I wonder if this is true for others: the first book I read by a non-English-language poet often remains my favorite, even if the book is not his or her most popular, most acclaimed, or most widely available. This is true for me with Yannis Ritsos, whose work I first encountered in Late Into the Night, published by Oberlin College Press and translated by Martin McKinsey, not Edmund Keeley / Princeton UP / Ecco. And with Paul Celan, whom I first read in Breathturn, published by Sun & Moon and translated by Pierre Joris, not Michael Hamburger / John Felstiner / Persea / Norton. I bought these books because I was in the habit then of buying every book published by Sun & Moon and Oberlin College Press that I could find, and didn’t feel any need to locate “the best” translation, though I naturally moved onto other translations.
I was thinking about this after a conversation with Ilya Kaminsky about the Slovenian poet Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981), whose poems I first read in a 1995 special issue of Slovenian Literary Magazine (Litterae Slovenicae) that I found at the Slovenian Writers’ Union in Ljubljana. Translated by Michael Biggins, the Kocbek was published by the Slovene Writers’ Association, Slovene PEN, and Slovene Literary Translators. The book is black with orange, gray, and white text on the front cover and gray dots on the front and back covers. Kocbek’s headshot in the upper lefthand corner of the cover is counterbalanced on the right by an orange rectangle with “L.S.” in capitals. I’m dwelling so much on the cover of the book because it’s the first thing my mind “sees” when I think about Kocbek.
While talking with Ilya, I realized that we had slightly different conceptions of Kocbek’s work because we were talking about different translations. I’d responded viscerally to Biggins’ Kocbek, who immediately became one of my favorite poets. But most people reading Kocbek in English will encounter him in Princeton UP’s 2004 edition of Nothing Is Lost: Selected Poems, translated by Michael Scammell, who has translated numerous books from the Russian, and the Slovenian poet Veno Taufer.
The Princeton Kocbek is an impressive tome with an authoritative air. Over 170 pages long, with clear divisions according to Kocbek’s individual books and the Slovenian originals en face, a 12-page introduction by Scammell, and a 3-page foreword by Charles Simic, the book seems definitive. And because it was published by a major university press, the Princeton Kocbek is likely to be the Kocbek book stocked by libraries and bookstores.
Biggins’ Kocbek, on the other hand, feels much slimmer than the Princeton book, in part because of the difference in design, but also because Biggins’ Kocbek offers only English translations, most likely because the book’s primary audience—those living in or visiting Slovenia—have easy access to the originals. The book includes an 8-page introduction by prominent Slovenian poet and essayist Aleš Debeljak; but there is no arrangement or division by individual books, so the reader is simply presented with 80+ pages of poems in English, one after the other (which is actually more than in the Princeton book). A lot of my favorite poems from the Biggins aren’t in the Princeton edition, which means that the Princeton edition contains some gems that aren’t in the Biggins. Still, it’s hard to imagine an edition of Kocbek without “Lesser Psalm,” “Slovene Hymn,” “Occurrence,” “Song About Men,” and “In Absentia,” which don’t appear in the Princeton book. Here’s the second stanza of “In Absentia”:
Real snow falls only once,
all other winters are an imitation.
Only once do we hear the annunciation,
after that just the tolling of bells.
Every thing is a gift only once,
and then becomes a collector’s item.
[trans. by Michael Biggins]
Kocbek’s poems often come from an “I,” but their intimacy is complicated by a larger perspective and historical sense. As Simic notes in his foreword, “Kocbek started out as a pastoral poet … and then history rumbled through his beloved landscape.” For me, the poems (in English) are more effective when they’re a bit rough around the edges. Control is an illusion.
Although Scammell’s and Taufer’s translations are taut, careful, and generally fluid, the L.S. Kocbek is the book I always return to when I want to read Kocbek. This is probably because the translations feel less polished, more like talking and less like refined speech.
To investigate this preference, I compared a few of the translations side by side, and I was a little surprised to find myself preferring half the decisions made by Biggins and half the decisions made by Scammell and Taufer. It’s not like the Biggins translations are clearly stronger.
