“Ancient Modern Racetracks: An Interview with Translator Dan Rosenberg on Miklavž Komelj’s Hippodrome,” Conducted by Zach Savich

The title poem of Slovenian poet Miklavž Komelj’s Hippodrome begins, in the recent translation by Boris Gregoric and Dan Rosenberg published by Zephyr Press, with a racetrack that has seen hard use: “The fence planks are all chewed up, / the grounds pitted with uneasy footprints.” The next stanza connects this wear and tear to “a forgotten three-hundred-year-old manuscript,” showing how swiftly Komelj can move between past and present, text and world. This movement—between allusion and observation, narrative and notation, reference and retort—is central to the collection, which includes an astonishing variety of modes and tones. I corresponded with Rosenberg about the challenges of translating such rich work and about the process of “learing Komelj” in tandem with studying Slovene. He discusses the collaborative aspects of translating a living poet and how Komelj’s poetry offers “a different kind of history, thrilling and tragic and epic in scope.”

Zach Savich: In your introduction to Hippodrome, you mention that “building literal translations of these poems was a part of how Boris”—that’s Boris Gregoric, your co-translator—“taught me to read Slovene.” So, these poems were integral to your early experiences of the language: rather than first mastering basic phrases, you were considering lines like “The angels tear into the chest of their Prophet / and rub snow into his heart / with the giddiness of children.” Could you describe these experiences more, of working with Boris, simultaneously coming to Slovene and Komelj? Were you planning to translate poetry when you started studying Slovene?

Dan Rosenberg: The University of Iowa has this amazing program called ALLNet: Autonomous Language Learning Network. Basically, if you’re a UIowa student and you want to learn a language they don’t teach, they’ll hire someone to tutor you. I wanted to learn Slovene because of Tomaž Šalamun, whose poems I’ve always loved. I usually place a high premium on understanding things, and with Tomaž, I can’t (He will always be present tense for me) understand most of what he is doing, but I love it anyway, and that mysterious fact amplifies my love.

Also, when I can’t write anything worthwhile, he’s the poet I turn to to snap me awake again.

Which is to say, yes, Boris and I got together originally to teach me Slovene, which started in more conventional language-learning ways, but eventually followed our shared interest in literature. Boris is an experimental fiction writer, so when we were looking for more advanced texts to work on in our tutorials, we both naturally gravitated toward sentences that had joy and wonder in them. Which may not be the best way to learn how to ask where the library is, but it kept us passionate.

We turned to Komelj specifically, after having tried our hands on several other pieces of poetry and prose, because Tomaž sent me the book. This may be why my Slovene isn’t as good as it should be. My energy diverted to learning Komelj. I remember quite late in the revision process, I still wasn’t happy with the end of the untitled poem that begins, “the time before the world.” The phrase “morskih deklic” literally means something like “maritime girls,” and Boris and I had landed on “seaside girls.” But something rang wrong in my ear about that—it’s too vague, too uninterrogated for Komelj, who had fought us to keep a personally significant misspelling and corrected me on the species of various birds. This is a poet who sent me deep into the stacks of two university libraries tracking down everything from Ancient Greek to Robespierre to Brecht. A poet who, regarding the lines you quoted in your question, started by puzzling and troubling me and ended up teaching me about a famous hadith. At this time, he didn’t use email, so he’d mail me these reams of paper filled with corrections and explanations every time I mailed him a draft of some poems. Our version may have been fine Slovene, but it wasn’t sharp and precise enough to be Komelj, and even though I could talk with both Boris and the poet himself, it ultimately fell to me, the native English speaker, to figure out why.

I stared at that stanza for a while before realizing that it had to be “mermaids.” That word resonated all the way back through the poem’s various breaches of the divide between people and animals. It resonated back to the first line’s evocation of the time before the Word, when all such divides had yet to be invented: “the time before the world.” So the ending could become, “the terrible wish of those beings / between species— / and the white hair of mermaids, / painfully shorn.” Yes. Then I looked it up to see if that’s a viable translation of the phrase or just something I wanted for the poem, and it was. Then Miklavž confirmed that he’d indeed had mermaids in mind.

