Neil Leadbeater interviews Monica Manolachi
Monica Manolachi is an editor, essayist, poet and translator. She is the editor of the international, multicultural journal, Orizont Literar Contemporan (Contemporary Literary Horizon), the author of two volumes of poetry and numerous academic articles, critical essays and papers on language and literature, with a particular interest in contemporary Caribbean British poetry. A regular speaker at international conferences, she is currently based at the University of Bucharest, Romania, where she is a Lecturer of English at the Department of English within the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature. I caught up with her in London for the purpose of conducting this interview.
NL: Please tell me something about your background and how you first became interested in writing, editing and translating.
MM: I was born in 1976 in Galaţi, a town in Romania close to where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. Our home was in a small town nearby, Tecuci. Before I was three years old we moved to Bucharest, which is where I have lived for most of my life.
At that time, my mother used to teach me nursery rhymes and I used to learn poems for children by heart. I was attracted to poetry and songs at an early age. However, while I was in primary school, I was not so keen on having to learn patriotic poetry by heart and not happy at all when my talent was used for political purposes. But I remember the day when a famous Romanian poet, Ana Blandiana, visited our school and read poems to us from a book about a tomcat called Arpagic (or Chives, in English). I did not know at the time that they were a bit subversive. About that time, someone from what was then the Pioneers and the Falcons’ National Palace came to ask if we wanted to join the Poetry Club. I attended the “Mihai Eminescu” Poetry Club for three years. I also attended the Painting Club and the Chemistry Club. Our teacher at the Poetry Club was Margareta Vlad. We played with words and language, were shown cartoons and we also wrote poetry and prose. Each year our poems were chosen for publication in an anthology, which included a first chapter with patriotic poetry, which we were “encouraged” to write. I had my first poem published when I was eleven. It was about colours, about what each colour has to say. After the Revolution, I stopped going to these Clubs, because it coincided with being admitted to high school in another part of the city. I continued to write poems, but did not try to show them to others anymore.
In 1995, I attended the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, where I studied for a degree in Marketing. While I was there, I also studied Spanish and assisted with the publication of a student’s marketing magazine. There was a Poetry Club at the Academy, but I was too shy to join it. I just kept my poems in a notebook.
After graduating in 1999, I worked in an office for a short while, but I did not feel that I was suited to that kind of employment. In 2001, I decided to undertake a period of further study at the University, this time in the Faculty of Foreign Languages, studying English and Hungarian. Between 2001 and 2006, I took the opportunity to do some travelling and attended an ERASMUS programme in Paris and summer schools in Hungary and Finland. This was a completely new experience for me. Later, I pursued two MAs (one year each) in American Studies and in the Translation of the Contemporary Literary Text at the University of Bucharest. During the course of my studies I was encouraged to translate many types of texts from Romanian into English and vice-versa and to make contact with native speakers. These exchanges made a favourable impact on me.
I now teach English at the University of Bucharest in the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature, the Department of English.
NL: You seem to be an inveterate traveller. Is travelling something that is in your blood? Do you gain inspiration from your travels for writing or do you do it for other reasons?
MM: I have always been interested in travelling abroad. Previous to my generation, there were not so many opportunities to go abroad. Indeed, during the communist era, there were restrictions and you had to have special permission to travel anywhere outside of Romania. These restrictions even continued for a while after the Revolution. The first country I visited was Poland. I went there with my sister in 1999 on a short trip at Christmas time with the Taizé Community. We travelled there by bus and so it was a long ride! I can still recollect the unusual feeling experienced when crossing the border, which was not merely a line as we had learned in school, but an interval charged with expectation. I also remember being favourably impressed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki delivering a discourse on his involvement with the Solidarity Movement, in front of the young people who had arrived in Warsaw from all over Europe.
In 2002, I went to Finland, as a foreign student, to learn Finnish. I stayed at the University of Jyväskylä, which is in the heart of the country, not very far from the Arctic Circle, with long days and short nights in the summer. I found their famous educational system and the conditions offered to students remarkable.
In 2003-2004, I attended the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest on a European student exchange programme, to study Hungarian. I thought it was important to learn something about the language and culture of a country that bordered my own. I returned there again for further study during the summer of 2006.
In the spring of 2004, I went to Paris, under the auspices of the ERASMUS Project, to attend Université Paris XII to study the literature and civilization of England. Not having knowledge of French, I felt somewhat isolated, like a travelling island, during my time there. I was enrolled as a student in the Department of English. All the teachers spoke and taught in English. It was during this time that I started to think more seriously about writing poetry and it was also at this time that I wrote my first poems in English, as a way of conceptualizing my new experience and of reshuffling my identity in the new environment.
