Adam J. Sorkin






interviewed by


Ioana Ieronim






Translation:  Maybe a Gift of Self-Delusion






Ioana Ieronim: – Your involvement in translating Romanian poetry has started with a Fulbright grant that you had in Romania in 1980-81. Had you ever been interested in translating before that? Did you come to Romania with any plan in that direction? How did it happen that you began? 


Adam J. Sorkin: – How did I get involved? Translation just happened to me, as it were; many a translator before there were degrees in translation (usually MFAs), as there are now, sort of fell into the practice. In the spring of 1981, a colleague at the English faculty on Pitar Moș, Irina Grigorescu Pană, came to my office and asked if I’d go over her version of poems by the Timișoara poet, Anghel Dumbrăveanu. He was a skilled poet with a full range of traditional elements of imagery and lyric practice, as I learned from going over Irina’s drafts of his poems – and this is how I customarily work even today, with the original and a version in English side by side in front of me, a Romanian-English dictionary near me, a thesaurus and a dictionary, and someone to ask questions of (when I can, although after much experience I need her or him a lot less often now). Anyway, Dumbrăveanu’s poems provided an excellent grounding in Romanian poetry.

Almost a decade later, in the summer of 1989, I received a second Fulbright grant to pursue translation of Romanian poetry for an anthology. By then, I was more than fascinated by the process of translation; for me it had replaced the writing of (as I thought of it) yet another article on English or American literature. You’ll recall that it was in 1989, for you were part of the translation team set up for me, when we first met. This anthology never came about in the form that I had planned it, but so much more sprouted from the seed of this project, by now more than 60 books including collections of individual poet’s work and anthologies. Quite a number of them, as in our work together, represent a cooperation between the original writer and me as co-translator.

I should add that in the early 1960s, an undergraduate student at Cornell University, I was lucky enough to take a course in translation from the scholar and translator Robert M. Adams. We reviewed multiple translations of such poets as Rilke, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Pasternak, and likewise Robert Lowell’s book Imitations, and we cobbled together our own versions, considering, and justifying, our own linguistic choices. To be honest, however, I recalled the substance of the course later, only after I was already hooked on rendering Romanian poetry. When I began to translate, I believed I was an innocent in translations… well, all I can say is, guess not. Additionally, for me translation brought back the kid, the college undergraduate, who wanted to become a poet. I still think of translation as fun, invigorating, intense, sustaining.


II: – Two languages, with separate connotative directions, two different kinds of cultural background, of historical heritage and contemporary experience, face one another in the hands of a translator. What have some of the challenges been that you have encountered when bringing Romanian texts over to your language and culture, given the major differences that were there for you to consider? Has your vast experience provided you with instruments to bridge the distance? Is every new translation another adventure?


AJS: – Maybe it’s a gift of self-delusion in order to carry words, images, emotions, and other effects across, but I like to think of both languages as flexible with a variety of influences, and even malleable in similar ways, rather than contradictory or diametrically resistant to reenacting, or performing, the Romanian in English. I don’t see the differences as defying a translator’s intellect and imagination – two personal elements I think a translator has to make use of. Yes, every new project (scouting out the voice, following the trail of every author I work on) is a kind of literary journey. I have to admit that I enjoy language games and puzzles – not to reduce the translation of poetry to just this, please trust me as I say that – and the exercise, or the mental and creative play, of translation is basic to us two-legged creatures aptly defined in our cultures as – among other possibilities – homo ludens, to use Huizinga’s term. I suggest that learning this kind of play or cultural adaptation is necessary if we all are to get along.


II: – The range and variety of the Romanian poetry that you have translated into English is definitely unique: there are shelves of poetry collections and numberless publications of Romanian lyrics in English language periodicals: from Marin Sorescu to Mircea Cărtărescu and younger, from Transylvanian to Bessarabian poets. Has your endeavor revealed for you some traits that may define Romanian poetry as you have known it, beyond its variety? 


