Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!

The Translator Relay: Mihaela Moscaliuc

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Mihaela Moscaliuc.

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For July’s installment, Sholeh Wolpé passed the baton to Mihaela Moscaliuc. Mihaela was born and raised in Romania. She is the author of the poetry collections Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), the translator of Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015), and the editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern (Trinity University Press, 2016). She is the recipient of a Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and two Glenna Luschei Awards from Prairie Schooner, residency fellowships from Le Chateau de Lavigny and The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and a Fulbright Scholar fellowship from the United States Department of State. She is assistant professor of English at Monmouth University (New Jersey) and visiting faculty in the low-residency MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation at Drew University.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

The language I translate from, Romanian, is my mother tongue. I was born in northern Romania and lived there for the first twenty-four years. The communist regime was overthrown just before I turned eighteen, so when I started learning English years earlier in middle school, Romania was still a prison in which dreaming was the only freedom. Still, you did not want to dream too hard and set yourself up for despair or insanity, so I did not dare imagine that some day I might travel to an English-speaking country, or even that I would meet a native speaker. English, however, became a lifeline of sorts. I had a teacher who, instead of indoctrinating us with communist ideology as he was supposed to, brought to class records and books he’d purchased on the black market—Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I fell in love with the music of the language before I started to care about semantics. Years later, while listening to some of the songs with the lyrics in front of me, I realized I had misheard and mistranslated important verses. In some cases, what I had been carrying with me for years were mondegreens (Dylan’s “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” for instance, I had misheard as “Said I’d leave you the loneliness”). Perhaps it was the desire to rescue the beauty of the misapprehensions that led me to my own poetry writing (in English), and the guilt of having misapprehended someone’s words that led me to the art of translation.

Well, that’s one version of the story. The other is that I started translating out of guilt for having abandoned my homeland. I had huge anxieties about the process, especially since I wanted to translate poetry but believed (and still do) that I needed to be a poet to do it justice. So initially I co-translated with my husband, Michael Waters, who’s a remarkable poet. Now I translate out of the desire to introduce Romanian poetry to American readers and out of the need for intimacy with the two languages—the Romanian of my fingerprints, the English of my remaking. Translations afford me quality time with both languages. That way I feel like less of an exile, and part of a linguistic diaspora, which is a lot more appealing to me than the idea of a physical diaspora.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

When translating poetry, the difficulty has to do primarily with finding concise equivalents to certain words or phrases. I believe that almost any instance of cultural or linguistic particularism (including the wildest idiomatic expressions, or slang) can be clarified in English, but that’s not a strategy you can employ successfully in poems. Here’s a simple example from a poem by Liliana Ursu that I just finished translating: The poem ends with the image of a woman from the country (“queen of barrels brimming with pickled cabbage”) hawking her pickled cabbage in the market: “Sour cabbage, wide-leaved, sour cabbage for sarmale.” Sarmale: That’s a national staple and though variants of the dish exist in a number of cultures (see the Greek dolmathakia) and the description could be simplified to “stuffed cabbage,” I sensed right away that, after trying some alternatives, I would follow that first impulse to leave the word in Romanian and add a note at the end of the manuscript. All other alternatives were sabotaging the integrity of the woman’s voice, the authentic feel, and, not in the least, the music of the poem (the rolling of “sarmale” on the tongue is so tuneful and flavorful). On the other hand, maybe this choice had to do mostly with my own relationship to the word “saramale” and the personal and cultural association it evoked. Nonetheless, I’d like to believe the choice to leave it in the original worked with the poem’s focus on the difference between the ornamental cabbage of America and its Romanian kin. The pickled cabbage of our sarmale is as intimate as second skin.

Here’s a different kind of (un)translatability-related issue: In 2015 Carnegie Mellon University Press brought out Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper, a collection I had worked on intermittently for years. Soon after I started translating, Leonte mentioned that she thought of the syllable—not the line or the sentence—as the integral unit (which was also a meditative unit) of poetry and that she wrote syllable by syllable. Trying to duplicate that strategy in the process of translation would have doomed the project from the get-go. So, while that piece of information became crucial as I was tweaking the cadences, I had to ask some hard questions about what exactly I was after (besides delivering the “content”), and then prioritize accordingly.    

Do you have any translating rituals? 

Initially my husband and I collaborated on translations while flying to and from Romania. I realized just recently that I kept to that routine and that almost every translation has been “conceived” while traveling on planes, trains, boats, or cars (yes, in the passenger seat). I’ve never meant to mimic quite so literally the act of translation—with all its connotations of carrying over, transferring, moving across—but maybe it’s not all accidental. Maybe I need the pilgrimage, the suspension, the movement in order to inhabit the back-and-forth of languages, cultures, aesthetics.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I take delight in metaphors others have come up with—gardener (Walter Benjamin), dancer (Khaled Mattawa), Janus-faced explorer (Lia Purpura), ventriloquist (can’t remember), to name just a few related to translators—but I don’t quite have one of my own. The very fact that we’re all trying to come up with metaphors that describe the process or the work we’re doing is fascinating. It says a great deal about the field of translation itself, how it seeks to define itself as this and that, as self and other. If pressed for a metaphor, I would gravitate toward some version of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s groom kissing the bride through the veil—translators and translated texts as lovers going through blissful times, hard times, and entanglements; lovers who may be committed, fickle, both self-centered and giving in their comingling. I’m not sure how Roland Barthes’s metaphor fits here, but it captures some of my approach to the languages between which I travel: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I just finished a manuscript of translations from Liliana Ursu’s poetry and am getting ready to send it out. In a review of her previous collection in English (A Path to the Sea, translated by the author with Adam J. Sorkin and Tess Gallagher), I mentioned that she was a poet to whose work we would return “as if to a time capsule, for glimpses into what it meant, at some point, to sustain an interior life, find virtue in simplicity, and make each gesture count,” and I stand by that description. Her poems are deeply spiritual, illuminating, unassuming. I am very excited about this manuscript, which comprises a selection of poems from a number of Romanian collections. Here’s one piece:


On earth, sweepers have little charm.
You have to watched them crucified above town
to really see them.
In the pub’s vaulting, their voices barely flicker,
far from the white smoke bought with life’s soot.

Here come the sweepers, lamb in arms,
solitude’s acrobats
above us
in a town with no chimneys
in a time without lambs.  

Sholeh Wolpé’s question: The lexical similarity of Romanian with Italian has been estimated at 77%, and modern Romanian vocabulary has been strongly influenced by French. In your opinion, are these influences positive or negative, and to what extent do they affect your translations?

Romanian has Indo-European roots and belongs to the same family of Romance languages as Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. At the same time, all kinds of linguistic influences (Turkish, Slavic, Hungarian, Greek) have altered the predominantly Latin structure along its turbulent history. As a Romance-language speaker I do have certain advantages, yes, though less in terms of my own translation process. I translate only from Romanian into English (and a little bit from English into Romanian), but I lead multilanguage translation workshops in the low-residency MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation at Drew University, and I work with students translating from various Romance languages, so having that common pool is tremendously useful. 

Published Jul 11, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.