At about that time, I came across a Romanian website called agonia.ro where it was possible to interact with other writers on the subject of poetry. I actually went to some of the meetings organized by this online community. It was through this link that I later succeeded in getting my first volume of poems, Trandafiri (Roses), published.
Last year, I visited Bulgaria, Turkey, Italy and Spain in connection with attendances at international conferences. Yes, I do include my travelling experiences in my poems. I always travel with a notebook and pens in my handbag.
NL: I note that you lived for a year in Oxford, England. What was the reason behind your stay?
MM: Between 2009 and 2010, I attended Oxford Brookes University as an associate researcher in the School of Art and Humanities, where I worked on my doctoral scholarship, which was in the field of contemporary Caribbean British poetry. I was really impressed with the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford and also the library at Oxford Brookes University, where I was able to gain access to just about everything that I needed for my studies. The extent of the collections is breathtaking.
NL: While you were based in Oxford, did you manage to visit other places in Britain?
MM: I managed to cross the border into Scotland! I visited Glasgow for the purpose of attending a conference focused on the Caribbean Enlightenment. It was April, “the cruellest month”, the month of daffodils. I met wonderful people there and learned a lot about my topic. We had dinner at Òran Mór, a pub with a ceiling mural made by novelist Alisdair Gray. Birmingham is another place I visited, together with Fr Mihai Novacovschi, from the Romanian Orthodox Parish “St Andrew the Apostle”.
NL: You have had two books of poems published to date. One in 2007 and the other in 2012. Judging by the titles, are roses and strawberries a source of particular inspiration to you? Are there any dominant themes that you can point to in your poems?
MM: I chose the title of my first book, Trandafiri (Roses), because I felt it was an expression of the fact that I had finally “bloomed”. Only one poem in the book is about roses. There is a picture of orange roses on the cover, which was done by a Romanian artist, Iulia Hălăucescu. I do not have any particular interest in roses or in orange roses, per se. The poems, which had been initially published on the online community agonia.ro, have a confessional stance, without being very autobiographical. I do not know how others felt, but after years of confusion, they helped me redefine my existence to such a point that I did not recognize my new self when I received the parcel with copies. It was a strange object. I kept it unpacked for a while in a small bedside locker, thinking of it. It was like a hand grenade, a very alien, unwanted item in any case. It has taken me years to come to terms with this uncanny feeling. Today, I am laughing about it, but I am not sure it will ever be over. And maybe it is better like that, from an artistic point of view.
My second collection, which was almost entirely written when I was in England, contains many poems that have connections with strawberries. The volume is a reflection on the theory of deterritorialization put forward by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in 1972. A few years ago, many Romanians who travelled to Spain went there to pick strawberries. While writing a newspaper article about them one day, I was impressed to see these countryside women queuing to get their travel documents. In Romania, they have been known as “strawberry pick-ups”. The positive side to this is that they send some of the money that they earn back home to their families. The negative side is that they are low-paid workers, who are drop-outs or leave their families behind. There have been some other intellectuals who took over the symbolism of the strawberry pick-ups. For example, Mirel Bănică, whose Fals jurnal de căpșunar (A Strawberry Pick-up’s False Diary) I read at the time. In my book, entitled Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria’s Stories to Magus Viridis), I play with the idea of identity being rooted, like strawberries, in many different places and destinies, and routed, through their branches, somewhere in the air, in a spirit of becoming. It happened that I borrowed some words from English and presented them as new Romanian words. But I have also tried to make my texts hard to translate. This contradiction may mirror what Nikos Papastergiadis called “the turbulence of migration”.
NL: You seem to have a particular interest in art and its relationship to landscape. Do you sense or seek a connection between art and poetry?
MM: This question challenges me to reflect on an important issue. I grew up in a family who moved from a rural to an urban area, a change in lifestyle that many generations experienced during communism. It is obvious in my writing that I have been trying to come to terms with the multiple boundaries of the city and to save the rural life in myth-based compositions. In contrast with what previous generations might say, the countryside of my grandparents meant paradise in spite of obvious shortcomings. I was never really fascinated by the “abundance” in the city, where I had often queued for food. Abundance was in the garden that my grandparents worked all day long. This may be why I have a strong nostalgia for flora and fauna, which sneaks into my urban poems. I find it inspiring when the art of landscaping captures such changes or acts as a deposit of stormy memory scapes. It is soothing to revisit boundaries you once touched. It may be an illusion of belonging, but it works in my case.
