Tag Archives: Mihai Eminescu

The Beauty of Language — translations, post 1 of 3 (Mihai Eminescu)


Mihai Eminescu (1850 – 1889)

    To speak of Mihai Eminescu is to encapsulate the spirit of his country in one name. Many of his poems are based on Romanian ballads (Miorita or The Little Ewe), and embraced by generations as favorite poems or songs. It would take pages to describe the poet’s life and works of art. I will not attempt to do that, as others have done it masterfully. I am, however, interested in exploring translations of his work.

Being so deeply traditional, Eminescu seemed to remain forever ingrained in Romanian literature. It was impossible to imagine his verse translated well enough to be evocative and understood. To be loved. Regarded as the national poet, he is adored by Romanians everywhere. A part of me liked the idea of keeping Eminescu to ourselves — the loving part — but not sharing his art, not reciting it to the world, seemed unjustifiably selfish.

Luceafarul (The Evening Star) is widely viewed as the poet’s greatest work of art. It is a 98-verse poem, although the length is up for debate, as a number of verses were said to have been removed after his death. Luceafarul is a philosophical composition in many ways, with heavy mythological and cosmic aspects. Perhaps an astronomically influenced poem, as suggested in many circles, but at the core it describes love, life, and sacrifice.

Here is a short section from the original followed by two translations side by side and closing notes below:


Porni luceafarul. Cresteau
In cer a lui aripe,
Si cai de mii de ani treceau
In tot atitea clipe.

Un cer de stele dedesupt,
Deasupra-i cer de stele-
Parea un fulger nentrerupt
Ratacitor prin ele.

Si din a chaosului vai,
Jur imprejur de sine,
Vedea ca-n ziua cea dentii,
Cum izvorau lumine;


Adrian G. Sahlean                                        C.M. Popescu

(The Legend of the Evening Star)          (Lucifer)

So left the Evening Star. His wings                   Lucifer set out and o’er
Grew large across the sky                                    The sky his wings extended,
As thousand years of reach would spring        And million years flew past before
And at a wink go by;                                             As many moments ended.

A canopy of stars below,                                      A sky of stars above his way,
Above, a starry dome:                                          A sky of stars below;
An endless lightning seemed to flow                As lightning flash midst them astray
And through the heavens roam                         In one continuous flow.

And in the dark that streamed around,           Till round his primal chaos hurled
As on the first day’s morn,                                 When from enwrapping night
He glimpsed the chaos vales unbound            The first, upflaming dawn unfurled
From where the light is born.                            Its miracle of light.


I know how much I love the original and leave the English versions for you to enjoy.

The main question is, do the translations convey what the original had set out to do?  I think the answer is yes, although it’s hard to fully appreciate a poem by reading three verses. So I ask, how was it possible to interpret Eminescu?

In looking at the original then the translations, I see one element maintained throughout, and that is flow. At least to a large degree. Of course we have two translators, and as such the versions differ in that respect. The rhythm changes (the rhyming part of it), but not very much. That leaves us with the words and meaning, perhaps the most difficult part when translating poetry, or any work of literature for that mater. The meaning is altered somewhat, words changed, but the beauty of language is in that we can say the same thing in several manners and not dilute the significance of what is being conveyed.  Emotion and feeling, so vital to the art form, are not sacrificed. As a writer, I find that fascinating.

Think about it, musicians have what,  12 notes to vary, rearrange, and play in different tones. But language — how many words are there in any given language? The Oxford Dictionary says “there is no single sensible answer to this question.” Of course not. Take English, for example. Is play one word or two? It sure has more than one meaning, as in child’s play (verb) and theater play (noun). In writing, and perhaps translating, it is how the writer uses the words to convey feeling and emotion that counts. It is what makes all the difference. If musicians and great composers can arrange and rearrange such limited number of notes to keep us enthralled and entertained, the possibilities are without limits for writers. The same is true with interpretations, I suppose.

It is how I came to accept that my beloved Eminescu could be translated. Through the beauty of language.