blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Translation: An Essay

The essence of translation is to be an opening, a dialogue, a cross-breeding, a decentering. Translation is “a putting in touch with,” or it is nothing.
—Antoine Berman, The Experience of the Foreign

Most readers approach translations with two seemingly contradictory attitudes: romanticization and skepticism. On the one hand, the translation has the aura of the exotic, like a tropical vacation for the mind. On the other hand, the translation seems suspect, especially if not in flawless and fluid English, with the translation bound to emerge a lesser, perhaps even degraded, version of the original.

Translation has often been described as an act of interpretation. Like criticism, translation requires a primary text, a source. But unlike criticism, the translation becomes a parallel primary text—an unequal, almost automatically inferior one, even if the translation can reach more readers than the original, even if the translation “reads better” in the target language than the original reads in the source language.

The translator always has something to prove or justify. According to conventional wisdom and most critics, any hiccups, rough patches, clunkers, or head-scratchers must be the fault of the translator. Any deviation from normative syntax must be the result of a rush job, failure to revise, mental lapse, or basic deficiency in the translator, not intentional awkwardness or discordance on the part of the author.

In After Babel, George Steiner describes the role of the translator as being “exercised in a radical tension between impulses to facsimile and impulses to appropriate.” In practice, this tension is stretched between two poles: literal word-for-word transcription and complete reinterpretation or imitation. Both sides can justify their methods, as can everyone working in between.


Willingly or no, translators work with Schopenhauer’s dictum—“Poems cannot be translated, they can only be transposed”—in the background. John Felstiner’s qualification seems somewhat more reassuring: “Let us admit that to really translate a poem is impossible—impossible yet fascinating.” Translation, especially poetry translation, has become the art of can’t.

Referring to the literature on translation from the past two-hundred-plus years, Daniel Tiffany remarks (in his book Radio Corpse) upon “the absurdity (and potency) of a discourse that starts from the premise of its own non-existence  . . .”: “given the eerie uniformity of historical opinion regarding the impossibility of translation, it is hard not to detect a trace of fanaticism, an overture to what exceeds language and reasoning—a demonology, as though in defending the idea of untranslatability one sought to maintain an impossible position.”

Tiffany identifies “untranslatability” as the “distinguishing feature of poetic texts.” Yet, as he reminds us, by quoting Novalis, “To translate is to write poetry as much as creating one’s own works.”

The “Impossible Effigies” chapter in Radio Corpse examines the fetishistic, haunted, “phantasmatic,” cryptic, zombie-esque, channeling, and even “abusive” aspects of translating the dead. “There is a terrible risk, of course, in feeding the dead from the store of one’s own vitality.” He also points out that “Death, it would seem, is all but inescapable in translation; in its wake, we are apt to be set upon by a ghost, or to discover a corpse (of the original, of the translator’s text and her language, of meaning, and so on). . . . [B]y evoking death, translation discourse  . . . evokes the impossible, the unknowable, the ineffable.”


I’m especially impressed by translators who work with dead authors. Idioms within the source language have evolved, local and international cultures have changed (or even vanished), and the author’s intentions must be discovered or intuited. Such diachronic and synchronic translation requires linguistic dexterity, historical and cultural knowledge, and devoted scholarship, which are daunting, but not necessarily prohibitive, requirements. For me, it’s not being able to ask the author questions, to make sure a specific word or phrase is working, that I find forbidding. I generally feel like I can get a poem 95 percent of the way there by myself, but I need the author’s input on that remaining 5 percent—that last little bit that I cannot quite nail down to my satisfaction. I have translated a handful of poems by dead poets, and the results never satisfy me. I need to be able to communicate with whomever I’m translating—for practical reasons, but also because, for me, the only way to overcome the “impossibility” of translation is to approach it as an act of friendship, a living act. Every translation I do makes its way to the original author, which is an essential part of the process.

This is the crucial difference between writing poems and translating poems. Many of my own poems remain with me for weeks or months, even years before venturing out; some are never seen by anyone else. My poems are guaranteed only one reader: me. But my translations are guaranteed to have two readers, and there is always an exchange in and around the text being translated.

