Bookmark and Share

What is it like on both sides of the translator-poet equation?

For Andrew Zawacki, writing poetry is all about the chase. “Poets pursue their subjects for the love of the pursuit itself,” he remarks. This pursuit has led him through four chapbooks and three collections, the most recent of which is Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House). His work in translation seems to function similarly, as it involves “the rush of being in close contact with another who remains apart.” Zawacki’s reputation as a translator continues to grow with the release of Aleš Debeljak’s Without Anesthesia: New & Selected Poems. Along with fellow translators Brian Henry and Christopher Merrill, Zawacki captures Debeljak’s exuberance and precision, not to mention his use of the sublime, an artistic element all but extinct in our world of hustle and bustle. Below Zawacki talks about how Debeljak’s work resists being labeled “political” and why translation is the most intense reading one can do.

—Erica Wright

Guernica: What initially drew you to Debeljak’s work?

Andrew Zawacki: Aleš was reading at the New School with Charles Simic, and [Brian Henry and I] decided to go hear them. I remember buying Anxious Moments the day of the reading, at St. Mark’s Books. Almost immediately, that volume came to define for me not just an aesthetic but an entire range of aspirations—formal, syntactical, ideological. There was a cool veneer to the book’s interlaced series, like ice over a lake—but the poems seemed to be staged in earliest spring, so that the ice, thawing incrementally and almost invisibly, was always in danger of cracking. Much of what excited me about the poems occurred in those sudden cleavings or calvings, when emotion, or the realization of an existential aporia, would interrupt the flow, brimming from below the waterline to collapse the surface, becoming the central, often painful concern. That movement—swerve, swerve, break—felt authentic and daring.

The book also displayed a determined cosmopolitanism, as a fundamental condition of its being. Roaming from city to city, exiled by choice, the voice of the poems tracked not just the geo- and metaphysical particularities of each place but, just as importantly, the very drama of movement itself. Those poems suggested to me that poetry isn’t merely about travel—it is travel, a geographical itinerary that necessitates openness to otherness and, on the ontological plane, willingness to risk one’s so-called identity, to have it revised by constant exposure to difference.

Moreover, the cycles or suites in which Aleš’s poems organized themselves (a characteristic of his later books, as well), calling to one another lyrically and crossing the bounds of their provisional titles—rather than shaking out into “one-night stands” gathered into a grab-bag poetry “collection”—presented a model of elaboration.

Guernica: In your introduction to Without Anesthesia, you argue that, “Totalitarianism has assumed myriad guises, including that of democracy, but Debeljak has refused to let poetry cooperate.” Does that make his work political?

[Translation is] interpretation, making decisions, cutting one’s losses, and innovating compensations—and all this while attempting to disappear.

Andrew Zawacki: In part, yes, depending on what we mean by “political,” of course. Coming from a country of only two million people, who speak a language known in few places outside Slovenia and whose culture is regrettably off the map to most Europeans, Debeljak has been only a tentative apologist for globalization. He is an inveterate cosmopolite, ardent about the value of any knowledge and experience that transgresses national boundaries, linguistic limits, literary affinities, personal comfort zones. But when it comes to those structures of power that have exhibited the potential to flatten the global terrain into a unified, homogenous plane—the state, or the nation-states coAlešcing around the EU or NATO, or else the Church, hegemonic Western “soft power,” third-stage capitalism tout court—, he’s not always so enthusiastic. This may make Debeljak’s work “political,” though I would say more broadly that it reveals him to be an appropriately skeptical, alert, engaged human being, period.

It seems to me that being a Slovenian writer more or less demands that one be “political” in this sense. A writer working within a ’minor literature’ must be aware of the conditions under which she works. Simply put, she has more to lose, and she may well lose it precisely by appearing to “gain” in American eyes. For all Debeljak’s muscular embracing of translation, he ought also to be considered in terms of what Nathaniel Tarn has labeled “Antitranslation.” There’s an important vector to Debeljak’s thought and practice that entails, as Tarn puts it, the warning “don’t tread on me,” an imperative to not be “translated” into the categories of Marxism or Coca-Cola economics, say, or some Benetton brand of unity or any other -ism endemic to anywhere other than Slovenia.

On the most obvious level of “politics,” where the content, stance, or argumentative style of the writing is pitched toward responding to actual events, I believe Debeljak has been pretty clear: emerging in the 80s, his generation determined that it would not have its agenda set for it, at the very moment that kneejerk aesthetics of overt resistance and card-carrying “engaged” art was indeed setting artistic agendas. The sense of refusing to write a poésie engagée because it requires the outright refusal of existing social and political paradigms—that’s something dear to Debeljak, too. Not to mention his unwillingness to be a pawn in that old American vetting game—reinvigorated as a marketing ploy, of course—of elevating “dissident” writers who spent time in prison for their recalcitrant beliefs and so on.

Guernica: You also mention Paul Celan’s characterization of a poem as “always en route.” You then elaborate by saying that a poem “keeps advancing and never quite arrives; needless to say, it doesn’t stay.” Does this explain why poets gravitate toward big subjects such as love and death? That poets and readers want to keep repeating the experience of getting close to understanding?

Andrew Zawacki: Plenty of poets gravitate toward subjects quite distinct from love or death and wouldn’t identify as metaphysical in any sense; they might well be reluctant to conceive the targets of their inquiry as “big,” regardless of the social, political, or personal import of what drives them. What I am willing to say is that Debeljak ineluctably takes the long view, sometimes even a Romantically long view, where love and death and especially history and what he refers to as “the tribe” find their appointed places. Among his many gifts is a knack—an urgency, really—for beginning with the local, the interpersonal, the identifiable scenario, and working outward from there, to think aloud about the broader implications and import of those initial scenes.

