Andreea Iulia Scridon
Gabi Reigh speaks to The London Magazine about translating Romanian literature, the value of ‘literary archaeology’ and her Interbellum Series.
Q. Tell us about yourself as a translator. What is the Interbellum Series?
A. I always say that I became a translator by accident. I’ve been teaching at the same sixth form college pretty much since I left university and I have never wanted to do anything else. In 2017, I translated a poem called ‘The Traveller’ by Marin Sorescu because it kept going through my mind after walking the Camino de Santiago. I had read this poem long ago and thought that it perfectly captured the nuances of a traveller’s experience, that mixture of banal discomforts and moments of exhilaration. That year, I came across the Stephen Spender poetry translation competition and, to my great surprise, ‘The Traveller’ won the first prize. This gave me some confidence in my abilities as a translator and I started thinking about what other Romanian books I’d like to translate.
I was instinctively drawn to the classics that I remembered from our old family home in Romania, books that even as a child I knew were important, but I had been too young to read before we emigrated. Translating them felt like a reconnection to my past, after spending many years studying and teaching English literature. I was also surprised that I could not find them already in translation, given their cultural significance. The interwar era produced many canonical writers and artists, some of whom are already known to international audiences – for example Mircea Eliade, E. M. Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Constantin Brancusi. But there were others such as Lucian Blaga, Liviu Rebreanu, Mihail Sebastian, Hortensia Papadat Bengescu and Max Blecher whose work is equally valued in Romania that I thought deserved the same attention overseas, therefore I committed myself to translating several books that appealed to me from this period and I named my project ‘Interbellum Series’.
Why interwar literature and not literature dealing with the communist era, which might be what western readers are most curious about when it comes to Romania?
Ultimately, I’ve translated the books I wanted to read.I have always been drawn to early twentieth century literature, when the world was culturally transformed and traumatised by wars. I think that there are plenty of Anglophone readers who share my fascination with the rhythm of life during this extraordinary period and who would appreciate the evocative details and emotional depth of interwar Romanian literature. Anyone interested in the history of modernism or surrealism might also find it valuable to see how these were adopted in Romania.
I can see why publishers might assume that when readers pick up a Romanian book they want to find something there that they can recognise from recent history, such as the legacy of communism. But the reception to the books I’ve translated has been much more generous and open minded than that. There is a danger, I think, that if the only books translated from Romanian are connected to communism, then readers are not exposed to anything that enlarges their understanding of the country. I find books about the communist era (which I’ve experienced in my childhood) incredibly powerful, but I’m also fascinated by the books written before this time, that show how things might have been, how writers and thinkers were looking outwards and developing a social and intellectual freedom that was not given the opportunity to flourish under communism.
Why do you think an Anglophone reader should read Romanian literature in translation? What does Romanian literature have to offer?
Romanian literature has the same things to offer as any other literature – a window into how people make sense of their lives. Although the settings and historical contexts might be different, Romanian books have at their heart the same universal themes. We all die, fall in love, search for meaning, and these are things that all books ultimately deal with. I don’t think that readers even need to be particularly interested in Romania to be moved by a book by a Romanian author. When I am translating, I see similarities between the books I’m working on and many others that are already internationally renowned, for example the narrative voice of Max Blecher’s The Illuminated Burrow reminds me of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Blecher has also been hailed as ‘Romania’s Kafka’, so a reader who feels a connection to either Kafka or Pessoa might want to read Blecher.
Another thing that Romanian literature has to offer, just like the literature of any other country, is its diversity. Of course, there are similarities between some Romanian books that have been claimed as defining characteristics, such as surrealism or dark humour, but I can think of plenty of examples of books that offer an alternative perspective on the world. A lot of very different Romanian books are being translated right now and all of them have something unique to offer: your translations of Ion Cristofor’s spiritually charged poetry, Liliana Corobca’s novels (translated by Monica Cure) and Matei Visniec’s plays (translated by Jozefina Komporaly) engaging with ideas about censorship and freedom, Sean Cotter’s translations of Magda Carneci’s Fem and Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid which examine ideas about identity and creativity, Doina Rusti’s historical mystery The Book of Perilous Dishes (translated by James Christian Brown), to name but a few. Even if I think of the works that I’ve translated as part of the Interbellum Series, there is a significant range of styles, from realism to surrealism. Their subject matter is also really varied – a high society murder, the romantic lives of young adults, the inner world of a spinal tuberculosis sufferer, etc. So, I think there’s something there for any kind of Anglophone reader if they want to try Romanian literature!
What is your selection process like – why translate this book and not that book?
