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Interview with Writer and Translator Ana Jelnikar

Q1. What is your philosophy regarding translation? What are some of the major issues you face when you translate a poem?

Translation for me has always been a thing of practice rather than theory, so to say that I had a ‘philosophy’ of translation would be overstating it, but certainly over a decade and more of translating primarily poetry from Slovene into English, I have not only acquired the more ‘technical’ know-how in terms of skills, but also developed something of an understanding of the process of translating. It is an odd business, really, to be writing something that’s already been written by someone else. But if you love literature and you are as intimidated by the empty page or screen as I (still) am — and you happen to be competent in more than one language and know something of the literature tradition and culture of the target language — then you are in a good place to be a translator.

For me, translating literature is the closest I have managed to come to being a creative writer. This is not to diminish the role of translators or see them as simply failed or wannabe writers (after all many translators are indeed themselves writers); it is rather to stress the specific nature of creativity involved in translation, which combines both the skills of being a sensitive reader and then also a responsible (co-)writer. Sometimes one might even be required to understand things the author him or herself may not have understood. Without an understanding of what you are translating, it is impossible to do it, and yet how we understand things is contingent on any number of factors, both personal and cultural. Hence, there is no perfect or finished translation. Translation is a hugely responsible undertaking, even humbling, I would say. It involves a measure of selflessness and a willingness to project yourself into the literary world of another author, possibly era, cultural context, bringing something of the difference and peculiarity across into the target language as well as the literary tradition that is being enriched through translation. So you try not to impose your understanding of the world onto the original, but rather to make it possible for a work of literature coming from elsewhere to speak on its own terms, albeit in a different language. There is little point in translating Tagore into English if he is going to read like Keats or Shelley, or conversely Shakespeare into Sanskrit, if he is going to be another Kalidasa, unless, for extraneous reasons, one wants to convey that we too have our ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Tagore’. But those reasons, I am not in too much sympathy with.

At the heart of translation practice (and theory) there is always the question of whom to leave undisturbed: the author or the reader. Do we bring the reader closer to the source text or bring the source text closer to the reader? To domesticate or to foreignize? This need not always be an either-or position; one can resort to both strategies with the aim of staying as close as possible to the content and form of the source text, but without doing too much violence to the inherent logic and sensibility of the target language. For sure, your responsibilities as translator are Janus-faced; looking back at the original and looking forward at the translated text, which is also an original but in another language. To speak about fidelity or faithfulness to the original as the linchpin on which to hang a good translation is in fact to see only half the picture, not least because the dichotomy between the original and its (translated) copy collapses the minute we recognize that a translation is inevitably an outcome of the sensibilities of at least two writers. There is nothing neat and pure and uncomplicated about translation. On the issue of fidelity and the various responsibilities and allegiances, it therefore makes more sense to speak about bigamy (as theorist have done), or even polygamy.


Q2. What do you aim for when you set about translating a poem?

A new poem in a new language that holds as many of the equivalent features in terms of meaning, form and sound as does the poem in the source language. And since languages can be so different, and even the same words can carry different meanings and connotations in different cultural settings; this is often a juggling act that requires many carefully-weighed choices. A direct literal can only make a mockery of the poem. Accuracy, a noble aim in translation, does not lie in a word-to-word rendering. For the most part you are not translating words per se, but what lies behind them, searching as precisely as you can for the cognitive and emotional equivalents in the target language, which could involve the same word, but more often than not requires you to find a substitute phrase or an image to capture what you have come to understand as the intended meaning. It is indeed a subjective process and getting the tone and the mood right is probably the most challenging part of translating poetry and the point at which a translated poem either holds up or falls. W. B. Yeats has stated, somewhat radically, that art has no content but mood, and that this mood is suspended between fluidity and solidity. The same could be said of translation; at once very concrete and yet elusive. Not wanting to mystify the process, in translation you do strive for the invisible as much as the visible; and it is precisely this that makes it such a creative and rewarding an undertaking.  And of course, there is also the vexed question of form: of rhyme and scansion, which presents a major issue in translation, and which I do not as yet have a clear answer to.


