Finding Medical Precision in the Art of Translation: C.D. Zeletin

Translation is nothing less than a discovery, the study of a microbe through a microscope's lens.

In today’s world, where the study of science and the humanities are considered as oppositional, the art of translation lies arguably somewhere in the middle. In this essay, Asymptote’s Andreea Scridon profiles Romanian writer and doctor C.D. Zeletin, who challenged this false dichotomy, and through his work in both medicine and literature, showed the possibilities of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.

I first heard of C.D. Zeletin in my Translation Studies course in Bucharest. I was spending a month in the city, just catching the brutal beginning of winter among the greys and blues of its urban landscape, and, sheltered in the seminar room from the iciness of the rough wind that is known to blow over the region’s plains, this was one of the lessons that I was enjoying most.

C.D. Zeletin, my professor told me, was a doctor. As he rode the trolleybus to the Pediatric Hospital every day, he would translate Michelangelo’s sonnets mentally, from Italian to Romanian, presumably wearing his white coat and gazing out the window. Eventually, the written product of this passion would see the light of day, published several years after its conception as Poezii [Poems]. These translations are considered, in fact, elegant and successful. The collection won the 1965 Edinburgh Book Award and Gold Medal. It would have a reverberative effect for generations of readers and poets to come; rather than adhering to Renaissance models strictly, the translation resembles a more personal search, thus producing an inventive and original approach that speaks to twentieth and twenty-first-century readers.

My professor moved to another topic, but I remained where she had left me, vaguely counting the rows of windows on communist blocks outside the bus window to the beats of iambic pentameter, lulled by the sound of rhythmic machinery progressing from station to station.

C.D. Zeletin was born Constantin Dimoftache in 1935, in Bacău County, Romania, and, like Hayao Miyazaki’s character Haku from the beloved Spirited Away, took his pseudonym from the river that rambled through his native commune. Born into an illustrious family of physicians—he was the nephew of Nobel Laureate George Emil Palade—Zeletin enrolled in medical school. He had a successful academic career in the medical field, publishing over seventy papers and inventing a device for cytospectrophotometry along with a “system for identification of lymphocytes with a seemingly normal morphology, but which are suspected of being contaminated by the morbid impulse in chronic human lymphoid leukemia,” a subject that lovers of gothic fiction will probably find fascinating. At one point, he was editor-in-chief of the Romanian Journal of Biophysics. He also wrote on medical history, which departs less than you’d expect from literary history.

There is no reason to suspect, then, that the man felt little enthusiasm for medicine as a vocation (no doubt one of the most emotionally taxing careers in existence), and for that reason turned to literature. It seems rather that the two preoccupations co-existed, or that the young medical student led a double life that, as Chekhov would say, was “running its course in secret,” as becomes apparent in Zeletin’s correspondence with literary critic Tudor Vianu:

“Yes, I had an extremely lively, burning desire to publish, not so much out of reasons of ego . . . before the time of my literary debut, in those years which were very active and very difficult for me, I was studying Medicine—it was no joke and at that time we really studied!—I was also working on literature. And I was suppressed by the idea that I wasn’t debuting and that I absolutely couldn’t debut. And the matter isn’t just a biographical detail like any other, but a fundamental one: not to be able to publish, for your youth to pass and for you to be young and have imagination and to see that time is passing you by, because you are professionally dichotomized, medicine has absorbed you entirely, like a monster; literature calls you upwards, like a God, and you must satisfy both.”

Surely many young writers could find themselves within this narrative—Rabelais, Bulgakov, Céline, and even Chekhov himself likely did at some point. Yet Zeletin, too, would succeed in debuting, in publishing his work. He has published around forty books, including translations of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, winning a plethora of recognition for this along with the aforementioned sonnets, The Ramayana, Verlaine’s Poèmes, several anthologies, and various works on Modern French lyric and Renaissance Italian lyric. Zeletin’s research would lead him to discover that Leonardo Da Vinci’s sole sonnet, “Se voi star sano osserva questa norma,” is in fact the prologue of the Latin medical poem “Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum” translated into Italian as an adapted sonnet.

