In Exiled Shadow, Norman Manea creates a vibrant mosaic of voices, sources, and stories, to tell the story of the protagonist, known only as the Nomadic Misanthrope, as he leaves communist Romania and is reunited with his friend Gunther, an unrepentant Marxist exiled in Berlin. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translator, Carla Baricz, about how she came to work with Norman Manea, her passion for literature, and the power it has, and what she hopes readers will take away from Manea’s work.
In addition to writing essays and reviews, you serve as the translator and assistant editor of Romanian Writers on Writing. What led you to pursue a career in literature?
CB: I don’t think I could have pursued a career in anything but literature. My family has had a multigenerational love affair with books, as I wrote some years ago in the Marginalia Review of Books, and reading has been one of the best parts of my life. I did not become a reader at a particularly early age, but once I did, I read all the time, and I read everything. I still do. I think I’m one of the few people who truly enjoyed the yearly ritual of receiving textbooks in school, and I still buy them in the subjects that interest me (biology, physics, art history, recently—mathematics). I still read the newspaper. I enjoy almanacs, anthologies, assembly instructions; often the exhibition labels are my favorite part of a museum visit.
Making a life in literature may seem like the natural outcome of a mania for reading, but it was a difficult choice. I got into, and almost went to medical school, and everyone I knew, from family to friends, encouraged me to opt for a more ‘practical career,’ or for any career at all (it’s hard to convince others that going to graduate school in literature is a career). I still ended up choosing literature because, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, it was the best place to get the news. Literature was where, I felt, all the important conversations were taking place. It was where all the science, art, music, and philosophy filtered down to be argued about and perpetually be made new. It was also where the unremarkable and the quotidian found meaningful representation. In fact, I felt that given its power to speak to such a broad range of human experiences, all literature could be seen as wisdom literature, a universal corpus crisscrossing geographies, temporalities, and traditions to engage us in the conversations that truly mattered. It was incredibly exciting to contribute even in a small way to that accumulated store of experience. It still is.
In 2014, you interviewed Norman Manea about The Hooligan’s Return (translated by Angela Jianu). How has your relationship with Norman Manea evolved since this interview, to working with him in the translation of Exiled Shadow?
CB: When I interviewed Norman about the Hooligan’s Return in 2014, it was to fulfil what I took to be an almost moral imperative. It was a book I felt I needed to write about, a nearly perfect memoir—painstakingly plotted, tenderly honest, quietly defiant—that also acknowledged the limits of what language can convey about the experience of the Holocaust, exile, displacement, and the traumas of the European twentieth century. However, the work wasn’t as well-known as it should have been. I felt I had to try to rectify this, even in a small way. I recognized the world of my childhood in Norman’s memoir, both the false socialist utopia of my grandparents’ generation, and the false New World utopia of my parents.’ I also recognized the portrait of the artist in the Janus-faced mirror of the young and aging man, the search for intellectual models, for love, and for a life worth living. I really wanted to write about these things, about this wonderful, important book.
Norman and I became great friends over time (and had been friends even before I interviewed him) in part because we are from the same small Bukovinean town in north-eastern Moldova. In one of those movie-worthy twists of fate, my grandmother and he were childhood friends after the war. They had both been (and still are) great readers, and after Norman and she both found themselves in the United States, they eventually reconnected and struck up correspondence. I had the opportunity to meet Norman while still in college in New York, and he became a mentor to me. Over the years I’ve learned so much from him, including while working on Exiled Shadow. By translating the novel, I had the chance to parse the same questions that Norman asked himself while writing it: do lives take distinct shapes? Does the past to some extent narrate the present? What does it mean to be an outcast? What price to we pay for casting others out? What about the cost of casting ourselves out? If we tell ourselves a story long enough, does it come to life like the Golem? What about those who tell themselves stories all their lives? What does it mean to make a life in literature?
What were the hardest passages of Exiled Shadow to translate, and why?
CB: The hardest passages to translate were probably the excerpts taken from students’ work—the chapters titled “Didactica Nova.” In the novel, the Nomadic Misanthrope teaches an eccentric course on clowns, centering on the fairytale of Peter Schlemihl, who, as another character in the novel remarks, doesn’t really seem much of a clown at all. The students who take this course write papers for their professor analyzing the fairytale. As one might expect, the voices of the students writing these papers differ: some students write awkward prose; others write well but don’t make a lot of sense; each has their point of view. I felt it was important to try to convey these differences in my translation while also somehow acknowledging that, in the original Romanian, all the students begin to sound like their professor, or, rather, that one can hear their strange professor through their prose—the narrative voice expands to include these other younger voices.
