This month’s Coloquio contribution comes to us from Gabriela Caprariou, professor of Spanish at the University of La Verne. Dr. Capraroiu, a native of Bucharest, Romania, received her BA in English and Spanish philology at the University of Bucharest, followed by an MA degree in Spanish from San Francisco State University and a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from UCLA. She translates from Rumanian into Spanish/English. In her lyrical essay, “Strata,” she explores the function of translation as a way of remembering, of fulfilling a need to return to one’s familiar space. Read it, please, and see if you agree.
I am leafing through Semillas de piedra, an anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry I translated into Spanish not long ago. I am looking at the title of the book which is also the title of a poem by Ana Blandiana: “Seminţe de piatră” / Seeds of stone. Like most of Blandiana’s work, this poem is an invitation to think and speak about profound things in simple, essential words:
If, as Saint Augustine says,
Evil is nothing else but the absence of Good
And death the absence of life,
Then in this wasteland
We are evil
And we are dead
And we don’t even know it
Because we do not know
What it means to be
Or what it means to be
Just as the seeds of stone in the sand
Do not know what it means to bear fruit.
The title I chose is perhaps an acknowledgment of the universality of this poem in particular and of Romanian poetry, in a broader sense. But it also has to do with a personal need to return, by means of translation, to matters and matter, as if translation became an act of remembering; as if it resembled the actions of a person who, after having lived far from the physical space of childhood, in unknown geographies and languages that become one’s own through persistence and time, wishes to recover the materiality of the original world, driven by the evocation of sound and image in words.
For several Romanian poets, especially those of nineteenth and twentieth century, such proximity to the physical world is linked to the prolonged existence of a rural space. I remember reading “Elogiul satului românesc” / In praise of the Romanian village, / the speech of acceptance into the Romanian Academy that writer and philosopher Lucian Blaga gave in 1937. Born in 1895 in Lancrăm, a village in Transylvania, at the time when the region was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Blaga attended school in Brașov and Sibiu, cities of linguistic and ethnic plurality. He studied philosophy in Viena and in 1920 defended his doctoral dissertation Kultur und Erkenntniss / Culture and Knowledge. He discovered the German philosophers and came into contact with the spirit of the avant-garde. He held diplomatic posts in Warsow, Prague, Berne, Viena and Lisbon. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Cluj. He was a man of his time who lived and worked in urban spaces and for this reason, his decision to speak in front of the academy and in the presence of King Carol II about the significance of the village when Romania was increasingly reaching synchronization with the West, must have been disconcerting. Yet, it was not a contradiction because for Blaga the village, as a space, was not situated only in what he calls “a material geography, a network of mechanical determinants of space” as in the case of cities; the village is the only “live presence,” at once “nemuritoare” /not dying, immortal and “terestră” / belonging to the earth, terrestrial.
I think, for example, of Blaga’s poem “Vară nouă” / New summer, published in 1921:
Îngropat în spice un fecior-de-sat se-întrece-n sănătate
cu macii câmpului, cu paserile verii.
Îl văd din spate:
din tăria brațelor lui simt
că nu iubește femeile decât în lanuri coapte de grâu.
Umezi până-n brâu
se-ntorc pescarii de la Murăș
cu libelule prinse-n pălărie.
Globuri mari de păpădie arată drumul vântului.
Eu macin între degete spic după spic,
și-arunc semințele-ntre brazde— pentru cățelul pământului
Eu macin între degete spic după spic,
Și-arunc grăunțele-n lume, fără rost,
În cinstea soarelui.
Apoi mă ridic.
Buried in a field of wheat up to his waist
a young man from the village rivals
wild poppies and summer birds
I see him from behind.
From his strong arms I sense
that he makes love to women only in ripe wheat fields.
Wet from the waist down
the fishermen return from the Murăș River
with dragonflies in their hats.
Large dandelion globes show the wind its way.
I grind ears of wheat between my fingers
And I toss the seeds in the furrows for the underground mole
I grind ears of wheat between my fingers
And I toss the seeds into the world, at random,
In praise of the sun.
Then I rise.
