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I would start all over again, and I would do it so much better

Ioana Ieronim, un interviu cu Lidia Vianu

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Ioana Ieronim: Dear Lidia Vianu, a long time has passed since we were fellow students at the English Department in Pitar Mos: you stayed there and taught. You are one of its most innovative professors, devoted to helping the students become both specialists and intellectuals, and shape their own inner nature, above all. In the meantime you have written an impressive number of essays, literary criticism, brilliant interviews, you have translated British poetry. You have founded programmes which look ahead, at the pragmatic needs of our world in transition. You have used all means of publication, on paper and online, and you have published texts that cross borders and further dialogue among cultures, further humanistic values at a time of globalization that is often too much in a hurry and too superficial. I remember you as you were at the beginning of our friendship: your Cartesian spirit, your intense, refined thirst for culture. I have admired the many directions of your work: essayistic, academic, poetic. One first question: which of the things you do is more important to you?
Lidia Vianu: Time has gone by, indeed. In 1966 (was it?), when I was nineteen at most, we experienced together that desperate hunt for books as students, and I remember this because it was you who lent me Călinescu's huge history of Romanian literature. Those who had it either kept it a secret or were afraid to give and then lose it. I did not have it. Several acquaintances had politely declined, telling me that the huge volume was at the bottom of some trunk, that they failed to find it anywhere in the house, that they had already lent it to somebody else. And then I asked you, although I thought I would never get to read that book, and you simply said 'Yes.' This is how I began to know you, with this short Yes.

A world died, another began... How many young people can understand today how we longed for books, when they download any virtual text their heart desires, and (sometimes) also read it? However much I may have hated communism, I must admit that the secret human closeness, that singular intimacy constantly threatened by informers, the Securitate and the tyranny of an absurd ideology, was a miracle. Friendship is an awful daring and also a joy. I watch my students and I wonder: where are the friendships of yore?

True, I became an assistant at the Department, but that only happened after I had taught in high school four years - for years that I found unbearable. It is a mystery to me too why I so stubbornly wanted to be a teaching assistant, work with students, not pupils (although both are equally likeable). I hated my years as a pupil in high school, on the other hand - it was the worst time of my adolescence. That may be the reason why the years during which I taught at the Mihai Viteazu high school haunted me in nightmares for a long time after I had left that school.

I used to wake up terrified that I would have to teach in that high school the next day, that it would start all over again. I passionately hated the staff room, the headmaster (a sports teacher) who sent me home every day on account of my short skirt, the history teacher who was 'party secretary' and who advised me to give up studying for a PhD (who needed that in high school?), the mathematics teacher who almost sacked me because I skipped party meetings... I felt a total stranger. When I was hired as a teaching assistant, the social dystopia hurt me infinitely less. The English Department had such nice people in it. What can I say? That must have been what I was supposed to do.

So, when you ask what was important to me, I just don't know what to say. Not really. I felt I wanted to keep on studying, while teaching students, study with my students. That's how it started. I loved being a student (as intensely as I had hated high school). It seemed to me that becoming an assistant was not really a job at all. I felt I was postponing growing up. I postponed getting a real job, and I made my profession out of it. I don't feel any younger than I am, or immature, at this point, but I have kept my respect for minds that study. Most of my books have been written for my students, mainly. The rest - fiction or poetry - have been accidents. My books matter if they reach the students. Nobody else has found them. Or maybe I don't know about it. Which does not really matter. I have written them because I had something to teach.

My translations are a bit different. When I translate, I do not really use my teaching skills. I started the MA Programme for the Translation of the Contemporary Literary Text. It is a fairly young programme (just a few years old). I am not sure where it is headed. Nobody may wish to attend it next year. Or it may gather more than the 250 students we have now... One thing is certain: ever since I started it, I have had the feeling I am reinventing myself. When I find out where this programme is headed, I shall understand what I meant by it. Or at least I hope so.

