Last week I went down to Bristol to take part in a translation workshop with Carmen-Francesca Banciu, a Romanian-born author who writes in German. The workshop was the opening event of a conference organised by my lovely colleagues Debbie Pinfold and Sara Jones on ‘Remembering Dictatorship‘. Together with a group of students and translators from Bristol and nearby, we worked on extracts from two novels, Vaterflucht (Fleeing Father) and Ein Land voller Helden (Land of Heroes) for a public reading which also formed part of the conference.
It’s always a privilege to work directly with an author, particularly one who herself has a lot of experience moving between different languages: Carmen-Francesca told us how up till the age of 10, when she went away to boarding school, her family spoke a mixture of Romanian, Hungarian, German and Italian; and that she picked German up again at the age of 35 when she moved to Berlin after the Romanian revolution. She hadn’t intended to write in German, but found the language creeping into her writing, and decided to make the switch.
The extracts chosen for the workshop were very different in style: one from a novel written in German (Vaterflucht), the other (Ein Land voller Helden) translated from Romanian by Georg Aescht and then revised by Banciu herself in German. Ein Land voller Helden is a surreal snapshot of revolution conducted by hearsay, where the revolting masses still have to take off their shoes before storming the palaces. Vaterflucht gave a sparse account of the Securitate (the Romanian secret police) interrogating and threatening a young woman for something that wasn’t technically a crime.
Between them they presented a number of interesting challenges for translation: how to deal with the specific vocabulary of the Romanian dictatorship, and particularly how to evoke the significance of ‘fleeing’ in the novel’s title, when attempting to escape from the state was a crime (the German title could also be read as Father Flees). Whether to call one character ‘the customs man’ (which sounds too official for someone almost certainly working for the Securitate instead) or ‘the man from customs’ (usefully imprecise and dismissive, but bringing back memories of the man from UNCLE, or alternatively the one from del Monte).
Most importantly, we spent a lot of time wondering how to capture Banciu’s distinctive elliptical, telegraphic, fragmented style when English syntax and grammar is so different to German. Along the way, over an abundance of cake, we also ended up discussing less highbrow issues from Romanian curses to the best way of describing drunken vomiting. All in a day’s work translating!
Want to find out more? there are extracts from both novels on Carmen-Francesca’s website. I also translated one of her short stories, ‘For a handful of small change’, from the volume Berlin ist mein Paris (Berlin is my Paris) in the collection Berlin Tales. Banciu’s latest novel, Das Lied der traurigen Mutter (The Song of the Sad Mother), sees the character Maria-Maria, from Ein Land voller Helden, leave Romania for Berlin. Read an extract from it translated by Elena Mancini here.