How to Get to Bucharest from Harlem via Istanbul
- onJune 21, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byJohn Freeman
Next week, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking second novel, Giovanni’s Room, will be published in Romanian for the first time, sixty-two years after its publication. The novel tells the tragic love story of a young man named David, who moves to Paris with a fiancée and—after a brief, heady affair with an Italian, Giovanni—departs, unsure of everything and terrified he has rejected the possibilities of true love. Although it’s frequently noted that Baldwin’s agent and publisher told him to burn the manuscript, Baldwin actually received a great deal of encouragement. After reading the novel, Michael Joseph, Baldwin’s UK publisher, professed that they would put out anything he wrote. Norman Mailer offered a prepublication blurb, and the reviews in America, when the novel finally appeared, were largely positive. On the basis of Baldwin’s talent, one of the first complex portraits of the alienation of gay and bisexual life in American fiction was treated simply as literature.
I know Baldwin’s Romanian translator, Elena Marcu. Along with her friend, AncaDumitrescu, she runs the first all-female publishing house in Romania, Black Button Books, which publishes and translates the literary journal I edit. A couple years ago, in Bucharest for the publication of a book, I sat in a bar with Elena and Anca on an otherwise dismal night, drinking Irish stout, conducting the kind of comparison game editors play when visiting each other’s countries. Is this published? What about this? Heads are slapped and titles spelled out letter by letter. It’s less essential to do this explanatory work as an American. Most people know the essential writers in English, their work and influence travels on the jet streams of empire, even if empire is what these writers critique. But sometimes the work migrates on the back of other thermals.
Such was the case for the essays and novels of Baldwin. This was the fall of 2015, after a long year of spectacular police shootings, stranglings, and outright abuse had been captured on camera phones and spread round the world on social networks. “The whole world is watching,” the phrase one could hear at many Black Lives Matter protests, took on a new meaning for me when two Romanian womenbegan to describe to me their reactions to the atrocities they had seen on screens and then quoted James Baldwin back to me. We talked for a while in the rainy pub about Baldwin’s essays and the sound of his voice, of the power of longing in the current environment and also in the context of a former police state like Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu, where almost everyone over a certain age had had an experience of being harassed or beaten or interrogated. Put in jail. One of Ceausescu’s last great plans was to bug every telephone in the country.
On that night we also talked for a bit about the long aftermath of this kind of disruption—the way trauma is passed down and inherited, housed in the body—and then spoke of Ta-nehisi Coates’s memoir, Between the World and Me, written—as Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time” was—as a letter, in this case to Coates’s son rather than to a nephew, grieving for the racist world his boy would inherit. The need for Coates’s book was apparent every thirty-six hours in America, which was the periodicity with which a black person was shot and killed by the police. Anca and Elena had already read the book. He’s not published here, Elena remarked. Neither of them are, she continued, making it clear she was speaking of both Coates and Baldwin. We have to do this, she said, looking out the window.
Two years later, Anca and Elena had made this impulse a reality, not only translating Coates and Baldwin, but essentially starting a publishing house to give themselves the platform to do so. I think of this experience often when I fret, briefly, over the necessity of translating culture alongside the words of a writer. How, after all, are we to understand all the peculiar reference points and personalities of a writer when the culture that has made them is often partially or even largely invisible? Shouldn’t there be footnotes? What about a map? How about a glossary of terms? Shouldn’t a reader know exactly what the writer was referring to at all times? What in the world, for example, would Baldwin's debate with Richard Wright mean to a Romanian?