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.

Alberto Manguel: Translating Borges

From time to time, to push a friend to read something I like in a language he doesn’t understand, I’ll try my hand at translating. Translating, after all, is a sort of extension of the act of reading, a creative sort of reading, one might say. So a few years ago, for the sake of friendship, I attempted to translate into English a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “La trama” – meaning “The Plot” or “The Web” – and barely two paragraphs long.

Borges, who died just two decades ago, far from his native Argentina, is now recognized as one of this century’s greatest writers. And yet his literature hasn’t been served well by his English translators. This is ironic since, over and over again, he’s been accused of writing English under the pretense of writing Spanish, of submitting the wild and exuberant Spanish language to the phlegmatic rigours of the English tongue.

From the very start, English versions of Borges have been plagued by two conflicting and equally deadly styles of translation. The first is a style that tries to ape the appearance of the original. This leads the English translator to choose a word because “it sounds” like the word in Spanish. Since English can draw both from its Anglo-Saxon and from its Latin roots, the mistake is made of assuming that “fatigar,” for instance, a verb Borges made his own, as in “fatigar las bibliotecas” can be translated as “to fatigue the libraries” (which sounds clinical or nonsensical) instead of translating it simply as “to exhaust the libraries” (which has the clarity of the Spanish original). “Fatigue” introduces in the text an unpleasant surprise that of course isn’t there in the original. As Borges would have said, “such surprises are inadmissible, because it’s impolite to startle the reader.”

Even at his most baroque, Borges was crystal clear. One of his most famous stories, “The Circular Ruins,” contains in Spanish the following line:

Lo cierto es que el hombre gris be so el fango, repecho la ribera sin apartar (probablemente, sin sentir) las cortaderas que le dilaceraban las Carnes y se arrastro mareado y ensangrentado, hasta el recinto circular que corona un tigre o un caballo de piedra, que tuvo alguna vez el color del fuego y ahora el de la ceniza.

Paul Bowles (to use a Borgesian word) “perpetrated” that line in this abominable Latinate style:

It is certain that the greyish man kissed the mud, repelled the bank without parting (probably without feeling) the sharp reeds that dilacerated his flesh and dragged himself, light-headed and bleeding, onto a circular room crowned by a stone tiger or horse that once had the colour of fire and now that of ashes.

“Repelling,” “parting,” “dilacerated” either carry the wrong sense or sound pedantic; they are there because Latin calls to Latin in Mr Bowles’s tin ear. Words are replaced for others with different meaning and with no visible improvement: “Greyish” for solid “grey,” “light-headed” for “faint,” “sharp reeds” for “blades,” “room” for “enclosure.”

The second style is well-meaning but almost equally deadly. It believes it can better things by adding emphasis and ignoring the cadence of the original. Take for instance one of Borges’s earliest translators, James E. Irby:

The truth is that the obscure man kissed the mud, came up the bank without pushing aside (probably without feeling) the brambles which dilacerated his flesh, and dragged himself, nauseous and bloodstained, to the circular enclosure crowned by a stone tiger or horse, which was the colour of fire and now was that of ashes.

Irby darkens Borges’s “grey” man and makes him “obscure,” “bloodstained” instead of “bloodied,” transforms the sharp tropical blades into “brambles,” and not happy with them merely “cutting” the man’s flesh, has them “dilacerate” him (as Bowles had done) or tear him to bits.

Now, speaking in broad terms, Spanish is a language that thrives on ambiguity. Its power (and its weakness) lies in its opulence; it delights in multitudes of nouns, trains of adjectives, processions of verbs, in garrulous paragraphs and roundabout sentences. In Spanish, Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness” is apparently too domestic; a notorious translation gives it as “tu lechosa humanidad,” “your milky humanity.” English, on the other hand, is austere. To go from one to the other, even without considering the problem of vernacular expressions, is like trying to turn a multitudinous Paella a la Valenciana into plain beans on toast.

The agonies of attempting such enormous metamorphoses are ancient. In the seventeenth century, Bishop Sprat vigorously condemned the paella-style writers and praised instead those who stuck to their beans. In his History of the Royal Society of London the good bishop wrote that we must not allow ourselves to be tempted by the pomp of things baroque, but choose instead to remain naturally simple,

to reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words.