Essential lines and colors, like those of an avant-garde painting, represent men in a concrete place which is also a collective place “prolonged in myth,” in Blaga’s words, where space becomes time. We recover through translation the universality of village life and the feeling of suspended time evoked in the final lines. But those who lived in that geographical cultural space experience also a sense of belonging retrieved from memory. Fields of wheat open before our eyes from the dusty compartment of a train crossing endless plains. We feel the soft and rough surface of wheat. We see it in the pattern of hand-embroidered fabric and we hear it in folk songs. “Cățelul pământului” (Spalax microphtalmus), also known as “țâncul pământului” or “orbete,” connects the actual underground creature with ancient folk beliefs of Transylvania, Walachia, and other regions. The animal wanders the earth at night and inhabits the land of the dead. Here, Blaga is in dialogue with oral and universal written tradition. Mihai Eminescu’s poem “Strigoii” / The ghosts,/ written in 1876, is a difficult to decipher text in which history, local, and world mythology come together: the Avars and Christian monks; Odin, Germanic god and Zamolxis, the Dacian god; and, Norwegian and Persian references. The second part of the poem opens with the motto: “În numele sfântului // Taci, s’auzi cum latră // Cățelul pământului // Sub crucea de piatră” // In God’s name // Be quiet, listen to the underground mole // Howl // Under the stone cross. The same creature is mentioned is again in a following stanza:
Ajuns-a el la poala de codru ‘n munții vechi,
Izvoară vii murmură și saltă de sub piatră,
Colo cenușa sură în părăsita vatră,
În codri-adânci cățelul pământului tot latră,
Lătrat cu glas de zimbru răsună în urechi.
He has arrived at the foot of the forest in the ancient mountains
Springs whisper with life and leap from beneath the rocks
Gray ashes in the abandoned hearth
Deep in the forest the underground mole keeps howling
A howl with the voice of bison resounds.
These lines, together with other stanzas from Eminescu’s poem “Strigoii,” inspired George Enescu who, during World War I (1916), composed an Oratorio in three parts with the same title. Recovered only in 2017, Enescu’s composition continues to illustrate the affinities among poets and artists.
Writing from the moment of an increasingly interconnected world, Romanian contemporary poet Ana Blandiana is today a witness to the profound transformation of the the collective rural life that Blaga praised. As we look around, we recognize signs of a world that is vanishing quickly. We hold on to the gaze and gestures of our elders, bearers of values traded in the cultural stock market. Blandiana guides this sense of observation as it happens in the poem “În frescă” / “In the fresco”:
Ctitori purtându-şi în braţe cu greu
Ca pe un capital convertibil
La change-office-ul vieţii de apoi;
Cu doctorate la Cambridge
Şi odăjdii sărutate
De ţărăncile bătrâne
Târându-se în genunchi
Pe lespezile cu inscripţii chirilice;
Până în curtea plină de corturi,
Până în şoseaua pe marginea căreia
Sunt parcate maşinile
În timp ce credinţa –
Care pătrund sub cupolă
Zburătăcite de clopote –
Se roteşte speriată,
Se loveşte de pereţii pictaţi,
Şi se aşază cuminte în frescă.
Church founders carry with difficulty
Their monasteries in their arms
Like convertible capital
At the exchange office of the afterlife.
Young monks hold
Doctorate degrees from Cambridge
Old women from the countryside
Kiss the liturgical garments of priests
And walk on their knees
On stones with Cyrillic inscriptions.
Loud speakers project the mass
To a courtyard full of tents
To the side of the road where
Automobiles wait for their blessing
Like swallows hiding under the dome
Frightened by the bells
Circles in fear
Hits the painted walls
And the Pantocrator
Then it descends
And docile takes its place in the fresco.
And this time as well, translation takes us through the strata of language and culture. We are close to the Slavic influences through image and sound; odăjdii, from odežda, preserves the archaic connotations of the term and it is not easy to place it next to the speakers that have replaced the intimate small interior of Orthodox churches. One word suffices to remind us of a world in transformation after the 1989 change of regimes. And it falls on us to reflect, through the power of sound and image, on the present and future place of the kneeling old woman from the countryside in this new social order. And we thank Blandiana, Eminescu and Blaga for allowing us to discover tradition and modernity, old and new, local and foreign through translation.