Return to the poem

Translator's Note: Charms for Love

by Fiona Sampson


The contemporary status of English as lingua franca seems to disrupt that contract of accord and hospitality—of parity—which translation asserts. If the practice always creates some accommodation between the twin necessities of original and host texts—and does so with varying degrees of success, as well as of proximity to one or the other—it must surely negotiate with peculiar delicacy between English and languages, such as Romanian, which are confined to a single national culture. Co-translation, with the original poet or a trusted colleague, seems to enact these negotiations: it positions the "final poet" as interlocutor, and repeatedly revises her take on the original.

Translation feels—among literary activities—unusually purposive. It's hard to get far until you've decided what you want your text to do. Word-by-word crib, readerly seduction, or highly-individual homage generate their own "early-stage" decisions—such as whether to preserve the original meter, or tense. Choosing to translate these charms might be, for all I know, an unconscious appeal to love. Consciously, though, I've been intrigued by their high color and dreamlike, incantatory quality since the Romanian poet Ioana Ieronim first showed me a sequence she'd used in a radio drama.

Tropes from ethnographic material are comparatively widely-used in contemporary Romanian art practice, where a strand of Modernism runs alongside postmodernity, as it does in several south Balkan literatures. Ieronim's deployments, particularly in her verse-memoirs of Saxon Transylvania, aren't unusual. Many poets, from the younger-generation Fracturists to Ioan Flora (a central figure until his death in 2005, he came, like the more-translated Vasko Popa and Ivan LaliØ, from the Serbian Banat), use traditional, oral, and loaned sources to characterize their work.

Still, the translation of whole charms poses particular problems: not least the question of whether the fragmentary, often elliptical texts we have can be treated as complete. This time Ioana sent me around two dozen charms, with literal translations, selected from a variety of published ethnographic sources. The originals employ listing, singsong, and rhyme. I wanted to preserve these vocal elements without reducing them to a regular, rather domestic "nursery" rhythm which can sanitize risky material. I also wanted to avoid formlessness. In the end, I've aimed for clarity and necessity, omitting almost completely the closures of punctuation which, as W.S. Merwin says, "staple" poem to page.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.