One way or another, René Char’s definition of poetry, as the realized desire of a love that keeps desiring, probably applies to most people who write: each poem, however fully it seems to accomplish, for the moment, the impulse that has spurred it, gives way to a fundamental dissatisfaction—or perhaps to an enthusiasm to take up the problem again, under different auspices. Or to move along to another problem altogether. Depending on one’s temperament, this can be an agonizing or else an ebullient movement. Whatever readers may want from poetry—and “understanding” may be a viable aspiration, though it’s not always appropriate—poets pursue their subjects for the love of the pursuit itself and maybe also for the, as you say, intoxication of drawing closer. When my daughter hears me recite a nonsense ditty, especially if it’s silly and I ham it up, it’s clear when she wants me to keep doing it—but she isn’t worried about understanding anything! Her motto, if my name were Sam, would be, “Play it again, Sam.” Poems that resist the intelligence successfully probably don’t keep their readers enthralled for very long; they don’t warrant coming back to. (Those same poems won’t hold the attention of their writers for long, either.) At the same time, though, poems that don’t resist the intelligence at all—and here, if we were honest but not very kind, we could insert a laundry list of titles—certainly don’t keep this reader’s attention for any longer than it takes to read them once, if that.

Guernica: I just finished reading your latest chapbook, Glassscape. How does translating inform your own writing?

Andrew Zawacki: The experience of translating a foreign text—be it from the Slovenian or, as I do more often now, from the French—comes with the benefit, if you will, of an antecedent to anchor oneself to. There’s some stay against anxiety in that. Whereas writing from scratch—as if there could be any writing from scratch—the utter freefall involved in that is scary. People routinely talk about the difficulty of translation as residing in the constraints inevitably placed on the translator—limits that vary widely from language to language, from one poet’s idiolect to another, across cultural and historical contexts, too— and that seems accurate. But I find it more unnerving to write poetry: the so-called freedom to do whatever you want, begin and end where you like, the necessity of relinquishing your authority to the sinusoidal, cutting movements of the language itself—this trumps the would-be restrictions of literary translation any day, in terms of ardor.

But both translating and writing are intoxicating, as well. Beyond merely fencing ideas for my writing from the text I’m translating (I stole the title of a poetic sequence in my most recent book from Debeljak), and beyond the important pragmatic function, translation serves as a way to keep yourself in motion when your other writing is stalled. Translation puts your linguistic skills to the test—and by the insufficient word “skills” I mean your sense of music and rhythm, of timing, of your local vocabulary and sensitivity to the whole, your willingness to move aside for the thing to happen on its own. “Skills” is a stupid word: it implies mastery, when what I mean is closer to obedience. In any event, the process of translating has you in that zone where language matters unto itself, in a way that it simply can’t in everyday life, where we need it to do its job without having to reflect on that job or the way it does it. Hanging out in that zone—where you’re never at home and learn, instead, to come to terms with that very estrangement, to embrace that alienation—means you’re already in a posture to hear the next poem as it comes into earshot. Translation cuts through the utility that our language is forced to be so much of the time, and in doing that it’s clearing the way for poetry, too. I can’t count the number of occasions I’ve been translating and suddenly jumped from that file to a blank page.

Guernica: A book of your poetry, Georgia, has been translated into French. What was it like to be on the other side of the translator-poet equation?

Andrew Zawacki: Working on Georgia with Sika Fakambi was really enjoyable and challenging. We sat side by side, at her sunny house in Fresnes, over many days and many drafts, hashing out lines and ideas and sonic analogs, though the book is entirely hers. So much so, in fact, that several of her solutions to my ambiguous or ambivalent English actually ended up backdrafting into the “original” poem. (This is one of the great benefits of having a poem translated before it’s set in ink and glue.) The version of “Georgia” that was eventually published in Petals of Zero Petals of One is indebted to its translation. Which is to say, Sika is one of the poem’s co-authors—and I say “one of,” because all poems are authored by many voices; but she played a quite explicit role in the genesis—genesis as revision—of “Georgia.”

I believe strongly in this type of friendship. Whether I’m translating or the one whose poems are being translated, the effect, as far as friendship goes, the rush of being in close contact with another who remains apart, is pretty similar. I suppose I prefer being translated over translating—not because it’s easier, or because it focuses on me, but for inverse reasons: it saves me from needing to assume a position of authority and puts me, instead, in the more vulnerable spot. It means my texts are the ones that risk being damaged, as opposed to the certainty of my doing harm to others’ work.

A last thing: as everyone who’s ever translated knows, translating is the most intense reading you can do. It means trying to inhabit a text better than it lives in itself; it’s interpretation, making decisions, cutting one’s losses and innovating compensations—and all this while attempting to disappear. So to be translated is humbling, because it means someone, somewhere, is showing your work the highest respect it could possibly receive: carrying it across.

Andrew Zawacki is the author of the poetry books Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House), Anabranch (Wesleyan), and By Reason of Breakings (Georgia). Recent chapbooks include Lumièrethèque (Blue Hour), Glassscape (Projective Industries), Roche limit (tir aux pigeons), and Bartleby’s Waste-book (PS). Coeditor of Verse magazine, The Verse Book of Interviews (Verse), and Gustaf Sobin’s Collected Poems (Talisman House), he also edited Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 (White Pine). His translation of French poet Sébastien Smirou, My Lorenzo, is due from Burning Deck.

Erica Wright is the Poetry Editor at Guernica.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.