About the Work

by marina sofia

You don’t go into Urmuz as a reader expecting his work to make sense. He is endlessly playful and inventive, challenging you at every level. His sentences start out in a reasonable fashion, lulling you into a false sense of security, before taking an unexpected turn and showing you the absurdity of all of our social and linguistic constructs. How can a translator convey all of this into another language without sounding like they don’t know the target language very well? For me personally, there is no greater challenge and pleasure than translating Urmuz (or perhaps the co-founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara): it feels like hanging on to some opulent coattails for dear life while the owner embarks upon a ride on a rollercoaster. It is exhilarating, occasionally frightening, and you just hope that you arrive at your destination in one piece.

Urmuz is also one of the authors who best captures the Balkan mix of linguistic and cultural influences of the Romanian language: predominantly a Romance language, but with many Slavic, Greek and Turkish elements, all briefly mentioned in the piece. The title itself is an example of that: ‘Ismail’ is clearly a name of Arabic/Turkic origin, while ‘Turnavitu’ reminds us of the French for screwdriver, ‘tournevis’. 

I debated for a long time whether I should translate ‘Ismail’ as ‘Ismaïl’. Although Romanian has a lot of diphthongs, they tend to be of the ‘i+vowel’ or ‘e+vowel’ combination, but in the case of ‘a+i', there is no need for a diaeresis sign to indicate that the ‘i’ should be pronounced distinctly and separately. Meanwhile, in English, there is a danger that it could be pronounced to rhyme with ‘e-mail’. But then I thought that there is a world-famous opening line ‘Call me Ishmael’ from Moby Dick that acts as a pronunciation guide. ‘Ishmael’ is a variant of ‘Ismail’, of course.

I left the word ‘maidan’ untranslated, because, for political reasons, it has become reasonably well-known in recent years as a term for ‘public square’. However, reader, beware! Many Turkish loanwords that arrived into Romanian via the Ottoman Empire became imbued over time with a pejorative sense: ‘bairam’ is not a religious festival but a noisy party, ‘mahala’ is not simply a residential neighbourhood but usually a run-down, chaotic one. In this case, too, a maidan is not an open space in the middle of town, but a messy vacant lot. Why this semantic degradation of perfectly reasonable words? Perhaps it is a weapon of the weak: a way to resist Ottoman imperialism, which I believe may be common across the Balkans.


urmuz (1883–1923) was the pen name of one of Romania’s most experimental avant-garde writers. Most of his absurdist short prose and poetry was published only after his premature death by suicide.  A precursor of Surrealism and Dadaism, his relatively slender body of work has nevertheless been hugely influential in Romanian literature and beyond. I have chosen to translate one of his best-known pieces, “Ismail and Turnavitu”, for its more pronounced Balkan influences and oblique critique of the class system. The animal cruelty is not intended to be taken literally!

marina sofia is a translator from Romanian and German into English, reviewer, editor and writer of mainly flash fiction and poetry. She has previously volunteered for Geneva Writers Group, Asymptote Journal and the Stephen Spender Trust. She is also co-founder of Corylus Books, publishing translated crime fiction with a social edge. Her translation of Mihail Sebastian’s play “The Holiday Game” was highly commended in the John Dryden Translation competition.


In the Classroom