By **Erica Wright**
Translating really is a thankless job. If translators are working at their best, their presence is invisible. The English-language reader forgets that Pablo Neruda did not originally write, “It happens that I am tired of being a man” (tr. W. S. Merwin) or “I happen to be tired of being a man” (tr. Donald D. Walsh) or “It so happens I am sick of being a man” (tr. Robert Bly), but rather “Sucede que me canso de ser hombre.” On the flip side of this unfair coin, translators get blamed for poems that the reader does not like. I’ve heard countless Neruda fans blame the translators for poems that sound clunky in English. It’s standard book party banter (yawn) to intone, “Oh, Neruda can’t be translated.” Some of his poems may just be clunky. Try writing an ode a day, and see what happens to your rhythm.
I have been thinking about Neruda’s odes (to artichokes, suits, bees, and other everyday objects) because Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger tackles a related project in his collection Knjiga Reci (The Book of Things). These fifty poems embody, address, and reconfigure objects ranging from graters to urinals. It is a rare treat to have an English translation before the ink has dried on the original. By which I mean, a mere five years after the book’s Slovenian publication, Brian Henry has brought these poems to life for those of us not lucky enough to read Slovenian. Some of Henry’s translations are impressive for sheer acrobatics. “Mint” begins with the line “Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism,” and the work of the translator can be both seen and appreciated. The translation continues with “There the smell of mint grows out of bone, / Out of a neighbor’s thumb and a stranger’s shin.” With the off-rhyme “shin,” Henry creates a subtle music. In other poems, the fireworks conceal the inner workings. These poems end explosively as in “Bread”: “Yes, yes, he loves you, that is why he accepts your knife. / He knows that all his wounds crumble in your hands.” I am reluctant to use sex to push poetry, but these poems are downright sexy.
I had been impatiently waiting for this collection since Guernica published Šteger’s “Earring” in January of last year, and I danced a little jig when it arrived. This type of excitement is a risk because it often leads to disappointment; not so with The Book of Things. Its epigraph, taken from a Slovenian dictionary, neatly summarizes the plight of the translator: “A word does not exist for every thing.” Sometimes, though, the translator finds a way around this conundrum, and gratitude is an appropriate response.
Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica. Her “interview with John Ashbery”:https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/507/houses_at_night_1/, “Houses at Night,” appeared in Guernica’s February 2008 issue. Read her Q&A with author Amy Greene “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1969/erica_wright_q_a_with_amy_gree/.