And that’s the sequence, the hierarchy of my loyalty as a translator: The poem, the dictionary, the poet.

ZS: That process—of moving among types of expertise and intuition—seems like it must have been especially intricate for Hippodrome: in addition to its idiosyncratic allusions and phrasing, the book has poems in many forms and styles (including a compact sestina, an anagrammatic poem, pieces in persona, even a translation of a translation). You’ve also studied translation theory—more seriously, I believe, after you had begun this translation. How did that influence your process?

DR: I started working on Hippodrome with at best an intuitive grasp of the complexities of the task, having only studied issues of translation for one semester at Iowa. But during the process of working on the book, I earned a PhD with translation theory as the subject of one of my comprehensive exams. By the time the book was published, I had begun regularly teaching a course on the subject at Wells College.

One of our first activities in that course is to look at a dozen or so versions of Catullus’s famous Carmen 85. The students all argue about which versions are the “best.” This past semester, one of my students defended her favorite (a more modern version) by saying that it didn’t have to be technically faithful to the original because so many of the older ones were, and this gave her favorite version the freedom to be weirder. Undergirding that notion is the idea that translations can lean on each other, that they should be read together. Translating something into English for the 50th time allows the translators to make louder decisions than translating the same text into English for the 1st time. (Undergirding that notion is the idea that readers have infinite time and access to translations, which raises the socio-economic concerns that Douglas Robinson voices so compellingly in What Is Translation? —a must-read for anyone interested in these issues.)

Hippodrome is Komelj’s first book in English. The obligations I felt at the beginning of our process—when the translation work was about learning the language, not writing new poems in English—only grew stronger the more I learned about the theories of translation: Of the three voices in this collection, Boris and I agreed, Komelj’s had to be the most audible. That decision is perhaps most visible in our rendering of “Netopir noče molčati”—“The Bat Won’t Shut Its Trap.” To write this anagrammatic poem, Komelj took his title phrase, repeated it eight times, and used all and only those letters. This background would have been largely invisible to a Slovene reader (unless they saw the epigraph, for Unica Zürn, a German writer and artist known for her anagrammatic poems, and made the connection), but it created a poem that was tonally distinct from the rest of the book. It would have been fun to write an anagrammatic poem based on our translated title, but my voice would have overshadowed Komelj’s. What we wanted to preserve was Komelj’s solution to the problem he gave himself, even if that meant obscuring the problem itself.

Our solutions were less decisive when it came to translating work from his book that Komelj himself had translated into Slovene from other languages. Where do you even begin? Komelj offers his version of Seneca, and then what’s my job? To give my own version of Seneca, assuming that its place in the larger manuscript is what’s important? (Let’s not talk about how I can’t read Latin.) To translate Komelj’s translation, thus representing what Komelj had done in his book but ascribing to Seneca something even further removed from what he actually wrote? We all know what happens when you take a phrase and bounce it between languages in Google Translate. I spent a lot of time on the floor in the UGA library stacks looking at other versions of Seneca and thinking about it. Walter Benjamin says that translations are untranslatable because meaning attaches to them too loosely. I never really understood what he meant until I tried to translate Komelj’s translation and found myself stymied at the start: if my loyalty is to the poem first, but the poem at hand is a reflection of another text, from another language, bouncing off the mirror of Slovene, what exactly was I supposed to be loyal to?

In a lovely little essay called “In Praise of Error,” Cole Swensen says that “translation is walking of a certain sort, the sort that wanders, meanders; it must take an uncharted course. Original writing carves out a path, which its translation must take, but it must take it without following it; it must take it as though it were raw territory.” I tried to take a path that was itself a path taken but not followed—and let Komelj, himself comfortable with all three languages involved, be my guide. And my judge.

ZS: Your judge?

DR: Oh yes, Komelj maintained a strong sense of authorship and ownership throughout the translation process. He was not shy about offering corrections, suggestions, and etymologies. And sometimes watercolor illustrations, particularly of birds, which crop up throughout the book.

