According to publisher, editor and translation specialist Chad Post, only three percent of the published books in the U.S. are translated, a really small number, compared to non-English speaking countries. The situation is slightly better in the U.K. and Ireland, and the impediments are many: from names (many readers are reluctant to foreign names or names they can’t pronounce), to marketing and promotion, and a lack of internal language skills among publishers. Therefore it is almost a wonder that authors from small countries like Romania end up being translated, published and (hopefully) read in English. In an effort to help readers get better acquainted with Romanian literature, here are some contemporary Romanian writers whose works are available in English.
Born in 1942, Adameșteanu is a novelist, essayist and journalist. She writes realist prose that shifts, temporally, between past—often troubled—and present, with memory playing a key part. Her most famous book, Wasted Morning, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2011, in Patrick Camiller’s translation. The novel was first published in Romania in 1984 and became an instant success, despite the sensitive topic and the censorship—or, more likely, thanks to it. It covers 7 decades, from 1914 to the mid 80s. From a very prolific interwar Bucharest to the end of the Golden Era of Ceaușescu’s regime, the book is a historical tour de force and a psychological study at the same time. Praising its qualities, novelist and professor Norman Manea said:
Time seems to be the main character, but the novel’s exceptional heroine, Vica, a colorful, gossipy witness with a harsh tongue—a kind of Leopold Bloom in a skirt—unites the many layers of this great narrative in a seductive mixture of irony and pathos, gravity and ridicule, social-political turmoil and the fervor of a vivid inner life.
The Encounter was published in 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press, in Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation (excerpt). While her other novels aren’t translated into English yet, they are already available in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc.
Poet, novelist and literary critic, Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956) is regarded by readers and critics alike as the most important contemporary Romanian writer. With lots of accolades to his name and an impressive body of work, which has been translated into more than 20 languages, he’s been considered for many years the first Romanian author that could be awarded the Nobel prize for literature. His latest major novel, Solenoid, has yet to be translated into English, but is already published—and hugely praised—in Spanish and Catalan.
His most important work to date is considered Blinding. A trilogy, Blinding has the structure of a butterfly, consisting of the body and the two wings. The novel is a psychedelic trip to the main character’s childhood and youth, in a phantasmagoric Bucharest, a labyrinth brimful of memories, chimeras, and dreams. The first part of the trilogy (excerpt) was translated by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books in 2013, receiving huge praises from the U.S. publishers:
“As Borges said when Joyce’s Ulysses was published, this text does not aspire to be a novel, but a cathedral… A novel with a strong original voice, a unique flavor, and well-crafted poetic language.”Los Angeles Review of Books
Also available in English are Nostalgia, translated by Julian Semilian for New Directions, in 2005, and Why We Love Women, a collection of essays published by University of Plymouth Press in 2011, in Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation.
Florian (b. 1968) worked as a journalist for several years before turning to novel writing. His debut novel, Little Fingers, was published to great critical acclaim in 2005, being awarded several prizes for prose debut. In 2009 the novel was published in English by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as his following one, The Days of the King (2011).
Together with his brother Matei (also a novelist), Filip Florian wrote The Băiuț Alley Lads, a trip down the memory lane to their (communist) childhood. Written as a dialogue, on two very distinct voices, the book is a very sensorial, heartwarming and dreamy confession, while managing to remain realistic at the same time. The past is seen through the innocent eyes of the two brothers who bond over their shared love for the same football team, games, mountain trips, French toast, and Sundays. The book (excerpt) was published by University of Plymouth Press in 2010 and translated, as the other 2 previously mentioned novels, by Alistair Ian Blyth. His novels can be also found in Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Polish, Bulgarian, German or Hungarian.
One of the most prolific writers of his generation, Dan Lungu’s (b. 1969) only novel translated in English so far, I’m an Old Commie!, is also his most renowned. Published in Romania in 2007, the book enjoyed instant success and was soon followed by several European stage versions, being also made into a film in 2013, by Romanian director Stere Gulea.
The novel, set ten years after the Romanian revolution in 1989, is based on a weird paradox: how it is possible, for many people, to be nostalgic for an era of dictatorial regime, after living for years under its oppressive system. Sparkled by a phone call—a daughter urging her mother not to vote for the former communists in the upcoming elections—the conflict of the novel is an identity crisis that makes Emilia, the old commie profoundly marked by the regime, reminisce about her past, in an effort to legitimise her nostalgia. The novel (excerpt) was published in 2017 by Dalkey Archive Press, in Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation. Lungu’s other novels and short story collections are available in many other European languages.
Novelist, editor, professor and translator Ioana Pârvulescu (b. 1960), is a two-time winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, most recently in 2018, when she was awarded the professional prize for her short story A Voice. The story—a two-perspective powerful narrative on the subject of freedom—is translated by Mihnea Gafița, and, together with the other contenders, can be read online, in a collective volume.
Life Begins on Friday (excerpt), also a winner of the aforementioned prize, was published in 2016 by Istros Books, in the translation of Alistair Ian Blyth, and it is also available in many other languages. The novel tells a charming story set at the end of the 19th century, that revolves around a certain character that appears to have arrived on the snowy streets of Bucharest straight from the future. Although the book arrays a very colourful cast of characters, who mingle with each other in the most intricate ways, the real characters of the novel—and Pârvulescu’s favourite topics—are time and the city.
Having a keen eye for detail, a solid knowledge of history and two previous nonfiction books about the capital city under her belt, she manages to reconstruct the Belle Époque Bucharest in a very vivid manner, while arguing that the 1900s were the best epoch, not only for Bucharest, but for the entire history of humanity, a time when people were showing delight and curiosity for the present, and, at the same time, having faith in the future and looking forward to it.
Lucian Dan Teodorovici
Born in 1975, Teodorovici is one of the strongest voices of the new generation of Romanian writers. He is also an editor, screenwriter and the manager of FILIT—The International Festival of Literature and Translation Iași. His novels and short story collections have been translated into more than 10 languages, with two of his novels—Our Circus Presents and Matei Brunul, both translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and published by Dalkey Archive Press— being available in English.
The author’s most known book, Matei Brunul (excerpt), published in Romania in 2011, is the first fictionalised work to explore the prison world in communist Romania, with an interesting parallel between the main storyline—the life of a former puppeteer of Italian ancestry in the penitentiaries of the former regime —and the way in which a totalitarian system can manipulate people. In the novel’s foreword, David Lodge writes:
. . . exquisitely comic and movingly tragic by turns, while its shifting perspectives in time and narrative point of view keep the reader constantly involved in the story. It is a remarkable achievement by a writer who was born in 1975 and had no personal experience of the era it describes, bearing comparison with classics of the genre such as Milan Kundera’s The Joke.
Of the Romanian-born authors living abroad, probably the best known is Nobel winner Herta Müller (b. 1953), who writes in German, and whose novels—available in English and many other languages— usually depict the terror and the cruelty of the Ceaușescu’s regime she herself experienced. The Hunger Angel (Metropolitan Books, 2012, translated by Philip Boehm) narrates the deportation of Romania’s German minority to the Soviet gulags, during the Soviet occupation of Romania. Also widely translated is acclaimed author and professor Norman Manea (b. 1936), who resides in New York and whose most famous book, The Hooligan’s return: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, translated by Angela Jianu), is a fictionalised autobiography, covering almost 80 years, from the pre-war period, through WWII and the communist era to post-communist Romania.
Featured image: J Stimp / flickr