Born on January 15, 1850, Mihai Eminescu was not only a poet, but novelist and journalist and, in my view, a philosopher as well. Regarded as the most famous Romanian poet and the first modern poet in Romanian literature, Eminescu lived his short life (he died in 1889) with great passion, always searching for the truth, trying to understand the “world”, as well as what was beyond it.
Any attempt to translate such poetry requires more than knowing a foreign language. Unless one is able to live the passion, to really understand the deepest roots of a poem, to be able to recreate the rhythm and musicality Eminescu was creating with such grace, any attempt would end up being an offense to poetry.
Many years ago I bought this book published in 1978: Mihai Eminescu – Poems – English version by Corneliu M. Popescu. This so very young translator loved not only English and Eminescu, but mathematics and physics, too. But I will add more about Corneliu Popescu a bit later.
I chose this poem, A Dacian’s Prayer, to be the opening one. Dacian means the inhabitant of Dacia – and this was the old name of these lands known as Romania today.
A Dacian’s Prayer
When death did not exist, nor yet eternity, Before the seed of life had first set living free, When yesterday was nothing, and time had not begun, And one included all things, and all was less than one, When sun and moon and sky, the stars, the spinning earth Were still part of the things that had not come to birth, And You quite lonely stood… I ask myself with awe, Who is this might God we bow ourselves before.
Ere yet the God existed already He was God And out of endless water with fire the lightning shed; He gave the Gods their reason, and joy to earth did bring, He brought to man forgiveness, and set salvation’s spring. Lift up your hearts in worship, a song of praise enfreeing, He is the death of dying, the primal birth of being. To him I owe my eyes that I can see the dawn, To him I owe my heart wherein is pity born; Whene’er I hear the tempest, I hear him pass along Midst multitude of voices raised in a holy song; And yet of his great mercy I beg still one behest: That I at last be taken to his eternal rest. Be curses on the fellow who would my praise acclaim, But blessings upon him who does my soul defame; Believe no matter whom who does my soul defame; Give power to the arm that lifts to strike me down; Let him upon the earth above all others loom Who steals away the stone that lies upon my tomb. Hunted by humanity, let me my whole life fly Until I feel from weeping my every eyes are dry; Let everyone detest me no matter where I go, Until from persecution myself I do not know; Let misery and horror my heart transform to stone, That I may hate my mother, in whose love I have grown; Till hating and deceiving for me with love will vie, And I forget my suffering, and learn at last to die. Dishonored let me perish, an outcast among men; My body less than worthy to block the gutter then, And may, o God of mercy, a crown of diamonds wear The one who gives my heart the hungry dogs to tear, While for the one who in my face does callous fling a clod’ In your eternal kingdom reserve a place, o God. Thus only, gracious Father, can I requitance give That you from your great bounty vouched me the joy to live; To gain eternal blessings my head I do not bow, But rather ask that you in hating compassion show. Till comes at last the evening, your breath will mine efface, And into endless nothing I go, and leave no trace.
When e’en the inner voice of thought is still, And does some sacred chant my soul endear ‘Tis then I call thee; but will you hear? Will from the floating mists your form distill? Will night its tender power of wonder rear And your great, peaceful eyes their light fulfil, That of the rays that bygone hours spill To me as in a dream you do appear?
But come to me… come near, come still more near… Smiling you bend to gaze into my face While does your sigh gentle love make clear.
Upon my eyes I feel your lashes’ trace, O love, for ever lost, for ever dear, To know the aching thrill of your embrace!
It seemed that midst the clouds a gate was opened wide Through which the pallid empress of waning night did ride. O sleep, o sleep in silence, where thousand torches loom, Wrapped in your silver garments, high in your crystal tomb, Your sepulcher of heaven, of sky’s arc opaline, O you beloved, and worshipped, fair moon of night the queen! Unbounded is the kingdom that dreams beneath your haze, What villages and valleys are lighted by your rays; The sky is all a sparkle, and ‘neath your pallid gleam The lonely ruined castle has walls of chalk it seem. The empty graveyard crouches beside the time-old church, Its crosses leaning all ways, on one an owl aperch. The belfry creaks, the toaca against it upright swings Had touched it unexpectedly while lighting on the ground, That it begins to tremble, and fives a wailing sound. The church, a ruin lorn, Is bowed and sad and empty, a place of shadows mourn; And through it’s gaping windows a moaning breeze is heard, As though grey witches whispered and one could hear their word. On pillars and on altar, and painted walls remain Naught but the gloomy contours on which time spreads its stain. For priest a cricket chirps a sermon fine, obscure; For sexton digs a woodworm eternal sepulture. .......................... Faith sets up in its churches fair icons to the saints, And in my soul sweet fance a fairy legend paints; But of time tossing billows, and wild tumultuous strain, Naught bu the gloomy contours and shadows now remain. In vain I seek that happened in my exhausted mind, A hoarsely prating cricket is all that I can find. In vain my hand despairing upon my heart I chench. its stir is but a woodworm within the coffin bench. when I look back on living, the past seems to unfold as though it were a story by foreign lips retold, as though I had not lived it, nor made of life a part. Who is it then so softly this tale recites by heart That I should pause to listen… And laugh at what is said As though it never happened?... Maybe since long I’m dead!
<<This English manuscript – the only thing that has outlived author, young Corneliu M. Popescu, who perished in the 4th of March (1977) earthquake – is a testimony to the amazing precocity of this poetry reader and interpreter.
Toiling relentlessly, Corneliu Popescu succeeded in imparting a unitary, coherent, consequent physiognomy to that aspect of Eminescu’s poetry which is so hard to detect and render in translation; the emphasis the poet lays on the articulations of thought, as one may call the ending of each line in great poetry. The rhymes he found show how deep he felt the musicality of the language, as in the creative pairing.
O sleep, o sleep in silence, when thousand torches loom
Wrapped in your silver garments, high in your crystal tomb
where the delicacy and subtlety of the image are emphasized and sharply outlined by the “loom”/ tomb assonance.
Or, to quote a whole stanza of “Blue Flower”
You build tall palaces in Spain
of fancy’s fragile masonry,
you search in vain the sullen sea
and roam Assyria’s plains in vain
where the “Spain”/”in vain” rhyme (as well as “mansonry”/”sea”) display a fine and lasting evocative power. >>
The paragraphs above are an excerpt from the Preface signed by Andrei Brezianu.
Corneliu M.Popescu was going to be 19 years old that year, 1977, the year of great loss and grief for the modern Romanian people. Few other exceptional people found their death under the deconstruction of the country’s capital that year.
Here is what the very young author of translation wrote in the Foreword of what was going to be a published book in a future that never came to him:
“A few words may not be out of place here with regard to accent. Everywhere throughout his works, Eminescu is found to prefer simplicity, clarity and reliance upon his genuinely divine inborn sense of poetic expression to rigid adherence to any limiting metrical form. Everywhere in his poems one is struck by his extreme flexibility in metre. One continually finds, for instance, rhymes upon the penultimate following directly upon rhymes upon the ultimate and vice-versa. Unhampered freedom of this sort in the hands of a poet of such stature as Eminescu has given truly wonderful results, and it is very largely for tis reason that his poems possess that remarkable fluidity and easy grace which so often give them the power and simplicity of a spoken word. It is this characteristic which allows his poems to be interpreted with veracity, not only of meaning and form, but also of colour and atmosphere, which the work of few poets will allow. “
To be continued.