NL: How is poetry received in Romania? Is it regarded as a popular art form or is it only of interest to a minority?
MM: I would say that poetry is a minority interest but within that minority it is received with enthusiasm. Most poets in Romania like to write accessible and translatable poetry, sometimes combining it with more abstract, bizarre or surreal language. There are a number of poets who master rhyme and rhythm in new-fashioned manners, which I appreciate, because this is a way of breaking with the past, while facing the rhythms of the present and the future. Tragedy, humour, excess, mystery, surprise, even non-poetic, non-narrative, Dadaist language are often used as means to popularise it.
In the pre-revolutionary decades, poets tended to meet either on stadiums (following the cultural politics of the time) or in closed circles (the underground trends). There was nothing in between. Today’s plurality of national and international festivals, a wider range of literary magazines, creative writing contests and courses, translations and anthologies and so on – all these have flourished in waves, in the post-1989 decades. Nowadays, poets are reading their work in public more often than before, write blogs and are invited to read on radio stations and in TV talk-shows. One thing (among others) that is missing, however, is a modern state supported online poetry archive that should reunite the old and the new and be a diverse reliable reference point to any poetry lover and student, from Romania or from elsewhere.
NL: Is there a strong poetic movement in Romania at the moment and, if so, how would you define it?
MM: The poets of my own generation are interested in experimenting with different poetic techniques and some of them are concerned about the impact that their work has on society. I am not sure 25 years of autobiographical, conceptual, fractured, surreal (or other type of) poetry have been enough to understand the 1989 metamorphic moment and the subsequent years, as well as what has remained unchanged. Many poets are involved with NGOs, emerging publishing houses, private and public institutions and cutting-edge cultural projects. The internet offers us all so many possibilities. It has definitely widened our horizons. There are poets who like to see their work translated into different languages, some travel abroad and some are also essayists, editors, professors etc. It is hard to decide who our most important poets at the moment are, but I would most probably choose among those who are committed to poetry as a genre that has an impact on society, who write excellent texts, which move you somewhere inside your soul (and you do not know what it is exactly) or take you somewhere you have never thought of (and do not yet know why you like it), by connecting modernity and tradition and by capturing contemporary metamorphoses, both national and international.
NL: What do you see as being the role of a poet?
MM: The role of the poet is primarily to communicate issues that people seem to be blind to or do not want to see or hear. We sometimes forget how beautiful a butterfly can be and that it needs a garden or a meadow to be able to fly and for us to hear its clicks. The art of poetry is to subtly communicate unspeakable or forgotten truths and mysteries in ways that are engaging, playful, thought-provoking and convincing. Poets are masters of words, ideas, rhythms, magic and invisible energies. They can show that the agony of truth can be beautiful too, in spite of the change, the disaster, the detritus or the terror that may have generated it.
NL: Your thesis was on the subject of Caribbean British contemporary poetry. What attracted you to this subject and have you found it to be a particularly rewarding field of study?
MM: In 2008, when I applied for a Doctoral Scholarship at the University of Bucharest, I made a list of possible topics, ranging from the English metaphysical poets to Doris Lessing. The one which my coordinator, Dr Lidia Vianu, suggested I should choose was about black British poetry. Eventually, I narrowed the topic down a bit, to concentrate on the work of specific poets. This is how twelve contemporary Caribbean authors landed on my desk: John Agard, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, E. A. Markham, Kei Miller, Grace Nichols, Dorothea Smartt, Derek Walcott and Benjamin Zephaniah. What I found most enchanting and rewarding were their various approaches to hybridity, be it linguistic, cultural, ethnic, racial or religious and their remarkable attitude to cultural trauma. Later I thought that I may have resonated with their work because my Romanian culture has developed at the crossroads of very different imperial cultures and because Europe is now a very hybrid project and we must learn from what happened in other parts of the world. I believe we all need to learn from scratch how to deal with Otherness, in a creative way. Received knowledge or irony (our proverbial bășcălie or caterincă) may not always function well.
NL: Is there any period within the corpus of English literature that you feel especially drawn to and, if so, why?
MM: Although my main interest lies in contemporary poetry, in my own writing I sometimes draw on the English tradition. I enjoy reading metaphysical poets such as John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins, because of the mystical and religious elements that are to be found in their poems and because of how they play with language. I have recently read poems by Anne Bradstreet, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, which I find inspiring in terms of attitude and language craft. Religious practice is an aspect which is going through significant changes nowadays, both in my country and in other parts of the world, and I see poets have begun to reflect on that in various ways. Besides English poetry, I have a shelf of poetry in translation at home. I recently bought a small book called Fifteen Iraqi Poets edited by Dunya Mikhail, because this year I had a group of Iraqi students at the University of Bucharest and wish to know more about their literature.