In “Breaking the Translation Curtain: The Homophonic Sublime,” Charles Bernstein notes that “translation is always a form of collaboration.” In my own translation work, I have taken that idea literally. As I wrote in the introduction to Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers, I view translation as “a gesture of friendship through the word, an outcome and expression of camaraderie.” Translation as an act of friendship also might explain why I have approached translating Tomaž Šalamun, Aleš Šteger, and Debeljak somewhat differently, rather than applying my personal practice and/or theory of translation to the poets’ work. If my own approach chafes the author, I modify it or, if I feel strongly about it, I make my case. As a friendship does not mean imposing oneself on another, translation does not mean imposing oneself on a text. For me, translation, in this dynamic, is a shared activity that happens to require a lot of solitude.


Šalamun seems to agree with Nabokov, for whom the only worthwhile translation is an entirely literal one. Šalamun, however, is not interested in “skyscrapers” of footnotes stretching toward the top of the page; marginalia and commentary are, for him, unwelcome appendages that should be avoided. He feels that the vision and verbal essence of the original will carry over into the target language.

Šteger wants as much of the original to cross over into English as possible, but is ultimately most concerned that the translation can function as a poem in English.

Debeljak prizes accuracy but, like Šteger, is committed to the translation working as a poem in English, not minding the occasional liberty or compromise with literal meaning to achieve that.

Just as my personal relationships with each of these three people vary, my approaches to translating their poems also vary.


Although the ideal situation would be that the translator possesses a mastery of both the target and the source languages and cultures, I take some solace in John Dryden’s allowance that if “a deficiency” were “to be allowed in either, it is in the original.” In his prose poem series “Translation,” Mark Strand encounters a Portuguese teacher who does not “go in for contemporary American poetry” but does not see “why that should disqualify [him] from translating.” Strand’s response: “You language teachers are all alike. You possess a knowledge of the original language and, perhaps, some knowledge of English, but that’s it. The chances are your translations will be word-for-word renderings without the character or feel of poetry. You are the first to declare the impossibility of translating, but you think nothing of minimizing its difficulty.”

Strand is not alone in his disdain for the notion that language proficiency is the primary criterion for a translator. Burton Raffel notes that “linguistic knowledge is not the best nor even a good road toward successful translation. The translator’s problems are verbal, but it is the words into which he is translating, not those from which he is taking his leave, that create his problems. What the translator most needs . . . is thus the ability to manipulate and mold the receiving rather than the lending tongue.” And Eliot Weinberger takes it even further: “All the worst translations are done by experts in the foreign language who know little or nothing about the poetry alongside which their translations will be read.”


“I’m very very conservative about translations. I believe in purity and accurateness, the translator should never intervene with his ego, he (she) should just listen carefully, not adding his (her) own inventions if they don’t burst by the text itself. I never believed in homophonic translations, it’s just a bad shadow of ‘fun’ American ideology for me.”
—Tomaž Šalamun to Brian Henry, 30 January, 2011


Although I believe that I am in fact translating poems from one language into another, I am always aware of the greater peril of rewriting a poem, which to me would seem like the sort of ego-stroking that Weinberger warns against when he says, “The dissolution of the translator’s ego is essential if the foreign poet is to enter the language—a bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator.” When writing my own poems, I am always conscious of fluidity and, depending on the poem, need to work toward or against it during composition. But while translating, I try (recalling A.W. Schlegel) neither to “smooth over” rough spots nor to “embellish” the original, working to retain whatever friction or fluidity can be found in the original. If a poem is ungainly in Slovenian, it should be ungainly in English as well. Ditto polished, barbaric, wry, elegant, etc.


Here is how most books of poetry translated from Slovenian into English come together. A native Slovenian speaker (often the poet) does a literal translation, then gives it to a native English speaker, who edits the piece into a passable poem in English. Some co-translators look at the original, but most look only at the English version, which places the burden of accuracy on the person doing the literal translation and also blurs the distinction between translation and editing. To translate, one must carry something from one language to another. Strand hits upon this point in his “Translation” prose poems: “Your approach is the editorial one—you edit somebody else’s translation until it sounds like yours, bypassing the most important stage in the conversion of one poem to another, which is the initial one of finding rough equivalents, one which will contain the originality of your reading. Even if you work with someone who knows German, you will be no more than that person’s editor, for he will have taken the initial step.”

Octavio Paz also has addressed this dynamic: “translation implies a transformation of the original.” Tweaking is not transformation.


