CBC Literary Prizes

Untranslatable by Adriana Oniță

Adriana Oniță has made the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist for Untranslatable.

2021 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist

Adriana Oniță is a poet, artist, educator and researcher based in Edmonton. (Submitted by Adriana Oniță)

Adriana Oniță has made the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist for Untranslatable.

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books

Lise Gaston has won the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize for James.

You can read Untranslatable below.


Mama tries to translate it on the phone:

Harnică means you're vrednică.
You're pricepută, îndemânatică, dibace.
You work with spor.
Muncești cu râvnă.
Lucrezi cu zel. 

Mom, I need to explain it to someone
who doesn't understand Romanian.

It's like rigour, but less brute,
diligence without strife,
Ponos, but less toil.

More awe than vigour,
more precise than play —
the muscle of craft.

Hărnicie is unobserved.

Imagine pivniţa, a full cellar in winter.
Making things with your hands all day.
Imagine not having to prove or perform.

When light arrives
you have already been working for hours.
You become your work.

Hărnicia întrece arta —
it surpasses even art.



map home.
needles prick skin
of  floss silk, flax, cotton:
borangic, in, bumbac.
acul ințeapă pielea,
hartă veche,
millennia, motifs
matisse tried to capture:
la blouse roumaine, not ia
cu frunze, flori, stele
raze de soare, 
who was the last
woman in our family
to know, sew this genealogy,
geometria puternică?
today I dress
în ia
bunicii de la
nuntă, sleeves and chest
embroidered gold and black
pe pânză albă: how did 
my great-great-
bunică feel
if she
never left acasă,
if she never left Jilava?
Strada Mierlari, lângă cimitirul
de la biserică, she stitches
prayers into paiete aurii,
coloana infinitului.



The absence of zambile, lalele, narcise.
The impulse to lift a book by Liliana Ursu
and rest in the bathtub, pretending it's a
butoi filled with sun-warmed rainwater.
The way I drain the water and briefly
remember to forget my Jilava.

The way my mother walks Callingwood
Road wishing it were Calea Victoriei, then
walks Calea Victoriei, wishing it were like
it was, cu case de modă și cafea
turcească. The mistake of leaving acasă.
The mistake of going back. The mistake
of requesting a window seat.

The reason Alexandra Măceșanu left
Dobrosloveni for Caracal. The three
desperate phone calls to police. The
butoi her body was never burned in.
The country with colivă for the living.
The nostalgia you swore you'd never
feel, parcă înainte era mai bine.

The r in Adriana and the ț in Oniță. The
longing for a language that hooks and
claws like the ț in my name. The irony of
voiceless alveolar affricate. The relentless
way spellchecker replaces limbă with limb
or limbo. The grief I feel when no one
translates limba romană in my poems.


noun in Romanian, verb in English

  1. To leave Jilava on a mid-November night,
    too dark to see bolta de vie, you ground
    your body as grape arbor.

  2. To stop speaking dor for a decade, lock
    limba maternă in lymph nodes.

  3. To forget, and search for your language in letters,
    albums, notebooks, sertare, buzunare, valize.

  4. To describe bujor without saying bujor; to rely
    on your translator-mother who loves bujori.

  5. To carry poezii in your abdomen you can't yet write.

  6. To get off the train la Sinaia, where you learned to
    read, reclaim your steps, find fântâna și buturuga. 

  7. To follow poteca prin Poiana Stânei,
    witness a procession of wild trandafiri.

  8. To kneel under every chestnut tree, bridge your hands
    la fiecare mănăstire, taste coliva with crushed walnuts.

  9. To leaf Loc Ferit, devour Orologiul fără ore,
    stop translating your nopți și zile.

  10. Încrederea în mămăliguța proaspătă făcută,
    o lumânare pentru morții și vii din tine.

Read the other finalists

About Adriana Oniță

Adriana Oniță is a Romanian Canadian poet, artist, educator and researcher. She is the editorial director of the Griffin Poetry Prize and the founding editor of the Polyglot, a multilingual magazine of poetry and art. She writes poezii în limba română, English, español, français and italiano. Her recent poems have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Humber Literary Review, in her chapbook Conjugated Light and in the Romanian Women Voices in North America series. Currently, she is completing her PhD in language education at the University of Alberta and divides her time between Edmonton and Italy.

The poem's source of inspiration

"When I moved to Edmonton from Romania in elementary school, I felt so much pressure to assimilate, that within a few years, I almost completely lost my mother tongue. Since then, I've felt this desperate 'dor,' or longing, for limba română. Writing these bilingual poems has helped me reclaim my Romanian.

"When we lose a language, we don't just lose words, but also their embedded wisdom — ways to marvel, grieve, heal, pray, curse, banter and remember. In this series of poems, I try to translate 'untranslatable' Romanian words. 'Hărnicie' offers a different way to look at work. 'Ie' depicts the stories sewn into our embroidered blouses. 'Dor' tries to capture that feeling of longing for the mother tongue. 'Nădejde' is about trusting the process, which has helped me relearn my language. Each word is like a compressed zip file and poetry is incredibly fun because it opens up endless ways to fail and succeed at translating the untranslatable."

About the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize

The winner of the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January. The 2022 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

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