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The Translator Relay: Oana Avasilichioaei

By Jessie Chaffee

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 September’s installment, Erín Moure passed the baton to Oana Avasilichioaei

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

I’ve lived in Montreal for about eighteen years and most of the literary work I’ve translated from French (which includes prose, poetry, theater, and film) is work written and at times specifically localized in Quebec. Living in the same geographical and conceptual universe as the work sometimes helps me to better understand the nuances, textures, tones of the work that I am translating. My connection to Romanian is different. While I was born in Romania and Romanian was the first language I learned, I have not lived in Romania since the late 1980s. When translating from Romanian into English, I experience a sense of profound intimacy with the language and also feel at a great remove from it, since I am not as familiar with how the language evolves on a day-to-day basis.  


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

One of the most interesting (and fun) moments in translating is when I come across a neologism that a writer has invented and I get to reinvent it in English. To do this, I usually first parse out the word, seeking out the various definitions of its roots and considering the context into which it has been placed, and try to imagine what in the work’s written world might have prompted the writer to arrive at that particular word. I then come up with various possibilities in English and eventually select the one that most accounts for the linguistic, syntactic, contextual universe of the initial word. An example of this is the title of the most recent novel I translated by Bertrand Laverdure (published by BookThug in 2017). The French title of the novel is Lectodôme. The French word lecteur is derived from the Latin lector (one who reads), so Laverdure’s lectodôme denotes a space of readers. Given that in English we do have words such as “lecture,” “lector,” and “dome,” I could have simply removed the accent and left the word as lectodome, but I didn’t think this was satisfactory enough. When one sees the French word, one immediately thinks of readers/reading, whereas in English the “lecto” part would denote more speaking rather than reading. I could have also made up a word with “read” and “dome,” such as readome or readingdome, but I was not happy with the sound of these possibilities, for they often led to words that are difficult or awkward to say. So I felt that I needed to push it even further and consider words or parts of words other than “dome” that denote a type of space and that also nod to the Latinate roots of the French neologism. Eventually and through conversations with another writer and translator (which at times is very helpful for sparking ideas), I arrived at Readopolis, which I feel not only answers these criteria but also nods to the novel’s many philosophical aspects (the definition of “polis” is a city state, especially as considered in its ideal or philosophical form).


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I don’t really think in ritualistic terms, but translating a long work (whether in book or dramatic form) requires discipline and daily practice. When translating the first draft, I usually set myself a goal of anywhere between 800 and 1400 words a day (I feel 1000 is ideal but I’ve sometimes had to extend this due to time constraints), and then try and stick to that goal every day. If I fall behind one day, then I must make up the extra words in the following day or days. This daily practice of literary translation is also often achieved in conjunction with my writing practice, as well as other commercial translation.


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?

Translation, for me, is an interstice between two (or more—often more) languages, cultures, histories, geographies, modes of thinking and being, and translating is the process of creating that in-between space. To go through this process, I inhabit several positions, at times successively, at times concurrently, as a reader and listener of a work, as a translator, then a writer of it, and again as a reader and listener of it. And I may need to go through this process several times before I am able to bring about the interstice of translation.


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

Sometime ago, I translated the script of an essay film by Syned Sindrajed titled The Zone. The film, which is inspired by the exceptional filmmaker Chris Marker (while nodding to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and includes texts by Marker and Denys Desjardins, will be screening at the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal, in October 2017. I am looking forward to seeing the film, particularly because rather than subtitling the film, the director created two versions, one narrated in French and another narrated in English (i.e. my translation). I much appreciate and learn a great deal from these times where I get to translate a work that is meant to be spoken, rather than read. Written language and oral language are often quite different, and I find these differences enriching.


(Erin Moure’s question for you) Although you’re more known as a translator from French (Canty, Laverdure, Leblanc, Cotnoir, etc.), I am a big fan of your translations from Romanian of the poets Nichita Stănescu and Paul Celan. I wanted to ask two things about your translation of Paul Celan’s early poetry in Romanian: How did you work to maintain the density and strangeness of Celan’s imagery? Other translations of this same work seem so thin in comparison. Why did you publish the translations inside Limbinal (Talonbooks, 2015), your own work, as opposed to creating a separate book with the translations from Celan?

I spent a long time working on these poems, building them layer by layer over a few years. In this very early work of Celan, and in this language in which he wrote very little poetry (these sixteen poems and prose poems constitute the totality of his production), his lines are long, melodious, grammatically complex yet not laborious, not overly burdened by conjunctions but strange and flowing. It was very important to me not only to translate but to write these poems in English. So I transwrote them until I felt they could sing in English in ways that are compatible with how they sing in Romanian.

As for choosing to publish these inside Limbinal, the answer is multifold. The poems are not simply inserted into the book but intricately woven into its structure and concerns. Limbinal explores cultural, political, bodily, geographical borders in various ways and through various forms (written, oral, visual), particularly in how borders can signify a porous space, rather than a rigid boundary. One of these borders is precisely that of translation as interstice, and I expanded this interstice as far as I could. One way was that of transgressing the boundaries of the individual translations to explore their lexical terrain as a field of language out of which I wrote other poems on borders, which led to two series in the book, “Thresholds” and “Partitions.” I also carried this exploration further beyond the confines of the book in several sound works and performances, including Mirrored (2011, video), Mouthtuned (2013, audio, prepared piano and voice), and Thresholds (2015, multimedia performance).

At this point, one might wonder: why use these particular poems of Celan to think about borders? In part it is personal, for Celan’s personal borders approximate my own: he was a German Jew born in Romania, who survived the war and eventually settled in France to write mostly in German, and was a man of linguistic and cultural borders, borders that kept shifting around him and which he had to cross and recross. As a writer born in Romania whose adolescence was spent in Western Canada in English, and who now inhabits Montreal in French, English, and Romanian, I too feel as though I live in an interstitial space. In Limbinal, I tackled some aspects of our interstices in another series titled “Riveraine.” I also found that the redefining of the shifting borders during Celan’s time period bear light on how borders are being defined today, and his Romanian poems were a catalyst for some ways of thinking through these definitions.


Translator, poet and performer, Oana Avasilichioaei’s work traverses public space, textual architecture, polylingualisms, sound, and performance. She has translated Quebecois French writers, including the poetry of Geneviève Desrosiers, Jean-Marc Desgent, Steve Savage, and Louise Cotnoir (The Islands, 2011), and the prose of Daniel Canty (The United States of Wind, 2015), Bertrand Laverdure (Readopolis, 2017), and Suzanne Leblanc (The Thought House of Philippa, cotranslated with Ingrid Pam Dick, 2015), as well the Romanian work of Paul Celan (as part of her poetic work Limbinal, 2015) and Nichita Stănescu (Occupational Sickness, 2006). Based in Montreal, she frequently crosses borders.

Published Sep 27, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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