Giving the Past a Voice: Oral History on Communism in Translation

by Diana Painca (Author)
©2022 Thesis 398 Pages


This work offers a novel and interdisciplinary approach to Translation Studies by connecting this discipline with the oral history on communism. Following the collapse of the communist regime in the Eastern bloc (1989-1991), oral history interviews became the research method par excellence, providing an alternative version to the distorted public discourse. This book addresses the challenges posed by the translation of transcribed historical interviews on communism. The author’s translation from Romanian into English of an original corpus helps formulate a methodological framework nonexistent, up to this point, within Translation Studies. Additionally, drawing on research in conversation analysis and psychology, the so-called fictive orality of the data is defined according to an innovative tripartite paradigm: vividness, immediacy, and fragmentation.
Inscribed in the current call for translators’ activism and visibility, the work draws on oral history terminology to reflect on the translational experience as a ‘dialogic exchange’ whereby listening assumes central importance. The descriptive and prescriptive paradigms work in concert, facilitating the understanding of translation strategies and of the mechanisms animating historical interviews. However, beyond these theoretical insights, what gains prominence is the argument of the affectivity steeped in the interviews, which alerts translators to the emotive cadence of oral history. Translation is understood here not only as a linguistic and cognitive exercise but rather as a subjective and necessary undertaking in which translators become co-creators of history, illuminating the way knowledge about the past has been and continues to be formed and mediated.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Chapter I Introduction
  • 1. Research Topic
  • 2. Goals
  • 3. Contextualisation
  • 4. Overview
  • Chapter II Theoretical Framework
  • 1. Translation Studies
  • 1.1 Translating the Past: A Brief History of Translation
  • 1.1.1 Translation History
  • 2. Oral History
  • 2.1 A Short History
  • 2.2 Defining Oral History
  • 2.3 Deficient or Efficient – Questioning Oral History
  • 2.3.1 Transcription
  • 2.4 Interweaving the Past with the Present – the Oral History Interview
  • 2.5 In Search of a Lost Time: Oral History and Memory
  • 2.6 Oral History: Main Concepts
  • 2.6.1 Orality
  • 2.6.2 Narrative
  • 2.6.3 Subjectivity
  • 2.6.4 Performativity
  • 2.7 Introducing New Concepts
  • Chapter III Research Topic
  • 1. Oral History on Romanian Communism
  • 1.1 An Outline of Communism in Romania
  • 1.2 Oral History in Post-Socialist Countries
  • 1.3 Oral History on Romanian Communism
  • 2. Orality in Translation
  • 2.1 Oral History in Translation
  • Chapter IV Methodology and Terminology
  • 1. On the Use of Corpora
  • 1.1 Memorialul durerii: întuneric şi lumină (Memorial of pain: darkness and light)
  • 1.2 “Supravieţuitorii: mărturii din temniţele comuniste ale României” (The Survivors: testimonies from Romania’s communist prisons)
  • 1.3 “Convorbiri cu Regele Mihai I al României” (Conversations with King Michael of Romania)
  • 2. Foreignization
  • 3. Communicative and Semantic Translation and Other Methods
  • 4. Importing Terminology from the Field of Oral History: Translation as a Dialogic Relationship
  • 5. Interpretative Framework
  • 5.1 Orality: One Concept, Different Perspectives
  • 5.2 Articulating the Orality of the Historical Interview: A Broader Definition
  • 5.2.1 Vividness
  • Imagery
  • Repetitions
  • The Translation of Vividness
  • 5.2.2 Immediacy
  • The Translation of Immediacy
  • 5.2.3 Fragmentation
  • The Translation of Fragmentation
  • 5.3 Narrative: When History Becomes His Story
  • 5.3.1 The Translation of Narrative
  • 5.4 Subjectivity: Oral History as a Personal Story
  • 5.4.1 The Translation of Subjectivity
  • 5.5 Performativity
  • 5.5.1 The Translation of Performativity
  • Chapter V Corpus Analysis
  • A. “Memorialul durerii: întuneric şi lumină” (Memorial of pain: darkness and light)
  • 1. Foreignization
  • 2. Orality
  • 2.1 Vividness
  • 2.1.1 Imagery
  • 2.1.2 Repetitions
  • 2.2 Immediacy
  • 2.3 Fragmentation
  • 3. Narrative
  • 4. Subjectivity
  • 5. Performativity
  • B. Supravieţuitorii: mărturii din temniţele comuniste ale României (The Survivors: testimonies from Romania’s communist prisons)
  • 1. Foreignization
  • 2. Orality
  • 2.1 Vividness
  • 2.1.1 Imagery
  • 2.1.2 Repetitions
  • 2.2 Immediacy
  • 2.3 Fragmentation
  • 3. Narrative
  • 4. Subjectivity
  • 5. Performativity
  • C. “Convorbiri cu Regele Mihai I al României”
  • 1. Foreignization: Political and Ideological Aspects of Communism
  • 2. Orality
  • 2.1 Vividness
  • 2.1.1 Imagery
  • 2.1.2 Repetitions
  • 2.2 Immediacy
  • 2.3 Fragmentation
  • 3. Narrative
  • 4. Subjectivity
  • 5. Performativity
  • Chapter VI Contrastive Analysis
  • 1. Foreignization
  • 2. Orality
  • 2.1 Vividness
  • 2.2 Immediacy
  • 2.3 Fragmentation
  • 3. Narrative
  • 4. Subjectivity
  • 5. Performativity
  • Chapter VII Conclusions and Perspectives
  • 1. Synopsis of the Results
  • 1.1 Orality
  • 1.1.1 Vividness
  • 1.1.2 Immediacy
  • 1.1.3 Fragmentation
  • 1.2 Narrative
  • 1.3 Subjectivity
  • 1.4 Performativity
  • 1.5 Foreignization
  • 2. Main Contributions to Translation Studies
  • 3. Perspectives for Further Research
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


Inspired by my PhD research, this book has allowed me to embark on a fascinating journey in which I have striven “not to follow where the path may lead, but go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. I took great delight in the fact that Prof. Toma reacted with enthusiasm to my PhD topic and accepted wholeheartedly to supervise my work. I owe her a debt of gratitude for all the support provided and, above all else, for the freedom she gave me in being creative, making mistakes, and finding my own writing rhythm. Her delicate and elegant approach combined constructive comments with great listening skills that helped me clarify my doubts and strive for clarity and scientific meticulousness.

I would like to acknowledge the thesis supervisor, Prof. Van Raemdonck, for his full support and guidance. My research work would not have been possible without him, as his fruitful comments were complemented by administrative work required to keep my research going. I also want to express my gratitude to Prof. Sabina Gola for her patience to listen, intellectual openness and her advice to deepen my analysis of terminology. Furthermore, I sincerely thank Prof. William James Woodford for his insightful comments and priceless feedback.

Moreover, Prof. Mona Arhire from ‘Transilvania University of Braşov’ has shown her trust in me from the very beginning. She has shared her experience in Translation Studies while providing invaluable comments on my translated interviews. Furthermore, a very special thanks goes out to Dr. Hab. Cosmin Budeancă of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER). I would like to acknowledge the indispensable work on communism he has undertaken at IICCMER and thank him for taking the time to formulate pertinent remarks and constructive suggestions in relation to my work.

Last but definitively not least, my heartfelt thanks go to my parents for all their sacrifices, unconditional love and belief in me. My father’s passion for history has been contagious so I am also grateful for this ←13 | 14→parental ‘inheritance’. Moreover, this work would not have been possible without my twin sister’s total support. I dedicate this book to her, as her favourite quote “Do what you ought, come what may” has provided inspiration and strong motivation along this tortuous yet beautiful journey.