If Zeletin applied the same principles of research to the medical and literary inventive acts, we can say that translation is nothing less than a discovery, the study of a microbe through a microscope’s lens. If he says that it could take him months at a time to translate a single sonnet, this is valuable insight into his profound methodology. Perhaps, when held to the same principle as medicine, literature takes on an additional dimension, standard, and stake: one must admit that the sciences do possess an advantage in the legitimacy of their “seriousness,” which may or may not shield the artist who possesses the awareness and preoccupation of the scientific realm from the ego booby trap that the literary world can often represent. For this reason, we might be better served to consider our work as writers and translators having the legitimacy of a “practice” rather than being a “craft.” Isn’t Lefevre’s seven-strategy approach to translating a poem concerned with the holistic to the point of being Hippocratic? A diagnosis entails an examination of details. By looking beneath the surface, we translators also seek the underlying gross pathology of the literary text, from its most minute organs to the way the text works as a whole—a misdiagnosis is a mistranslation.

Medicine and translation followed a similar course, particularly from the Enlightenment onward, with increased interest in human action and the consequential flowering of pathophysiology and the Gutenberg printing press. Over the years, it has not been uncommon for the two disciplines to intersect both in theory and in practice: the highly important study of the philosophy of medicine is testimony to that. Yet today, more than ever, it seems, the divide between the sciences and the humanities can be an uncomfortable topic, even one of imagined rivalry and consequent derision. For these reasons, the link between medicine and translation seems as necessary as it is tenuous. This is why I turn to a figure like Zeletin, a co-founder of the Society for Physician Writers and Publishers. Writer and translator Sorin Lavric attributes Zeletin’s multilateralism to his “secreting culture with the ease with which a gland secretes its hormones, with the pores of his skin seeming purposefully dilated in order to emanate olfactory particles of a spiritual nature.”

Translation, more vastly, seems to tightrope between mathematical exactitude and pliable creativity with nimbleness. Do we translate with the left brain or the right brain? Perhaps it’s an activity, like medical practice, in which we ought to use both, in order to prevent their atrophy. It is additionally a question of perspective: for many centuries, medicine was a gamble, and has only relatively recently reached the ideal of scientific validity, yet you can never hope for such exactitude when translating a text—although the elusiveness of the universal cure continues to resemble the elusiveness of the perfect word for the seemingly untranslatable. Indeed, Zeletin describes poetry translation as having an inherently “fragile” character:

Poetry is continually hatched in the structures of the subconscious, through a long and (towards consciousness) autonomous gestation. To put your thoughts on paper is, in a certain way, what the birth of the baby is towards his or her conception in the amniotic universe. In this sense, the dating of a poem contains within itself a fatal mystification. The relationship of a masterpiece with time implies a laxism inversely proportional to historiographical precision.”

It’s interesting to note from this insight that the same feeling of dissatisfaction and paradox can apply to diagnosis and to composition, how much of a “hit or miss” both can be. As a result, poetry and medicine share the same interest in insight and reflection. In coming to know Zeletin vicariously, I wonder if, in today’s efforts of focalization, honing, and specialization, we don’t in fact risk going backwards, in alarming comparison to the quintessential Renaissance men and women: Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ada Lovelace, and Susan Sontag, to name a few. Nobody has a cabinet of curiosities these days. Luckily, however, the field of translation is experiencing a boom of reinvigoration: much like a journey down the Silk Road, our literary scene becomes more variegated with the appearance of “obscure” texts from “obscure” cultures. Perhaps, in fact, our bookshelves have become our cabinets of curiosities. I am quite enchanted by the image of the doctor at the bedside of the patient, on call or called, holding an ill hand in the yellowish light cast by the night-lamp. The correlation to the nightstand table, with its stack of books in many languages and of as many eras, that calm, transport—and heal—makes for insight into the human experience, that which we seek to pay homage to when we write, when we read.

Andreea Scridon is an Oxford-based poet, fiction writer, and translator of Romanian to English. She has been Assistant Editor at Asymptote since July 2018. You can read her work here.


Read more essays on the Asymptote blog: