10 July 2008

On Translating Baciu's "Patria"

Barely more than a month after I started blogging, I translated a poem entitled Patria by the Romanian exile, Stefan Baciu, whom I knew from my graduate school days at the University of Hawai‘i. Baciu administered one of my two foreign language reading exams required for my Ph.D. program. My major language (rather useful for research on Pacific languages) was French, for which I took a standardized test, while my minor language (less useful) was Romanian, for which Baciu chose a literary passage for me to translate, one describing a rural homestead after an uprising (or pogrom), with 'rafters', 'sizzling flesh', and other such vocabulary rare in the usual sorts of academic expository prose. (I was allowed to use a dictionary.)

Before I embarked on my language-rich, linguistics-poor Fulbright postdoc year in Romania in 1983, Baciu also gave me a copy of his (1980) self-published memoirs to take along. I left my copy with a literature professor at the University of Bucharest who showed a particular interest in Baciu, partly because all the exiles were nonpersons in Romania at the time. Nowadays, there is a growing revival of interest in those exiles, as Romanians seek to regenerate some of the historical limbs that were twisted, shriveled, or amputated during the communist and fascist eras of the last century. I think of it as a memory reforestation project, one that I hope does not lead to a revival of too much greenshirting.

Now that I have gained access to another copy of Baciu's memoirs, I've been translating pages and posting them on this blog, doing my little bit to build a small English garden from his memories. In Wikipedia, I find it interesting that Baciu's biographical entry is longer in the Spanish edition than in either the Romanian or the English edition. I've been adding External Links from the English Wikipedia entry to my translations here, but I noticed that the Spanish entry has far more External Links on Baciu, including a link to my English translation of the easiest of the three segments of the poem(s) entitled "Patria" (which I think best translates into 'Home' in this context).

So I thought I should try to translate the two harder passages in the bunch. The quatrains in Part II were harder because of the ABAB rhyme pattern, which forced me to swap lines and stray further from the meaning of the original words in several cases, while retaining the original imagery as far as possible. The hardest task in Part III was resisting the temptation to add a footnote to each line noting, for instance, that Time, Torch, and Ancient Beliefs were the names of publishers, or that Buzesti Square (not far from the Bucharest North train station) is now the site of a MacDonald's and the Turkish restaurant (named "Shark") where my wife and I shared a pleasant evening with my earlier Romanian cotranslator (of an old German grammar of a New Guinea language) and his wife during our quick visit to Bucharest in January. Networks of all kinds are so much easier to maintain these days.

Baciu's "Patria" ('Home') is in several ways representative of his poetry in exile, which is full of nostalgia, longing, and the merger of mental and physical terrain across time and space. From now on, it's back to translating memoirs, not quatrains, for me. Somebody else is welcome to translate his last major collection of poetry, entitled Peste o mie de catrene ('Over a thousand quatrains').

Home (Patria)


Home is an apple
in a Japanese grocery window
on Liliha Street
in Honolulu, Sandwich Islands
or a gramophone record
heard in silence in Mexico
--Maria Tanase beside the volcano Popocatepetl--
home is Brancusi's workshop in Paris
home is a Grigorescu landscape
on an autumn afternoon in Barbizon
or the Romanian Rhapsody heard on a morning
in Port au Prince, Haiti
and home is the grave of Aron Cotrus
in California
home is a skylark who soars
without borders and without plans
home is a Dinu Lipatti concert
in Lucerne, Switzerland, on a rainy evening
home is this gathering of faces
of events and sounds
scattered across the globe
but home is
a moment of silence.

This is home.


With home you can talk by telephone,
You can hear it in distant whispers,
Carry it in your pocket, like a comb,
Or find it decapitated in the papers.

It’s not just earth or stone or air,
But a smell, a face, a twirl in the park,
A sound that echoes from anywhere,
A voice that pierces the midnight dark.

Because home is not an anthem bound,
illuminated, decorated, with border.
It’s a shroud, in deepest dreams rewound,
At dawn unraveled, in disorder.

Nor is home revived by boasts,
But by silence, by distance, by sorrow,
Squeezed from dust, on tropic coasts,
Scattered abroad, in hopes for the morrow.


The steeple of Saint Nicholas in Schei,
The echo of the train off Mt. Tâmpa at night,
“Kefir Lukianoff” in Cismigiu Park,
New books from “Time! Torch! Ancient Beliefs!”
“Hot corn-on-the-cob! Hot corn!”
Mr. Misu from Romanian Books,
The rainbow scarf of Emil Botta,
Maria Tanase singing at the Neptune in Buzesti Square,
Father commenting on War and Peace,
Or a page of poetry by Nietzsche
(tapping into the book with his index finger),
A cappuccino at the Crown

And this banknote of 500 lei,
Found in the bottom of a yellowed envelope,
Brought I don't know how,
From Brasov to Brazil,
And then to Honolulu, Hawai‘i,
Island of Oahu,
Sandwich Archipelago


Anonymous said...

I don't understand the punctuation in “Time, Torch, and Ancient Beliefs”; surely if they are separate publishers it should be "Time," "Torch," and "Ancient Beliefs"? (This would also give the reader a fighting chance to grasp that they were names of publishers.


Joel said...

You're right. I followed the original punctuation, adding the words "books for sale," but maybe I should separate the names by bangs, not commas. Baciu's prose is filled with commas and parentheticals, and I very frequently have to break his sentences in two.