, Tănase translates traditional cultural and literary elements into a subjective, improvisational zone.

            There are reasons. Tănase was born in Bucharest, married while at university, graduated in 1977, taught high school in the country for a year after that, and found himself out of work at the end of the school year. “The problem was liberal literature, which we discovered in college. I was talking pretty freely with my friends. I wanted to write a history of Stalinism, and I believe that Securitate found out. They put me under observation. In the end, my phone was tapped all the time, at least from 1983 through 1989. I had all kinds of mishaps.” Marginalized, lacking a “dosar” that would make him employable, surviving as a jazz impresario in the Bucharest underground, he nevertheless managed to accumulate a fat Securitate file as the result of being tailed by the secret police. He succeeded in publishing a first novel, Luxul melancoliei (/The Luxury of Melancholy), in 1982, but the censors proscribed Corpuri de Iluminat/ Dark Bodies as well as the novel that followed. All in all it was a period of living from hand to mouth, month to month. Literary honor came into play: “I didn’t want to give in, to modify, to cut as was the custom. I couldn’t compromise, and I kept delaying in the hope that something would change. Liberalization never happened. We went straight to revolution, which caught me with two unpublished books.” [4]  Biography can’t explain art. Only, art translates the medium of life, and in this case the art is a direct translation of lived culture.

            For instance:  Sandu is the protagonist of Corpuri de iluminat. Jazzman, pianist,  sometime rocker, the guy has a bad case of the blues. There’s a young lady in question.  Pia:  smart girl, neurotic, lovely, Bucharest siren, Bovary and femme fatal. She has freckles. She wears glasses. The novel spirals and pools. Linear plot is not the essence of the game. Far from it. The structure of blues features a return. Not only that, Tănase writes prose the way his protagonist plays:

As long as [Sandu] wasn’t improvising, as long as he stayed caught up in the blues theme, and he repeated it so that it would imprint obsessively on the ear, [Pia] could see him, concrete, with fingers like a bunch of hungry bats skimming over the keyboard, occasionally hitting a sharp, a seventh like a scream. Only, as soon as he bent a little, trying to look at the crossed wires, intrigued by the configuration of chords in the hammers that popped up by turns, it seemed he tore himself away, and Pia didn’t understand anything any more. A kind or irritating miracle was swallowing Sandu, and she felt alone, as if he had left her, and she was terrorized.


This is a novel in which sound impression matters, along with improvisation and the intrigue of crossed wires.

            Sited among improvisations at the levels of language, plot, behavior,  Corpuri de ilumniat/ Dark Bodies  is nevertheless a novel about Romanian stories. In the informer culture, an invitation to tell a personal story amounts to an invitation to fatten up your Securitate file.  Typical situation: Sandu leaves his apartment. “On the landing he meets Madam Elvira from three—fat, rouged, hyperventilating, climbing the stairs with difficulty.” He remarks that he’s on his way to a concert, to which Madam Elvira replies:  “And what concert, if I’m not poking my nose in? I haven’t seen a single poster, on the radio—nothing. Are you giving a piano recital? Ah, you play jazz, Mr. Făinuş told me. He was asking about how you get by, what you do for a living, if you have visitors, when you come and go”—all this among stories about Madam Elvira’s own love life and a much urged dinner invitation.

            Merely talking—making a business plan—blows up into palaver with an ironic bow to the regime:


              Eh, so, let’s begin the secret meeting, [Dom Fodor] says, because today is a propitious day, gentlemen. I have big plans: we’ll wander the cities making music; we’ll lard the walls with posters, we’ll gather crowds in the stadiums; we’ll make it, gentlemen, because money moves the world. We’ll bark our super-duper wares—a few instants of self-forgetfulness for honest payers. It’s true all over: wherever you find an ashy, gray-blah life, you’ll find money right there for shows and cheap thrills—within the reach of the simple man, whom we love so much that we sacrifice talent, love, energy, ideals. Kneeling at his feet asking for forgiveness with our head bent to the ground, we’ll serve him until god closes our account and gathers us to the blessed. I believe that you are of my sentiment. I want to proclaim among these sophisticated instruments that we will never forget our mission to bring a ray of light among the calloused hands of the workers, typists, soldiers…Agreed, my young friends. I am convinced that we’ll get along together and that we’ll be bound by fraternal sentiment. Eh? After the introduction, let’s get down to business.


      Worse yet, for purposes of entrapment, in diabolic hands story-telling becomes the telling of lies. We’ve entered a new terrain. Story-telling has become the means of dissociating people, unbinding culture.