I.I.: How do you connect your creative and intellectual life to your teaching (which, from what I saw while you were teaching your MAs in literary translation, is more like a relationship master-disciples)?
L.V.: As a teenager, I wanted to write fiction. It never happened. I did write some, as a a matter of fact (I have been persistent, but not gifted enough), only it so happened that nothing I wrote really mattered in the end. It wasn't me. At some point I even happened to write poems. It's not the real me, either. It would be nice to be able to say that my criticism of English literature reveals the real me, but I'm afraid they mean something to my students alone. When confronted with these students' quoting me, I feel ill at ease. I played with the label Desperado - and for quite a while now, it has shed its meaning altogether. It labelled my fight against academic criticism, which fight has died in the meantime. I think I was right, but it does not really matter. The life of an idea is so small when compared to really important things in life...

What does represent me has come as a surprise to myself. There is something in what I've written that stands. It may sound ridiculous, but what will be left behind me will be English with a Key. After all my efforts to find my way, this one has found me.

The idea of this handbook which teaches English to Romanians came to me as a last resort in 1987. I could not publish anything at all. I was still a teaching assistant although I had defended my PhD dissertation. To be very frank about it, I had no 'protection.' That's what affected me in communist Romania: no 'protection.' I wasn't the only one, of course... Well. When I realized I couldn't even publish a translation at least, I wrote a book for those who were studying English.

Its roots went a long way back. Since 1970 till the fall of communism I actually had two jobs. The important one was the one at the Department, it always came first. The other one, I pratcised at home, and that was how I actually made a living. I tutored. I learnt that form my own teacher, an Englishman whom I as lucky enough to study with for over seven years, during and after my student years. If my English is any good, I owe it to him. I stole my English form Richard Hillard as doctors steal from other doctors. Ten, fifteen years after graduation I had made my own grammatical system for Romanians. I was using what my professors had taught me (for which I am grateful to them all). Hillard and my professors opened my eyes: what matters for a Romanian who makes English (language an literature) his job is to teach his conationals how to go about it themselves. Second, if he does not choose to be a teacher, he can translate for the others what the others can't read in the original. I also started translating Romanian poets into English, but I am not an expert there. It takes a native to perfect such texts...

So I happened to learn how to be a good teacher of English, and I have no idea how, but I found myself writing English with a Key. I did not realize at the time where I was heading. When it was finished, I took it to a publishing house, the editor asked for a good reference (every step of the way lasted years, that was the rhythm back then), I asked one of my ex-professors for a reference. The academic (very nice person, I must say) kept the manuscript for a while, and at last stated flatly that he could not write a reference for 'that.'
The book was made up of grammar sentences which came out half humorous, half absurd, owing to the fact that I had crammed in them grammar and vocabulary (lists of birds, animal, plants, professions, nations - as I had learned myself) at once. I did have a comfortable feeling that I knew what I was talking about, and it certainly came from what Hillard had taught me. In short, it was a grammar book that was fun. The hesitation of the academic I mentioned must have been the uncertain political meaning of that fun (which could be subversive) -I hope it was that. He must have been afraid to endorse that kind of text, he must have imagined harsh consequences. It was natural to think that way, when a witch hunt was going on against Romanian writers. I feared he might have found it a bad book. I felt painfully inadequate, I could do absolutely nothing right...

In 1990, a publishing house in Timişoara published the book overnight. I learnt the editors had a lot of fun while proofreading it. That was such good news. One small proof (insignificant to everyone but me) that I could be an author (I still have my doubts). The book came out and instantly became a best seller all over the country. I had turned into an author overnight. The author of a book that had nothing to do with literature: it was a handbook of English, no more.

Fifteen years later, my first MA students were telling me that one of the reasons why they had chosen this programme had been English with a Key. They are my disciples, in a way. They learn English and how they can teach it - and I am still learning, with them. I guess this was what I was heading for all along and had not realized...

I.I.: From your experience - how can you help them? In what direction?
L.V.: My experience covers two very different intervals. Under communism, I was learning with my students. I was younger, of course. After 1990 we did the same, only I was older and age made me feel I must (I mean, it's all right, it's not a bad thing to) take a stand. Looking back at the way I taught Modernism and contemporary literature before I could read it properly (till books became available at last), comparing to how I do it now, I realize I have been pretty consistent. I have been lucky enough to suspect quite correctly what I did not actually know. I have never been placed in the embarrassing situation of contradicting myself. As a teacher of literature, I am quite happy with my theory (small as it is, but definitely mine), with the way I teach my students British literature. This is how I can help them, I think.

