New Releases: Rakes of the Old Court by Mateiu Caragiale, translated by Sean Cotter

Rakes of the Old Court

By Mateiu Caragiale, translated by Sean Cotter.

136 Pages. Northwestern University Press. $18.95.

Tenebrous, mollitious, superal, advigilating, encoursive, orgulous, salubrious, appanage, siccicate, phanariot, inquination, schickster, seneschal, decretory, voivodes, bijouterie, uncinctured, deturpation, internunciary, noctambulant, autochthonous, urticated.

These are all words that appear in Sean Cotter’s translation of Mateiu Caragiale’s Rakes of the Old Court. You’ll have difficulty finding the definition of some of them. Google the word “imbrumated,” which appears on page 25 of the book in the clause “he lived imbrumated with thick smoke,” and you will be taken directly to… excerpts from this translation of Rakes of the Old Court. I believe “imbrumated” to be a neologism of Cotter’s, and it is meant, as far as I can tell, as something of a portmanteau of “imbricated” and “inundated.”1 Thrown into all this is the occasional not-even-italicized loan from another language, such as "saugrenu" - bizarre in French.

Such a vocabulary would be unorthodox for an English-language novelist to use; for a translation, it is borderline heretical.

I relish the heresy. In his introduction, Cotter describes The Rakes of the Old Court as having an “ornate style, filled with archaic Romanian and base street language, saturated with Turkish, Roma, German, and Greek vocabulary.” To read Cotter’s rendering of The Rakes of the Old Court is to encounter the rare work where both author and translator find euphoria in an unbounded display of language; it is among the finest works of translated prose I’ve ever read. It is certainly among the noblest and most ambitious recent attempts to render a unique piece of foreign-language literature into English.

Beauty is the foremost result of Caragiale’s prose, and we can use this beauty to both understand the themes of the novel and evaluate its translation.

Rakes of the Old Court opens on its unnamed narrator in a state of sickly despair. “Disgusted by everything beyond measure, I strove to find, within a life of debauchery, oblivion,” he says. Already, we think we’ve read this novel before: a depressed, dissipated loner wanders a 20th century European capital with musings and digressions both philosophical and spiteful.

In fact, Rakes of the Old Court is not at all a novel about an individual tempremate set against the world: it is a novel of friendship. It is centered around a circle of four dissolute men: Paşadia, a reclusive intellectual who has dedicated himself to the study of history; Pantazi, an aesthete; Pirgu, a seedy but well-connected figure of the Bucharest lowlife; and the narrator, who dutifully observes the lives of the other three (as Cotter points out in his notes, the Romanian word for narrator is “povestitorul,” meaning all four main characters begin their names with a P). They are no longer young but not quite middle-aged, and they have no steady profession or class position; it is hard to tell whether they should be called aristocrats with bohemian values or bohemians with aristocratic values.

These friends quarrel, gossip, joke, and pontificate through an array of misadventures and misfortunes. Set over the course of a few months, the novel does not quite have a plot, but in as language-lush a novel as this one, the shifts in style take the place of a narrative. And here we find something curious.

In the second of the novel’s four chapters, when Pantazi tells the narrator of his background and outlook, the artifice of the prose reaches its peak:

The women who mothered this people - the staid and hately Greek with clenched teeth hatching her long fury among crates of clementines and Gaza oranges, the enemious and daring Serbian who, on her deathbed, spit the communion wafer into the priest’s beard and spent out her breath in curses on her children, the infest and hypocritical Braşovian who was consumed by cancer and envy - further envenomed that sickly bloodline, spawning a funereal dowry of mauvacity and improbity

In the chapter that follows (titled “Confessions”), Pantazi continues his long disquisition with the narrator, but here he passes from family myth to real history:

With my father, things were different; my feelings for him took shape slowly, as the result of judgment, founded on admiration. A well-kempt tyro with a woman’s hands, whose manner and appearance seemed English to Parisians, he embodied rare virtues, true character.

Whereas the first passage is expressive, this one is eloquent. There is a restraint and control here. It is as if Pantazi is telling us, through his style, that in the past boldness of character came as easily as the beauty of the world, but now the fetters of bourgeois modernity only allows certain highly disciplined individuals to cultivate a rhetorical skill defined by fine, carefully-wrought judgements.

The amount of time we spend with Pantazi creates an imbalance in the voices of the novel; we hear much less from Paşadia and Pirgu. The narrator assures us that Paşadia had written “works that could have come from the quill of Cardinal de Retz or the pencil of Saint-Simon, pages worthy of Tacitus” but he does not quote from these works. We do get occasional shouts of filthy vulgarity from Pirgu, but I would have liked ten pages of his obscenities and street slang.

Perhaps Paşadia and Pirgu reflect the two options available to an aesthete such as Pantazai: either become a scholar divorced from the world outside one’s library or seek a base indulgence in the physical pleasures of civilization’s underbelly. Pantazi’s inability to find a mean between these two poles - manifested most prominently in his inability to achieve romantic love - brings a sense of melancholy to the novel’s literary beauty. And it prompts me to turn again to the question of its translation.

Though Romanian is a romance language and many of the very unusual words used in this translation are latinate, Cotter tells us in his introduction that Caragiale sought to emphasize the non-European features of Romania through his prose - and thus his primary source of arcane vocabulary was not Greek or Latin but Turkish. However, due to the English language’s paucity of Turkish-derived vocabulary, Cotter has substituted mostly Latin-derived words for Turkish ones. His decision likely approximates Caragiale’s baroque style, but it may serve the opposite effect. A novel littered with arcane Latinisms seems all too European, creating prose that looks like it could have come from Paris or Vienna. I get the sense we are missing something essential to the novel, something that can only be grasped in the original Romanian. 

Cotter’s translation is a great achievement, probably the best I’ve reviewed for this newsletter so far, but one that has me pondering the limits of translation. I wonder what this book would have looked like had Cotter gone the opposite route and looked for Old English, Scots, Gaelic, Welsh, and other Celtic words. I hope one day to see another translation of Rakes of the Old Court that does just that.


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