Grasping the Unfamiliar Again
Poetry Editor Barbara Varanka Interviews Poet Brian Henry on His Project of Translating the Late Great Slovenian Poet Tomaž Šalamun & Putting a New Selected Poems Together
Barbara Varanka: Most of us who have translated a poem had our first experiences in a translation workshop. Was this the case for you as well?
Brian Henry: I’ve never taken a translation workshop. I became interested in the possibilities of translation in a bilingual literature seminar on Pablo Neruda in graduate school. I wrote my final paper on translation, the research for which introduced me to translation theory, and I translated some Neruda poems on the side. But over a decade passed before I returned to translation in a serious way.
BV: Please describe your translation process. Do you have particular strategies or tools you use, and do they differ depending on the poem?
BH: I do have particular strategies, but they depend on the work that I’m translating—specifically, the author and my relationship to them, when they wrote, and whether or not the work has been translated into English before. My reason for translating the work is also a factor. If I’m translating something for research or information, I do a relatively cursory job, just enough to get the gist; but if I’m translating something in the hopes of publishing it, then I want to be thorough and deeply engaged with the work. I also practice creative translation, but only if the work has already been translated multiple times.
BV: What drew you to Slovenian poetry, and Tomaž Šalamun’s work in particular?
BH: There’s a bit of professional and personal history that paved the way for me to translate Šalamun’s work. In the spring of 1995, when my Verse co-editor Andrew Zawacki and I had just started working on the magazine, we went to a reading in New York by Charles Simic and the Slovenian poet Aleš Debeljak, whose book Anxious Moments had recently appeared from White Pine Press. After that, we became big fans of Debeljak’s work. Andrew was based in Oxford, England, at the time, and he invited Debeljak to give a reading for Verse there, and then we decided to publish a special feature of Verse on younger Slovenian poets. Andrew was a guest at the first Days of Poetry and Wine Festival in Slovenia, and he edited an anthology of post-WWII Slovenian literature for White Pine, so Slovenian poetry was on our radar.
I briefly met Šalamun in the spring of 1997 when he read in Amherst shortly after The Four Questions of Melancholy was published by White Pine. A year later, when I was in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship, I went to Adelaide for a literary festival because Šalamun was reading there and I wanted to interview him for Verse. We became good friends, and I visited him a lot while he was living in New York and saw him in Slovenia several times, and he came to Athens, Georgia (where I lived for five years) and Richmond, Virginia (where I live now) a few times. More and more of his work was being translated into English, so I wanted to give it a try.
BV: In your 2015 POETRY essay on Šalamun, you write: “Despite his erudition and worldliness, most of his poems contain questions (there are more than ninety questions in the sixty-six poems in Woods and Chalices), as if implying that the poet’s role is that of the child attempting to grasp the unfamiliar, not of the didactic elder delivering wisdom.” How has this observation affected the way you translate Šalamun?
BH: It helps me remember to avoid nailing down ambiguities in his poems, which often strain not only sense, but conventional syntax. Because literary translation requires a certain level of interpretation, I can’t avoid trying to understand a line or a phrase, if only to decide which words to use. But when I sense that the original is pushing against rationality, whether it’s delving into the subconscious (dream logic/surrealism) or warping or reinventing the original language, I know I can stop worrying about finding a single “perfect” solution. Having spoken to Šalamun a lot about translation, I know that he thought the essence of the original poem would enter the translation one way or another. To me, this indicates a comfort with mystery and strangeness. In so many of his poems, just when you think you have a handle on what’s happening, he switches gears—changes pronouns or verb tenses, upends syntax, introduces something impossible, transforms the poem’s ostensible setting, etc.
Having spoken to Šalamun a lot about translation, I know that he thought the essence of the original poem would enter the translation one way or another. To me, this indicates a comfort with mystery and strangeness. In so many of his poems, just when you think you have a handle on what’s happening, he switches gears
BV: Could you speak to Šalamun’s flourishing in English, and how he achieved such popularity and acclaim here in the U.S.?
BH: It started with the Ecco book, a volume of Selected Poems that appeared in the late 1980s and was edited by Charles Simic and introduced by Robert Hass. That was a period when more and more poets from Eastern Europe and Central Europe who had been writing under totalitarian regimes in the 1960s and 1970s were getting translated into English and finding eager readers in the U.S. Šalamun became even more popular after the 1997 White Pine book, partly because Šalamun was living in New York and working at the Slovenian embassy, which allowed him to give more readings in the U.S. He was a phenomenal reader and an incredibly charming, gracious person, which also helped. After that, he taught as a guest poet at various universities, which expanded his audience as well as his roster of co-translators. He had published thousands of poems in Slovenian, so there was a backlog of work waiting to be translated.
Of course, the popularity of his work goes beyond his Slovenian/Yugoslav identity. His work is more outrageous, more experimental, and more distinctive than most of the poets whose work was being translated at the time. In the context of poetry in the U.S., Šalamun exhibited some affinities that made his work appealing here, particularly the New York School poets (especially John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Ted Berrigan), Language poetry (especially parataxis and the New Sentence), the French surrealists, and the Russian avant-garde. Because readers in the U.S. could identify some connections between his work and other poets with established reputations, it probably helped readers approach his work and go along for the ride when things get weird.
BV: How do you measure Šalamun’s influence on U.S. poets? Are there any U.S. poets in particular who come to mind as having been directly impacted by his unique style?
I know there are a lot of poets in the U.S. who have been influenced by his work, but I always hesitate to make specific connections, because influence is a complicated thing and it’d seem like over-simplification or distortion to draw direct lines. But I think U.S. poets are drawn to the outrageousness and freedom of his poems, the constant surprises, the strangeness and humor, the tenderness and ridiculousness, the blend of innocence and experience, and the portrayals of his relationships to God and his friends and his wives and lovers (A Ballad for Metka Krašovec is a good place to start for that).
I think U.S. poets are drawn to the outrageousness and freedom of his poems, the constant surprises, the strangeness and humor, the tenderness and ridiculousness, the blend of innocence and experience, and the portrayals of his relationships to God and his friends and his wives and lovers
BV: What are you currently working on? Do you have upcoming projects or translations you are particularly excited to begin?
I recently finished editing and translating Aleš Šteger’s New and Selected Poems, which Bloodaxe will publish in the UK next year. It covers 25 years of his work, which I’ve been translating since 2006. And I’ve been translating Šteger’s wonderful novel Neverend. I’m also working on editing and translating a volume of Selected Poems by Šalamun that will include work from all 55 of his published books.
Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)
His work is more outrageous, more experimental, and more distinctive than most of the poets whose work was being translated at the time.
Because readers in the U.S. could identify some connections between his work and other poets with established reputations, it probably helped readers approach his work and go along for the ride when things get weird.
Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014) published more than 55 books of poetry in his native Slovenian. Translated into over 25 languages, his poetry received numerous awards, including the Jenko Prize, the Prešeren Prize, the European Prize for Poetry, and the Mladost Prize. He served for several years as the Cultural Attaché for the Slovenian Embassy in New York, and he held visiting professorships at various universities in the U.S.
Brian Henry is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Permanent State. He has translated Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers, and five books by Aleš Šteger. His work has received numerous honors, including two NEA fellowships, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship, and the Best Translated Book Award. He is editing and translating a volume of Selected Poems by Šalamun.