My only truth in this adventure called 'Teaching 20/21 c British literature' is that there is no final truth, that, in the world of ideas, fanaticism is a crime. The tyranny of ideas bears monsters (see the latest developments in literary theory or cultural studies). Reading is no longer what it used to be in the 1970s. Children have today half of their memory busy with the virtual adventure - which I find absolutely fascinating myself. No ill feeling for that. Each generation has its own canon, so to say. It is my duty to adapt to generations. Any good teacher's, as a matter of fact. I should like to hope this is exactly what I have been doing.

I.I.: It has been twenty years since 1989. What is your opinion on (r)evolution, as a creator, an intellectual, a master facing his disciples?
L.V.: The change meant only one thing to me: the death of resentment. I resented never being promoted, never having my own course, never being allowed to publish, to go abroad, see London, read all I wanted, and many more. I was suddenly free. The internet has had a tremendous part in that - the virtual adventure is right now, for an intellectual fond of reading, the most fascinating by far. I keep mentally thanking the American academic who, in 1991 (my first time abroad, on a Fulbright professorship in New York State), patiently taught me how to use the computer. What a relief, after the typewriter!

I have been promoted, I have published, I am now a regular intellectual, like any other. I have not grown more creative (the reverse, maybe). I have not yet written a good novel, as I once hoped I would. My poetry? Who has read that? Is it worth reading, after all? What matters is that I have grown up, intellectually speaking. I've seen a bit of the world, I spent two years as a Fulbright in the States, I have READ in hopes of making up for twenty years of being a literature teacher under communism. As an intellectual, I have opened up.

As to being a 'master' - with a little luck, that comes because you have something to offer. And if you don't, it still comes - on account of age. I very much wish both were true, as far as I am concerned.

I.I.: Do you see any difference between us, when we were students in 1965-1970, and your students, before 1989, after 1989?
L.V.: What I sense is a human, rather that intellectual difference. A growing mind is a growing mind, everywhere. It absorbs information that makes it grow, and it hardly matters who gives it, where or how.

For one's inner nature, things are infinitely more complicated. How did we manage (those my age) to be happy once, under communism, with a cup of tea and cheap biscuits, in a cold bedsitter, under an old comforter?... The sense of brotherhood experienced by those who did not inform the Securitate about one another, who instinctively supported one another against the boots of cultural apparatchiks...

The friendships of old times are no more. Paradoxically, we felt safer and more protected by friendship under communism. I couldn't say why. I have no idea what causes this human disarray. Why young people attack one another like sharks. We also experienced painful injustice once, things we have not forgotten. I was very unhappy I could not become a teaching assistant on graduation (never mind the reasons at the time). But, when the time came, somebody gave me a helping hand. I have knocked at dozens of closed gates, most of which have never opened. What matters is the doors that do open - this is how we must see things. My MAs - I hope - have learnt this from me: knocking at the right door is an art. It takes patience and hard work to become what you had no idea you would be some day.

I.I.: I was invited to several of your MA workshops on the translation of contemporary literature. We live in a world that needs translation badly, in order to operate with cultural differences. I appreciated as highly contemporary the subtle, efficient flexibility and complexity of what you are doing there. Could you describe the MA Programme in literary translation you have founded: its reasons, aims, and philosophy?
L.V.: My reasons? The opportunity was offered to me. A happy coincidence. These MAs have made me re-define who I am, I have learned from them that a system of education which does not lead to one's making a living is a dying one.

I have reinvented myself all over again. I have done what I once did with Hillard: I stole from my MAs. I learnt by instinct. I sensed what they needed, I allowed myself to be used (my cultural connections, my didactic and literary past, my expectations). I started the internships, in order to help them publish, broadcast, become professional translators and do it well (as far as I could). I have begged various cultural institutions to publish them, to give them a start.

When all is said and done, my philosophy as far as MTTLC is concerned is the simplest: they must be able to use what they learn (so much the better if they also like it, of course). Literary translation - as a job - implies more that written literature. Virtual culture (paper is rarer and rarer) lies ahead. Somebody had to show them the way.

