A Newfound Freedom of Expression

LONDON–Earlier this year when I was reporting out a story about the rise of Romanian culture for Global Post, I had a chance to speak with Filip Florian, one of the country’s most respected contemporary authors. I asked him about the state of literature in the country and while he said that there was a lot happening in terms of writers getting published locally, there was a huge problem with Romanian literature being translated for foreign audiences. “In comparison to the previous period when there was lack of translations, it’s more positive,” Florian told me. “But even still it’s very hard for Western publishers to be convinced to take on a Romanian writer.” But things are changing—and fast. The Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) has made book translations a priority and since 2006, over 200 books have been translated into languages including into Spanish, Polish, French, German and even Korean. The ICR also runs a unique translation program called “Translators in Training”, which offers 20 scholarships a year for foreign Romanian language students to come to the country and work with contemporary authors to translate their works. I spoke with Florin Bican (who helped found and still runs the program) about this intriguing translation scholarship,  which is helping give some of the country’s young writers a global platform for their writing.

Tell me about the beginnings of the “Translators in Training” program.

The program began in 2006. Two times a year—in May-June and October-November –two groups of 10 students come to Bucharest for two months to get an idea of the literature of Romania and about translating it into their native languages. They are all students of Romanian and they know the language to varying degrees of perfection. For those who need it, there is a language component as well. They come from all over Europe—both East and West—and we also have had students from the US, Korea and Japan. They focus on contemporary Romanian literature, which is loosely defined as post-World War II until today. During the first year of the program we could not fill the 10 scholarship slots but as the program grew, we got more and more applicants interested to come join our program. The advantage is they get to know the writers, they talk to them, they choose an author—whom they like— to translate and these writers are there to answer their questions. Romanian literature has not been translated for ages so it was largely unknown—  that is why Romanian authors are thrilled to be working with these students. So even if these students go back home and never translate anything, we hope they stay friendly to Romanian literature.

Tell me a bit about the background of your students?

There are some who studied Romanian for fun and developed a passion for the language and the country. The idea is that once they have finished the program, they go back to their countries and generally make themselves a nuisance until a publisher lets them have a go at translating. It helps that the ICR runs several programs for financing Romanian authors in translation so publishers do not run a high risk as translation costs and production costs are covered by ICR. So far between 2006 and today, there have been 200 titles published through [various] ICR translation programs, with 60 having been translated by my students.

Which languages seem to be the most popular for translations?

For some reason, Spanish is number one. There are similarities between Italian and Romanian yet there has been less in Italian than Spanish. There are also a lot published in Polish, we have a lot of students from Poland. Poles in particular are very good at language; their language standards are staggeringly high.

translator-1024x768Any idea why it’s been those countries in particular are keen for translating Romanian contemporary writers?

It’s quite a mystery. In terms of Spain, it could be because there are so many Romanians living there—it’s in the millions. Another example is Bulgaria where there are just few translators who are working full-time to translate Romanian literature. Though the readership is not very large, they are quite passionate translators and readers of Romanian writers. We are not doing so well in English though the University of Plymouth Press has signed a contract with ICR and they are translating 20 authors, which have been chosen by a Romanian jury.  Also Dalkey Archive Press [based in Illinois] currently publish Romanian works.


Why has there been such a push by the ICR to do translations?

Because for so long Romanian books were not being translated. Under the Communists, you can imagine the kind of authors that got promoted and the kind of literature that was accepted. So in the beginning of the 1990s Romanian publishers started translating massively—and there was a move to get foreign translators interested in our literature. There was a great interest. In 2000 the country’s largest publisher started to produce books from Romania writers, young people who had never published before. And that scheme was successful. So Romanians started reading Romanian authors and liking them. It has become fashionable to be read Romanian writers—though of course the big international bestsellers also do well—and that has encouraged young people to write.

Herta Muller, a Romanian who immigrated to Germany during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. Did her win help spark more interest in Romanian literature?

Interestingly there was no marked difference. Of course everyone in Romania expected it to boost interest in our literature but in as much as I can see, there has not been any significant increase of interest. Romanian authors still have to catch up with the rest of the world. They have to flex their muscles to use their newfound freedom of expression fully.


1st photo, Florin Bican with students (courtesy Florin Bican, photo by Anahit Hayrapetyan)

2nd photo, Serbian translation student (courtesy of Florin Bican)