If Šalamun translates ones of his poems from the original Slovenian to English, are we sure that the original version is the Slovenian poem? Could the original be a combination of Slovenian and English, with the Slovenian version serving as an initial (albeit published) draft? When someone else translates the poem from Slovenian to English, we can be more confident saying that the original is the poem in Slovenian because no English version of the poem existed before. But if the author brings the poem into existence in two languages, in whatever order, how can we say with certainty that the original version is necessarily the first?


When I first started working with Šalamun on his poems, our process was the common one: he would do a literal translation and send the poem to me, basically for editing. This did not feel like translating to me, so I started going through the poems in the original Slovenian, translating the poems myself, comparing my versions to Šalamun’s, and reconciling the two. Eventually I started translating his poems from scratch and sending him the initial translations, without his literal versions.

If I had not gone through the poems in the original, I not only wouldn’t have been translating, I would have allowed some of Šalamun’s typos and omissions to slip through. Some of the omissions (such as the line juxtaposing “supermodels” and “cow dung” in “Scarlet Toga” in Woods and Chalices) would have been particularly unfortunate.

In retrospect, beginning to translate Slovenian poetry by translating Šalamun’s poems from the mid-1990s was a bit foolish. In addition to his penchant for grammatical monstrosities, Šalamun injects other languages—Italian, French, Croatian, German—and slang into his poems, and he ranges across world history, literature, and geography as well as his own personal past. His poems from this period employ rapid shifts of location, thought, image, and tone from line to line, sometimes within lines. Some have described these poems as the verbal equivalent of action painting. Perhaps, but no one is trying to translate action painting.

At first, a twelve-hour work day would yield one, maybe two poems. Because I basically figured out what the poem was doing by translating it, line by line, I sometimes felt like I was playing a game, embarking on a treasure hunt to see what surprises were in store for me. “Bob Perelman is the pigeon.” “Poetry is a hatchery for martyrs.” “I grew up with eggplants.” “Don’t sneak me onto mountains, chicken.” “Brooklyn, this is the skin cream.”

Šteger’s poems are something else entirely. The poems can be enigmatic, or sly, but they generally stick to their subjects—the thing in the title—even if they strain against it, circle it, or meander or gesture toward it. Knowing what every part of every poem was working toward helped me navigate the poems and keep moments of confusion relatively brief. (And such moments were more often due to a lack of historical or cultural context/knowledge than to gaps in the language.)

With Šteger, the most difficult, sometimes impossible, words and phrases to translate were puns and neologisms (a word, for example, that combines a popular painkiller in Slovenia with the word for “grass”) and aphorisms (e.g., the Slovenian saying “to run out of potato,” which means “to run out of luck,” in a poem called “Potato”). In other words, the standard difficulties of translating poems.

With Šalamun, the greatest difficulties consisted of recreating an impossible statement (often formed by words being used improperly, as when a transitive verb is used intransitively, and vice versa) or figuring out how to translate a collision of multiple languages.

With Debeljak’s Smugglers, a book of sixteen-line poems (four unrhymed quatrains each) that create a psychohistorical map of Ljubljana, most of the difficulties I encountered were readily solved by some research (usually of places and historical context) or by asking Debeljak for confirmation.

Even though I have read every poem in Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices at least twenty times, some of the poems still seem absolutely strange to me. Although there are few poems that I could explicate in the conventional sense, I have a relationship with most of the poems in the book. But that relationship is intuitive, process-oriented, physical.

By contrast, I have a firm grasp of Debeljak’s Smugglers and Šteger’s work in The Book of Things, Berlin, and Essential Baggage (a collection of twenty-five prose poems from The Book of Bodies). I know what each poem is doing, how it gets where it goes, how and why it works. While discussing the poems, I could talk about process, but I also could walk someone through the poems, if not as their author, then as the closest of close readers. This is rarely possible with Šalamun’s poems.

After translating ninety poems by Šalamun, translating Šteger’s “things” seemed, mercifully at times, straightforward. My brain had received such a jolt from Šalamun that translating anything else would be like driving an actual car on an actual road, while translating Šalamun was like driving something found on a beach up a cliff, knowing somehow that one wasn’t going to crash, but not knowing where, or even how, one was going.