I.I.: You have tackled so many themes, writers, movements. Your interviews show a deep understanding of both works and authors. Which of all these things has made you feel pleased with yourself more than the rest?
L.V.: In anyone's life, at a certain point, all things find a meaning and make sense. I've reached that point. At first an interview made me happy. My website at www.lidiavianu.go.ro was born that way. With the poets, critics, novelists and translators interviewed (here and abroad) we founded - among other things - a living dictionary, at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/translationcafe/. I have invented a translation contraption: the MAs translate, British poets revise. It never fails. The texts really sound English. We have translated the Romanian Pen Club anthology in this manner, as well as a volume by Lucian Vasilescu. Hopefully we will continue. Poetry is more accessible because poets rarely charge for copyright. Besides, it is much easier for us these days to publish poetry abroad, easier than fiction.

The Romanian Cultural Institute has also offered support. We have our own online review at http://www.e-scoala.ro/ctitc/translation_cafe_reactii.html, hosted by e-scoala.ro, which we hope to move to our newly born site under construction. We also have there a new publishing house online: Editura pentru Literatură Contemporană / Contemporary Literature Press, which is supported by The Romanian Cultural Institute, Bucharest University, and is looking forward to the time the British Council will say 'yes.' We have many ideas. I often feel the regret I will not be there to see them all come true. But there will be others after me. This pleases me, after all: the knowledge that I always have more things worth doing.

I.I.: You see British literature as a 'Desperado age' at the turn of the millennium: what does that book mean to you? How do you see the future of literature? What changes do you sense now, when you are so involved in, you watch British letters so closely?
L.V.: With total lack of modesty, I can simply say that all my intellectual life so far I have been going in the right direction. This may be a proof of my being in the right trade. I had an intuition of changes to come even when I had next to no books to argue what I sensed.

After 1990 I began accumulating, and I did write, at long last. What I have written may not matter - who has any more time for literary criticism these days? What is important - once again - is that (I hope) I have made my students see what I sensed. That is really hard. You write when you are ready (when your theory is 'ripe', when the change is there), but you also teach literature when (especially when) you have no idea what will follow.

I remember something I learned from T.S. Eliot at the beginning of my career, while I was writing my dissertation on him and Paul Valéry. He once said that a literary critic must leave a free spot in his system for the future, the same as Mendeleev kept a place in his table for chemical elements still undiscovered. The changes I sensed in the 1970s have already happened (they were happening then, but I did not have the books to confirm it - contemporary fiction, I mean). I made my own table, and I called it Desperado. In the meanwhile those changes came and left, and more changes are looming ahead.

I have learnt one thing, though: the change is not really that important (nothing is new under the sun, although we keep courting novelty passionately). What matters is our ability to see it. As a good friend of mine often says (quoting the Bible, of course): Don't give me fish, teach me how to fish instead. It's no use enumerating what I said would happen and it did, and may have vanished long ago. Everyone has his own little theory. If, on the other hand, I have managed to make my students 'fish' the ideas that float in the air around them, then I've done my duty. That's what will help them make a living.

I.I.: What projects do you have for the near future?
L.V.: Right now I am trying to make the publishing house of the MA programme work (http://mttlc.ro/editura/). I would like to publish students, young Romanian authors, good translations - well, I want a lot of things. I can't think beyond that, but all my life I have had this inexhaustible source of energy called 'wanting' something...

I.I.: I see you as one of the very special, personal contemporary Romanian poets, although you have never made your poetic work conspicuous. Will you be publishing any more poetry any time soon?
L.V.: I don't know if poetry will visit me again, but the least I can do is publish my three booklets at our new online publishing house. If anyone reads and likes them... what more can I ask for?

I.I.: What would you like to write and / or study?
L.V.: I have the answer of a three-year-old to that: I would like to read all (and I mean all) British novels that are being written nowadays. Only at times I can't read a line for months in a row. I have five dissertations and hundreds of papers to grade, I edit volumes for the publishing house, I supervise hundreds of poetry translations. My days are too short. And yet I still live with the beautiful illusion that I will read everything some day. Before I retire... because retirement is a thought that confuses me.

I.I.: What would you do if you were offered more time right now?
L.V.: It would depend how long a time. If it's longer, then I would start all over again (as a teacher, I mean), and I would do it so much better..

(December 7, 2009)
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