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Notes on Šalamun in America

In "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin claims a central position for the art of translation: "of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own."

Tomaž Šalamun has been a major figure in American poetry since the 70s, which is an unusual situation for a poet writing in a foreign language spoken by only around two million people. He has loomed large in the personal poetic landscapes of, now, several generations of young American poets: as a figure of permissions, and as an envigorating estrangement of the American aesthetic that has its roots in Whitman. In a way, since estrangement is the prerequisite of rediscovery, Šalamun has functioned in American poetry as a foreign conduit back to something quintessentially American; like translation itself, he has shaped the “maturing process” of English even as he himself is shaped by it.

And yet very little has been made of the fact that Šalamun's work comes into English predominantly through a collaborative process between Šalamun himself and a series of young American poets, most of whom have little or no access to the original Slovene. (Benjamin again: "But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information – as even a poor translator will admit – the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic,’ something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?") There is an obvious benefit to being translated into English by someone who has a rich and nuanced relationship with the language. But what happens when Šalamun is co-translated by eleven poets who each take on different poems, developing in their various sub-sections of his corpus their own distinctive (collaborative) voices? The Šalamun we know in English is in fact a kind of sybil, a voice composed or channeled through many hybrid voices.

Or is he? As you can see throughout this issue (perhaps most clearly in Brian Henry’s Notes), Šalamun is deeply involved in the minutiae of his translations. And to many readers of English, the Šalamunian voice is remarkably consistent across translations. Is he somehow constructing, with the help of these deeply diverse American poets, a singular Anglophone voice?

In this issue we have gathered the poets who are involved in creating the phenomenon that is Tomaž Šalamun in America. We present them in their distinctiveness and in conversation with the translation process that ties them together. Of the eleven poets (so far) who have co-translated Šalamun's work into English, seven appear in this special issue of Transom to share their poems and their thoughts on Šalamun, translation, and poetry. 

Within the Notes sections, you will find links to sample translations by each contributor, along with our usual brief conversations with the poets. In addition, we have a special feature: a brief interview about Šalamun with Slovenian poet, translator, and critic Miklavž Komelj. Given this issue's obsession with the powerful and idiosyncratic voices that mediate Anglophone access to Šalamun's work, we felt that offering the insights of a brilliant critic of his poems in their original Slovene would be of particular value. Komelj's thoughts come to us in English through the work of translator Rawley Grau. We also include excerpts from Grau’s translation of a much longer essay by Komelj, "On the Poetic Methods of Tomaž Šalamun's Recent Poetry," which appeared as the afterward to Šalamun’s Sinji stolp (The Blue Tower) in 2007.

We hope that this issue can serve several functions, including:
1. To shine some light and praise on the artists who, in addition to writing their own excellent poems, have pursued the normally thankless task of helping bring another poet's work into English.
2. To help readers of Šalamun's work see and appreciate the perspectives, aesthetics, and styles of these not-so-silent partners in Šalamun's Anglophone oeuvre.
3. To begin a conversation, which we hope to continue, about the role of translation in contemporary American poetry.

The Editors