AJS: – I always try to duck questions like this, for I’m not trained in Romanian literature (maybe haphazardly self-trained, at best). One of the advantages of co-translation, for just about all my collaborators are far more expert than I in Romanian and in Romanian writing, is that I receive early drafts, often with comments or notes along the way (orally, if we work “live,” side by side, or in the texts sent via email, where I do ask for warnings, comments, allusions that I’d miss, analytical advice, etc., usually in the form of remarks [bracketed in the initial version, or as footnotes]). I must admit that by now, frequently I can pick up the vibrations, as it were, or I’ll know many of the antecedents and parallels signaled, though not really very precise, specific references. So I’ll abandon my answer at this point, while myself recognizing the breadth and vividness of the spectrum of the verbal brilliance of the poets that I as it were explore in the course of translation.


II: – Has translation had an impact on your own thinking, writing… reading? 


AJS: – My academic writing has shifted from analysis and critical appreciation of American literature – and of the achievement of prose fiction in particular – to presentation and discussion of the poetry that I’ve had the privilege of working on so as to transplant it into English-language soil, American English in particular. (Here I will cite the aphorism that Britain and America are two nations – sometimes quoted as two peoples – divided by a common language, often attributed to Churchill, to Shaw, to Wilde, but not found in the works of any of them, according to a quick online check.) The need not for scholarly sophistication along with the most au courant  terminology but for clear, comprehensible, helpful explanation of whoever or whatever it is that I’ve translated and am now placing before readers’ eyes has been liberating, the aim not of strutting my academic stuff but of serving the needs of readers. It’s more of an interpersonal transaction that I wish to create: to attract the reader to the poet and his or her poems.


II: – I have had the privilege to cooperate with you in translation, and see you at work close-up: a lesson of rigor and flexibility across various styles, a tireless search for the best choice in sense and sound, an exemplary way of serving the original, through absorbing as much as possible into the English version. Never taking the easy (reductive) way out, as some may do – your dedication always fully there. Yet, are there subjective preferences you have, that you may share?


AJS: – I suppose that, by temperament, I favor more metaphorical, more emotional writing on the one hand, and on the other, the comic-satiric imagination and cool, tongue-in-cheek, between-the-lines expression. Since these are sort of opposite directions, a dichotomy of artistic distortion or exaggeration of the actual and everyday, I see them similarly as escapes from as well as analytical perspectives on so-called reality, the world of experience as most would agree it appears in the light of common day.

However, there is also a different and much broader reality, that of language and what it can represent, or perhaps, rather, what it can suggest or create, and how it does so. These are what, maybe subliminally, excite me, absorb and challenge me, as a translator. In any case, a translated poem needs to sound like a poem, feel like a poem, act like a poem, have the force of a poem in the target language such that it had in the original, so the translation must accomplish this in a way that evokes, rather than distorts, the sense, the tone, the metaphoric and musical world of the original. As with musical performance or stage performance, in literary translation neither the translator nor the audience or reader wants the result to come across as dull, uninvolved or uninvolving, matter of fact, simply text to be conned now and soon forgotten. Moreover, of course, the effects need to be varied so as to evoke different writers, different styles.

The transformation of the original into a new, parallel text in the target language requires that the translator overcome his or her preferences, insofar as anyone can. This may be more than restraint: the translator must assume what John Keats (in another context) termed “negative capability.” To me, translation is a creative activity, co-creative or re-creative if you prefer. A translation is both there, a vehicle, but also an entry to the unavailable wording of the original, that which is not there. For readers with little or no knowledge of the source language, the translation in fact will be the sum total of the original, at least temporarily, that the reader can experience. That’s a big burden, and I think I’ll end on this point.


Thank you, Ioana, for your thoughtful and provocative questions.



This interview took place via email in March 2018.










About Adam J. Sorkin

Adam J. Sorkin has published more than sixty books of Romanian poetry in translation, from Marin Sorescu, Nora Iuga, and Mihai Ursachi to Mircea Cărtărescu and Magda Cârneci and younger voices, from anthologies of Transylvanian to Bessarabian lyrics. He has received numerous awards, among them the Poetry Society (U.K.) Translation Prize, the Kenneth Rexroth Memorial Translation Prize, the Ioan Flora Translation Prize, and the Poesis Translation Prize. Six books of Ioana Ieronim’s poetry, translated into English, have come out in his joint translation with her, one of which, The Triumph of the Water Witch (Bloodaxe), was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for Translation from a European Language. Sorkin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Penn State Brandywine.





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