"Happy Babel?" Translation in Europe

By Pfitzner, Ina | Bucknell Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

"Happy Babel?" Translation in Europe


Pfitzner, Ina, Bucknell Review


Europe est fondle sur les traductions.

--Henri Meschonnic

ROMANIAN-Americanwriter Andrei Codrescu tells the following story:

One August evening in 1956, when I was ten years old, I heard a thousand-year-old shepherd wrapped in a cloak of smoke tell a story around a Carpathian campfire. He said that a long time ago, when time was an idea whose time hadn't come, when the pear trees made peaches, and when fleas jumped into the sky wearing iron shoes weighing ninety-nine pounds each, there lived in these parts a sheep called Mioritza.

The flock to which Mioritza belongs is owned by three brothers. One night, Mioritza overhears the older brothers plotting to kill the youngest in the morning, in order to steal his sheep. The younger brother is a dreamer, whose "head is always in the stars." Mioritza nestles in his arms, and warns the boy about the evil doings soon to unfold, and begs him to run away. But, in tones as lyrical as they are tragic, the young poet-shepherd tells his beloved Mioritza to go see his mother after he is killed, and to tell her that he didn't really die, that he married the moon instead, and that all the stars were at the wedding. The boy then tells Mioritza the name of each star, where it came from, and what its job is, just in case the mother, who is not easily fooled, wants to know names and faces. Before morning, the older brothers murder the young shepherd, as planned. There is no attempt to resist, no counterplot, no new deviousness. Fate unfolds as foretold. The moon has a new husband, and the story must be known.

Mioritza wanders, looking for the boy's mother. But she tells everyone along the way the story as well. The murder was really a wedding, the boy married the moon, and all the stars were present. She names each star and explains where it came from. The Pleiades are bad girls who swept dust into the eyes of the sun. The Little Dipper feeds kind milk to the poor because it had once been an evil Titan who wasted his gold. Venus was once a vain queen who loved an evil angel. The circle of Orion is made of girls who can't stop dancing. There are carpenters, witches, and smiths up there, worlds of people transformed and made forever exemplary. Mioritza knows everyone in the sky. She never tires of the story. She laments the death of her beloved with stories of the origin of the worlds.

Her wandering takes her across the rivers of the Carpathian mountains to the Black Sea, a path that describes the natural border of Romania. Her migration defines the space of the people, a space the Romanian poet Lucian Blaga called "mioritic." Mioritza herself is the moving border of the nation, a storytelling border whose story is borderless and cosmic. She calls into being a place and a people that she circumscribes with narrative." (1)

The tale of Mioritza, here in Codrescu's version, is "Romania's most enduring cultural text." (2) A fundamental component of Romanian national and cultural identity, it serves as the founding myth of Romania, construing both its origin and its destiny. Romanians recognize themselves and their nation in the story: Mioritza epitomizes their resilience in the face of occupation and aggression, humiliation and violence throughout their tormented history, a resilience that is coupled with and arises from a certain fatalistic streak. The young shepherd's murder constitutes yet another expulsion from Paradise, yet another original sin. As a virtual big bang it calls into existence time, societal order, a country and a culture, a people and their history.

More than the young shepherd's actual fate, it is Mioritza's telling of the tale that establishes Romania, a text inscribed by and ascribed to the Romanian language. The wandering ewe draws an invisible border, and the resulting "mioritic space" outlines "a geography of the Romanian poetic imagination." (3) Her continual retelling sets up a mise en abime: the tale I have related here is that of Codrescu, is that of the old Romanian shepherd, is that of Mioritza, is that of the young brother. …

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