But literature is not all Hemingway or Raymond Carver, as most translators from the Spanish into English find – as they try to reconstruct a text in a language that disallows that text’s very shape and substance. Attempting to render in English the baroque pastiches of the early Borges, the sophisticated “ficciones” of the middle Borges, or the vernacular eccentricities of the later Borges, a translator must invent for these texts another language, an English that can be both baroque and minimalist while at the same time subverting both the perception of the translator as slave and that of the writer as obedient servant to a bishop’s dogma. I don’t think we’ve yet succeeded.

Certainly not as far as my own efforts are concerned. My attempt to translate Borges for my patient friend failed miserably. The two paragraphs of “La trama” are deceptively brief. The first one describes in a few words the death of Julius Caesar and ends, as he recognizes among the murderers his beloved Brutus, with the pathetic cry: “You too, my son!”. The second paragraph I translated like this:

Fate enjoys repetitions, variations, symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the south of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos. As he falls, he recognizes the face of one of his godsons and says to him with mild reproach and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read): “¡Pero che!” He dies, and he doesn’t know that he’s dying in order to repeat a scene.

¡Pero che! ” is untranslatable. It is one of those local expressions whose sense depends not only on the tone and the gestures with which it is spoken, but on a childhood spent in a Buenos Aires neighbourhood, on conversations in dusky cafés and on obligatory nostalgia. In the end, I came up with a lame “Come off it!” which doesn’t even begin to do justice to the irony and melancholy contained in the “¡Pero che!”.

I don’t know if every text can be translated. Translation is the art of reimagining, in another language and through other eyes, that which a certain text appears to be saying. Translation demands from a reader not only the intelligence of a text, but the construction of another text, a different text, that will allow another reader that same intelligence. At its best, translation is the art of understanding.

I consoled myself with the thought that “¡Pero che!” existed outside literary language, that technically it wasn’t Spanish at all but merely something close to onomatopaeia, like “what?” or “eh?”. I told myself that it was as unfair to be forced to translate “¡Pero che!” into English, as it was when the Red Queen asked Alice to translate “Fiddle-de-dee” into French.

But I had forgotten that translation is also the art of chance. A few months later, I happened to be reading G.K. Chesterton’s A Short History of England – a book with which Borges was vastly familiar. Suddenly I came upon the following lines:

The British state which was found by Caesar was long believed to have been founded by Brutus. The contrast between the one very dry discovery and the other very fantastic foundation has something decidedly comic about it; as if Caesar’s “Et tu Brute” might be translated “What, you here?”

In Spanish, the perfect translation of these last words, as Borges no doubt knew, is of course, quite simply, “¡Pero che!”.

* * *

Scott Esposito: Review of The Seamstress and the Wind by Cesar Aira

New Directions
June 30, 2011
144pp; $12.95

Generalizations all but beg contradiction, but with an author as original as Cesar Aira, I feel safe making at least one: the plots of his books have a much greater sense of contingency than almost any other contemporary writer I can think of. After all, this is the author who began one plot with clones of Carlos Fuentes, got diverted through a play about Adam and Eve, and finally ended with mammoth blue worms. Such a storyline, not atypical at all for Aira, makes one feel that his books can go anywhere at any time.

Aira’s newest book in English, which is the fifth of an entire fleet of Aira that New Directions plans to release in the upcoming years, has the highest feeling of contingency yet. This starts right on the first page, as Aira blatantly states that he takes it as his right to be as whimsical as he wants: “These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: ‘The Seamstress and the Wind.’” [1] As promised, the book that eventually springs forth from this title is full of anomalies and adventures—right to the straining point.

This collection of incidents does form into a plot, although it’s an absurd one. It starts out like this: one day in rural Argentina, the child of Delia and Ramón Siffoni goes missing. He has been accidentally carried off in the huge shipping truck of a man named Chiquito, bound for the wilds of Patagonia. Delia heads off in hot pursuit, being driven by the town’s taxi driver, Zaralegui. Along the way Zaralegui collides with Chiquito’s truck, unbeknownst to the latter, who continues driving with the corpse of Zaralegui and his Chrysler attached. Delia is thrown into the air, recovers, and continues wandering in hopes of catching up to the truck. In the meantime, Ramón returns home from work, discovers his wife missing, and heads off in pursuit. A mysterious blue car follows him.