      Only the déclassé have access to story-telling as a means of holding on, together: 


One of the guys grabs a bottle of vodka from under his jacket, and it goes the rounds:  from Ovi to Lefter, Sandu, Relu—Felix pops out of no place: gimme a slug. Night catches them all fired up in the rehearsal hall—making plans, remembering old shows, troubles with electronics that went bust in the middle of a show, minor bosses, unsold tickets. Gossip from their world. Backup groups. Impresarios. Dancers. Theater directors, fans, drivers, porters and the rest. A whole world with its figures and laws… .The news of their departure, the rehearsals—their upcoming appearances animate them. They get talkative all of a sudden. They don’t have a home anymore. Nightfall, and they’re still there with the tape recorder played low, vomiting blues, rock, among small lights blinking magically on the mixer…. They had a lot of stories to tell. They knew each other well. They had the same habits, manias, tastes. They were on their own. Banished from booking offices, they’d foundered in this business. It was a temporary arrangement that lasted a lifetime. They weren’t leading regular people’s ordinary lives; on the contrary, something was always happening to them. They never knew what would happen tomorrow, and this is what made them so made them so uncontrollable and snotty.

The characters are trapped, politically, and metaphysically as well. That is the significance of the chapter in translation that accompanies this essay. Put it this way: “you never know what’s happening to you, or if the patient gods aren’t somehow watching you and have you marked out to perish.” The Mioritic dream of a benign cosmos has disappeared. We stumble in a Gnostic universe, puppets of blind gods. Thus, the central drama of chapter two: Sandu and Pia take cover in the typical Romanian haven: the alternate universe of the beautiful story. It doesn’t work. It isn’t enough. That’s their tragedy.

      Right. Corpuri de Iluminat/Dark Bodies is Romanian, low down blues. But it’s more than that. International. Joycean. Original.             RE Joyce: A work of the inside  written (in exile and thus) from the outside, Joyce’s Ulysses fulfills Stefan Dedalus’ culminating wish:  to go abroad to “forge the uncreated conscience of my race.” Vis a vis Ulysses, Corpuri de Iluminat /Dark Bodies does an about  face and goes through the drill Balkan style. With Tănase, we’re looking at something like internal exile—outsideness written from the inside—and that “annoying miracle,” stepping beyond interpretation to revelation. Pissing off Securitate counts in the realm of forging conscience—but this is where we kiss politics good-by—and “timeliness,” the detritus of time. We’re not in a story here, it’s something else.  “The novel that interests us,” Julio Cortazar writes, “is not one that places characters in a situation, but rather one that puts the situation in the characters. By means of this the latter cease to be characters and become people. There is a kind of extrapolation through which they jump out at us, or we at them. Kafaka’s K. has the same name as his reader, or vice versa.”[5] We go beyond fiction to life. Put it another way, fiction expands: anyone’s trap is the trap of us all. Thank you, Madam Bovary.

[1] The hypothesis , which could be explored at infinite length, is that the character of the Romanian language is determined not only by isolation but also by the need for group coherence, which gives a domestic, familial character and sweetness to large zones of the linguistic space.

[2] For instance:  with Russian tanks in the country, during a period when attempts had been made to suppress nationality by de-Latinizing the look of the Romanian alphabet, in the zone of Pitesti where my husband grew up, quite close to a notorious Stalinist “re-education” prison, children played Romans and Dacians in the street, cowboys and Indians—unreproached, as a matter of course. Something so obvious, any idiot could see:  the story-telling-in-action iterated, the founding tale of Romanian identity as the mingling of two peoples on a spot where empires clashed over strategic location and natural resources.

[3] The ballad, which involves a conversation with a talking ewe, is exceptionally beautiful and not at all funny. I include an extract in W.D. Snodgrass’s translation, to give the English language reader a basic sense of  the poem:  Say I could not tarry,/I have gone to marry/A princess – my bride/Is the whole world’s pride. /At my wedding, tell/How a bright star fell,/Sun and moon came down/ To hold my bridal crown,/Firs and maple trees /Were my guests; my priests/Were the mountains high; fiddlers, birds that fly,/All birds of the sky;/Torchlights, stars on high./But if you see there,/Should you meet somewhere,/My old mother, little, /With her white wool girdle, /Eyes with their tears flowing,/ Over the plains going, /Asking one and all,/Saying to them all, /’Who has ever known,/Who has seen my own /Shepherd fine to see,/Slim as a willow tree,/With his dear face, bright/As the milk-foam, white,/His small moustache, right /As the young wheat’s ear, /With his hair so dear,/Like plumes of the crow/Little eyes that glow/Like the ripe black sloe?’ Ewe-lamb, small and pretty,/ For her sake have pity, /Let it just be said/I have gone to wed/A princess most noble/There on Heaven’s doorsill./To that mother, old,/Let it not be told/That a star fell, bright,/For my bridal night;/Firs and maple trees/Were my guests, priests/Were the mountains high;/Fiddlers, birds that fly,/All birds of the sky; /Torchlights, stars on high.” 



[4] Tănase ‘s post ’89 CV lists him, incidentally, as essayist, scenarist and historian, government minister, professor of political science, Woodrow Wilson fellow and talk show host

[5] translated by Gregory Rabassa, Random House:  1967.



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