Colin Carberry: An Interview with Marjan Strojan

Marjan Strojan (16 August 1949), a Slovenian poet, journalist and translator, has published six collections of poetry and numerous translations. He studied Comparative Literature and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, and worked as a journalist at the Slovene section of the BBC World Service, and now works at Radio Slovenia. He has translated Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, poems by Robert Frost, James Joyce, and Milton's Paradise Lost into Slovene, and received awards for his translations, including the Veronika Award (2000) for his poetry collection Parniki v dežju (Steamers in the Rain). He is president of the Slovenian section of PEN International, and an honorary fellow of the University of Iowa and Hong Kong Baptist University.

You have published six books of poetry, and numerous translations, among them Beowulf. When did you first become interested enough in Beowulf to consider translating it into Slovene, and how did the process unfold?

I first read Beowulf in translation in my final year at the University. I thought translating kennings, compound noun words with one single meaning (i.e. whale-road for ‘ocean’, world-candle for ‘the sun’, etc.) might be fun, and I was amazed by the whole atmosphere of it, animistic and strange, as I thought. The idea of rendering the whole poem into my own language came many years later. I was stuck with some lines in Milton’s poem, and I thought I’d give myself a break. Well, the break lasted for four years and my Beowulf was the final result of it. After that it was somewhat easier to go on with Paradise Lost.

During the 2010 Linares International Literary Festival, I overheard you quoting long passages of Beowulf in the original to Albert Moritz. How long did it take you to understand and articulate Anglo-Saxon?

At first I had no intention of dabbling in Anglo-Saxon. I read four or five translations into modern English and found myself looking into the original on practically every page, and later, into every paragraph of it. Some of the lines I read differed so much among themselves that they seemed to tell a different story on almost every occasion. Consequently I had to consult commentaries, critical editions and such and I learned as I went along. In the end, it was easier for me to consult the original then read all the secondary stuff that goes with it. Alliteration was a great problem, though. Practically all Slovenian long verse narrative poetry of that period has been lost or recreated by our Romantic poets and collectors of oral literature in a way which suited their own tastes. Alliteration only survived in a sort of funny children single verse line, in nursery rhymes etc. Beowulf is a serious (though sometimes very funny) epical poem of more than 3000 lines and I had to invent or, perhaps, re-invent the form in our modern idiom. It took four or five years and then some more for the production of the book… But by then I was already back to Milton and the process went on simultaneously as it were.

You also translated Milton's Paradise Lost, a selection of Robert Frost's poetry, and a Slovenian Anthology of English Poetry. What proved to be the most difficult and the most rewarding aspects of the process?

The Anthology, no doubt. There’s some 17 thousand lines of it, encompassing all the forms and styles of English poetry from Beowulf to Lavinia Greenlaw (born in 1965, I think), and I translated half of it myself.

What draws you, a Slovenian poet, to identify so deeply with the English literary tradition?

I don’t identify with it. I am, as you say, a Slovenian poet and would find any such thing impossible. However, I find some aspects of English poetry fascinating… the voices of past and the present that I can, perhaps, identify with as a reader. Anyways, it’s not the contents that I can relate to but rather those that I cannot that I find most compelling.

What role has translation played in your own development as a poet?

None whatsoever, for all I know. I might have learned some facts, acquired some skills or even tastes etc., but this is not for me to say, is it? Other people may judge it differently, of course. For all I can see, the principle effect of translating work on my own poetry was that there’s less of the later that there might have been. Who knows, but in any case it’s been great fun all the way.

Your own poetry that has been translated into many languages, including Spanish. Which poem do you think comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original?

I don’t know that either. I can’t (or won’t) speak Spanish, I read some of it, but there’s a sea of difference between our languages and, in translation, the quality of poetry is primarily decided at the receiving end of the act. Personally, I think it’s an act of magic; and it’s a miracle if anything comes out in another language.

Which project(s) are you working on now?

For some years now I work on the second edition of Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales. I first published my selection of Chaucer in 1974; now it’s time for me to complete the tales.

Post a Comment