#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison

Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.

I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.

He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.

This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).

Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.

I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?

That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?

It has always been like this. Always. Always.

Blecher in happier, more mobile times, 1929.

It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.

However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.

So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.

I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.

Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.

2007 Version2009 Version2015 Version
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality

There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!

Photograph of Blecher from the early 1930s.

Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’

I doubt this book could ever be turned into a film, but Blecher’s Scarred Hearts has been imaginatively adapted by Romanian director Radu Jude, interspersed with the author’s own words and the historical context of the 1930s.

I jumped the gun a little on the officieal #1936Club because I’m spending most of hte month in that time period. So I have already written about Don Juan Returns from War last week.

21 thoughts on “#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison”

  1. Gosh, this is so fascinating! I can only read English, so the world of translation fascinates me – and also gives me that unnerving, uncanny feeling that I am only ever reading near a text in translation, rather than in the midst of the text.

    1. Yes, that is indeed the case. Each translation is also an interpretation. Which used to depress me and make me very snobbish about translations in my youth, but now I see it also as a challenge and an opportunity – to compare, to express preferences, to examine my own assumptions about a certain language or author…

  2. I am in awe of your ability to parse these different translations and explain the differences coming from the roots, and make it fun and interesting to read about. How amazing to grow up in languages like they’re the air around you. That said, I know it has involved hardships too…

  3. Thanks for this eulogistic description of one of Max Blecher’s works and the analysis of the translations. If I ever get round to this I’ll certainly return to your post for further enlightenment!

  4. I find those comparisons so fascinating, Marina Sofia! Those subtle but real differences in translation can make so much differences. And actually, the book itself sounds memorable. I can see how the translation is particularly important here, as he uses words so carefully, or so it seems to me.

    1. There were lots of little examples of differences, and perhaps I should have stuck to several small phrases or sentences, but it was really quite striking how I didn’t gel with one translation and did with another.

  5. So many differences even in just the first sentence! With all your languages, you could expand to translations into German, and French (I’ve just checked, there’s at least three)! Now I know I want to read this book, but how will I decide which French version to go for???

    1. I know, I know… but it’s proving a bit pricey to chase down all these translations (they are not easily available in libraries, so I’d have to buy them). I think they probably sound better in French, because the languages are more similar. You also like your long sentences and polysyllabic words!

  6. I hadn’t heard of this writer, but then I am almost completely unfamiliar with Romanian writers. I guess I have some self-education to do. I’ve only read some Ionescu.

  7. Wow! What a wonderful post, Marina – thank you! As someone who fusses and stresses over differing translations, I fond your comments fascinating and loved reading about the different versions and your comparisons. I haven’t read much Romanian literature but should I venture in the direction of Blecher (and I’m very tempted…) I will be guided by you!

  8. It’s always interesting to compare translations but when you can’t compare them to the original you worry that the ‘best’ may not be the most faithful. I haven’t read this, but I do have a copy of Scarred Hearts to read.

    1. I veer between worrying that I am missing out a lot by reading a translation, and between rejoicing in the fact that there are several different versions that I can choose from, and find the most compatible one. So yes, I wonder if anyone else agonises quite so much about translations as I do! Bit ridiculous, really…

  9. This was interesting, thanks. Blecher and Sebastian are – by some distance – the best Romanian prose writers that I’ve read in English translation so far.
    Whilst I’m inclined to be grateful to all the translators responsible for opening up my interest in Romanian literature, I do feel that readers would benefit from a bit of healthy competition. For a long time it seemed that almost every Romanian book I read would have been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth, and there’s a danger of a ‘Constance Garnett Effect’ emerging whereby all the Romanian writers begin to sound tonally similar to one another simply because they all begin to sound rather too much like Alastair Ian Blyth. I’ll forever be grateful to Blyth for his efforts but he does seem to have enjoyed a near monopoly for some years and some of his output shows evidence of being a little rushed and unpolished – especially Iulian Ciocan’s Before Brezhnev Died.
    However, in recent years it’s been heartening to see other translators emerge, not least those that are of Romanian origin, who must surely bring something more (or, if not more, then different) to the table. Similarly (and perhaps not unrelatedly), a variety of small publishers have begun to publish more Romanian books in translation, and Romanian literature begins to look rather less monolithic as a result (‘though it would still be nice to see rather more novels by women). Thus, whilst Dalkey Archive’s admirable efforts deserve applause, their list does offer a rather uniform view of Romanian literature and it’s nice to see other publishers beginning to offer something a bit different.

    1. You said what I was thinking but did not quite dare to say… yes, there are perhaps 3 male translators who have dominated the field for the past decade or more, and, whether because of the subject matter selection or whether because of their own personal style, they do manage to make all of Romanian literature sound very samey. Thank you so much for your confirmation that I am not just imagining it. I almost feared writing this post, because I have a bit of skin in the game, as a translator of Romanian origin myself.

      1. Ha! Yes, I think it’s all inter-related, but the fact that Dalkey and Plymouth are/were committed to more ‘avant-garde’ writing (conventionally/historically mainly written by men), and that there have been only 2 or 3 male (and non-Romanian) translators (perhaps more likely to be interested in the same) has given the misleading impression that Romanian literature is rather more monotonous than it must actually be (exacerbated by the small sample size, of course).
        I’m trying to think of women prose writers (the poets do better) who’ve been translated into English, and I can only think of 3 or 4 off the top of my head. Meanwhile, Dalkey seem to be concentrating their efforts on translating just about anything Țepeneag ever wrote…

  10. Very thorough analysis–and very interesting. Your parsing of the various editions was especially interesting. I look forward to reading more of your posts–this was my first visit to your blog. Well done.

    1. And a very warm welcome to you – I think we have connected before via the 6 Degrees of Separation, perhaps? Yes, I am very passionate about translation – and probably worry about it far too much!

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