Interview _ Monica Manolachi

Monica Manolachi is a poet, a literary translator, and a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, Romania, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her PhD in 2011.

Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation.

Her books include Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry (Ars Docendi, 2017); and the poetry collections, Joining the Dots / Uniti Punctele (PIM, 2016), Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria’s Stories to Magus Viridis) (Brumar, 2012) and Roses (Lumen, 2007).

In September 2016, her Antologie de poezie din Caraibe was awarded the “Dumitru Crăciun” Prize for Translation at the International Festival “Titel Constantinescu”, Râmnicu Sărat.

Monica Manolachi has also translated children’s literature by classical authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Jack London into Romanian. [Editor's Note: See also, Manolachi's Galatea Resurrects #.25 interview on poetry, translation and research].

In this interview, Monica Manolachi talks about poetry, Caribbean and Romanian literature and Journeys in Translation.

How would you describe Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry?

Performative Identities is a book about some of the cultural meanings of the poetry written by authors from the Caribbean, who live, have lived or lived in the United Kingdom: John Agard, James Berry, 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.

It focuses on five themes: performative identity; performative gender and race; postcolonial metamorphoses; collective trauma and memory; and religion. The thread that connects all these themes is the idea that the hubristic component of cultural hybridity may be considered a source of performative identity. The poet’s role is to transform hubris into an artistic product by using metaphoric language.

How did the book come about?

In 2008, I was sailing the ocean of literature published in English, trying to choose a topic for my PhD thesis. I was in Bucharest, where I live, and couldn’t decide what direction to take. The novels of Hanif Kureishi, Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch, but also the metaphysical poets, the Romantic poets or the contemporary poets were on my list.

Apart from using elements of literary studies, I wanted to develop a translation component.

Professor Lidia Vianu, my coordinator, told me the work of black British poets hadn’t been approached here by then, so that would have been an excellent topic. After reading and listening to poetry by some of the poets mentioned above, after accessing some articles, biographies and interviews and watching some videos online, Caribbean literature emerged as a significant subject in my mind, slightly different from Bob Marley’s music (quite popular here) and very different from Pirates of the Caribbean (in the cinemas at the time).

Of course, I liked what I read: the pronunciation, the attitude, the wordplay, the approach to history, the focus on memory, ethno-racial matters and relationships, or the variety of poetic styles and techniques. The problem was that the main corpus was practically not available in any our libraries. I had been interested in postcolonial studies ever since we were introduced to the topic at the faculty; in 2003, I had seen the word “postcolonial” on a door at the ELTE, the state university of Budapest, where I was studying Hungarian (my minor). So, in the summer of 2008, I made my research proposal after reading only a small part of what was about to come.

I am a very intuitive person and now I think I made the best choice. The theoretical scaffolding was developed later, following the main idea of the hubristic side of cultural hybridity, in the sense that the latter may hide many inequalities and unhealthy relationships.

I had heard about the Greek term hubris in high school, when our literature teacher, Mr. Gheorghe Mitrache, introduced us to ancient Greek drama. Later, as a student of foreign languages, I realized there are etymologists who agree that there is a link between hubris and hybridity, and the Oxford English Dictionary mentions too that hubris is the root of the word hybrid.

It means there must be theorists who support this view, I thought. The more I read about (cultural) hybridity, the more I realize there are arguments for this perspective.

In the first year at the doctoral school, the scholarship offered by the University of Bucharest allowed me to buy some books online, especially the poetry collections. It was only in 2009, when I went to Oxford to do research in the Bodleian Library, that I eventually started to go scuba diving in the deep Caribbean Sea of poetry.

This is, in short, how my journey of cultural translation began.

Monica Manolachi's books include Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry (Ars Docendi, 2017); and the poetry collections, Joining the Dots / Uniti Punctele (PIM, 2016), Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria’s Stories to Magus Viridis) (Brumar, 2012).

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work that went into the book?

Firstly, the many local languages spoken in the Caribbean – Jamaican Patois, Guyanese Creole etc. – have been a source of poetry, of course, which means that what Kamau Brathwaite called “nation language” in The History of the Voice (1984) appears as a significant linguistic phenomenon in the collections published by these authors.

It is English, but not quite. At first, I had some difficulties.

In a slim book entitled Slave Song, writer David Dabydeen shows the gap between Standard English and the various dialects spoken there and gives some explanations why people prefer a hybrid language, suggesting what might happen in the psyche when such dialects are obliterated, and that translating dialects might pose problems.

When trying to translate some of these works, I realized Standard Romanian is like Standard English: it does not express the same reality. And then, what dialect to choose?

In this case, I guess, one perfect equivalence would be texts written in a Romanian dialect about our realities, through glocalization, which I have actually seen lately.

Secondly, the poetry written by Caribbean authors is rooted in numerous cultural phenomena originated in almost all continents: the triangular history of the slave trade, the multicultural European heritage, the New World, the mass migration across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans etc. The texts are often palimpsests, one word may have multiple meanings and the translator must work carefully not to obscure them.

