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My Barbaric Yawp: Liviu Martinescu on Whitman in Romanian

[Click to Enlarge] The new
[Click to Enlarge] The new "Romanian" tab on the WhitmanWeb multimedia gallery.
As more than 2,100 poetry lovers around the world journey through "Song of Myself" with Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, the My Barbaric Yawp series offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process, challenges, and delights of rendering Whitman’s words, world, and intent into another language. This week we hear from Liviu Martinescu, who translated "Song of Myself" into Romanian, recently added to WhitmanWeb.

How (well) is Whitman known in your country/language?

Liviu Martinescu: Whitman is fairly well-known to the Romanian public. Ever since I can remember (that would be since the early 60s), he has been seen as a towering figure in American poetry, indeed in the impressive gallery of American Number Ones.

Mihnea Gheorghiu’s 1976 translation stands out: Cantec despre mine, Editura Univers, Bucuresti.

What is your favorite section of the poem and why?

Liviu Martinescu: My favorite section — and I am sure I am not the only one to word my feedback in (roughly) such terms — would be a collection of lines, images, stances, reflections/musings, intended ambiguities from all 52 sections. 

[Click to Enlarge] The first of fifty-two sections
[Click to Enlarge] The first of fifty-two sections "Song of Myself" in Romanian.
Since I am supposed to mention just one, then perhaps Section 46 is a bit closer to my heart for its vibrant, no-nonsense dual message, i.e. “I am the best” — “I’m passing on this best to whoever is ready to be my son” (my follower, my open-minded reader, my posterity). Rather than read my blasphemous words, I of course refer the reader to the words of the Master, from “I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.” through “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,/ You must travel it for yourself.” and up to “Now I will you to be a bold swimmer.” There is some measure of the grandiose, of Romantic dash, in what I called above a no-nonsense message; after all, those lines were written circa 1850–56.

Yet Whitman contrives to reach a perpetually modern spirit even as he manhandles the Romantic fibers: in the soliloquy on the hill, his query to his own spirit is every inch old-school (Shakespearian) English literature; the answer, though, comes in stern American, “No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond” — it’s Abe Lincoln’s minimalism, the maximum of emotion in a minimum of terminology.

And the obsessive figure of the son he never had — how can the reader (man or woman) fail to identify with such blatant legacy?

How did your relationship with Whitman evolve over the course of the translation?

Liviu Martinescu: Quite honestly, it zig-zagged like crazy. Now I loved him, now I found him (okay, the lyrical I’s discourse) unnecessarily pompous and, in particular, nerve-stretchingly explanatory — pontifical. Perhaps I should here point out that my previous encounters with Leaves of Grass, in particular with Song of Myself, had not impressed me inordinately (I am perfectly aware how this sounds now). Other than the author’s astounding, suicidal (in a Puritan society) candor, plus the always-lauded deftness of his free verse, I was left with little else. A pioneer, a first-timer, an eccentric whose genius was somehow undermined by a devastating lack of all (granted, bourgeois; but still ... ) shame, that was my representation of Walt Whitman. And oh, unfortunately I will never be able to really grasp that fine distinction between “the other self” and old Walt. In a way, to do so (barring the mandatory explanation to one’s freshmen students that the lyrical “I” is not to be confused with the tax-paying, town-hall-registered author) is to do disservice to the Whitmanesque universe. Now, after the blood-sweat-and-tears summer when I translated the poem, my final opinion is the same, only now backed by hard labor and long hours dedicated to better comprehension: one either takes the entire Walt-as-Whitman is, or immediately misses the point. Walt Whitman’s merits lie oftentimes in his otherwise pedantic excursions, and what so many of his readers find reprehensible in him/his Song--for instance the persistence of his shaping and reshaping himself as the prototype of Planet Earth, nay, of the Universe--is his all-out attack on mediocrity, on Phariseeism, on narrow-mindedness, on egocentrism (sic); it is his bare-chested, bare-handed appeal, standing on a hill showered with shrapnels of hypocrisy, political correctness, religious bigotry, and what have you.

How did translating Whitman inflect your own thinking, your relationship to your own mother tongue, and your sense of American culture?

Liviu Martinescu: In regard to my thinking, see the lines above. Incidentally, my better fathoming of Whitman (hopefully) does not replace my (own) personality traits — as almost every line of the poem spells out it should not.

My relationship with my mother tongue is such an intricate thing that, with all due respect, not even as strenuous an undertaking as the translation of Walt Whitman’s Song can dramatically impact it. But then again, as some other strong voices in the past did, the impact may have been so profound that I fail to feel it on the surface. The American culture no doubt owes a lot to Walt. Not only Ginsberg or Kerouac sprung from that free, epic verse, but an entire nation was given wings of self-expression, wings that other continents do not have even to this day.

Which passage(s) were particularly difficult to translate? Why?

Liviu Martinescu: On the one hand, I remember hours of Google-partying or taking out large encyclopedias from shelves.  On the other, I remember a 59-year-old teacher of English trying hard to make head or tail out of some profound strings of thoughts in the Song, as in Sections 28, 29 and the part of Section 30 that ends roughly in the line “I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lumps.” This said, let me add that I believe I crossed those bridges.

"Song of Myself" in Romanian, and fourteen other languages: WhitmanWeb.
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