This work displays a monolithic construction drawing on previous research in the field of Translation Studies and Oral History while advancing knowledge on the interface between these two disciplines. The implemented methodology is comprehensive being constructed in a richly documented, original, and convincing manner. Let it be said that the methodology derives from a flexible relation between Translation Studies and Oral History, or what is called a “dialogic exchange”. The work adheres to Portelli’s theoretical paradigm which identifies four characteristics of Oral History interviews: orality (vividness, immediacy, and fragmentation), narrative, subjectivity, and performativity. Based on this framework, the author delineates her own translation method which is perfectly consistent with the strategy of foreignization. What is more, she redefines the transdisciplinary concept of orality relying on the recurring patterns of the historical interviews analysed.

The book is structured in a harmonious and sensible way, as manifested both by the interplay between the theoretical-methodological part (Chapters II–IV) and the analytical one (Chapters V–VI), but also within the three-tiered examination of the corpus (A, B, C). Therefore, the extensive investigation conducted is predicated on a solid and representative corpus consisting of transcribed interviews with direct witnesses to Romania’s communist past who were actively involved in the anti-communist resistance. Their accounts intimate the broad sweep of communist experiences, being divided into three categories: those of the partisans fighting in the Carpathian Mountains, those of former political prisoners, and finally those of King Michael I. The translation of this corpus from Romanian into English together with its analysis demonstrate the remarkable skills of the author both as a practitioner and a critical commentator. Indeed, the author’s double undertaking is enveloped in accuracy and constant refinement, ensuring a back-and-forth movement between the translator-practitioner and the translator-theoretician. This intellectual endeavour is undertaken so that a clear objective could be attained: the victory of precision in the art and science of Oral History translation. As such, this is evidenced, amongst others, ←15 | 16→by the introduction of two new concepts in the theory on oral history translation, namely tendril language and staccato language.

This diverse array of activities confirms the evidence of the author’s rich academic background elevated to new ranks by her obtention of the doctorate degree from the Free University of Brussels in 2020. This well-researched work stands testimony to the writer’s foresight, knowledge, and ambition to pave new scientific ground. In a clear and articulate language, she formulates pertinent hypotheses, establishes specific goals and pursues them with great reasoning and determination, obtaining results that befit the book of honour of the human spirit.

Dr. Drs. Cristina-Alice TOMA

←16 | 17→

Chapter I


This book combines the fields of Translation Studies and Oral History offering a unique interdisciplinary approach valuable for both disciplines. The author’s translation from Romanian into English of transcribed oral history interviews on communism provides an original corpus that helps formulate a methodological framework inexistent, up to this point, within Translation Studies. Yet, the innovative approach of the work lies not only in its theoretical contributions to the previously mentioned academic discipline. Rather, the book pioneers novel research by claiming an analytical territory that has never been contemplated from a translational perspective: oral history on Romanian communism.

1. Research Topic

Oral History has received little attention within the field of Translation Studies1. It should be made clear that the first interdisciplinary attempts have been made by oral historians. They have attempted to account for the problems arising in the transfer of transcribed interviews from one language into another. One of the major directives that congeals as a result of their research is the apt negotiation between the historical and emotional content of the oral accounts. Hence, on the one hand, one must pay heed to the informative load of the data. On the other hand, the emotive undertones of the interviews are equally consequential. As such, oral history “is not only about the event. It is about the place and meaning of the event within the lives of the tellers2.←17 | 18→

In line with this argument, Temple contends that “staying as close as possible to the spoken interviews […] to be able to hear the spoken words3 qualifies as the touchstone of a successful translation. Her caveat is upheld within the field as researchers consider it fundamental to minimise the distance with the source text so that the entire oral universe of sounds and emotions could be conveyed in the target language.

However, if such an approach might seem theoretically foolproof, it can be refuted on the operational level. As a result, cohesion is jeopardised by repetitions, confusions, and ellipsis permeating the spoken interview4. Consequently, what appears cohesive and coherent in speech may not be so in writing. Making the choice to edit for clarity, shorten sentences, cut down repetitions and disfluencies results in a “flattening of narrative style5. Translators must strike a balance between the dichotomy written-spoken and negotiate acceptability on both planes.

