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     The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta - Translator's Note

 ‘Here I Lie To Take My Rest’

                                                                                         Adrian George Sahlean

Translation is an exercise in seeking equivalence rather than identity. Although obvious to specialists, it is not uncommon for the layman to think of languages as inventories of identical word meanings and translation as little more than the clever matching of dictionary entries.

The partial overlapping of meaning between languages is always the greatest problem for any translator. The challenge, however, is to go beyond the inherent approximation that results from diverging vocabulary, grammatical structure, language character and cultural mentality, in order to find the word that will evoke a meaning closest to the original in the target language.

It is often said that one can translate anything that can be paraphrased. While this is somewhat true, the challenge is never more apparent than in translating rhyme. The precise compact beauty of certain word combinations and the metered ‘concord of sweet sound’ bring to the fore more readily the limits of translatability.

The Sapanta epitaphs present several critical challenges stemming from the rhyme as well as the exoticism of both the language and the folklore of the Romanian Maramures region where the ‘merry’ graveyard is located. I will illustrate some of the features that are unconquerable in translation due to cultural specificity, and discuss the choices I made regarding the epitaphs’ vocabulary, original spelling, rhyming, verse patterns and their prosody. I believe these examples will enhance understanding of this unique folkloric treasure and at the same time offer non-specialists a glimpse into the ‘routine’ work of the translator’s struggle to find a ‘final’ solution.

I. Vocabulary.
The language of the epitaphs is rather crude, with limited word choices and ordinary attributes. To the extent words reflect universal notions they are, of course, amenable to translation. Such are ‘grave’, ‘earth’, ‘death’, ‘name’ etc. But every now and then, a word with regional meaning, quite divergent from standard Romanian, may easily be mistaken for something else. One epitaph speaks of a young man who left his parents and native village to go to a foreign country in Western Europe where he had a fatal accident. It is easy for the translator to construe the meaning at the end ‘Dear sister and parents, You’ll be forever blamed’ (i.e. for giving consent to let the son go) since the Romanian ‘banuiti’ carries exclusively the meaning of ‘blame’. However, the local use of it is equivalent to the English ‘saddened.

II. Style.
It is difficult for anyone to sum up one’s life in a few lines. The Sapanta ‘life stories’ link the character in the naïve painting with a defining activity, a passion and its tribulations, or misfortune. (‘Since I was a child / I loved my sheep much’); (‘As long as I lived/ I played and danced a lot’); (‘For much I loved my brandy/ And with bottle in hand I died’); (‘There isn’t much to say / For my life was short’). Such a reductionist approach could easily result in caricature, and yet, the stories speak powerfully not only to cultural anthropologists but to all of us. These were simple people who lived harsh lives, identified deeply with their life-long activities, had strong passions, and took their existence - often disrupted by violent events – not only with fatalistic resignation but also with a grain of humor, albeit touched by bitterness. (‘Mother made me handsome / But luck I did not have / For most everything I did / Was unlucky’) (‘Since I was young / I loved my oxen /And worked much with them / I also smoked a lot’)

It is actually this raw simplicity and the elliptic style of the Sapanta epitaphs that I tried to convey in English, knowing that ultimately the ‘spirit’ of the epitaph would speak more than the ‘letter’.

III. Spelling.
The written words of the epitaphs also reflect the simple (usually semi-literate) village folk who did their best to carve the words on the cross according to local pronunciation, which means they are often phonetic approximations of standard Romanian. Thus, words written with contractions, merges, skips or just mistakes abound. Although to a native Romanian they instantly evoke the exotism of vocabulary, sound and accent of Maramures, such attributes are not transferable to the translated text.

(An analogy of dialect vs. standard can be made with ‘dawg’ vs. ‘dog’ in American English. Of course, using a Texan accent to suggest local exotism would be misplaced, if not downright ludicrous.)

IV. Patterning of verse.
The epitaph lines are often formulaic units and one cannot escape the feeling they are akin to Lego pieces assembled according to necessity. The epitaph creator often takes the ‘formula of introduction’ Eu aici ma odihnesc, *so-and-so ma numesc (Here I lie to take my rest, *so-and-so is my name) simply filling in the correct name of the deceased.

The fillers after (*) stand in for the different names and life spans in the epitaphs. Throughout the text the underlining of these fillers will be used to illustrate the way the interaction of rhyme and meter affects the translation process.

Another example is: ‘Cat pe lume am trait’ (literally, ‘on this earth as long as I lived’) with variations on the theme: ‘eu cat am trait pe lume’ (as long as I lived on this earth), *so-and-so m-am numit, that is, *so-and-so was my name. The ending often follows similar paths: ‘Ca eu lumea o lasai, La *so-many ai’ (For I left this world/ At *so-many-years old), as if completing a well-established form of farewell. For such Lego pieces it was my intention from the start to find consistent English ‘formulas’.

