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How did you come to translate Šalamun’s work?

I’d been reading Tomaž’s poems for about 10 years and had been friends with him for nearly that long before I started translating him in 2006. I’d always been interested in translation, but didn’t trust my knowledge of foreign languages (French, Spanish, and Latin, which I’d studied). But after noticing that none of Tomaž’s co-translators actually knew Slovenian, I thought I should give it a try. After all, I knew his work in English well, and we had a strong friendship. So I suggested that we do a book together. Because my favorite book by Tomaž in English was A Ballad for Metka Krašovec (translated by Michael Biggins), I wanted to do a cohesive book rather than a selection from multiple books. So Tomaž and I decided to work on Gozd in kelihi, which became Woods and Chalices. Initially, the process worked the same way Tomaž’s other co-translated books work: he does a literal version and the co-translator makes it work as a poem in English. But I wanted to work with the original Slovenian, not just Tomaž’s literal versions, and about 2/3 of our way through the book, I started doing the initial versions myself and sending them to Tomaž for corrections.

What relationships do you see between Šalamun’s work and your own?

I openly emulated some of his work in a couple of my earlier poems (e.g., the proem to Astronaut, which was inspired by the format of “Jonah”). Generally, I think that Tomaž and I both use poetry as a way of seeking, and as a way of connecting. We both have written a lot of poems with high energy and speed. And we try to stretch the language. But the relationship between Tomaž’s poetry and my own extended beyond these correspondences when I started translating his poems. Although I’d written dozens of sonnets of many different kinds before translating Tomaž’s poems, working within his primary unit (the 14-liner / unrhymed sonnet) and working with his syntax (and image, statement, and juxtaposition) led to an explosion of sonnets unlike anything I’d written before. That 14-line space is one I was already comfortable with--as a unit of composition and thought and music--but translating Tomaž’s 14-liners pushed me to reconfigure that space. It rewired my brain in a way.

In “Winter Street” you say “The body is a money pit / for the soul.” (In “Folk Song,” Šalamun says, “Only the poet sells his soul to separate it / from the body that he loves” [Tr. Charles Simic].) Your poem seems very concerned with the metaphysics of such dualities – body/soul, solid/liquid, interior/exterior – and with their potential synthesis, the functional identity between winter flood and winter street. What sort of relationship between image and idea, between image and argument, do you strive for in your poetry?

I don’t think I strive for those things consciously. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to look very closely at things, to develop a quality of attention that carries over to the language. Sometimes that quality of attention yields not only images but also ideas and arguments (and impasses and despair at these impasses). The physical (the body) is one of my primary concerns--as a human and as a poet--but I’m always looking to mess up any neat distinctions. I wrote “Winter Street” in New Hampshire. A lot of my poems occur around rivers, which seem to embody both the dualities and synthesis that you mentioned: you have a body of water that, by definition, flows but can freeze; it is also defined by its banks, but those can shift or, in winter, gather skirts of ice; and a river can overstep its natural boundaries.

Further notes:
from Henry's prose manuscript, Things are Completely Simple:

The one liberty I took with Šalamun’s poems was with sound. Because translating a sound pattern, or thread, straight from Slovenian into English is not possible, I would work the translation, usually on the fly, to recreate a similar kind of sound pattern in English, sometimes in the line before or after. This might mean choosing a word that’s less faithful (in terms of meaning) but that sounds much better with the words already on the page. For me, the minor loss in literal meaning is more than compensated by the sonic gains.

With Šalamun, are the originals always the versions of the poems in Slovenian? If he performs an initial translation himself—into English or any other language—might the original be the combination of the Slovenian and English versions? If someone else translates the poem from scratch, then we can be more certain saying that the original is the poem in Slovenian. But if the author brings the poem into existence in two languages, in whatever order, can we be sure that the original version is necessarily the first?


Girded by the poet’s own desire to have the poems function in English as poems in English, I have been more willing to let go of some meaning in the original in order to make the poem work in English. Sometimes an exact translation isn’t possible (not every word has an equivalent in another language); or if it’s possible, it would be too wordy or awkward.

But the translated poem should 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 be Americanized.

In the course of their correspondence, Šalamun tried to answer many of Henry's questions about specific lines. These are excerpts from one such answer:

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 what it would 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.

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.

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.

Sample Translations: