Translation: Slovenian Poet Tomaž Šalamun


Translated from the Slovenian by BRIAN HENRY


Translator’s Note

Both of the Tomaž Šalamun poems in this feature come from books published in the early 1970s: “On the border” first appeared in Amerika (1972), and “Trieste” first appeared in Arena (1973). “On the border” demonstrates Šalamun’s newfound engagement with the United States (he was a fellow at Iowa’s International Writing Program from 1971 to 1972), while “Trieste” is set in a city that Šalamun knew well since it is about ten miles from his hometown of Koper.

Formally, the poems fall into two of his primary modes: the unrhyming sonnet and the single-stanza free verse poem. They also demonstrate some of his stylistic range: “On the border” is a meditative landscape poem; “Trieste” begins at a cafe in the city but quickly moves along a stream of thought through time and space, referencing (as Šalamun’s poems often do) both famous and obscure figures, asking questions, and ending with a surrealistic flourish. The poem is less about the city per se than about the chain of associations that it creates in the poet’s mind.

My approach to translating Šalamun’s poetry is to be as accurate and literal as possible, while also working to build a sonic scaffolding that acknowledges the musical aspects of the original. As a poet myself, I view sound as of equal importance to meaning, which is especially important for Šalamun poems that carry an unsettling or spell-like music. Because Šalamun’s work can be baffling even to native Slovenian speakers, I try to resist the urge to over-interpret or clarify what is ambiguous in the original: Keats’ notion of negative capability can guide translations, too.

—Brian Henry



Na meji med Pennsylvanio in Ohiom
je nebo višje, zemlja bolj vzravnana,
žito ubito se vrača kot čudež,
kot mah in sneg, kot tišina.

Narava, beseda, ki se topi v ustih
kot medenjaki, dolgo vkovana v mrak,
se taja pri koreninah. Nezaupljiva polja,
neme gladine, še vedno ponujajo odsev,

krijejo z mrtvo barvo telo, da jih ne
ranijo hitri, brezbrižni pogledi opazovalcev.
Mlado, ranljivo tkivo je radodarno samo

prijateljem, pobožno ustrezajočim novemu
ravnotežju stvarstva, nežnim dotikom ljubezni,
svetlim poljubom lahnim kot dih.


On the border between Pennsylvania and Ohio
the sky is higher, the land flatter,
the murdered grain returns like a miracle,
like moss and snow, like silence.

Nature, the word, melts in the mouth
like honey cakes long forged in the dark,
thaws at the roots. Suspicious fields,
silent surfaces, still offer a reflection,

cover the body with a dead color so they’re not
hurt by the quick, indifferent looks of sightseers.
Young, vulnerable tissue is generous only

to friends, devoutly serving the new
balance of the world, the gentle touch of love,
bright kisses light as breath.




Okna kavarne, ko stopim z leve strani,
so odprta na ribiško barko. Trst je prah.
Nobenega vonja po Italu Svevu in Joyceu
ni več, sorodniki so se razpustili,
izgubili denar. Njihovi kovčki, srebro,
so pri Sotheby’s, njihove ladje, tako
slabo zavarovane, da se bo vnuku vnukov
mojih sinov Lloyd prikazoval kot pes.
Da sivim tu mehek ob Sekito, sošolki
Joan, ki z njo ne morem več tekmovati?
Da trgam marjetice in potujem za energijo.
Da prisluhnemo koži, obrazom ljudi
in se potem odločimo za to, kar je
rekla Georgia: West!
Namenoma? Ker je vedela, da ljubimci
ne morejo zapustiti velikih mest
in da nam bo zrak na deželi koristil?
Ker smo se bali, da nam je raztrgalo
celice ob potresu?
In iz te rane rasejo rože. Magnet,
ki se sreča z magnetom in nežen
kot jagnje plava za zvezdo repatico.



The cafe windows, when I step to the left,
open onto a fishing boat. Trieste is dust.
There’s no scent of Italo Svevo and Joyce
anymore, the relatives scattered,
lost money. Their suitcases, silver,
are at Sotheby’s, their ships so
poorly protected that the grandson of the grandsons
of my son Lloyd will be displayed like a dog.
To go gray and soft beside Sekito, a classmate
of Joan’s who can no longer compete with her?
To pick daisies and travel for energy.
To listen to the skin, the faces of people
and then decide on what
Georgia said: West!
Intentionally? Because she knew that lovers
couldn’t leave big cities
and that air in the countryside will help us?
Because we were afraid that our cells would be
torn apart by an earthquake?
And from this wound, flowers grow. A magnet
that encounters a magnet and gentle
as a lamb swims toward a shooting star.


Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014) published more than 55 books of poetry in his native Slovenian. Translated into over 25 languages, his poetry received numerous awards, including the Jenko Prize, the Prešeren Prize, the European Prize for Poetry, and the Mladost Prize. He served for several years as the Cultural Attaché for the Slovenian Embassy in New York, and he held visiting professorships at various universities in the U.S.

Brian Henry is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Permanent State. He has translated Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers, and five books by Aleš Šteger. His work has received numerous honors, including two NEA fellowships, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship, and the Best Translated Book Award. He is editing and translating a volume of Selected Poems by Šalamun.

Translation: Slovenian Poet Tomaž Šalamun

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