These theoretical guidelines have summarized concurrent research within the fields of Oral History and Translation Studies. Yet, to my knowledge, the translation of oral history on Romanian communism has not been examined. In this book, I wish to fill in the methodological gap by analysing a set of transcribed interviews on Romanian communism that I have translated from Romanian into English. The choice of the two languages can be easily explained. First, Romanian is my mother tongue which equips me with a supplementary analytical tool necessary in the interpretation of the cognitively and pragmatically challenging data. Second, given the unrivalled dominance of the English language and culture, this language facilitates the dissemination of historical interviews on communism to a broader audience.

Further, I wish to state that the interviews selected as data attempt to cover the broad sweep of the Romanian communist history. As such, extracted from three main books on the era, they are structured around three main categories:

(a)those given by the members of anti-communist resistance groups (the so-called ‘partisans’) in the Carpathian Mountains: Memorialul durerii: întuneric şi lumină, 2013, ←18 | 19→Humanitas, by Lucia Hossu-Longin, Romanian journalist and author.

(b)interviews given by political prisoners: Supravieţuitorii. Mărturii din temniţele comuniste ale României, 2014, Humanitas, by Raul Ştef and Anca Ştef. As far as the interviewers are concerned, it is worth mentioning that they work both as journalists and sociologists with a keen interest in oral history.

(c)Interviews given by King Michael of Romania (1940–1947): Convorbiri cu Regele Mihai I al României, 2008, Humanitas. This edition (2004) compiles the interviews taken a year after the fall of communism and published between 1991 and 1992 in two separate volumes. Their author Mircea Ciobanu (1940–1996) was a poet, prose writer, editor, and translator.

In this study I aim at analysing these historical interviews relying on Venuti’s foreignization strategy. As such, in an attempt to experiment on the language of oral history, I seek all opportunities to preserve the distinctive and foreign elements of the source language and culture.

Finally, let it be said that such a translational endeavour is trapped within an antagonistic dimension. It is, on the one hand, encouraged by the need to break new ground and establish a line of enquiry concerning historical interviews. On the other hand, the research gusto is tempered by an awareness that translation involves no finality as meanings are never complete. Bakhtin’s quote captures artistically this idea:

[…] there can be neither a first nor a last meaning; [anything that can he understood] always exists among other meanings as a link in the chain of meaning, which in its totality is the only thing that can be real. In historical life this chain continues infinitely, and therefore each individual link in it is renewed again and again, as though it were being reborn6.

2. Goals

In simple words, the objective of this work has been motivated by the following questions: Which are the linguistic problems and challenges (if any) posed by the translation of oral history interviews on ←19 | 20→communism from Romanian into English? How do these translated oral history interviews articulate the communist experience in Romania? Inescapably, this theoretical query implicates a two-tiered investigation.

First, the objectives of the book are grounded in a linguistic and translational dimension. My central interest is in mapping out the characteristics and challenges (if any) of oral history on communism in translation. Given the absence of a theoretical framework within Translation Studies, I draw on Oral History for methodological support. Alessandro Portelli identifies four oral history characteristics: (1) orality, (2) narrative, (3) subjectivity, and (4) performativity. Thus, I try to assess to what extent oral history interviews on Romanian communism agree with his theoretical paradigm. Moreover, my aim is to inventory the problems and challenges arising in the translation of these concepts from Romanian into English.

However, I note that Portelli’s (2003) concept of orality is limited in its applicability inasmuch as it does not correspond to the written medium (where concerns for punctuation, correct grammar and lexis may distort the meaning of the uttered words). One of the main ambitions of the work is to reveal the oral substructure of transcribed historical interviews, by articulating the linguistic dimension of Portelli’s notion of orality. As such, drawing on Linguistics and Conversational Analysis, I suggest a set of criteria that help define the orality of transcribed oral history interviews on Romanian communism. Therefore, the proposed triad ‘vividness – immediacy – fragmentation’ provides an analytical benchmark for the translated corpus. Thus, the main goal is to develop a methodological framework that could fill a major lacuna in Translation Studies scholarship.

