Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley

Ștefănescu, Cecilia (2013), Sun Alley, Istros Books
[Translated from Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer]
ISBN 9781908236067

_20160901_053838At this point in the year, this is the worst book I have read all year or at least the worst book I have finished. I mean, good God. It certainly is the worst translated book. That‘s not to say that Cecilia Ștefănescu‘s Sun Alley is wholly without interest. The author handles some structures well, and the very ending of the novel, which is almost camp in its outré dramatic pose, is nevertheless quite enjoyable. The style is dense with adjectives, but if handled by a better translator, it might have worked better. Mircea Cartarescu, after all, who positively glows in English translation, has a profound appreciation for adjectives as syntactical building blocks, as well. Not having read the original text, I cannot tell whether the heavy footed attempt at lyricism has died at the hands of the author or at the translators’ hands, although I suppose that some of the genuinely awful parts are a collaboration. A collaboration in the same way that, say, “Krazy” is a collaboration between Pitbull and Lil Jon. The results are underwhelming, is my point. There are quite a few redeeming aspects to this novel of a strange love affair between 12 year olds that comes to a head when they are adults in their thirties. Ștefănescu writes in a tradition that includes the frequently strange and fantastic fiction of Mircea Eliade, and her sense of the grotesque, of the way bodies demand room in our lives, the smell and the presence of the physical, is quite extraordinary, and her writing of a young adolescent consciousness, another link to Eliade, is the strongest part of the novel. The sections dealing with adulthood are banal at best and god-awful at worst. What’s more, you never feel that the author is wholly in control of her material. The novel is interestingly structured, but it is a structure that needed an editor to make it work on the page, to make it all cohere. I have not read a book since Gila Lustiger’s novel early last year that was so bad overall despite having so many promising parts – I mean it’s better to talk about a good book with weaknesses than a terrible, awful, no good book with good parts in it, say, a few pearls found in a large container of smelly, somewhat suspect oysters rife with salmonella. I don’t like saying bad things about European literature in English translation – there’s so little of it, it needs all the encouragement it can get. Did you know that nothing by the major Polish novelist Joanna Bator is translated into English? This however, is just a terrible product and cannot possibly advance the cause of literature in translation. Don’t read it, don’t buy it, just, I don’t know? Pretend it doesn’t exist?

DSC_2509The first issue to examine a bit closer has to be, at this point, the question of translation, because everything I know about the book has been transmitted to me through the voices of Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer. The unevenness of the text would suggest an unevenly talented pair of translators, but that is guesswork. If you don’t do a line by line comparison, it is sometimes hard to ferret out the part of the translator in a book’s failings or successes. Sometimes, you read a book and come across very odd sentences that you suspect make more sense in the original. This happened very frequently to me as I was reading Sun Alley. But let’s start with the first problem, that of sloppy editing. I do not, of course, know the process that translations undergo at Istros Books, but not infrequently, the translation created obvious problems that even a cursory editing job would have caught. Such as when one character utters “only two words,” those words being “I love you.” Now, these are actually (count them) three words, but in Romanian, the phrase is te iubesc. Two words. This is the kind of mistake that turns up in quick interlinear translations, or maybe the translator was hurried. There are a few of these and they are obviously mistakes added to the text by the translator, with the author completely innocent. In other cases, the translators chose to draw out some descriptions in the original, as when a button-up blouse with ivory buttons turns into a “bouse fastened with tiny, ivory buttons.” The main problem, however, is found in neither of these cases. The main problem is where the author’s style, which is already too ornate for Ștefănescu’s skill set, is transformed into an English that does the author no favors. The language is a bit stranger, a bit more awkward in English, which ends up producing sentences like the following: “He placed his small, young hand upon her white, smooth-skinned, fine-fingered hand, with red-painted fingernails grown slightly to reveal a pinkish semicircle.” Which, obviously, you may think is a stellar piece of writing. Worse writers have won major awards. But even if you think this is great, bear with me. I think one of the major problems of this translation is that it is enormously unaware of the, for lack of a better word, Romanian qualities of the writing. The translator keeps to structure and flow of the original to a fault without having an appreciable feel for the differences of the target language. It always feels enormously translated, with word choices sometimes reading as if the author picked the first option in the dictionary. At best it is a bit odd, at worst it turns the book into a turgid mess – and which of the two it is changes from chapter to chapter, sometimes from page to page.

