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A conversation with co-translator Jeffrey Young

Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator?

Reborn is a good word. Šalamun believed in this possibility, absolutely. I think the excitement around and continued interest in his work, which over the years has been translated by literally countless people, and continues to be translated, also proves this point. What is exciting, strange and new inside the best of Šalamun’s work is able to be reborn in and inhabit other languages, over and over again. The energy is irrepressible.

If you think about it too much, translation can easily appear as something fundamentally impossible, which is a sad and lonely thought. Tomaž Šalamun was an optimist of the highest order. It is not what is lost in translation, but what is gained, that most interested him.

Šalamun believed that it is possible for a translation to compensate, even if in a limited way, for the very much that is lost when one tries to transfer a work of art made of words from one language into another. That the target language does this by discovering or creating something that is fresh, unexpected, or new, even (and usually) when this appears in another place inside the poem or even in another poem inside the book. Any places in our translation where this happened excited Šalamun, and, as I experienced it, he had no qualms with any differences between language versions that this “energy transference” created. It’s as if the energy of the original line, the original poem, is looking for the organic way in the other language to express whatever it is that it expresses through the poet in the original text. When it does that, it becomes like another original, or a kind of facsimile of the original.

But what, in Šalamun’s case, actually is the original? He once told me, during an interview for the film, that in many ways his Slovenian texts are themselves translations of the language that he experienced during the act of writing. The original is somehow poetry before language, or beyond language, or however you wish to visualize this thing that enters, embodies, and is reborn within a poet in the form of a poem—a form that seldom, if ever, can do justice to the original inspiration or encounter that brought it into being. So in this sense, a translation into another language is twice removed from the original source of inspiration. It is an echo of an echo…

Happily, as I mentioned before, Šalamun was an optimist. He believed that writing poetry was possible, regardless of what “gets lost” or changes (or gets misunderstood) in the act of writing it down. By extension, he believed in the ability to transfer the energy of poetry from one language to another, from one person to another, through the medium of poetry-in-translation.

I think it an honest assessment to say that he viewed translating his poems as a kind of regenerating process that exponentially expanded the possibility of communication, not only between himself and the reader, but between people, generally. I know, from interviews we did together, that he believed passionately that poetry could open spaces for people to understand themselves and the world around them. Tomaž Šalamun’s poetry is universal (and therefore universally translatable) because it speaks from, and for, our true nature as human beings.

The beauty of art, like love’s beauty, is that it is simultaneously personal and universal. Visual art and music need no translation, but art made of words seems to present a problem in the universal transmission of expression, which can appear frustrating, as anyone who ever wanted to say “I love you” in a language that they don’t know has experienced. But as any true lover can surely can find other means to get the message across, so too does poetry. One way is with translation, but it can also do without translation, when read aloud, usually by the poet in the poet’s native tongue. The sound, music, cadence of the language, the power, or whisper, or intonation of the poet’s voice creates a full sensory experience that has the ability, at the best moments, to transcend the “meaning of the words” (that you, sitting in the audience, do not understand) and the “meaning of the poem,” which is being transmitted to you via the music of the human voice, the human breath. This has the power to send shivers down your spine and bring tears to your eyes, because in that moment you are experiencing the “truth of the poem” as the poet, somehow, experienced it. You are in communion: with the mind of the poet, the spirit of the poem, and yourself.

There are justifiable legends around the many readings Šalamun gave where he literally could transform a crowded room of people into a kind of collective, heightened-consciousness state of total stillness, as if no one were breathing, or all breathing underwater like fish in unison the language as it exhaled in a soft, all-encompassing whisper-bubble from Šalamun’s poet-mouth—I experienced this once in my life and I do not know how to describe it. Someone explained it to me that it was “as if the words were being etched into my brain.” It is like your mind and the mind of the poem are being fused, or rather, the poem is rewiring your mind so that it can synch with your brain and stimulate it.

There is a reason that most poets read better in their native tongue, and Šalamun was no exception. It is a testament to the ability of his poems to be reborn in translation, as well as Šalamun’s talent to inhabit other languages, that he was able to read many of his poems in English with the same power and effect as in the original. He forged translations into blazing originals in this way.

I think it is significant, or at least interesting, to note that in Slovenian the word for “poem” and for “song” is the same word, pesem. Words printed on the page in a book are obviously mute, and so translation is the only way to give the language voice again in the mind of the reader. This is why the sound of a word or line can be as important to its translation as its meaning.

If you ask about poetry in translation, I think it is also worthy to think for a moment about its readers. As I understand it, most readers of poetry in the US these days are poets. To this Tomaž would say (and I am sure did say): Marvelous! One thing Tomaž taught was that poets need each other. In my experience, poets are just like everyone else, except that they tend to have a stronger-than-average need to communicate, in language, things that language ultimately cannot express, because of love and also to transcend loneliness. Translating poetry in this sense is like procreation: not only the poem, but also friendship and love get reborn, grow, flourish.

We dedicated Transom 3 to Tomaž Šalamun and his translators, in part to celebrate the chorus of English-language voices that have contributed to Šalamun’s presence on the American poetry scene. Your translations are of relatively recent poems by Šalamun, you co-directed a short film about him, and you’re at work on a feature-length documentary. How does your role as a “translator” differ when you are moving materials across media rather than across languages? What drew you to Šalamun’s work and made it a part of your own artistic life?


