“I consider Romania a fascinating country with a great potential”,
Discussion in Zurich with Adrian Wanner, literature professor at the Pennsylvania State University, who translated a poetry book of Liliana Ursu
Professor Wanner, you published recently with the Pano Publishing House in Zurich a bilingual German-Romanian volume of poetry. You are Swiss German, studied French, Italian and Russian – and you live in the United States. What made you set out on a Romanian language adventure?
It was indeed an adventure and it all started with Liliana Ursu’s visit at Pennsylvania State University in 1997-1998. She came with a Fulbright scholarship to teach and research and she lived in our house. At that time my wife and I had only one child and disposed of a space where we often accommodated scholars visiting the university for a longer period. Now with three children, we use that space differently. Liliana Ursu became our family friend and we always enjoyed hearing the poems she wrote sometimes spontaneously inspired by the surrounding reality: our daughter, the cat, or the morning coffee. She had been in the United States before. I knew that her poems, very appreciated, had been published in prestigious magazines such as « The New Yorker » or « The American Poetry Review » as well as in three volumes translated by three different authors. If I am not mistaken, I could say her poetry is better known in English than in Romanian. A fourth volume will come out soon. Reading her poems and talking to her, we came up with the idea to translate her into German. Later on I contacted the Pano Publishing House in Zurich where I already published two bilingual German-Russian volumes one with poetry, another with short stories, I suggested them this adventure and they agreed.
What kind of publishing house is Pano?
It is a small one, born out of an idealist impulse: two twin brothers Ueli and Koni Schmid, one specialized in Slavic literature, the other one in theology, started to print books almost out of nothing and so created Pano Publishing House. Eventually it was acquired by the Theological Publishing House Zürich which is using the Pano label for publication of poetry and prose which does not have a specialized theological content.
Did you translate Liliana Ursu’s poems from English into German?
Yes. But I wanted to look up the original version and soon I realized that in two of those English volumes – whose translators are themselves poets and do not speak Romanian – the translations were sometimes extremely free, parts of the text were simply missing or added. Since I was planning to publish a bilingual book I felt obliged to be as close as possible to the original text and that is why I asked Liliana to give me the Romanian manuscripts. I took dictionaries, Romanian Language books, checked up with Romanian colleagues and of course with Liliana and finally I can say that I translated the whole book based on the Romanian text. The languages I know helped me a lot: I studied first French and Italian literature and afterwards I had my PhD in Russian literature. I found that the Romanian language fitted very well within my personal linguistic skills. I am aware that in Romania often people do not like to have their language associated with Russian but there are lots of words of Slavic origin: “razboi, smantana, bogat, duh, taina”.
How did you end up studying Russian?
I attended a high school where I had a lot of Latin language classes and my teacher spoke also Russian. Due to him, when I was sixteen I discovered Lermontov’s poetry, which fascinated me so much that I decided to learn the language. It’s strange, now I live in the United States but the high school I attended focused on Latin and Ancient Greek. English was optional; I mostly learned it on my own.
My generation in Romania learned English also from the pop music, did you too?
Not really, I am an exception, I am interested in classical music, I play the piano. English did not interest me either until I met my wife who is American and speaks perfectly five languages. We met in Paris where I studied for a year; we were in line to buy tickets for a concert of a Russian singer Bulat Okudjava (he was singing something similar to Vladimir Vyssotski). It was fate that brought us together and decided that I come to the US. For Liliana’s book fate decided too. It simply happened, I translated the poems because I knew her, even though I do not like to translate free verses. I think the responsibility is too high. My last translation from Romanian was Eminescu’s « Dintre sute de catarge » published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung in September this year. I enjoyed translating it because it has rhythm and rhyme… “vanturile, valurile”...
This summer you visited Romania and among other things you gave a lecture about your linguistic adventure at the Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu. How was this trip?
I was quite excited by the idea of visiting Romania just because of a book, this was also an adventure. What I discovered was very interesting even though I spent only a week there. I liked Sibiu a lot, a beautiful city, no wonder that it will become a European cultural capital. At my lecture the hall was totally full. I was amazed to see the public’s interest in poetry and literature. For such a lecture we would have just a few students, coming out of obligation.
« We » means the United States?
Yes. But I am convinced that in Switzerland it would be the same. Liliana is right when she says in one of her poems that the times we are living now are not meant for poets. Back to Sibiu I keep in my mind an image which deeply impressed me there: a children choir in a church. They were singing in German and it was beautiful. I was told that they carry on the German teaching tradition in the city although the German community, which founded the town, is now very small. Most of those learning German are Romanians and they grow up bilingual, this is great. Very impressive was also the fact that after it was shut down in the ’80s, a new German language section has been created at the University. Such openings are very important for a country which was isolated so many years, and it is wonderful when people show interest in other cultures. In Switzerland although people speak several languages often they remain closed in an insular mentality. After living so long in the United States I do not think I could live here again. Not only the mentality but also the way they teach at the University is very different. I graduated from the University in Zurich and later on I prepared my PhD in the United States where I went through much more enriching experiences.
How did you find Bucharest?
Very interesting and contrasting. Liliana lives in Cotroceni, a very nice area that was slated to be destroyed by Ceausescu. I visited also that huge and monstrous building with the boulevard copy of the Champs Elysée. I enjoyed the Village Museum a lot even though I am not that interested in peasant culture. The visit there with Liliana’s explanations and her poetical images left me with a very special recollection. I consider Romania a fascinating country, with a great potential both culturally and for tourism. People are very friendly. Right from the beginning, in the airport, I had a nice experience. There were several windows to check passports but since I am Swiss I did not fit any of them so I asked where to go and an officer told me that he considers me as part of the EU. I liked this flexibility; here in Switzerland officials are sometimes very rigid.
Do you have any future projects regarding Romanian literature?
I don’t have, even though I would very much like to. First I should really learn Romanian but for the time beeing – with three children and my university work – this is impossible. Maybe when I retire.
Thank you very much for this interview.
Alina Mondini, Zurich