One book that seemed opaque to me at the beginning was Bill of Rights by Fred D’Aguiar, which deals with the Jonestown massacre from November 1978. Only after watching a documentary online did I have a better grasp of the tragedy the book is about.

Another challenging aspect I am researching at the moment is intralinguistic translation: how contemporary poetry interacts with various Anglophone literary and artistic traditions. It is challenging because it involves a lot of work and resources, but I find it rewarding and useful for future translations.

Last but not least, one of the risks of considering the hubristic component of cultural hybridity as a source of performative identity is to think that hubris must be produced or procured like any other resource. It happens anyway, because man is a small creature in the universe and cannot control everything.

I’d rather say that, instead of just sitting and waiting, man should consider why and how hubris occurs.

I don’t have clear answers to these questions.

What is obvious is that many crises are produced because of not understanding when and how certain phenomena become excessive.

It has taken me about ten years to read and partially assimilate what these authors have written. I’m sometimes suspicious of some of the ideas I put in the book. I fear they might be biased, unripe or improper. My English might sound awkward at times. However, I’m sure poetry has its own mysteriously redeeming ways.

Which were the most enjoyable aspects of the work?

One of the best features of Caribbean poetry is that it tackles cultural and historical trauma in many healing ways. It ranges from epic poems such as Omeros by Derek Walcott or Turner by David Dabydeen, dealing with collective wounds, to humorous and witty condensed poetry which debunks stereotypes.

It also ranges from poems written in Standard English to many others which combine it with dialects and other languages, or are written in dialect altogether. The colour of saying – to quote Dylan Thomas – is a rainbow of feelings and rhythms, the joy of difference I identified with from the very beginning.

As a learner of English, reading Caribbean poetry is very rewarding. It makes me dream in English and of distant places and people.

Last week, I dreamt I was on a beach in Barbados!

Last summer, I dreamt both Walcott and Brathwaite, and had a conversation with them. Walcott said “the night is young” and went upstairs. We were in Barbados too. I have recurrent dreams of this island.

Some years ago, I dreamt Grace Nichols in my kitchen: we were chatting like close friends.

Apart from this influence, I find very interesting the way these poets respond to other literary traditions, especially the Western one. It is a vivifying interaction with fusions, intrusions and disjunctions, which reveals traces of intercultural contact, the nature of that relationships and the tensions of power relations.

Postcolonial poetry from the Caribbean suggests directions in which cultures can relate to one another.

As a translator, I started rendering poems into Romanian some years ago. They were hosted by a local webzine, EgoPhobia. In 2016, Antologie de poezie din Caraibe (Anthology of poetry from the Caribbean) won a local prize for translation in Râmnicu Sărat, a town near the place where I was born, Galați. The book includes poems by seven authors. (My intention is to continue with a second edition and to include selections from other authors as well.) Thus, vocabulary such as “star apple” or “star fruit” arrived in Romania both in literature and along with fruit traders.

I see Caribbean poetry as the fruit of endurance and infinite hope, of freedom and genius, the fruit of the “poetics of relation”, in Edouard Glissant’ terms.

What makes Performative Identities different from other books that are out there that look at more or less the same issues?

I am aware that there are hundreds of books about Caribbean culture and literature.

In comparison with other studies that locate Caribbean poetry in the English or the postcolonial literary canon, or that focus on either Caribbeanness or Britishness, my book explores a set of particularities related to how these poets reconfigure the identity of the contemporary migrant beginning with the 1970s.

Following a two-fold approach, both synchronic and diachronic, both literary and cultural, Performative Identities argues that the prominence of Caribbean literature has been the effect of transforming the burden of (neo)colonialism into artistic products. I also look into several psychoanalytical theories (D. Winnicott, N. Abraham and M. Török, or L. Kirmayer) to argue for the importance of poetry as a vibrant mirror of the soul in instrumenting this metamorphosis.

What sets the book apart from other things you’ve written?

It is the only book I have written in English from first to last.

I also write poetry in Romanian and English, articles and essays, and translate literature from and into English.

Apart from being a breathtaking journey, doing research for and writing Performative Identities was a threshold and a source of inspiration, an occasion to learn about the world and to engage in creating my own view through writing.

In 2012, a poetry collection about leaving, returning and becoming a whirlpool, entitled Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria’s Stories to Magus Viridis), was published in Timișoara, Romania. In 2016, Joining the Dots / Uniți punctele came out in Iași, Romania. It is a bilingual collection which includes poems published over the last ten years and in which I engage with contemporary ideas related to translation.

What would you say are some of the things that unite the various aspects of the work you are doing?

