Recently I was reading poet and translator Oana Avasilichioaei’s 2015 book Limbinal. For the most part, the collection consists of work that isn’t translation. However, a little over halfway through there’s a section called “Ancillary” that, at first glance, seems like a straightforward collection of Avasilichioaei’s translations of Paul Celan’s Romanian-language poetry.
The first page of that section is a poem in Romanian, “Regǎsire,” and the facing page contains a poem titled “Regain.” This standard en face arrangement lulled me into an automatic habit of reading, so after “Regain,” I skipped over the poem that immediately follows and read the next page on the right-hand side.
To my mild embarrassment, I eventually realized that “Regǎsire” was the only Romanian-language poem there, so I had inadvertently overlooked what I had assumed to be the source text but was actually an English-language translation. This mistake seems even more obvious in retrospect, since the two poems after “Regain”—“Love Song” and “Last Night”—vary in length a fair amount, so they’re hardly mirror images.
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that I, as a non-speaker, would default to skipping over Celan’s Romanian. However, what might this habit of reading cause me to miss along the way? Avasilichioaei’s choice to include a single Romanian poem strikes me as a highly intentional artistic decision, and I suspect that she might be pleased at how it caught me off guard and made me reflect.
Avasilichioaei brings even further tension to bear on the en face paradigm in the following section, “Riverine,” the first part of which contains several statements from Paul Celan (“PC”) and Nelly Sachs (“NS”) on the left, with statements from “OA” (presumably Avasilichioaei herself) on the right. The passages on the left- and right-hand pages are staggered, giving the impression of a dialogue. (Avasilichioaei notes that the Celan and Sachs quotes come from Correspondence [Sheep Meadow Press, 1995; translated by Christopher Clark]). And, in the following part of “Riverine,” she mixes fragments of Celan’s Romanian in with her own writing.
In her 2017 book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, Karen Emmerich talks about the “possibilities” of “collapsing the line between writing and translation” (185). She also asks, “What might it look like if we, as translators, gave ourselves the freedom to engage in forms of citational correspondence whose goal was not to reflect or represent but to grow, to mess around, to destroy the pieces, to magic poetry forward in excitingly non-original ways?” (189). Avasilichiaoei certainly explores these possibilities and approaches “citational correspondence” in a multifaceted manner, in which the source text, her own translations, and cited material from a book translated by someone else intermingle with her own non-translation writing.
The passages from Emmerich’s book are in a chapter about Jack Spicer, who, like Avasilichioaei, is both a poet and translator. Emmerich suggests that being perceived as a “poet-translator” may mean others feel less resistance to one’s unconventional translations (185). As luck would have it, I too am a poet-translator. In fact, my time as a poet far pre-dates my work in translation—despite my longstanding love of language learning, I didn’t seriously arrive at translation until I was already far into an English PhD program. However, does my poet-ness mean that I myself am an assertively experimental translator? No, at least not yet.
Joe DeLong PhD in English, and he’s currently working on an MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa. His translations (with Noriko Hara) of contemporary Japanese poet Ken’ichi Sasō have appeared in journals such as Asymptote¸ Two Lines, and Painted Bride Quarterly. His other publications include poems, visual poems (a combination of original illustrations and text), and a scholarly article on the memoirs of mathematicians. His recent research interests include multilingual literature and the poetry of Quebec.