W.S. Merwin’s Selected Translations 1948-1968 and its sequel Selected Translations 1968-1978 are unusual books. They include poems that he actually translated, translations of translations, composite translations of multiple translations, translations via languages other than the original, and “translations” of poems that others initially translated for him. Although he nods to these differences of approach in his forewords to the books, he does not explore how he managed the different processes, how those different processes affected the products, or why he both translated and “translated” poems and presented them the same way.

Why do these books exist in the first place? Why do we need even one volume of Merwin’s Selected Translations unless we are looking for Merwin there? The first compilation includes poems from Egyptian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Kabylia, “Eskimo,” Quechuan, Caxinua, Spanish, “Spanish-Jewish,” Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, German, Romanian, Russian, Welsh, Irish, Greek, and Latin. The second book includes poems from Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, “American Indian,” Incan, Mayan, “Eskimo” (via French versions), Japanese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, most of them completed between 1968 and 1973, with a few more between 1974 and 1977. If Merwin had actually translated all the poems—brought them from their original languages into English—or had a broader agenda, as Ezra Pound did, the books would constitute a towering achievement.

Compare Merwin’s world tour to Pound’s work. (Merwin claims that Pound was the initial impetus for his translation work, so a comparison seems warranted.) Pound also translated from many languages and from different times and with varying degrees of expertise, but he was both purposeful and innovative in his approach to translation. One might think that Merwin is emulating Pound’s attempt to change the poetry of his era via translation (by injecting poetry from the distant past into the present, Pound was trying to change English and American poetry in the early twentieth century). If that was Merwin’s aim, there’s no evidence of it in these books of fluid translations. Merwin’s own poetry, on the other hand, had a significant effect on US poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s of course possible that his translations deeply influenced his poetry, which makes these volumes more useful as windows onto his own poetry than as translations.

Although he claims to “approach translation as a relatively anonymous activity,” says he has “not come to use translation as a way of touching off writing that then became deliberately, specially, or ostentatiously [his] own,” and has “felt impelled to keep translation and [his] own writing more and more sharply separate,” the editions of Merwin’s Selected Translations read like books of Merwin poems lifted/inspired/adapted from other sources. And the books illustrate the risks of translating only into fluent contemporary diction, especially if the translator is also a poet who tends toward a distinctive, singular style.

In contrast, consider Pound’s translations, from his early work (imitations of Guido Cavalcanti, translations of Heinrich Heine, and “The Seafarer”), to 1915’s Cathay (which includes “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”), to 1919’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” to his lifelong project The Cantos (which opens with a translation of the Odyssey into Anglo-Saxon meter), to his late translations—Latin translations of Confucius, a Noh rendition of Sophocles, and translations of poems by Catullus, Horace, and Rimbaud. Unlike Merwin, Pound enacts different translation strategies, so much so that translation theorists are still writing about them, some even bemoaning the fact that his modernist, anti-fluent approach to translation hadn’t been more influential at the time. Ronnie Apter has discussed how Pound rejected the “pseudo-archaic diction” of Victorian era translators, using not only a contemporary diction even for old poems, but a mix of dictions, “from the genuinely archaic to the completely contemporary,” sometimes within the same poem.


In Linh Dinh’s short story “Prisoner with a Dictionary,” a prisoner’s only possession is a dictionary in a language he does not know. After using the book for various purposes—stool, pillow, toilet paper—he decides to learn the language, even though “each definition was made up of words entirely unknown to him.” So an unknown word would lead him to other unknown words. Nevertheless, he remains “determined to memorize every definition on every page.” His acquisition of the new language causes him to forget “nearly all the words of his native language.”

“Although he did not know what the words meant, what they referred to in real life, he reasoned that he understood these words because he knew their definitions. And because he was living inside this language all the time, like a fetus thriving inside a womb, there were times when he felt sure he could guess at the general implications of a word . . . But his guesses were always wrong, of course.”

So the prisoner becomes a translator. In the end, “the only word he ever acquired for sure, was ‘dictionary,’ simply because it was printed on the cover of a book he knew for sure was a dictionary. [And] even as he ran across the definition for ‘prisoner,’ and was memorizing it by heart, he didn’t even know that he was only reading about himself.”