This at least makes some traditional novelistic sense. What follows does not, and includes: a conveyance named “the Paleomobile,” which is constructed in situ from an archaic armadillo shell; an apocalyptic child monster that is born when a man has sex with a pregnant woman, the fetus grabbing his member and being pulled out; Delia making friends with “the wind” (which, magic genie–like fulfills her wishes by blowing toward her whatever she wants); and numerous authorial interventions by Aira in which he muses as though he actually knew these people while growing up in his hometown of Coronel Pringles.

Some pointed remarks on the “Patagonian clouds,” which “welcome and accommodate all transformations within a single instant” [48] leads one to believe that what Aira has attempted here is a fundamentally unstable text, a book that, like clouds, retains its constituent parts but continually lets them be buffeted around by even the smallest of influences.

Aira has, of course, developed a reputation as an utterly capricious author beholden to nothing so much as his temperament, but The Seamstress and the Wind takes the cake. Rarely have I seen an author so brazenly assert his right to take the story in whatever direction he wishes at any moment. Nonetheless, Aira must have felt at least a little responsibility to the reader (or novelistic form—take your pick), as he makes a last ditch stab at tying everything together, and, I think, succeeds. Explaining precisely how this happens would rob any reader of the enjoyment of seeing Aira tap dance, but suffice to say it’s a grand—momentous even—conclusion, with the major plot threads literally intersecting. And then, a final drop of whimsy concludes this weird story as it drifts off into the moonlight.

This is the lightest of Aira’s books I’ve read—“lightest” as in feeling that everything exists strictly on the surface of the text—but throughout runs a coherent enough backbone of implication to possess a reader’s imagination. Aira seems to be attempting to dramatize an author’s relationship to the text, to make his unseen presence deform the story like a body beneath a blanket. Late in the book he addresses this rather directly:

The unspoken, like love, is a thing that occupies a place in a story. Leaving aside the distances involved, it’s like God. God can be placed in two different locations within a discourse: at the end, as Leibniz does when he says “and it is this that we call God”—which is to say, when one arrives at Him after the deduction of the world; or at the beginning: “God created . . .” They are not different theologies, they are the same, only exposed from the other side. The kind of discourse that places God at the beginning is the model and mother of what we call “fiction.” [78]

In the same way that Aira knows his fiction comes from somewhere not-quite-knowable—in the beginning of the book, he elegantly theorizes that it comes from, to paraphrase, imagination leaning on memory—everyone in The Seamstress and the Wind seems to suspect that they’re an aspect of a Cesar Aira novel. It’s just that no one can quite put their finger on the fact.

Dramatizing this search for a fiction’s ontological roots strikes me as a laudable, original goal, and Aira’s attempt at doing so is one hell of a fun, funny ride. There are more than enough madcap incident and armchair philosophizing to keep any reader busy for quite a while. On the whole, I prefer my Aira a smidgen less chaotic than this, but fecundity of invention is hardly a liability in a novelist. Seamstress is likely the least conventional of Aira’s books yet to hit our shores, another witty, flood of a fiction from the ever-creative Aira. It is more proof that, no matter how prodigious he becomes, Aira seems unable to step into the same narrative river twice.