Second, by using foreignization as on over-arching strategy, I try to foreground the distinctively Romanian experiences of communism. Indeed, I seek to demonstrate that fidelity to the source text facilitates the transfer of its historical and cultural capital. In addition, I will determine to what extent foreignization makes possible the translation of the interviews’ emotive content.

3. Contextualisation

Oral history interviews are gaining currency in the countries of the former communist bloc. They are hailed as an efficient tool to restore past memories, reveal a whole panoply of personal experiences and construct ←20 | 21→new meanings of the communist era. Giving a voice to ordinary people, once deprived of a chance to express themselves, these interviews can complement or correct understanding about the communist period but also help a nation come to terms with its traumatic past. Furthermore, at a time when ambivalent meanings and interpretations of communism still need to cohere, the translation of unique oral history interviews can provide cogent evidence about the period shifting thus the focus to individuals as actors in the events of the past.

The translation of the important data that have been collected via oral history interviews with first-hand witnesses is indeed necessary in the transmission of knowledge about communist history. However, I have not located any works establishing a connection between Translation Studies as a discipline and Oral History on the subject of communism. I am interested in a joint investigation of these fields as oral history projects acquire an ever-increasing importance in the countries of the former communist bloc (Khanenko-Friesen, Grinchenko, 2015). Therefore, the book straddles the untrodden grounds of Oral History and Translation Studies, a medium hospitable to fundamental investigations into the problematics of oral history interviews on communism in translation.

However, in the absence of a methodological framework, I will adhere to Portelli’s theoretical paradigm that lists nine characteristics of oral history interviews: orality, narrative, subjectivity, credibility, objectivity and authorship, performativity, mutability and collaboration. If credibility and objectivity refer to the reliable nature of oral sources, authorship and collaboration bear testimony to the co-creation of the historical interview regarded as a dialogical cooperation between historian and narrator. As expected, mutability emphasizes the narrative’s tendency to change as, given its oral medium, it can be recounted differently at different moments in time. Only four of these characteristics, namely orality, narrative, subjectivity, and performativity are exploited for translation purposes as the interview on communism is regarded as a subjective and performative oral narrative. Let it be said that the Italian researcher’s framework dismisses the orality captured by the transcription of oral history interviews. Thus, I will question the tenability of his claim by formulating a definition of orality dictated by the repetitive patterns of historical interviews on communism in translation.

Theoretical insights will be gained from disparate research areas such as linguistics (Chafe’s concept of ‘fragmentation’, 1982/1987; Koch and Osterreicher’s ‘fictive orality’, 1985/2012), Conversation Analysis ←21 | 22→(Tannen’s ‘repetition, dialogue, and imagery, 2007), and psychology (memory and imagery). The forays into these fields will be useful inasmuch as they help crystallise the meaning of orality as inscribed in the examined corpus.

Finally, this book draws on Translation Studies research methods to map out the problems encountered in the translation from Romanian into English of orality, narrative, subjectivity, and performativity. Venuti’s (1995) foreignization strategy will be considered of great import due to its lack of interference with the source language and culture.

4. Overview

Chapter II looks concurrently at the disciplines of Translation Studies and Oral History. General descriptions and definitions are outlined in both cases. Further, overviews of the literature in the two fields pinpoint their evolutionary patterns and interpretative trends.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 398 pp.

Biographical notes

Diana Painca (Author)

Diana Painca obtained her doctorate in "Languages, Letters and Translation" (Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2020). Her pioneering research connected Translation Studies with Oral History on communism. She published articles in international journals and in a collection of academic papers, and was a Recognised Student at the University of Oxford (Michaelmas Term, 2018; research stay funded by the "Ratiu Family Foundation" Grant).


Title: Giving the Past a Voice: Oral History on Communism in Translation
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