cecilia_stefanescu_copThe Romanian quality of the work goes beyond word choice or awkward syntax. Another aspect that the translators are not incredibly aware of are the specific literary and textual contexts the author has placed her novel in – or rather, the translators are not aware that these references need special care and attention. At one point there’s a reference to, I believe, the Spân, a kind of trickster figure that turns up in many fairy tales. It’s used by a writer well aware of what that figure signifies to a literate Romanian, and the translators translate it in the same way, which means it’s completely opaque to the intended audience of a translation like this. I mean there are multiple solutions, among them footnotes or a more organic explanation within the text. But the text as a whole gives off an impression of total disinterest in that target audience. It’s not just the sometimes offensively bad editing (for example: place names like Constanța appear sometimes with, and sometimes without diacritics in the text), it’s also the translators who are just not particularly interested in making this text speak to an international audience. If you have read some Romanian literature (I have an overview of some strands of contemporary Romanian lit here) and are aware of various cultural and textual aspects, you can piece together how some of the text’s throughlines are supposed to work. The abovementioned Spân, for example, is part of a recurring theme of storytelling, imagination and deeply unreliable testimony and narration in the book. Adults read stories to their children, boys tell legends to girls they want to impress and kids tell other kids lies about their lives. These are themes common in world literature, but, especially in connection with adolescence, they are overwhelmingly common in Romanian literature. For example, a plurality of Cartarescu’s books are a variation on this theme, as are Mircea Eliade’s non-orientalist novels and stories, and Filip Florian’s work, as well. Yet, unlike any of these (even Eliade stressed the political aspects of storytelling in his Arabian Nights-cum-Kafka novel Pe strada Mântuleasa), Ștefănescu chose to place her novel in a space/time continuum that barely touches on history and politics, making the allusive nature of the text so much more important. While the other cases are of the translators failing to rise to the challenges of offering us an unclouded view of the text, this is a case where the two translators would have had the opportunity to either lift the text to the audience’s horizon or lift the audience to the text’s horizon. Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer, unchallenged or unprompted by the editors at Istros Books, decided to do neither.

DSC_2510Yet please, do not let me seduce you into thinking this is a masterpiece marred by imperfect translators and terrible editing. The book itself, even discounting the translation, is nothing to write home about. There are two distinct parts that overlap, bleed into each other and inform one another: one is set in the childhood of the two protagonists, the other during their adulthood. The two protagonists are Sorin Alexandru Lemnaru, known as Sal, and Emilia, known as Emi. The adolescent parts are not without interest. Cecilia Ștefănescu is good at recreating the confused, claustrophobic state of mind of an adolescent boy, who is a bit overwhelmed by boyish power games among his friends, by a misguided sense of his own intelligence and by the power of his own imagination. Ștefănescu cleverly uses her overly detailed descriptions to show us how an adolescent attention is both fleeting and hyperfocused, by moving from detailed description to detailed description without a clear sense of direction and purpose. However. if you want to read something like that, in a similar setting, but executed by a truly gifted hand, why not read Mircea Cartarescu’s Nostalgia, instead, which is an unbelievable, layered work of genius. Yet Ștefănescu has a strangeness of her own. The blurb on the back of the book calls it a “love story” but it is an odd story. We barely hear Emi’s side of it, not when they are 12, and not in their thirties. At some point she says “I love you, but in another way…” and throughout the book you get a very murky sense of her motivations to stick with Sal. As adults, we learn quickly, Sal and Emi are not a couple, they are each married to other people, but they have an affair with each other, which puts enormous emotional stress on both of them. It is odd how the novel makes you feel that Sal somehow coerced Emi into this arrangement, much as he appears to coerce her into much of the stuff they do as children. He is what we’d today describe as “toxic” – the first sexual encounter between him and Emi basically consists of him forcing himself on Emi, making her pleasure him with her hand. He’s socially and economically privileged, compared to her, and incredibly self absorbed. He needs constant validation and attention, suffering breakdowns when he doesn’t get them and he may or may not be a bit mentally ill. All of this is interesting, and the oppressive atmosphere, combined with the strange elusiveness of who Emi really is, really help build a sense of place that is both in Bucharest and in a world of its own. The sections dealing with edult Emilia and Sorin, however, are terrible. Clichéd, boring, uninteresting. The impressively ridiculous ending of the novel needs some kind of exploration of the adult couple, but surely Ștefănescu wouldn’t have needed to jettison everything that makes the book at all interesting.

The end result of all this is the rare book that is much, much less than the sum of its part. The good aspects, such as the very stringent and powerful use of physicality and the grotesque, and the curious treatment of adolescence and sexual power are drowned in a sea of strange syntax, editing and translating mistakes and severely misjudged plot developments. Overall, I think, this is in large part a tale of the importance of good editors. Ștefănescu would have needed an editor to tell her to cut these 300 pages to about 150 and get rid of some of the awful interior monologues and the majority of the adult sections, and the translators needed an editor to catch some of the easy mistakes and make them care a bit about the target audience. It is hard to blame Istros Books because they appear to do a valuable service by bringing a lot of east European literature into English, including Eliade’s early/important novel Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent. Yet no amount of goodwill towards the publisher can redeem this awful mess.


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5 thoughts on “Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley

  1. Oh, dear, I got quite excited when I saw the title, hurray, something Romanian gets translated at last, but then got discouraged when I read your review. [I haven’t read it, so have no opinions to add.] It just seems like such a shame that of the few, so few books which do get translated, there are mediocre or even poor ones. I wonder by what criteria they decide what to translate. You mention some far better Romanian writers there, they seem like obvious places to start, but there are a number of others (including dead ones) who deserve to be better known.