Although I don’t teach literature at the moment, I sometimes bring poems in class to show students various types of discourse, to familiarize them with metaphoric language, with its power of connecting fields that may seem incongruent at first sight or of interrupting metanarratives when they ruin parts of society. Fortunately, poetry is not only about love in a narrow sense. A poet sees the love between a stapler and a mustang or between silence and numbers or between cassava bread and quantum physics. Good poetry moves mountains, cultivates sensitivity and can be a delightful, thought-provoking or healing activity.

The main topics of Performative Identities are aspects I tackle in my own writing and research.

I grew up in a multiethnic market town called Tecuci, a place at the crossroads, close to the former border between two historical provinces, Moldova and Wallachia. We used to travel quite often between Bucharest and Tecuci. It was a time when cultural difference officially did not matter much, given the general uniformization and nationalist cultural politics before 1989.

The first time somebody said to me I am a Romanian ethnic was in England in 2010. It took me by surprise. I had never thought of myself an ethnic before. A national, yes. My family name sounds Greek, it’s true, but I had always thought of it only in aural terms.

I believe that translating literature of the Caribbean – and from other postcolonial spaces – might promote a more relaxed and informed approach to interrethnic and interracial relationships, because readers can get a richer perspective on such issues if they are allowed to reflect and talk about them.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

A friend from Scotland, poet Neil Leadbeater, told me about the project and encouraged me to participate. We know each other because he has been a contributor to a local multilingual litmag, Contemporary Literary Horizon, coordinated by Daniel Dragomirescu.

Besides, given that for several years now I have been working with international students who come to study in Bucharest, such poems form part of the material suitable to share with them.

Ten years ago, I graduated from an MA in literary translation studies in Bucharest and have translated poetry ever since, for anthologies, radio, literary magazines, friends and strangers, paid or just for my pleasure or for future projects etc.

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work you put into the initiative?

When translating the poems into Romanian, "but one country" by Rod Duncan required more effort than the others, because of its content and shape.

I worked on it in stages: the identification of meanings; the syntax and the arrangement of the linguistic chunks; the final round shape.

It took about a week, as I had classes at the time.

I had to work quite a bit on the line “you should blush when you say to us…” A word-for-word translation would be too blunt. For the verb “to blush” I preferred “a se îmbujora” instead of “a roși”. Whereas the latter seemed too common to me, stemming from “roșu” (Eng. “red”), the former reminds us of “bujor” (Eng. “peony”), which is more positive, it evokes a mix of shame and hope, rather than just shame, it makes the poem less bitter and more engaging.

The Romanian peony (Paeonia romanica peregrina) is the oldest flower in my country. It survived the ice age and is as old as crocodiles.

From a different angle, the overlapping verbal and non-verbal components of the poem, which together form an instance of intersemiotic translation, give a powwow tonality to the whole.

In my translation, the last two lines of the first half and the next two lines play upon the statement/question binary.

Another challenging aspect is the juxtaposition of words that can be both nouns and verbs, which implies that there might be more than one way of translating them and reflects the existence of more than one reality and sometimes the clash of various perspectives. That occurs in "Song for Guests" by Carol Leeming.

One other thing is that, in "Stories from ‘The Jungle’", Emma Lee uses the pun “the right to chase lorries”. At first, I wasn’t sure what that meant and had to ask: It’s recent history.

Which were the most enjoyable aspects of the work?

I was delighted that "but one country" could be translated into Romanian and arranged exactly as I imagined it when I first read it.

When I wanted to take a photo of the printed page, I noticed the shadow of my hand in the background and thought it looked better with it than a simple photo of the poem.

I find it wonderful that poetry allows us to do so much with so little.

Several weeks ago, we discussed some of these poems in class and students commented on them. They resonated with poems such as "Dislocation" by Pam Thomspon, "What’s in a Name?" by Penny Jones, "The Man Who Ran Through the Tunnel" by Ambrose Musiyiwa, "Framed" by Marilyn Ricci or "The Humans are Coming" by Siobhan Logan.

In some cases, they have family members who work abroad and are sensitive to issues of migration, cultural identity and cultural difference.

Monica Manolachi's translation, into Romanian, of Siobhan Logan’s “The Humans are Coming”, Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) p.79.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

Translation presupposes very careful reading.

If it is poetry, then reality is once again filtered through an imaginative aura, where there is space for mindful reflection, patience and creativity. Values such as friendship, compassion, balance, subtlety, recognition, transparency or awareness are some that come to mind when rereading these poems about the refugee experience and recollecting the act of sharing them with friends, students or family.

Initiatives like Journeys in Translation connect the reality of literature written in English with the everyday multilingual reality seen both in the street and online. They are signs of normality as they can contribute to reshaping our worlds from one year to another, from one decade to another, in a very practical way. It is an instance of what Mahatma Gandhi is quoted to have said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Posting the translations in various languages and the interviews on blogs and social networks is very helpful in this sense because, for example, I have access to what other translators wrote and could relate to their perspectives and come up with improvements. It is as if we were a team in the same room.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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