In César Aira’s novella The Literary Conference, an out-of-work translator also happens to be a mad scientist bent on world domination. The crux of his world takeover plan is to clone a genius: the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. Thus the translator clones the genius.

But things go awry when the mad scientist snicks a cell from Fuentes’s silk tie, not Fuentes himself, and inserts it in the cloning machine. The result: enormous silkworms that threaten to destroy the city. Thus the translator merely clones the genius’s garmenture.


In Šalamun’s poem “The Wood’s White Arm,” I initially translated “Nathan’s headboard is in Prague” as “Nathan’s bedhead is in Prague,” because the Slovenian phrase literally means “head of bed.” I puzzled over “bedhead” for a little while—how someone’s unkempt hair could be in Prague, ostensibly separate from the person whose hair it is—until I realized (with some help from Google image search, which presented me with scores of photographs of hotel rooms) that the phrase referred to what I would call a “headboard.” I was simultaneously amused at my error and relieved at correcting it. And then, when I looked at the corrected line, I felt confused all over again.

Translating Šalamun requires a certain willingness to make a fool of oneself. As Friedrich Schleiermacher puts it in “On the Different Methods of Translating”: translation is “the most extraordinary form of humiliation that a writer . . . could inflict upon himself.”


I cannot know precisely how Šteger’s poems strike a native Slovenian speaker, but in English, the poems simultaneously carry weight and move lightly. They seem both immense and feathery. And the poems have changed how I view some things—urinals, graters, and umbrellas especially. Šteger himself was the first translator of The Book of Things, carrying the poems from the land of objects into language. I simply recreated them in another language. Šteger established equivalencies between things and words; I established equivalencies between words and words.


Šalamun’s position on translation is the opposite of Walter Benjamin’s. Benjamin writes, “A literal rendering of the syntax completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility” (“The Task of the Translator”). Of course, when a poet’s own work is “a direct threat to comprehensibility,” it seems appropriate that the translation advances that aim too.

The primary temptation while working with Šalamun’s poetry is to employ translation as a method of interpretation or, worse, domestication. Rather than reproduce a phrase or line or sentence literally (which sometimes produces a statement that makes no conventional sense), the translator might want to adjust the phrase or line or sentence so that it makes sense. Because a translator has to make choices constantly, the risk of imposing an interpretation—of trying to figure out the meaning of a syntactical unit that might have no rational meaning, and then inserting the conclusions into the translation—is constant. But the translator needs to resist resolving ambiguities in the original.

Because I focus intently on the line when I write poems, when I translate I work to maintain the original poem’s lineation in English. But the Slovenian poets that I’ve translated have different attitudes toward the line, compelling me to adjust my view of how the poetic line can work.

Šalamun views the beginnings of lines as more important than the endings (thus the prevalence of traditionally weak line breaks in his work). During an email conversation about his lines and line breaks, he wrote, “I usually ‘rime’ at the beginning of the line, not at the end, therefore these strange cuttings of lines.” This compelled me to balance my own desire for strong line endings and his desire for strong beginnings.

If a line is getting unwieldy in translation, extending too far beyond its neighbors, Šteger welcomes moving a phrase down to the next line, thus breaking the original line and the integrity of that line for the sake of overall balance.

Debeljak is similarly more concerned with the visual appearance of the line—that the lengths of the lines match as closely as possible because “the poems are conceived as a grid”—than with the line as a unit of thought or expression. For him, the form of a poem is “like a vessel, literally, to pour into [his] associative riffs on the path of memories and camaraderie.” Thus, the formal integrity of individual lines can be sacrificed for the sake of that visual symmetry. One of my tasks, then, was to reconcile his fondness for symmetry with my own commitment to the line.

While translating Woods and Chalices, I often asked Šalamun about lines and line breaks and also tried to explain my choices. In an email from July 21, 2006, I wrote:

I’ve noticed in general that your line breaks in the original tend to disappear in your English versions, probably because you’re working to maintain relatively even lines throughout the English version. I’d like to maintain as many of the significant line breaks as possible while paying attention to that evenness and to the possibilities of enjambment and soundplay in English. So when I notice something in the Slovenian, I try to bring it over into English; and when it doesn’t mar the English version or skew the original to introduce a little electricity of form, I do so. An example is the first stanza of this poem:

The fullness whispers, fragrant. It spreads the nose
and rolls up the skin. My fins grow and flutter—flags—,
with my finger I touch an elbow, to test if it hears

Ending the first line with “nose” and the third line with “hears” offers a resonant but quiet rhyme. Ending the second line with “flags” and the dash followed by a comma maintains the abruptness of the phrase but also becomes a flag of its own within the line and stanza. Also, ending the third line with “hears” creates a strong enjambment because the reader doesn’t know the object of “hears” until s/he goes to the next stanza—so it’s an enjambment that furthers both form and content.