In your approach to textual integrity, what balance do you strike between direct translation and artistic rendering?
CB: I think every translator answers this question differently depending on the project they are working on. In consultation with Norman Manea, we decided that we would aim for a translation that tried to render the novel in supple, idiomatic English—that it was more important that the reader feel that the novel spoke to them about exile as a universal human experience than that the novel followed the Romanian word for word. On the other hand, I never allowed myself to stray so far from the text that the Romanian ceased to be the guiding (if not the organizing) principle. In other words, the Romanian was always there informing the choices I made as a translator, making the music I heard and for which I tried to find an equivalent (though of course one doesn’t want to be tone-deaf to English). I’m not musically gifted, but I suppose it’s a little bit like trying to arrange something originally written for the piano for the violin. You’re still going to get a concerto, it will have the same building blocks, use the same notes, but you’ll probably want your violin concerto to sound like a violin concerto. So, the balance of melody and harmony will differ, the tonal range will differ, all these things.
You contributed to the 2016 publication Rumba under Fire, a collection that explores how art and intellectual work function as resistance to power. What are your thoughts on the relationship between activism, crisis, and translation?
CB: It seems to me that almost every crisis is also an opportunity for meaningful change. As so many have pointed out, the word “crisis” itself comes from the Ancient Greek κρίσις, meaning “decision, choice, judgement.” In other words, an opportunity is often implicit in moments that hang in the balance. I think that the function of literature in such moments is to guide us towards the decision we—dare I say it—should take, helping us see the path of least resistance for what it is. Literature (and this includes literature in translation) has no ethics, but I believe that reading it, sharing it, writing it, discussing it are all practices that encourage us to think ethically, in the sense that such practices encourage us to think about human conduct, and invite us to consider our standards of right and wrong and our rights and obligations as individuals in a civil society, helping us maintain that capacious humaneness that is critical to a well-lived life.
When I contributed to Rumba Under Fire, I wanted to think more carefully about literature as an art of survival, both a way of speaking truth to power, and as a way of preserving the capacity to make sense, literally but also figuratively, as the ability to make use of that deepest and most essential human impulse: poiesis—the process of making or bringing forth inherent to the poet and craftsman. I was, and am, fascinated by the idea that in the face of insurmountable terror and loss, just as in the face of crisis, one way to survive and to maintain one’s ethical position, to survive as a self, is to cultivate that impulse of meaning-making. To translate and to read work in translation is one way in which this cultivation (from the Latin cultus, a toiling over something, care, worship, or devotion) happens.
You are also a librarian for Literature in English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. What led you to this position, in addition to your other work as a translator and writer?
CB: I’ve always loved libraries, and as a child growing up in Suceava, the Romanian hometown I share with Norman Manea, I spent all my after-school hours in the public library. It was a second home for me. Later, in college at Columbia University, my entire intellectual life and much of my social life came to center around the library. I first worked in the Avery Fine Arts & Architectural Library on campus, where I was a shelver (and I think I’m allowed to admit now that I read as much as I shelved), and then as a bibliographic assistant in Butler Library, the central library on campus, where I got my first taste of cataloging, and finally as a front desk assistant in the Reserves section in Butler, where I spent almost every afternoon from my sophomore year to the time I graduated. All along, I was mentored by fantastic staff. Most of my friends were also ‘book people:’ shelvers, front line staff, circulation and bibliographic assistants, catalogers, monographic processing unit folks, etc., so much of my social life also took place in and around the library. Later on, I worked in frontline services at the Graduate Center Library at the City University of New York. In graduate school I also spent most of my time in the library. When the position at Yale came up, I was halfway across the world, in Jerusalem, on a postdoctoral fellowship, but I knew I had to apply. By this point, I’d earned a masters and PhD in English literature, done research in various archives around the world, had multiple fellowships, taught college classes, taught high school English, began a tentative career in translation, all these other things, but somehow I’d always expected I would work in a university library, and this position allowed me to combine subject expertise with previous work experience in a dream job scenario. I cried when I got the job.
As a school librarian, can you speak to the (increasing) book bans in the United States? How do you see it affecting certain genres or categories of books?
