Tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born? Grow up? What job do you do now? Before?
I was born in a small town called Deva, in Romania, in the Transylvania region (famous for its Dracula connections). At the age of twelve I moved to England to an even smaller town on the Sussex coast called Bexhill-on-Sea (famous as a retirees playground). After studying English and History of Art at UCL, I trained to become a teacher and have been teaching English Literature at A level at a sixth form college in Hampshire ever since.
How did you get into translating?
I got into translating by accident. When I was studying at UCL we were asked to bring a poem we liked to one of our seminars and I brought a poem translated from Romanian called ‘The Traveller’, by Marin Sorescu which I had found in a book in the London University Library. It is a poem that I felt expressed a lot about who I was, not only about my Romanian background but also about my insatiable need to travel, to explore as much of the world as I could, a rootlessness born, perhaps, out of being an immigrant and not feeling as if I belonged to any particular place. Almost twenty years later, I walked some of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route with some friends and that experience, combining the exhilaration of discovery with the discomfort of travel, reminded me of the poem. I tried to find it in an English translation to share it with my friends but I couldn’t, so I translated it myself. I then came across the Stephen Spender poetry translation competition, I entered it and (to my immense surprise) I won. Winning the competition made me think that translating was something that I could do successfully and gave me the confidence to attempt to translate more of the Romanian literature I loved and introduce others to it.
What are the names of your latest books and what inspired you to translate them?
I have just finished translating two novels by Mihail Sebastian, The Town with Acacia Trees and Women. After winning the Stephen Spender prize, I decided to translate the Romanian classics I loved and which are an important part of the country’s literary heritage – works by Lucian Blaga, Mihail Sebastian, Liviu Rebreanu and others. When I was growing up in Romania, these books shared a bookshelf in my grandparents’ home with European classics by Dickens, the Brontes, Flaubert and so on. In my eyes all of these books were equally valuable and it was a shock to see how no-one in England had heard of the Romanian classics. As all of these books were written in the interwar period, I embarked on a project called ‘Interbellum Series’ with the idea of translating as many of them as I could. Romanians are the second largest non- British group living in the UK and I felt that it was important that the best of Romanian literature and culture should be represented in some way here. I chose to translate Mihail Sebastian’s novels as two of his works, Journal and For Two Thousand Years had recently been translated and well received in the UK and the US and I thought there might be an interest in his other work.
Tell us about the process of translating fiction? You don’t just stick it through google translate do you?
Since I started translating poetry and novels, the act of translation has been a real joy to me. I don’t speak much Romanian anymore so translating these texts has been a wonderful way of reconnecting to my ‘old’ language and transforming it into my ‘new’ one, English. Although after 25 years of living in the UK I feel much more confident reading and speaking English, it was reassuring to realise that I can still read Romanian and sense the shifts in tone in a text, the shades of meaning conveyed by specific words. In my job as an English teacher I have to understand how texts work, what meanings and what voice the author is intending to put across, and I think that as a translator you have to do the same thing. I feel that every translation is an interpretation, almost a creative act of literary criticism.
How much research do you do into the original author and the way they work?
I think, to some extent, the writers’ literary influences provide an insight into the world and narrative voice they are trying to create. In the case of Mihail Sebastian, knowing that he had been influenced by Proust helped me shape the style and tone of the passages dealing with the sensory aspects of memory in The Town with Acacia Trees and Women. After I finished translating The Town with Acacia Trees I reread the parts of Sebastian’s Journal from 1935, the year the novel was published. What struck me as particularly poignant was the way that I could see that this witty novel, this bittersweet celebration of youthful aspirations, was written at a time when Sebastian himself was trying to live the life of a normal young man, going to concerts, flirting with girls, while the world around him was falling apart, his closest friends ostracising him for his Jewish background during a period when much of the Romanian intelligentsia was moving towards nationalism.
Do you try and visit the places featured in the book?
As I was translating The Town with Acacia Trees I started to trace the main characters’ romantic promenades through Bucharest on the map. All the street names are real and I would like to go back to Bucharest and walk in their footsteps, noticing how much the city has changed since the 1930s. Having grown up in Romania, I do sometimes have a jolt of recognition when I am translating certain parts of the novels – domestic details such as the terracotta stoves, tea sets or old postcards bring back to me memories of my grandparents’ home.
Tell us about your lead characters? Who would you like to see playing them in a movie version of the book?
I think what unites Sebastian’s characters and what I find interesting about them is the fact that they are not idealised. In The Town with Acacia Trees the point of view shifts between the two main characters who are romantically involved and we are exposed in turn to their desires, their aspirations and their selfishness – they are not heroic or even always likeable, they are merely ordinary young people trying to understand who they are and what it means to be in love.
One of my favourite characters in Women is Arabela, the heroine of the last section of the novel. As the story of their romance is told from the point of view of the male narrator, Ștefan Valeriu, Arabela remains a mysterious bundle of contradictions- a glamorous acrobat turned cabaret star, she is also a level headed, parsimonious, old fashioned moralist. I could imagine Anamaria Marinca playing her in a film, partly because she is a Romanian actress working in the UK and also because she is wonderfully adaptable – I first saw her in the internationally acclaimed Romanian film ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ and then in ‘Midsomer Murders’! There is always an ironic half-smile playing on her face which I think would be right for Arabela.
What else have you translated? Is this book a departure from your other work?
The first literary work I translated for my project ‘interbellum Series’ was Poems of Light, by the poet and philosopher Lucian Blaga. I have also translated contemporary poems for literary magazines, but these are the first two novels I have translated.
What were you like at school? Were you good at languages?
At school I was a nerd with little social life to speak of (not much has changed), so I was generally good at all my subjects, except any that involved a practical element. But I always loved literature best – Romanian literature when I was at school in Romania, English literature when I moved to England.
What authors, or books have influenced you?
My main literary influences are Alice Munro and Vladimir Nabokov. I admire Munro’s writing for its economy and emotional restraint and I like Nabokov’s sly humour and sense of the absurd.
Do you plan on writing a novel? If so, any hints on what it might be about?
No. I have written a couple of short stories and I was delighted and surprised when my first one, ‘It was a very good year’, was shortlisted for the Tom-Gallon Trust award. I think I see translating at the moment as more valuable than writing my own original fiction – I think there are some very important works that mean a lot to Romanian people that need to exist in English and I’d rather spend my time making that happen.
What are you working on now?
I am translating another interwar novel called Ciuleandra, by Liviu Rebreanu. It is very different from the Mihail Sebastian novels, a psychological thriller about an aristocrat who murders his wife, a peasant girl who he fell obsessively in love with. The novel takes place in a sanatorium, where he tells the story of the events that led to her murder to a psychiatrist. It is a gripping read and also sheds light on the social changes happening in early twentieth century Romania. It has been translated in Spanish and Italian, but not as yet in English.
What are you reading now?
Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan and Journeys by Stefan Zweig (translated by Will Stone).
What is your favourite book of all time?
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov is for me a perfect allegory of the emigree’s divided identity.
What advice would you give to aspiring translators?
I still consider myself an aspiring translator, so I’m not sure whether I am the best person to give advice. I have just translated the books that are important to me and sent countless emails to editors until I found the ones who shared my interests.
Do you have a website or social media platforms where readers can find more information about you?
My interwar translation project ‘Interbellum Series’ has a Facebook page and an Instagram page.