There’s similar work in the second stanza—“circle” and “frills” have a quiet chime, and “milkier” bridges the two with its own “K” and “L” sounds while working with the same sounds in the other words in that stanza.

I just wanted to give you a sense of what I’m trying to do with your lines—respecting the original as much as possible while putting pressure on the English.


When the poet wants the translated poems to function in English as poems in English (i.e., when the poet expressly asks for a fluid translation), I have been more willing to sacrifice some meaning in the original to make the poem work as an English-language poem. But the translated poem should always contain a certain amount of strangeness—not exoticized foreignness, but a reminder that the poem originated elsewhere. Translators need to resist English’s tendency to absorb everything. However important a poet like Šalamun is to American poetry readers, his work cannot and should not be Americanized.

With Šalamun, I emphatically wanted the poems to seem peculiar in English. To do otherwise would have been to compromise the real substance of his poems. With Šteger and Debeljak, I worked to make the poems read well in English, but maintained as many of the poems’ idiosyncrasies as possible rather than try to normalize them (e.g., “Hayrack,” one of the few poems in The Book of Things that was not first published by a magazine [the poem was rejected multiple times], and the proliferation of commas in Smugglers when English usage would call for periods, semicolons, and dashes).


Ten years before I started translating, I asked the Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill what was most important to her when her poems crossed over into English. Her answer: “voltage.” Not literal meaning, not the basic gist, not the form, not music. Voltage.

Ní Dhomhnaill was reiterating what she had said in a conversation with Medbh McGuckian published in The Southern Review in 1995: “The most important thing is to get the voltage that is behind the words.” My Webster’s defines “voltage” as “electromotive force or potential difference expressed in volts.” If we say that the volt is the equivalent of the word, then voltage can become the “electromotive force or potential difference expressed” in words. Potential difference is “the difference between the potentials of two points in an electric field, equal to the amount of work done in moving a relatively small charge from one point to the other.” If we consider the “electric field” to be language itself, the two points become the two languages (source and target), where the transference of energy from one point to another becomes a transference of language and all that it embodies culturally, socially, historically, and ontologically. But let’s not forget “electromotive,” “pertaining to, producing, or tending to produce a flow of electricity.” If we accept language as a dynamic electric field, the process of translation becomes electromotive in that it pertains to and produces a flow of electricity—a flow of language that relies on voltage for its impact. But with translation, we cannot measure or assign a specific value to the flow of words from one language to another. Ní Dhomhnaill’s voltage, because it’s word-driven, is indefinable.


The retina is made up of special cells called rods and cones. These cells change the light that falls on them. The pattern of light becomes a pattern of nerve signals going to the brain. “It’s like translating one language into another,” said Tim. “The rods and cones translate ‘light language’ into ‘nerve language.’”
The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses


While working Šalamun’s poems into English, I felt like I was fully alert, my senses open to all stimuli. I felt inspired, in medias creatio. I knew that I was writing a poem and that I myself was writing nothing. Antoine Berman captures this paradox in The Experience of the Foreign: the translator “presents himself as a writer, but is only a re-writer. He is an author, but never The Author.” But there’s also Maurice Blanchot in Friendship: “the man who is ready to translate is in a constant, dangerous and admirable intimacy—and it is this familiarity that gives him the right to be the most arrogant or the most secret of writers—with the conviction that, in the end, translating is madness.”


