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A Beet Issue

By Rebecca Myers

Rebecca Myers holds an MA in English from The University of Georgia and an MFA in Poetry from NYU. She is the full-time assistant to poet Sharon Olds. A resident of Brooklyn, Rebecca is currently writing a collection of creative non-fiction essays called "Poetry at Work," a humorous account of how poetry has helped her cope with ten years of odd jobs outside of academia. In her first post for Words Without Borders, Rebecca talks to a duo translating Slovene poet Tomaž Šalamun and delves into the subterranean difficulties of finding le mot juste Rebecca is co-editor of the literary magazine Clementine.—Editors

A few weeks ago, I attended Anne Carson's performance of "String Talks" at The Skirball Center. I was taking notes in the back of an old travel journal when I stumbled across a list I'd made of poorly translated menu items in Italy. There was "fillet of pig to the grate" and "twisted to the chocolate with cheese," and my personal favorite, "beet imaginations of the salads."

I like saying "beet imaginations of the salads"—I remember using it as often as possible that summer—but in its original context, it represented a huge leave-taking from intended meaning. I don't think my waiter was inviting me to journey into the inventive mind of lettuce. He wanted to sell me beet salad. And despite all this funny ha-ha, I remember feeling as if by ordering "beet imaginations of the salads" I was somehow complicit in a much greater deception—that I was allowing a poor translation to pass for perfect. In the end, I went with the "farm chicken to the oven" because it seemed, well, more honest.

So my mind was already on the notion of translation when Anne Carson read her "Short Talk on Walking Backwards," which begins:

My mother forbade us to walk backwards. That is how the dead walk, she would say. I don't know where she got this idea, perhaps from a bad translation.

How does a translator answer to accuracy? It seems like he or she is the one moving backwards, starting at the finish line. I brought up this question to Dan Rosenberg, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who for about a year now has been translating Slovenian poetry in collaboration with Boris Gregoric. He really likes it—enough to apply for a Fulbright to Ljubljana. He talked to me about the inherent difficulties in giving English phrasing to the work of Tomaž Šalamun: the lack of articles in Slovene, for example, how you suddenly find yourself staring down the difference between "a" sun and "the" sun. Such subtle choices often change the meaning of a poem dramatically. It's a root problem, really—a beet issue, if you will.

Dan and Boris have two Tomaž poems forthcoming in the Iowa Review. Tomaž is a leading figure in Eastern European avant-garde poetry and, like all avant-garde poets, he engages with his language from a position of extremity. I asked Dan to speak to a specific choice he made, as a translator, in either of the poems:

"Well, in the untitled poem of Tomaž's that Boris and I translated for the Iowa Review, we chose, in consultation with Tomaž, to change the pronoun used to describe a pine from "it" to "him." The pine transforms into an agent, a character, in this poem, and though a similar grammatical representation of this transformation is impossible in Slovene, which makes no distinction between those personal pronouns, it seemed in keeping with the spirit of the poem to reflect that shift in English as we did."

I was most struck with Dan's phrase "in keeping with the spirit of the poem," which indicates that the locus of a translation's accuracy isn't necessarily in its grammar, but in its often ineffable original essence. Dan admits that Tomaž's work is an anomaly in Slovenian poetry. Its disjunctiveness can pose a challenge to translators. Peter Kolšek wrote, in an article for Slovenia Poetry International Web:

"In the late sixties and throughout the seventies poetry had broken with the described poetic tradition and set a new poetic law, according to which Slovenian poetry (no longer) has any other national-cultural role but to be "pure" poetry. Tomaž Šalamun (1941) and Iztok Geister Plamen (1945) were the leading protagonists. They managed to heal the poetic generations that succeeded them both of elegy as well as of revoltism."

It's quite a responsibility to cloak a poem's essence in a new language, and I asked Dan how he doesn't panic in the face all of that seemingly untranslatable "pure" poetry.

"Often the best way to render something in English would be unclear to me if I were just to get a literal translation, but when we are working together Boris and I can communicate through examples, gestures, ostension; we think in similar ways, and that allows us to communicate very effectively."

Boris added to me that he envisions a similar end result, that they are working towards a kind of overarching accuracy. "It's more the matter of fine-tuning our musical and stylistic apparatuses to eventually click with the original."

"Clicking with the original," then, allows for linguistic play within native parameters, and never at the expense of Tomaž's meaning. Both Dan and Boris are careful not to get carried away by their beet imaginations.

Published Mar 3, 2008   Copyright 2008 Rebecca Myers

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