Translating a living author, particularly one with fairly good English, offers a safety net (he signed off on these translations!) and a mess of complications (I had to get him to sign off on these translations!). At times Komelj would insist on changes that were, to my ear, detrimental to the poems, and we went back and forth on them many times. Ultimately, he usually came to trust what I was saying about the translation’s function as a poem in English—but only after he was satisfied that my decisions were informed by a deep understanding of the original.

And sometimes he would insist that an awkward moment in English stay awkward, to reflect his idiosyncratic use of Slovene. In those moments, I was reminded of Susan Sontag’s complaint about her French translators: “I have often been told by my French publishers, when I pointed out flagrant inaccuracies in a translation of one of my books, ‘Yes, true…but it reads very well in French.’” I had no interest in domesticating Komelj in this way, so once we were both satisfied that the strained nature of the English reflected something legible in the Slovene, something of how Komelj’s Slovene is distinctive, we were satisfied. And it was important to me, throughout the process, that he feel happy with what we were doing, with how his work would be introduced to an Anglophone audience. In that sense, Komelj the man joined Komelj the poet as a constant figure hovering on the edge of my consciousness as I translated—two distinct but connected constituencies I felt I had to satisfy with this work.

ZS: Could you describe a poem from Hippodrome that might give readers a sense of Komelj’s “distinctive” language? What about his writing do you think is most relevant for US readers?

DR: Here’s an untitled poem from early in the collection:

I picture the world as sutures, as wounds knitting.
As skull bones knitting together.
You are born into the world without a world,
with all the layers of a world
that isn’t there. No impassibility.
No walking? No impassibility.

How can you bear
your distant past being closer
than the most recent moment?
Our distant past doesn’t reach back
as far as your most recent moment.

(With all that, a glance at the tenements
becomes a performance of some thrilling antiquity,
as full and fast as ancient temples,
and surrounds it with the thrill of peoples rising and falling.)

I started to work on Hippodrome before I became a father, and my son is three now. When I first encountered this poem, I didn’t really understand the collapse of time. Komelj wrote it around the birth of his daughter, who he addresses in the second stanza. Even for people like Komelj, who spend their days in the stratospheres of their own intellect (notice the comfort with abstraction in that second stanza, the comfort with repetition in service of an existential inquiry), the first-person plural changes once you have a kid. As does your sense of time, your own history, what constitutes rest and respite.

Now I think I do understand what he means when he says to her, “You are born into the world without a world, / with all the layers of a world,” but I could never have articulated it this way myself. For Komelj, precision requires using just the right word, and not retreating from the realm of forms into the physical world: “No impassibility. / No walking? No impassibility.” This flies in the face of “no ideas but in things” and the countless other American insistences on novelty—insistences that I generally embrace, by the way, but more cautiously for having worked with Komelj. So I can appreciate the ending of this poem, even though I would never have conceived of ending it as he does, with a parenthetical, looking out from his daughter to the tenements nearby, and projecting onto them a “performance” of a different kind of history, thrilling and tragic and epic in scope.

It would be simple to ally Komelj with the countless poets from Central and Eastern Europe whose personal and political consciousnesses are intertwined in a way that has (until very recently at least) not been available here in the US. He does write from a long history, from atop a taproot that simply goes deeper into the ground than an American poet’s can. William Carlos Williams, in In the American Grain, celebrated Daniel Boone’s “ecstasy of complete possession of the new country” as distinctly American—and it is. This lie we tell ourselves—that existence is tameable, that the world can be owned—is incoherent when you come from a culture that sees its own history. Komelj holds a much darker view, derived from personal and historical experience, and it’s one we may have been primed to see from other writers of the region.

But one of the things that distinguishes Komelj is that his relationship to history is both central to his book and impossible to translate into English: Does the title, hipodrom, refer to a modern racetrack or the arenas of the ancient world? Both, because ancient history and modern life are contiguous. Throughout the book, Komelj sees history carved into the faces around him, into the trash piles, the shared stories, his grandmother’s words, the brief flights of birds and bugs, and yes, of course, the land. Here’s the penultimate poem in Hippodrome, in its entirety: “persecuted hills.”
Zach Savich is an associate editor at Tupelo Quarterly. His most recent books are the poetry collection Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018) and the memoir Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue, 2016).