Q3. What do you find to be the most difficult kinds of poems to translate and why?

Generally speaking, the most difficult poems to translate are the ones which adhere to a tight rhyme and rhythmical scheme so that much of the poetry resides in the intricate complex of meaning and sound. There are also those ‘difficult’ poems that are culturally so specific and structurally so embedded in people’s psyches that taking them out of their home environment (and positive reception there), they are like fish out of water left gasping for air. As far as formal challenges go, with exception of those rare cases when a poem does somehow translate across the linguistic gulf in all its aspects including, for example, rhyme, the dilemma you are up against as a translator is straightforward enough: either you sacrifice the meaning and content of the poem so as to retain its formal properties, or, conversely, you hold onto the images and words at the expense of form. Still, you can try and compensate for the loss of rhyme, for instance, with other sound devices, such as alliteration, assonance, half- or near-rhymes. You can also seek out alternative forms that still convey something of the formal preoccupation of the author. In this way, you hope to preserve enough of the vibrancy and vitality of language for the poem to ‘work’ as a poem. If the translation turns out to be flat, you have of course lost the poetry.

In my experience so far, I have always opted for the compensation strategy and prioritized content over form — in an old-fashioned way, you could say the ‘spirit’ of the poem — not only because I believe that one’s attitude to form needs to be flexible, but also because going blindly after rhyme and rhythm all too often turns the translation into a demonstration of the translator’s mastery of vocabulary and ability to scan, rather than a real poem. Jonas Zdanys, one of the leading translators of Lithuanian poetry into English, captures my sentiments when, decades ago, he wrote that too rigid a concern with formal patterns, “with the skin of the poem”, as he put it, often ends up in poems that are “as beautiful as stuffed birds perched on ledges in forgotten display cases”. You want the translated poem to be as exciting and engaging as the original, and to achieve that can in fact require more skill and imaginative daring than simply getting the rhyme right. It is indeed a tall order to successfully translate, let’s say, France Prešeren, Slovenia’s foremost romantic poet, but several attempts have been made and some, such as the renderings of Alasdair Mackinnon, who for the most part managed to preserve also the formal properties, have done an enviable job.

So, to answer your question, the most difficult poems that I have found myself translating were the ones which involved this type of maneuvering, where there was an inbuilt demand for imaginative transposition rather than just translation. In comparison, free-verse is easy to translate. And if you are not a poet yourself (as I am not) and also not a native speaker, then pairing up with a poet in the language you are translating into, is the only way to do it. In fact, now, as a rule, I translate only in a tandem with English and American poets, precisely because of the responsibility I feel towards both the original and the translation. But I also enjoy the process tremendously; always an intense learning experience as the co-translator and I engage in a tug-of war of sorts with me pulling one way and the co-translator pulling another, with the result hopefully straddling the middle-ground, succeeding in English and yet conveying to the readers that they are reading something from elsewhere, slightly ‘different’, ‘new’, and hopefully interesting. I almost hope that they might be a little sorry that they do not have access to the original. And so, translating with Richard Burns, for example, Svetlana Makarovič, a poet of intense expressiveness and economy of language deeply rooted in Slovenian folk-lore and motifs, I remember as being a very demanding task, not least because there are also big structural differences between Slovene and English that make a Slovene line of verse automatically shorter and more condensed in comparison to a line in English. This has huge implications for the rhythm, which some poets exploit more than others.

Of course, not all poems translate well into another language, and instead of forcing poems into a mould that does not suit them, I would rather choose to go for the ones which do translate with good effect. When Barbara Siegel Carlson and I were working on the selected poems of Srečko Kosovel, we soon realized we were going to have a much harder time translating the ‘simple’ Karst lyrics of his early verse which follows to a more traditional form, with rhyme and rhythm, where the language and imagery are deceptively simple, than translating his more ‘sophisticated’ and complex avant-garde poems, which in fact sometimes translated almost verbatim to the same effect as in the original. For the most part, however, translation involves a lot of fine-tuning, if you don’t want the translation to sound off-key. It’s an exercise in tweaking language to make it taut and resonant, and this is where I love to ‘workshop’ poems with my co-translators as opposed to translate them on my own. The results too are infinitely better this way.