V. Meter and Rhyme.
In the original, rhymes are unsophisticated  and rather obvious, sound-matching done mostly through the common ending of verbs in the past tense (‘am trait’, ‘m-am numit’, ‘am muncit, etc. akin to the English ‘I lived’, ‘I was named’, ‘I worked); or the continuous tense (‘locuiam’, ‘munceam’, ‘faceam, i.e., I was living, working, doing’); etc. Nouns are also rhymed predictably (i.e., ‘nume’/ ‘lume’ ( Eng. ‘name’/’world’), and so on. Matching words of the same category is considered ‘easy rhyming’ in any language and this is clearly the case of Sapanta. But in all languages ‘easy rhyming’ is a trademark of folk poetry, and song lyrics the world over abound in predictable matches akin to the English ‘heart / apart’, ‘you/do’, ‘see/me’, etc. Rappers, our modern-day ‘naïve artists’ of music, frequently use rhymes of same grammatical category (solution, revolution, constitution,) and in this respect they are no different from the Sapanta poets.

However, what is ultimately fascinating about primitive art is precisely this natural creative urge of far-from-sophisticated artists. The Sapanta epitaphs capture, as if in the process of being born, the unconscious human pull toward rhythm and rhyme, in which both poetry and music are rooted. The innate urge to create harmony of sound and rhythm in speech follows nature’s rhythms, sounds and cadences. ‘Prosody’ actually comes from Greek and it means ‘song sung to instrumental music’.

Attracted myself by rhyme, I considered meter-and-rhyme for quite some time. I was fully aware that I was attempting something akin to music transcription for instruments other than those for which the score was written. In such cases, the fundamental characteristics and specific limitations of the respective instruments have to be carefully evaluated.

But rhyming has very narrow straits and cannot be taken apart from the meter. Since they restrict each other, they are always considered together. I will illustrate how easy it is to put the ‘foot’ (sic!) in your mouth just for the sake of word matching.

When translating rhymed poetry, you have to start with a pair of rhyming words whose meanings are at least related to the original. Such a pair I considered was ‘earth’ / ‘birth’. I tried next to see how I could fit it within the meter.

Since the epitaphs make almost exclusive use of the ‘trochee’ (common to Romanian folk poetry), the formula of introduction Cat pe lume am trait/ *so-and-so eu m-am numitcould start in English as When I lived upon this earth’, almost encouragingly so!

The trochaic meter has a stressed first syllable (underlined in examples) followed by an unstressed one, and so on. Whenever possible, I used the same fillers as before, underlining the stressed syllable to mark the virtual trochaic beat. Actual epitaph names are often made of four syllables (i.e., Stan Ma-ri-a) but longer compound names (like Stan I-on Pa-tras), slightly off-beat, do not seem to bother the creator of the verse.

The second verse (literally, ‘*so-and-so I was named’) could then perhaps be rendered as Was called *this name from my birth’.  But this is awkward and, even if it worked, the cumulative effect would be as dull as a military drill chant.

Here is another example: a frequent ‘introduction formula’ is Eu aici ma odihnesc/ *so-and-so eu ma numesc, (literally ‘Here I take my rest / *so-and-so is my name). Again, ‘Here I lie to take my rest’ matches the beat naturally, but a rhyme for ‘rest’ needs to be found. The prior example showed how when you force the rhyme, you often end up with unnatural syntax and awkward formulations. In this current example, ‘rest’ offers no good rhyme linked with the idea of ‘name’, so one could contrive something like Here to take a rest I lie / *so-and-so is who am I) equally awkward. Moreover, while the trochee sounds natural in Romanian, the iamb is by far the preferred ‘foot’ in English.

Greater difficulties would appear if one tries a triple meter. For instance, ‘As long as I lived on the earth / My name was *this name from my birth’ or, perhaps ‘As long as I lived in the world / From birth *so-and-so I was called’, would almost certainly evoke humorous verse in English (limericks are such an example), since the ’footsy’ ‘triple-legged’ dactyl is frequently used precisely for this purpose.

But translators often go to extreme lengths to try out such combinations, and it took me some time before it became clear I was attempting to fit square pegs into round holes.

I resigned myself therefore to versions that stay truest to the content and are easily read in English. Moreover, the resulting minimalist form of the verse lines should give the reader a better sense of the primitive simplicity of the original.  

Finally, a word on the title of my essay and the pitfalls of (transcultural) translation: I was tempted to turn ‘Here I lie to take my rest’ into ‘Here I lie to take a rest,’ which would jocularly make the grave a mere momentary break from activity.  Although less respectful of funeral customs, it would be consistent with the ‘spirit’ who ‘lives on’ to tell you a humorous story, at least in some of the epitaphs. After all, the ‘merry’ attribute given the graveyard was not without grounds! In the end, I stayed close to the literal, because I did not want to be haunted by... the spirit of a bad decision.

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