Pitfalls and Armpits: On Rhyme in Translating a Mircea Cărtărescu Poem
Sometimes translations just flow, as if dictated magically by a muse situated between the language they derive from and English, but always they need to seem as if they do, whether they work out with ease or trauma. Indeed, often it’s a struggle, a tension between what one hears and intends, and what one can craft. Recently I faced such a problem revising the Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu’s poem, “Letter with Armpits,” which, in a collaboration with poet and friend Ioana Ieronim, I translated years ago without the rhymes that the author used effortlessly in every pair of lines except one. But that one oddity offered me solace: if Cărtărescu could skip one, so might I. Or two, three, more… And for honesty’s sake, I must admit his varied line lengths made it much easier to adjust syntax for words that rhymed or otherwise echoed in sound.
Omitting the opening rhymes was the first pitfall, and a necessity. The quick movement into narrative (as if the title and first line denoted something conventional) and the allusion of the second line to the 1934 James M. Cain noir novel (or maybe the 1946 or 1981 movies?) had to be maintained—lots of rhymes for “armpits,” but not this phrase. Similarly, narrative flow led me to forego forcing the 3rd and 4th lines to rhyme. But after that, I felt the musical pattern had to be established, even by inserting a very natural idea (“I think”—foreshadowing the participle two lines later, “scrutinizing”) to precede “India-ink.” A few strong rhymes fell into place (“risk”/“asterisk”; “darkness”/“P.S.”; the internal rhyme of “Braille” with the subsequent end word “tale”; and my favorite, the yoking of “server”/“fervor”). At other moments, I relied on slant or partial rhymes (“signature”/“fiber”; before that, if the reader accepts it, “verdicts”/“wax”; “mound”/“understand”; and “tale,” mentioned above, as an end rhyme paired with “mole”). To me, the odd line ending, “below,” set up “manifesto” nine lines later, just as “virgin,” hanging in space, perhaps resolved at the close with “unforeseen”/“skin”).
I could talk about resisted urges, a “without fail” to rhyme with “fishtail,” or turning “bizarre tale” into an awkward noun-adjective structure so as to add the obvious “bizarre and timeworn” to rhyme with (the nouns trading places) “a virgin and a unicorn.” Both impulses disrespected the original text. In the last stanza I badly wanted that “kiss” as an end-rhyme but it’s true echo popped up only three words later, in “missive.” After all, just as “read…bite…kiss” made a simple, direct, apt series, so “prospectus,” in my judgment, and the awkward “kiss”/“prospectus” couplet, maybe made their own apt, jokey point. (Yes, “prospectus” could have been “pamphlet” and “manifesto” a “leaflet,” a namby-pamby chiming for a dull, null effect.)
A lot happened on its own along the way, sometimes more consciously (the ee vowels in five of the final eight lines) than others (e.g., four lines right before those with long-a sounds).
There’s of course more, but I’ve reached my word limit.
Letter with Armpits by Mircea Cărtărescu
you’re a letter with armpits
when he delivers you, the postman always rings twice
I lay you on the bed,
slip you out of your envelope of striped polyester
unfold you and read you while I think
about the hieroglyphics of your eyelashes’ India-ink.
I scrutinize deep precedents, profound verdicts,
until I arrive at a pair of round insignias
of red sealing wax.
it’s evening in the room
yet I take the risk
of following my findings as far as the asterisk
and the entangled signature
of anthracite fiber
but very agreeable.
although almost completely obscured in darkness
I can still construe your ankle’s P.S.
and after that, with my finger,
trace the Braille of your beige and coral mole
which tells a bizarre tale
about a unicorn and a virgin.
I can’t make much sense of you, likely I don’t at all understand.
your text gathers itself here into a little mound
and then somehow ends below
in a sort of fishtail.
you’re a database
only curves and graces,
a mainframe server
only keyboard and fervor.
you seem encoded in an incomprehensible script.
what do I read? what do I bite? what do I kiss?
a love missive or a financial prospectus?
an incendiary manifesto?
a desperate appeal? a terrifying curse? a plea on bended knee?
a telegram that reveals a death unforeseen?
who are you? what’s spelled out on your skin?
translated from Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin and Ioana Ieronim
Adam J. Sorkin is a prize-winning translator of contemporary Romanian literature. In 2011, he published Liliana Ursu’s A Path to the Sea, Ioan Flora’s Medea and Her War Machines, Ion Mureșan’s The Book of Winter and Other Poems, and, with Claudia Serea as his major co-translator, The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry. In 2012, two chapbooks appeared, Dan Sociu’s Mouths Dry with Hatred and Ioan Flora’s The Flying Head. Sorkin is Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State Brandywine.