Goran SimiĆ: To Be Exiled Writer . . . or Not to Be at All

Every time I look at myself in my Canadian mirror and think about my status as an “exiled writer,” I find some kind of comfort in the fact that every fifth citizen of planet Earth carries a passport different from his or her country of origin. It’s been thirteen years since I joined Virgil’s tribe of writers, who recognize one another by their strange English accents. We share the same unique religion, the English dictionary our exile’s Bible. Thirteen years, then, since I came to Canada, choosing physical security over writerly insecurity. Thanks to the human ability to forget recent history as quickly as last year’s snow, when I crossed the border into Canada, I knew that only through literature and memory would I be able to preserve my personal history.
Who now remembers the collapse of that European country of Yugoslavia in the last years of the last century, the country where I was born 55 years ago, a country that no longer exists on any map? How many people can recall the bloody Bosnian war (1992–1995), which took 200,000 lives before it ended in a draw, as if it had only been a bad soccer game? After the daily news – or daily horror – about Baghdad and Gaza, how many television viewers can afford to remember the three year long medieval siege of Sarajevo, which was only terminated five years before the twenty-first century knocked on our door? I was there, witnessing for three years the daily ration of death, destruction, hunger and humiliation. The day I left Sarajevo with my children, all that remained behind me were the ruins of my family house, my looted bookshop and fresh graveyards. The most precious items I carried with me were my books, published in Bosnia, of value only to me, and my precious memories. But again, with my backpack containing photographs from the happy past and my faith in a bright future, I joined the ranks of those exiled writers, was marked by the same burden as those coming from the horrors of Rwanda or Ethiopia or Burma. We have in common at least one other thing: we failed to discover a country in need of writers in the same way as there were countries in search of brick layers or railway workers. We writers are too curious and our writing is shaped to celebrate nuances instead of transparent things. And the truth is never a pleasant companion for those who believe that history starts fresh with each election. From where I sit I think every single country should open their borders to writers first – before the brick layers, railway workers. We can offer so much: a healthy opposition, a historical memory, presence, experience, the denial of intellectual borders.
I haven’t noticed much respect in Canada for my kind of profession. The first wall I bumped into was the fact that my books, published in many different languages, were worth nothing if they’d not been translated into English. At that time my English wasn’t better than a five-year-old Canadian born kid. No institutions, including the Canada Council, would finance translations from languages other than French. I escaped from war torn Bosnia, divided by national borders, only to face more division here, between and «them». I still don’t understand why the average Canadian doesn’t feel a need to introduce new immigrants by the simplest of ways: through literature immigrants grow up. The opposite is letting newcomers continue to live in Canada as if it is only rented land, encouraging them to make their own gated communities, based on the values taken from the country they came from.
It took me years to make myself visible as a writer in Canada. I didn’t – and still do not – complain. Three years under siege in Sarajevo taught me that I should consider myself lucky to see my children growing up happily in Toronto, instead of having my children visiting my grave. The fact that I survived doesn’t make me feel better when compared to those that who didn’t. I don’t consider my recent personal history filled with any more disappointment, pain and failure than that of the average Canadian who has never recovered from his cat dying. But my advantage is that literature doesn’t speak if there is no pain or recognition of that pain which flows between the lines.
While I worked for two years as a simple manual labourer in the Holt Renfrew warehouse next to the airport, I hid from my coworkers my writerly occupation. This was in part because some of them were illiterate, and partly because some of them had suffered through much bigger tragedies than my own. But on our lunch break I would go outside of the dirty warehouse to watch the landing airplanes carrying new immigrants with their fresh hope and expectations, and I imagined stories about them. It was at times painful to use to my poet-rented muscles during the day and then to transform into something else when my shift ended. On one occasion, after taking ten days leave from work, I brought my coworkers a box of Belgian chocolates, and nobody believed that I had been doing readings and signing copies of my selected poems, recently published in Holland. Later I published an article, in The Globe and Mail, criticizing the working conditions in the warehouse: that was the beginning of the end of my long journey within the manual class. Superiors and managers became suspicious about my real motives of renting my sweat for money that could barely cover my monthly expenses. I soon quit and rejoined Virgil’s tribe, as it is where I belong.
I believe that poets must be engaged witnesses of their own time, the way Bertolt Brecht or Anna Ahkamatova were (“In the dark time, will there also be singing – Yes, it will be singing about dark time,” –B. Brecht). I have nothing against the sci-fi landscapes one finds in so many novels; nothing against butterflies flitting between poetry’s lines. But my credo has always been to deal with human souls, with ordinary people and situations I see every day on my way to my desk. I witnessed the horror of war; I’ve seen the sorrow of immigrants. All of it has become deeply tattooed in my poetry. If some future reader between my lines recognizes the nuances of the time in which I’ve lived, and if the beauty of poetry makes him think and love, I will consider my writing mission accomplished. But I am still far from this point.