Q4. As a translator what do you think is the place of Slovene poetry in the world?

This is a tricky question to answer, not because Slovene poetry or literature in general does not deserve — or have what it takes — to hold a recognizable place under the sun, but because to have ‘a place’ in the world, if coming from a small language tradition, first and foremost requires good translations (preferably into English, the lingua franca of the globalized world). Reception, good or bad, can happen only on the back of that condition being met first. I’ve often wanted to translate more of English, American and Indian English poetry into Slovene, but to try and satisfy at least a little of the perfectly understandable demand for Slovene poets to have international exposure through English translation has become something of a priority over the years in my work as a translator. And some of the responses to what has come out in the English-speaking world make me think that Slovene poetry does indeed have a place in the world. Srečko Kosovel’s work has met a terrific response both in the USA (in mine and Barbara Siegel Carlson’s translation) and the UK (in David Brook’s and Bert Pribac’s translation) where his selected poems were published not so long ago. Tomaž Šalamun is absolutely a key poet and figure for many American poets. Yes, good poetry communicates and can be transformative, regardless of where it was born and what language it was delivered in. Iztok Osojnik’s Mister Today (in my translation) seems to have also acquired a life across the English-speaking world (the book was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2005); readers simply love those poems. Aleš Šteger’s collection Book of Things (in Brian Henry’s translation) got the Best Translated Book Award in 2011. Meta Kušar’s Ljubljana (in Stephen Watt’s and mine translation) has generated some highly-commendable responses from the UK where it was published and I have high hopes now for her poetry in the States as well. If nominations, prizes and good reviews all facilitate greater exposure to new readership, it is really in the act of reading itself, in the solitary meeting between the words on the page and the mind of the reader, that the all-important event takes place. How many people across the world have been touched, moved, energized, even aided and consoled by what they have read, sensing that they are not alone — that is something we simply cannot know.  But any venture that gets more good poetry out in the open deserves to be applauded.


Q5. Can you tell us about your current project and how you view it in relation to your work as a translator?

My current project is not directly related to my work as a translator, but it is not entirely unrelated either. I have always been interested in the way languages and cultures meet, intersect and cross-pollinate. Slovene writers, or any writer for that matter, would not write the way they do, if it weren’t for the works they can read and relate to in translation. I think knowing how the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore influenced Srečko Kosovel (something I studied in depth), makes me read, understand, and ultimately also translate, Kosovel differently. My current project too turns on the interstices between India and Slovenia, but rather than looking at literary figures between these two geographic regions, I am now researching the life stories of 12 religious sisters who left Slovenia in the course of the 20th century (mainly in the 1930s) and worked and lived in India as missionaries for the most part of their lives. As much as it is an exercise in archival excavation and oral history with those who still remember them, it is also an exercise in understanding what these women brought to the table when they came to such a distant – not just geographically, also culturally – place, and even more importantly, how in turn their experiences in India changed them and their religious outlook. Some also wrote. The last Slovene woman who worked as a missionary in India and is still alive today is in fact an award-winning Gujarati writer. Her books have been translated into many languages, including English and Slovene. Her name is Marija Sreš and for close to four decades she lived and worked with tribal women in north Gujarat. Uniquely, she wrote down their stories in Gujarati, which she had studied at university, and for which she has since received a number of prizes in India and at home. To be a good translator, it is essential to understand the wider social and literary context of the writer and the work you are translating. And this is where half the joy and challenge of translating for me lies.


Note: A shortened version of this interview appears in the ebook A Bridge of Voices: Contemporary Slovene Poetry and Perspectives, edited by Barbara Siegel Carlson and Richard Jackson, Bridges Press, 2017.


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