CB: Growing up in a former socialist dictatorship, I heard a lot about censorship. Everything in socialist Romania had been censored: the news, the T.V. shows, the radio programs, the newspapers, all my parents’ schoolbooks, all books really, music, theater, art. People went to prison for attempting to read and share information freely. My grandparents spent a significant amount of time trying to acquire rare, small-circulation, uncensored editions of modern classics. Exiled Shadow itself is in part about censorship—in this case, of the German Reclam edition of the fairytale of Peter Schlemihl, which is deemed contraband by the officials who check the Nomadic Misanthrope’s papers before allowing him to leave socialist Romania and confiscate it. Given all this, the recent calls for book bans in the United States are very distressing to me. The American Library Association reported 1,269 demands to censor library books in 2022 that were aimed at an individual 2,572 titles. That is a staggering amount of books. The New York Times reported just this week on a law set to take effect in Texas in September 2023 that would force booksellers to rate each book they sell to schools based on a subjective evaluation of the book’s so-called ‘sexual content.’ As the proposed Texas law suggests, the bans and restrictions seem to be predominantly affecting young adult literature, especially literature with African American, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ themes. I think the impulse to censor, and the focus on censoring the work of marginalized writers and communities, as well as work directed at young people, is not only extremely dangerous and misguided, but contrary to basic democratic principles. The First Amendment guarantees to everyone the freedom to express and to hear expressed the widest possible range of opinions, ideas, thoughts, arguments, and points of view. More basically, a democratic society cannot thrive in the absence of the free exchange of ideas and information. When we censor the books directed at the young, we are attempting to place blinkers on their lives, we are preventing them from having access to that one idea or thought that might make a difference in their future, we are perverting the very purpose of reading—if reading can be said to have a purpose—which is the care of the mind and soul.
As a Romanian national, what Romanian author inspires you, or what Romanian author’s work you would like to translate into English?
CB: I would love to translate or to see translated into English the work of the Romanian poet Cristian Popescu. Born in 1959, Popescu was one of the most important poets of the 90s generation, though he is little read today. He himself published very little, only a chapbook (The Popescu Family, 1987 (censored)) and two books: Forword, in 1988, and Popescu’s Art, in 1994. Popescu graduated from the University of Bucharest with a specialization in Serbo-Croatian literature, and when he increasingly began to suffer from schizophrenia, he took a job as a nightwatchman at the Bucharest Astronomic Observatory. He participated in the Revolution in ‘89, underwent multiple electroshock treatments for schizophrenia, which were only partially successful, and died young, at the age of 36, in 1995. In his short life, he produced a fabulous series of poems that eulogized, execrated, and eternalized the city of Bucharest. I read him repeatedly, even a little obsessively during the pandemic. I was very sick for a time, and there were months when I couldn’t read at all, couldn’t even think, but I could recall some of Popescu’s poems and that meant a lot to me. He is a poet of illness, even a poet of death, but he is also a poet of night visions, of trams and endless city boulevards, of street urchins and booze, of books and smoggy sunrises and newspaper classifieds, of angels trumpeting the apocalypse in corner bodegas. He is an astonishing (and astonished) voice, remarkable in its power and utter honesty, a poet of limits. I look forward to the day when his work is better known.
What is your favorite aspect or part of Exiled Shadow? What do you hope readers will take away from this work of Norman Manea?
CB: I really enjoy the polyphony of the novel, the multiplicity of voices. I like that reading the novel is a little bit like overhearing multiple conversations happening in different rooms of the same great house of exile, where Thomas Mann rubs shoulders with Paul Celan, and Spinoza speaks with Eugenio Montale, and Alberto Manguel can comment on the work of Adelbert von Chamisso. What I hope a reader also will notice in and take away from Exiled Shadow is that we all spend our lives, to some extent, as strangers in a strange land, even if we don’t grow up in a totalitarian state, even if we are not forced to emigrate, like the novel’s protagonist. We are all always looking for home, always looking behind, always trying to peek ahead, always asking the strangers we meet on the way what the meaning of it all might be. There are very few aids in this strange journey in the wilderness of existence. Exiled Shadow suggests that one such aid (when it is not a curse) is literature. Literature provides us with a shadow, which for better or worse shows us to be human. The novel provides many interpretations of what a shadow might be, and suggests that selling it, banning it, censoring it, or betraying it in any of the myriad ways in which this can be done, is not only a fool’s, but a devil’s errand.
Norman Manea is an internationally celebrated author whose books have been translated into over thirty languages. He is Francis Flournoy Professor Emeritus of European Studies and Culture as well as writer-in-residence at Bard College. He lives in New York City. Carla Baricz is a translator of Romanian literature. She lives in New Haven, CT.