Once, trying to understand part of a Šalamun poem (“Fallow Land and the Fates”), I wrote to him with some questions, beginning with my rough translation of the poem, with alternatives in brackets:

The Fallow [Fallow Land? Virgin Soil?] and the Fates

The boy scrubs the kitchen and crushes [crumbles?] mommy’s
period. Godfathers ignite
microwaves. Snakes, Easter eggs,
gray hats and crampon lamps
flake from columns [pillars?] in walls.
He who brews brandy pants around scree,
incantation. He who boils carries [Boils he who carries?] the mountain
and this one, who unsaddles supports yuppies.
I turn [rotate?] breasts [chest?] and papers. The river makes
the bow [ribbon?]. It’s easy to find shapes in the profiles
of stones, but in the mud there’s the weight
of the horse-collar. [Stools], you sink because
you don’t penetrate [prick?] the water. Only the shattered
water drinks water. The full [crowded? stuffed?] water twists.

Is “fallow” in the title an adjective or a noun? “fallow” cannot exist as a noun in English without “land” following it, so if it’s a noun, the title should be “Fallow Land and the Fates.”

In the title, what are other possible meanings for “parke” (other than “park”)?

Any alternatives for “piko”? since it is also a full stop, can we use “period” instead? or does that possibly skew the meaning by alluding to the mother’s menstruation? I’m not satisfied with “dot” because the image of crushing/crumbling a dot doesn’t make sense as it is written.

Is “lus(h)c(h)ijo” in line 4 being used as a verb or a noun? if a verb, it should come at the end of the sentence and be “flake” (I am guessing the image is pillars on walls with those things on them flaking or peeling off). If a noun, it should come at the beginning and be “husk”: “husks of snakes, Easter eggs, . . .”

In the last line, is “voda” “polna” because it’s full from drinking, or is it full of other things? if it’s not full from drinking water, we should use “crowded” or maybe “stuffed.”

Does the person who makes the liquor boil the person who carries the mountain? or should those be different people?

Can you explain the action behind “Obrac(h)am prsi in papirje”?

—Brian Henry to Tomaž Šalamun, 20 July, 2006

His reply:

Zdrobiti piko mamici means exactly to crush the dot to mom. Let’s leave it. As if mother would have a dot and the son would crush it. Of course the dot is not corporeal and we couldn’t crush it and why the mom would have a dot and how it would that look like we don’t know and cannot imagine. This is the clue for my writing. This is the disturbing part that it makes no sense. Pika here is a dot, not period. There’s a possible subconscious English perversion, but it should stay hidden. Period would destroy everything here. The fact that it doesn’t make sense makes it a line.

The godfathers didn’t ignite microwaves, microwaves started to burn by themselves as if they were paper or logs and it happened to godfathers.
Maybe also : Microwaves got on fire to the godfathers.

Sopsti po melishchih is utterly weird in Slovenian, it should stay like this, “around scree” I feel as logifying, better is “on screes.” “On” is more physical, the fact that it happens on many screes not only to one is more interesting. I’m a destroyer of images, I don’t make images, I block them deep in the ground.

In the tenth line I propose “tie” or “mesh,” because “bow” could mean the river bows. “Ribbon” would escape too close to the sense that the river makes ribbons with its flowing. My image is much more radical. The river makes a mesh.

Please let leave “Sinking stools, you can’t pierce water!” Maybe the exclamation point is missing. The stools are sinking and I’m telling them that they cannot pierce water. That’s all. They’re sinking already, we cannot add because etc. Don’t try to tame my crystal madness. Things are completely simple. I only describe what they do or they do what I order them to do. And they like to do what was not done before.


After going through Šalamun’s “The King Likes the Sun” a few times, I found what I thought was a problem:

Looking at the poem again, I noticed a problem with the 3 “it”s in the first four lines.

In the line “It opens like a patch”, does “it” refer to the invention? If so, we have an antecedent problem, because “it” is used twice before to refer to the people’s request (or to the people, I’m not sure). I also wonder if “it” refers to the empire, which immediately follows; though this wouldn’t make sense in English, I could see it working in Slovenian, since grammatical effects are different.

We could fix this by changing “it” in “He didn’t overlook it” and “He wasn’t able to overlook it” to “them” and keep “It opens like a patch.” That would make the “it” referring to the invention pretty clear.

How does that sound?

I’ve changed “wrapper” to “wrap” because “wrap” is used for clothing and “wrapper” is not. I also like the effect of the monosyllables there.

Also, another good reason for blisters instead of calluses is that blisters come first, before calluses.

I also propose changing “obtains” in the line “the pole obtains azure” because “obtains” is really awkward.

