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9 Questions for Adam J. Sorkin

“When I shook hands with him
his hand remained in my hand
that’s how he is, generous, I told myself
 as I tried to get rid of his warm hand
that grasped my own ever more tightly” —From "Two Snails Stuck to My Cheeks," by Matei Visniec, translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu, Summer 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 2)


Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
I never imagined myself a translator until I was in Bucharest as a Fulbright lecturer. In the spring of 1981, a colleague at the English faculty, Irina Grigorescu Pană, asked me to go over her manuscript of an English version of selected poems by Anghel Dumbrăveanu, a strong, elegant voice whose work taught me a lot about traditional imagery and lyric strategies in Romanian poetry – a very good starting point. Irina, who is still a friend, accepted my many suggestions and changes. That collaboration in 1981 became her book, Cuvinte magice/Magic Words – later, by agreement, in my revision as our joint version, Selected Poems of Anghel Dumbrăveanu: Love and Winter (1992). Working on these poems brought back the kid, as a I say (that is, the high school student), who wanted to be a poet. It also set the pattern of how I continue to work, that is, with a co-translator who provides a first version and can guide me to effects or terminology. Soon after this, I began to translate with the excellent and industrious Lidia Vianu, particularly the work of Marin Sorescu, whose quirky wit and ironic parables set a model for others, including Matei Vișniec; Sorescu was the first of a number of writers Vianu and I translated together – and we still sometimes work together. I also began to work directly with poets who knew English, for instance Liliana Ursu, Daniela Crăsnaru, and Ioana Ieronim. After Ursu met Tess Gallagher at a poetry festival in Spain, Tess went over Ursu’s and my versions making many changes, and I experienced what it was like to be translated.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I guess I’m an anomaly: my “writing” is my translations plus the many introductions to my books and the essays I’ve written on contemporary Romanian poetry. I do think of translation as creative (perhaps co-creative or re-creative), and while I try to remain “true” to the original (whatever that really means, and whatever exact element one can be “true” to at different moments, the words, the sounds, the metaphors, the spirit, or all at once, if one manages anything close to that), there are always the moments one has to adapt, perhaps choose a correlative effect, a rhyme there instead of here, etc. I’m not of the school that forces translation of poetry show its impossibility, although no doubt it usually does. Also, I prefer faithless beauty to faithful dullness, and believe that a translated poem has to read in English like a poem.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Besides a space ranger (no doubt because of the radio show, “Tom Corbett Space Cadet,” which I remember from before my family had a tv set), a baseball player like Willie Mays (it went without saying that my friends and I were NY Giants fans), and a sheriff or cowboy chasing the outlaws and yelling bam-bam, by the time I was in high school it was the Beats I tried to emulate. I intended to be the next Allen Ginsberg, or on alternate days Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I should add that I was accepted at college intending to major in physics, not a writer. In the middle of my freshman year, before grades were distributed, I declared an English major.

What other professions have you worked in?
As an undergrad, when I look back, I see that my critical and self-critical acumen outran my ability to write. I was won over by the tweeds, the erudition, the self-confidence of my professors at Cornell, and then after a year’s teaching at what had just opened as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, I went on for a PhD at Chapel Hill. That was the era when being a student or teacher earned a draft deferment, a pressure that I know kept me away from lighting out for Haight-Ashbury behind the rest. So, no other profession, but when I managed to get fired from the same academic position two years in a row (that’s a complex story), I did reluctantly consider other careers.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
The suggestion to translate Matei Vișniec’s book, Dinner with Marx, completed in an English version with Lidia Vianu, whom I asked to work with me, originated with the author. I’d met him at a poetry festival in Romania over a decade before. I’d wanted to tackle his poetry for a while.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
No doubt I was greatly helped as a translator by knowing Romania as a real place. In my Fulbright year of 1980-81, my wife and I (along with our daughters) lived in Bucharest, and we had the opportunity to explore most of the country. References in poems were therefore landscapes or cities I saw and walked through, not just allusions.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I love classical music but I can’t not listen to it. I also like jazz a lot, but I find I can work with a jazz CD playing. I know I’ve concentrated well if the CD ends and I realize I hadn’t heard a note.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I start with a collaborator’s rough or raw version, and go over it in detail multiple times with the original beside it, even though I trust my collaborators and their choices. My Romanian-English dictionary helps me with understanding a poem from within as well as provides alternatives, as if a thesaurus, and of course my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate and Roget’s are on my desk, and the OED is a quick click or two away.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife Nancy is always my first, and best, reader, although along the way whoever I’m co-translating with usually sees poems first. Of course, at no time do I think of the translations as “finished.” I’ll still look back and say, “Whoa, Sorkin, did you really say that?! Where was your head?”My Fulbright year and Irina’s out-of-the-blue request totally changed me, and I’m very grateful.

Adam J. Sorkin has published more than sixty books of Romanian translation. His recent books include The Hunchbacks’ Bus by Nora Iuga, longlisted for the National Translation Award in Poetry (Bitter Oleander, co-translated with Diana Manole); Syllables of Flesh by Floarea Tutuianu (Plamen, with Irma Giannetti); A Deafening Silence by Magda Cârneci (Shearsman, with Madalina Banucu and Cârneci); and The Return of the Barbarians by Mircea Dinescu (Bloodaxe, with Lidia Vianu). Sorkin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Penn State.

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