NL: You are a translator with a working knowledge of several languages. When you translate texts from or into these languages, does each language present its own special challenges? How do you go about resolving these issues?
MM: I do translation work from or into English and Spanish, but I also have some knowledge of German, Hungarian and Finnish. Yes, each language does present its own challenges. I try wherever possible to accommodate multiple meanings or cultural references within the text or, if necessary, by adding a footnote. Getting the right shade of meaning can be very challenging. If in difficulty, I can always contact the author or a native speaker to establish the best choice together.
NL: How easy is it, in translation work, to mistake an apple for a kiwi?
MM: It can probably be sometimes easier than one might think, although they are two different fruits and, phonetically speaking, their names have nothing in common. But there are cases when you dream about an apple, try to take it in your hand, wake up and see there is no apple around. Instead, there is a kiwi on the table. Something similar happened to me when I was a child. I thought the word “okay” meant cheie, “a key”. My first mis-translation. It may be because of films like Dallas or Rich Man, Poor Man. Quite uncommon in the early 1980s in my country, “okay” is now on the lips of many urban(ized) Romanians to express their agreement, an Americanism already included in the Romanian dictionaries.
NL: Do you think that a translation adds to an original text or takes something away from it?
Some translations in the target language may add to the original text and the reasons are multiple. The translator may believe the target text becomes more fluent, more natural and more exact in meaning by adding collocations and idioms instead of using single words, for example, or by making infinitesimal changes in meaning. Last year, I compared two editions of Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia translated into Romanian. In contrast with the 1971 translation, which has only one footnote, the 2014 edition has no less than 84 footnotes, mainly aimed at culturally translating an early twentieth century American novel into the Romanian language of the early twenty first century.
On the other hand, especially in the case of poetry, the translation into the target language may take something away from the original, mainly when aspects of rhythm, rhyme and sound are taken into account. In prose, the dialect may pose cultural problems, for instance. But I do believe that the best translators work carefully with the original, in order to render its complexity into the target language. We should not be afraid of rhyming texts or texts with multiple meanings, as long as Shakespeare, Dante and Eminescu have already been translated into other languages.
An extreme example of dealing with the limits of translation I found in a book entitled Slave Song by David Dabydeen, which is already translated from Creole into Standard English and is already accompanied by the translator-author’s notes. Food for thought.
NL: The current series of bilingual books featuring the work of contributors to Contemporary Literary Horizon and published by Editura Pim / Bibliotheca Universalis has been a major undertaking. I have been very impressed with the way these books have been so smartly presented within a standard format. Can you tell me something about the work that has gone into this production, in particular, all the translation work?
MM: Bibliotheca Universalis is a publishing project which includes poets, prose writers and essayists, whose works are valuable, but who do not follow a certain literary current or fashion. It reinforces the prestige of the Gutenberg Galaxy or of the written and printed word, which has proved its perennity throughout time. Based on the principle of multilingual production and on a polycentric approach to culture, it promotes contemporary literature, no matter the language in which authors write their works. Because the books are written in many languages, we work with a team of translators from these languages.
NL: You recently became the editor of Orizont Literar Contemporan (Contemporary Literary Horizon). What do you see as the main challenges of being an editor of a multi-cultural journal in our present age?
MM: As an editor of the CLH, I come into contact with both authors and translators. Because we translate not only from and into English and Spanish, but also from and into Portuguese, German, Italian, French and other languages, I have to make sure that there are experts in using these languages, who check the accuracy of the translations. Sometimes, the authors themselves send poems and essays already translated by them or by someone else. Because many of the authors published by CLH live thousands of miles away, we keep in touch via the internet. In some cases, they visit Romania, when we organize the Intercultural Spring in April or when their book is launched in Bucharest. I often invite some of my best students to translate short texts and see their translations published, a practice learned from my PhD coordinator, Dr Lidia Vianu, who has always encouraged younger generations on their career path.
NL: What projects are you working on at the moment?
MM: At the moment I am working on a new collection of poems. Some of them have been published in local and international magazines. Of course, I am continuing with my translation work: a new translation of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and a few books of poetry and travel writing for the collection Bibliotheca Universalis.
NL: Thank you!
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and an e-book, Grease-banding The Apple Trees, which is available as an international PDF download from Raffaelli Editore, Italy, 2015.