Personally, I don’t see much similarity between translating poems and making a film—at least not at the practical level of actually doing the work.

When we started to translate Andes, where the selections in Transom 10 are taken from, Šalamun gave Katarina and I some invaluable advice: “Be as literal as possible, and don’t look for any meanings.” And this, to the best of our abilities, is what we did. Our own creativity had little to do with it.

Of course our job was to transform the literal language into “poetry”—but we soon discovered that in almost all cases, this involved staying as literal as possible to what Šalamun wrote the way he wrote it, and letting the English language do the work of expressing the energy of his lines in Slovenian as faithfully as possible. There were moments of untranslatability when we had to take certain liberties, which Šalamun encouraged and approved, but for the most part, whenever we strayed by accident or intent from the literal path, we would inevitably end up on a road to nowhere and had to retrace our steps back to the source, which is the line, the individual word or words, the verb tense, the mood, syntax, the sound and rhythm—all these components of the language. This is the material we were working with.

Making a film, obviously, is a creative act that involves imagination and invention. When I started the documentary, together with the Slovenian filmmaker Nejc Saje, Tomaž gave another, and quite different, piece of advice: “Be a beast!” He wanted absolutely nothing to do with our ideas and decisions, except to excuse himself from those he did not feel like participating in personally. Šalamun was all about passing the fire of inspiration and creative freedom to others. What we were doing was of less importance than the fact of doing it.

The short film we made, Every True Poet, is very much inspired by his poems and his words about poetry. We did create imagery and some situations to evoke something of the feeling of reading Šalamun, and we were also playing with ideas how to express the past and memory in film language in a different way. Another thing we “borrowed” from him is the idea that risk is essential to art. If you are afraid to fail you won’t succeed in creating something new.

Of course, in film, all of this “translating” from one medium to another—seeking images that evoke feelings and associations as they relate to the words of a poet—can take you to dangerous or lifeless territory. Evoking “the spirit of a poem” visually in film can collapse into interpretation or illustration, and interpreting poetry in film is certainly the same kind of sin as interpreting a poem as a translator. There, I just found a connection!

In a way, making a film about another human being is a kind of translation. It is “translating” life into art, or taking something that is fluid and ephemeral and fundamentally mysterious and attempting to transform it into something fixed and (you hope) timeless and somehow understandable, which is another way of saying engaging, because life is too short to watch boring movies. A film about an artist has it own specific pitfalls. A film about a writer even more, because there is usually nothing as boring as watching someone write.

Tomaž told me once: “You know what a film of a poet reading a poem looks like? A poet, reading a poem.”

The goal of the feature documentary is to tell more about Šalamun’s life, where he came from, who he was, what he did, and what happened after.  This also means that he becomes the “hero of the story.” Now, whether I like it or not, it’s no longer only about the poems or even about Tomaž as a human being, but it’s about the hero of the story. Film tends to function this way because film language tells stories in the same way as dreams. Also, like dreams, whatever reality a film has is contained solely within itself. There is, of course, much that is dreamlike about Šalamun’s work. So maybe this is another thing they have in common?

What drew you to Šalamun’s work and made it a part of your own artistic life?


I have lived, on and off, with Tomaz Šalamun’s poetry for more than half of my life. It was love at first sight. And since it is love, it is hard for me to qualify or quantify it. It is. What can I say?

I first met Tomaž personally in the context of interviewing him for a magazine in 1995. He told me something that wasn’t printed at the time, but that explains something about how I feel about him. He said: “I’ve got the fire, when I’m lucky, it happens to me, and if I am lucky, others will get this fire through me.”

Not only did Tomaž pass this fire of inspiration, he also taught, by example, how not to be afraid of the fire. He took many risks in his life and in his art, and he paid some heavy prices for it. It is easy to forget in all these words about Šalamun that he was, whatever else he was, also simply a human being. He had flaws and weaknesses like everyone else, which he was the first to acknowledge. But he wasn’t held down by them. Instead he transformed them, like everything else that came into his orbit, into material for creative activity, which he knew, deep down, was always for the good, even in its darkest moments. Tomaž’s passion for poetry, I believe, was always the passion for creativity, to create “something from nothing” as he once said. “The creative process is a healing process,” is another line I remember.

I had the good fortune to be his friend, and there was a time in my life where, as a friend, he helped me. I know that he did this for many, many people. So mostly I admire Tomaž as a friend and as a funny, warm and open human being. Like many others, I miss him a lot. I cannot help but admire him as the truly one-of-a-kind person and artist that he was. He showed that it is not only possible to live life as an artist, regardless of external circumstances, but that in fact it is our basic human nature to be creative, in whatever way.

Poetry was his way. Through his poetry, but also very significantly through his presence and interactions and friendships with others, he opened up worlds for people around him and brought so many people and worlds together. Maybe that was his true genius? As a poet he operated from the margins, but if society would worship poetry the way it does pop stars, he would have had the same impact on the world as Michael Jackson, an artist that I know he admired.

It is telling that he never really spoke about his poetry, except in a scattering of interviews over the years and sometimes during readings. Already I have probably used more words to try and speak about his poetry than he ever did. He told me when we started interviewing him for the film: “The answers to whatever questions you ask me are in the poems.”