At first, I had a couple of books I wanted to translate because I remembered them from my early years in Romania. For example, I had seen the film adaptation of Liviu Rebreanu’s novel Ciuleandra about an aristocrat who is sent to an asylum after murdering his wife and its haunting atmosphere stayed with me. Another thing that draws me to particular writers is their biography. Through delving into the literature of the 1930s, I have had to confront Romania’s complicated history, and I’m particularly drawn to championing the works of victims of antisemitism, such as Mihail Sebastian, or ‘resurrecting’ the reputation of female writers who have been excluded from a male dominated literary canon, such as Sorana Gurian. Although my first projects were focused on major literary figures, recently I have become more interested in a kind of ‘literary archaeology’, researching ‘lost geniuses’ and tracking down out of print books that I hope might get a new lease of life by being translated into English.
I also tend to return to writers whose style I particularly enjoy, such as Mihail Sebastian, Max Blecher, Lucian Blaga, Marin Sorescu and Sorana Gurian. Translating is a slow process, involving a deep and intimate engagement with the world a writer has created. Therefore, I gravitate towards writers whose voice strikes a chord with me, usually those who manage to combine poignancy with humour or ironic detachment. I feel comfortable giving these writers a voice in English because I am aligned with their perspective on the world.
Though this may seem like an incisive question, I’d be interested in getting to the bottom of it: how welcoming to Romanian literature did you find the contemporary publishing world?
The good news is that there are now many independent publishers, so I have learned that if you are persistent and do your research you will find someone interested in publishing your translations. However, the bigger publishing houses do not take submissions from writers or translators, so I have not yet found a way to get past the gatekeepers! I’ve also noticed that publishing houses prefer to commission works by contemporary writers, possibly thinking that they would be more ‘relevant’, or perhaps because living authors can create more marketing opportunities. I’ve also submitted work to some thriving publishers that have a backlist of early twentieth century writers but found that they were more keen on Western European literature, probably because they assume this would have more resonance with their readers.
You’re also a literature teacher – have you noticed any interest/ reactions from your students when introducing them to translated literature?
Unfortunately, the A level syllabus doesn’t feature any translated literature, something which I criticised in an article I wrote for the TES. In a way, there is no wonder that the market for translated literature in the UK is so small if no one has the opportunity to engage with books from other places in the world as part of their education. However, I have done poetry translation workshops with our students to prepare them for the Stephen Spender Trust poetry competition and the writer Ananda Devi talked to one of my classes via Zoom during the pandemic. I think the students enjoyed looking at these translated literary texts without the spectre of the examination hanging over them and their feedback implied that it made them think more deeply about the feelings and experiences of people living in other parts of the world.
How has your translation work informed your own writing?
I don’t see myself as a writer, I only occasionally write short stories when there is a particular image or event going around my head that I need to ‘put to bed’, as it were, by shaping it into a narrative and distancing myself from it. But my own writing makes me feel uncomfortably exposed and I don’t think that I have that ‘splinter of ice’ in my heart that Graham Greene said every writer needed because I always worry how the people closest to me will react to the way I’ve presented our shared lives. This is why I feel much more comfortable translating other people’s books, because I can still enjoy playing with words at the same as getting a glimpse into somebody else’s mind, while remaining invisible. Translating has certainly helped me practise creating different voices and tones; you also need to concentrate so much on every word and sentence in order to achieve that fine balance of faithfulness to the original text and readability that you learn to be equally thoughtful when constructing your own writing.
What does your work table look like? What tools do you use, and how long does it take you to translate a novel? What about your own short stories – how do you go about writing them, if I’m not too indiscreet?
It takes me between nine months and a year to translate a novel, as most of the books I’ve translated have been relatively short. I normally get back from work, sort out all the family stuff, then sit on the sofa in the conservatory and type away at my manuscript, usually with a glass of wine next to me! In the summer evenings, when it’s still light, it’s a nice place to work because I can occasionally look at the flowers in the garden or see what the birds are up to.
On the other hand, my stories are written all in one go, usually in the middle of the night. I have to get the first draft finished in one sitting because if I leave it and come back to it later, I realise it’s silly and I don’t finish the story. Once I’ve done a first draft however, I can look at the writing more objectively, then I edit it, restructure it and delete about two thirds.
You studied literature in London as an undergraduate student – what was that experience like, and what does London mean to you?
I studied English and History of Art at UCL which meant that I had the privilege of living in student accommodation in Bloomsbury, surrounded by literary history, which was very special. It was a great place to study History of Art because I could go to galleries and museums to see the artefacts I was writing about. I wrote reviews for the student newspaper and had the opportunity to see a lot of plays, dance performances and musical events that wouldn’t have come under my radar otherwise, then I really got into opera and bought the cheapest tickets to everything the ENO put on. It was a unique time in my life, full of learning and cultural exploration. Also, after living in a small seaside town in Sussex since the age of twelve, it felt fantastic to be living in a place where I was not the only foreigner!
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.