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Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses/ Versetele Satanice. Trans. by Dana Crăciun (Iaşi: Polirom, 2007). Pp. 650 (hb.). ISBN 978-973-46-0827-0.

What strikes the reader upon entering Romanian bookshops these days is the promptness with which the latest literary productions of the West are translated and made available in our country. One can only wish that Romanian texts were translated into foreign languages with the same eagerness and expeditiousness. What strikes the reader next, upon opening a sampling of the Romanian translations, is, sadly, the poor quality of many of these instant translations, especially those of books in English. Though not a frequent reader of translations, I seem to read enough to have discovered a paradox at the heart of this phenomenon: the rendering from the Turkish, say, of Orhan Pamuk’s novels has the ring of the “real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” whereas translations from Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others, are often awkward, disingenuous, and sit ill with the reputation of the original texts. The explanation is multifaceted. On the one hand, it could be argued, the Romanian language has deep roots in Turkish and the archaic diction of Pamuk’s tales resonates with our own chronicles and folklore. The common history, the shared Balkan temperament and mentalities must have contributed to identifying and rendering adequately the authentic rhythms of Pamuk’s prose. English, on the other hand, drags in the paraphernalia of an entirely different sort of culture, less emotional, more rigidly self-defined. The various registers of the English language are more clearly distinguished, but they spill into each other in literary texts more often than they do in Romanian; consequently, they require a more acute ear for nuances, styles, attitudes. On the other hand, I suspect, as few people in Romania speak Turkish, the translation from that language is a job for the specialist – and, even, the Pamuk specialist, as is the case of Luminiţa Munteanu;on the principle that everybody speaks English nowadays  (after all, we hear it on television all day long!), translations from the English are often done by people whose actual knowledge of the language is rather less than specialised.

Having said that, and having lamented the conspicuous detrimental effect that poor translations have on the standing of brilliant contemporary British writers in Romania, in fairness to truth it must be emphasised that this is not the case of the book under survey here. Dana Crăciun’s rendering of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is a timely and honouring addition to the prestigious panoply of history-making novels currently translated for Polirom Publishing House. Carefully researched and accompanied by a helpful set of footnotes, the translation finally brings to Romanian readers not only one of the longest-awaited western publishing phenomena, but also a novel notoriously inventive and imaginative from the linguistic point of view. Dana Crăciun matches Rushdie’s virtuosity almost point for point, juggling registers and rhythms and bringing to life, along with a rich and vital mythology, an entire lore of lachrymose and overwrought Bollywood musicals whose post-colonial satire resonates with Romania’s own post-communist carnival. The memory of communist times, when such cinematographic productions were the fare of many a culture-starved cinema goer, and whose travesty of cultural values bears a close resemblance to the resistant and selective appropriation of western-style cultural consumerism by the Orient, is relevant to the tale of two actors turned angel and demon respectively. The book speaks to its Romanian, largely Christian public in unexpected tongues.

A world upside down, whose sky delivers miraculously surviving prisoners of the exploding Bostan (a jumbo jetliner whose name alludes intertextually to classic eastern representations of the gardens of Paradise as much as to the Orient’s geopolitics) and whose very origination becomes open to interpretation, reconstructs some semblance of coherence from latter-day re-enactments of the tales of the Koran. Reality and normality mutate and proliferate, as do the languages in which people attempt to grapple with them. The enviable ability to control “the languages that mattered: sociological, socialistic, black-radical, anti-anti-anti-racist, demagogic, oratorical, sermonic: the vocabularies of power,” which are also the “language[s] of desire” (Rushdie (Henry Holt & Co., 1988) 290), has been lost. In its stead, a celebrative nostalgia has been instituted: at one extreme, the acknowledgement that “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true” (290); at the other, the unconscionable babble of inept pop songs or the celestial gazals “in a language he did not know to a tune he had never heard” (9) that save lives and work the “God stuff” (17). This is the language that the translator must render in a culture to which neither English nor Hindi nor Islamism bear much relevance beyond Mircea Eliade’s erudite incursions into Indian culture and the history of religions, and the Bollywood dervish-like sarabands mentioned above. It is a language which shares in the twentieth-century Indian’s compulsion to “push against frontiers” (55) and has the energy to recreate itself with every transfer, with the avatar of every foreign rendition; a language for the age of globalisation.

On the whole, the translation captures the volatile spirit of the source text: it is flexible, quick-paced, humorous, invariably clever and, at times, elatingly creative. A fabulous cast of colourful characters with improbable names and borderline identities is brought to life with gusto and exhilaration to straddle every fracture of postmodern experience: between the mythical and the actual, dream and consciousness, id and superego, east and west, fiction and reality. It is, after all, a daring experiment in translation whose successful completion stands proof of the capacity of the Romanian language, when deftly handled, to appropriate and render the linguistic subtleties of other cultures, thereby instituting a productive intercultural dialogue. It is also a laudable tour de force of 640 pages, whose narrative pace does not settle into complacent mannerism but keeps up with the alert discursive metamorphoses of Rushdie’s magical realism. The compulsion for formal expression is largely kept at bay, the Romanian prejudice according to which the language of literature is a privileged discourse governed by erudite and correct diction being only betrayed by the occasional awkward overtones indicative of the difficulty of finding direct equivalents for Rushdie’s incontinent, inventive prose.

The “Rushdie affair” has naturally received a triple airing on the occasion of the publication of this translation: the Islamic community in Romania wisely avoided reiterating it, as its leader only urged discernment in reading the novel; more vocal, the Romanian Orthodox Church found it opportune to protest the publication of the translation in the name of some tenuous solidarity with those whose religious sensibilities it might offend; lastly, it was unearthed by every book reviewer who greeted the Romanian edition of the novel. Regrettable as the 1988 incident was on all sides, I will therefore refrain from addressing it, except perhaps to question its relevance in a country whose very limited familiarity with and understanding of the Koran and Muslim culture is more likely to benefit from Rushdie’s charismatic allegorical transposition. At any rate, as was probably anticipated by the publishers, rather than deter readers, the showcasing of the religious controversy acted as an effective publicity stunt. The novel, which is the latest in a series of nine Rushdie books recently translated for Polirom, was given a larger circulation than most novels and sold out within a month, being followed by a quick reprint and promising to become, along with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, an all-time bestseller in Romania.

The publication of this translation is a good opportunity, it seems to me, for a call for rigorous, professional translations of literature. With recent fiction in the original scarce and expensive, there is a lucrative market for literary translators in Romania. The mirage of the financial profit seems however to have obliterated the standard of quality: in the heat of publishing the Romanian version in real time, translators occasionally neglect to read the book first or look words up in the dictionary. That the translation of a novel so provocative and profuse in cross-cultural implications as The Satanic Verses avoids these petty pitfalls is a plea for good old-fashioned translation practitioners that take their time to consider the needs and quirks of the original, aiming to recreate in the receiving culture the kind of reader-text dialogue that was achieved in the source culture. The clash of two cultures, British and Indian, that have for so long cohabited too close for comfort, shocks the reader into awareness of the risks inherent in the unexamined blurring of distinctions and the resulting schizophrenia of our postmodern, globalised condition. Literary translation must, under the circumstances, become increasingly aware of its role as mediator in intercultural exchanges and consequently stake out its deontology more rigorously.

Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu


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