    • So on a literature forum I was on, literary translator Eric Dickens, who translates quite a bit of Estonian literature (and who does it very, very well), and who is a bit of a weird right wing dick, explained it: much of this comes from the translators themselves. Like, have you seen the conversation I had on Twitter with translator AN West re: Marianne Fritz? Unless the writer is a “name” writer (like Martin Walser, whose dull books keep getting translated), the impulse comes from the translator, or sometimes, I think, translator brings an author to the publisher and they decide on which book to pick. I think that’s what happened with Clemens Setz, whose work’s quality has been constantly declining in favor of more flashy effects and exploitation of liminal mental states, and there was a rumor that his translator was translating his second novel, but I think the flashy exciting nature of “Indigo,” whatever the book’s literary merits, have convinced the publisher to translate that one instead? That’s just guesswork. But I suspect something similar with the Laroui I reviewed. I think the published preferred to dip their toes into the waters with a collection of stories (they started with stories with Hilbig, too, after all). So, sorry for the long comment. I think it is a two step process: translator brings the book (and often the money; according to Eric Dickens, many translations of small literatures happen “on spec,” with grants paying for much of the work.) In this specific case, both translators have very Romanian names, which increases the likelihood of them having approached Istros Books with a finished or with a big chunk.

  2. Just a couple of comments from the perspective of a not-yet-old-hand but also not-totally-new-at-it translator: the rules governing what does and doesn’t get translated are highly chaotic, often depressing, and involve many factors, among which the quality of the writing in question is not paramount. Of paramount importance is that English-language publishers are more dependent than their counterparts elsewhere on second- and thirdhand opinions, and thus more susceptible to hype or to the recommendations of readers, translators, and professional acquaintances whose taste may be questionable or who have ulterior motives for promoting a given author. This affects translation quality as well: since most publishers can’t compare the translation and the original, and often don’t know anyone who can, the person chosen frequently has friends in the industry or, as Tim Parks notes somewhere, happens to frequent the right places at the right times. Also, if a book pushes the right buttons, it may get published despite not being very good, or despite the translation being shoddy. This is a particular problem with books from minority languages, I think: the publishers feel they are doing a good deed by bringing the thing out, critics go easy on it for reasons of political correctness, and as long as a cultural organization is footing the bill, as is frequently the case, everyone’s happy except the befuddled reader, who can’t figure out why he could barely get through a book everyone praised as “brave,” “moving,” “original,” or what have you. I will say that in general, foreign publishers don’t recommend their countries’ best books, but rather the books they think they can get English-language publishers to buy (often by making dubious comparisons to canonical writers or ones who have sold well in English translation), and hence the pool from which most publishers are choosing is quite restricted. As always, there are exceptions, and most translators probably find a way to squeeze in their passion projects, often on spec, as you note, Marcel.

    • This “critics go easy on it for reasons of political correctness” is something I have noticed as well.

      Also, if you feel like it, can you comment on the role of the editor? I planned and forgot to write a review of Filip Florian’s first novel to appear in English, the politically canny and powerful “Degete Mici” or “Little Fingers” – the writing in English is a bit meh, but the book is structured in an interesting way – and I found out, when comparing it to the Romanian original, that the editor completely cut up the original book and re-arranged the pieces. I got in touch with translator and editor and they confirmed this is what happened. Editor says she was young and wouldn’t do it again. But it makes me wonder about the impact editors have. I complained to the translator of Izzo’s masterful “Total Kheops” once because the English title is “Total Chaos,” unnecessarily (“Total Kheops” or “Total Cheops” would retain the pun + reference). He says editor did it.

    • I hate complaining about “political correctness” because it’s so often a mask for white male resentment, but I do think the feeling that a book is on the right side of something or other can often cloud critical judgment. I see this at times in Catalan literature, for example. Editors and their role in translation – this is a huge issue. Overall, I’ve been fortunate as far as the books I’ve cared about go: Contra Mundum Press took a light touch with Josef Winkler and were genuinely concerned with the quality of the text, and with Marianne Fritz, I had great editors willing to make some interventions I might have been reluctant about myself, but that I do think made the book better (changing the title is an obvious example). BUT I had a horrible experience with a book that I ended up translating in its entirety before the editor and I broke up, so to speak. In essence, this person ordered me to make radical changes to the book as far as syntax, lexicon, register, etc., lied to me and said that neither the author nor the publisher had right of final approval, and then when the author saw it (and justifiably had a fit), the editor threw me under the bus. I shouldn’t have agreed to do the work in the first place, but at the time, I really needed the money. There are lots of other interesting cases: a publisher that, almost as a matter of policy, hires inexperienced translators to produce often abysmal versions that are more or less rewritten by the editors; at the other end, one that contracts with the original language publisher for the translations, never has any contact with the translator, and in some cases doesn’t even copy-edit the translation before putting it out.

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