—Brian Henry to Tomaž Šalamun, 22 July, 2006

His response:

I like wrap instead of wrapper, but for all the other changes I’m not.
I don’t see a problem if there’s a lot of ambiguity.
They have to be. Some sentences walk in the mist, some bend strangely, I
like awkwardness, awkwardness is the crucial thing in my writing. Things
should not be clear. If clear they’re too domesticated. I dedomesticate,
invade the language, delogify. My sentences should take off the sense of
balance, not to repeat the words too much is a French classicist law. I
don’t see for its as a problem. Third it refers to invention, fourth to
empire, (maybe) but exactly that you don’t really know is what I like and deliberately do.

—Tomaž Šalamun to Brian Henry, 24 July, 2006

And a postscript:

Exactly the fact that first are blisters which become calluses is the reason
that I say First are calluses, I function through paradox, negativity,
opposites. Blisters is too normal and elegant, calluses are heavier,
The pole goes azure is too normal.
The pole obtains azure dark water surface. This is how it should be, it is
exactly what I say. Maybe the comma in Slovenian confuses you that you make
two different parts. The comma in Slovenian is ambivalent, it wants slightly

—Tomaž Šalamun to Brian Henry, 24 July, 2006


At other times, I created more complexity than existed in the original. In Debeljak’s “Balkan Bridge,” for example, I translated the phrase “v vsakem naključju počiva ključ” as “a coin in every coincidence.” In the original, “ključ” literally means “key” (not “coin”) and “naključju” means “coincidence,” “chance,” or “accident.” Because of the way in which “ključ” is embedded within “naključju,” I wanted to achieve the same effect in English. Although they seem unrelated, “key” and “coin” share a few poetic elements: both are monosyllabic words, both begin with the “k” sound,” and a coin can function as a kind of key, unlocking a washing machine or arcade game or pay phone, and “coin” can open doors in society. (Whoever has enough coin can unlock any door.) Debeljak noticed that I had not translated that word literally, but he also recognized what I had done with “ključ” and “naključju,” writing, “it invalidates my private claim that there’s a key in every coincidence only in Slovenian,” and “This I cherish extra!”

For me, translating poems can resemble a kind of game, or puzzle, in that my brain is as occupied with solving something—not an equation, but perhaps an equivalency—as it is with fashioning a poem in English from a poem in Slovenian.


I started this project—part reflection on translation (as a critical/creative act and as a discipline with its own zones of concern), part collage of excerpts from various texts about translation, part exploration of my own translation processes—in November 2009, after I’d translated three books from the Slovenian. The idea of translation as an act of friendship became central to the project, since that approach is central to my process as a translator. I worked steadily on the project until 2011, until it had reached around one hundred pages, then put it down to focus on other things.

When Tomaž died in December 2014, my response after my immediate emotional reaction was to translate a few dozen of his poems in marathon translation sessions for the next ten days—a process that, until then, always ended with me sending the translations to him for comment. When I had a pile of translated poems in varying stages of completion, I realized—absurdly belatedly—that Tomaž would never see them. I then saw that my translations were subconscious attempts to undo, or at least delay, my acknowledgment of Tomaž’s death. If he always read my translations, then it stood to reason, in my grief logic, that if I were translating his poems, he must be alive to read them. I finished translating the poems as best I could, wrote a few prose pieces about him and his work, and then stopped working with his poems. Just thirteen months later, in January 2016, Aleš Debeljak was killed in an auto accident, less than a year after Smugglers appeared in English.

So much of the rhetoric about poetry translation centers not just on impossibility, but on loss. Rather than focus on what is lost in translation, let’s look at what can be carried over: most of a poem’s literal meaning, its tone and atmosphere, some of its music (including a comparable sonic scaffolding), much of its attitude and vision. This isn’t everything, clearly, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

There’s no reason to let the “unavoidable imperfection in all translations” (Schopenhauer) impoverish our literature. If, as Yves Bonnefoy claims, “a poem is less than poetry,” what is lost at the level of the individual poem is more than compensated for by what is added to the art of poetry. In a way, the individual poem sacrifices itself—is sacrificed—for the sake of the art as a whole.

All that’s left is pattern* (shoes?).

*doubtful reconstruction

—Armand Schwerner, The Tablets  

return to top