Here’s an example, one of my favorite phrases by Kocbek (“in grenko prst bi si metal v usta”):
Biggins: “I could stuff bitter earth in my mouth…”
Scammell/Taufer: “I could stuff my mouth with bitter soil…”
For me, the Biggins is stronger because of the order of the words (the Scammell/Taufer delays the information about what’s being stuffed into the mouth, where the Biggins gives that info when it needs to be given) and because “bitter earth” is really poignant to me, more so than “bitter soil,” which sounds too technical somehow. There’s also the “er” sound that ends “bitter” and begins “earth,” which produces an effect simultaneously calming and sad.
Another example (“Oddivjal sem na goro / in si odpel tesnobo”), from “Grace” (“Milost”):
Biggins: “I raced up to the mountains / and unhitched my fear...”
Scammell/Taufer: “I stormed to the mountain / and unbuttoned my anguish…”
The Scammell/Taufer sounds better in English—more lyrical and taut—but “stormed” sounds too military and “unbuttoned” sounds too corporate for the poem. “[U]nhitched” has a naturalistic or rural/farmlike tenor, which is appropriate, I think. But I wonder if “raced” should be “raged.” In any case, I react emotionally to the Biggins lines and intellectually to the Scammell/Taufer lines.
Kocbek’s poem “Hands,” as translated by Biggins, knocked me out when I first read it. The Scammell/Taufer translation is, for the most part, leaner, but doesn’t work on me the same way, partly because of a choice in the second line of the poem. In Biggins’ translation, the poet’s hands are “two thieves” that he lives “among”; in Scammell/Taufer’s translation, the hands become “two brigands,” which seems to distance the poem (though Scammell/Taufer use the correct preposition “between”). When I think of my hands as thieves, I feel a little frightened; when I think of them as brigands, I feel sophisticated. The other moment where I respond more forcefully to the Biggins translation is at the beginning of the second (and final) stanza:
Today, as I was running from death,
falling and getting up, and falling,
dragging myself through thorns and over rocks,
both of my hands were equally bloody.
These lines in the Scammell/Taufer translation are tighter, each line 2-3 syllables shorter than in Biggins:
Today as I ran from death
and fell and rose and fell
and crawled among thorns and rocks
my hands were equally bloody.
From the perspective of craft, the Scammell/Taufer version is superior. Biggins probably doesn’t need “both of” before “hands” because we know there are two, and his lines aren’t as fluid as Scammell/Taufer’s. But Biggins’ “falling and getting up, and falling” sounds closer to the original—“in padal in vstajal in padal”—than the string of monosyllables “and fell and rose and fell.” And I wouldn’t trade Biggins’ “dragging myself through thorns and over rocks” for anything. “[C]rawled among thorns and rocks” just doesn’t carry the same jolt; the image and action don’t seem as horrifying. Babies crawl, dying animals (and dying people) drag themselves.
The ending of both versions is strong, but I slightly prefer the Biggins:
Belief and disbelief became a single flame
which shot up hot and high.
Those lines in the Scammell/Taufer translation:
Faith and unfaith burned with a single flame,
ascending hotly on high.
I prefer “unfaith” to “disbelief,” but I like how Biggins makes “belief” and “disbelief” become “a single flame,” which seems more elemental than “faith” and “unfaith” burning “with a single flame.” And “shot up hot and high” is more powerful than “ascending hotly on high,” which reminds me of Hopkins, whom Kocbek probably read (Hopkins’ poems became more widely available in 1918, when Kocbek was 14, and “Hands” first appeared in a book in 1963). This is fine, but I don’t really want to be thinking about Hopkins at this point in the poem.
I didn’t originally set out to compare translations of Kocbek, but wanted to figure out why I responded so differently to his two books in English. These differences between the books aren’t problems—or, if they are, they’re productive and welcome problems. The more versions of Kocbek’s poetry there are in English, the more likely readers are to find his work. If you’re in Ljubljana and are interested in Kocbek, try to find a copy of the L.S. edition of his work.
I realize that I might be giving the Princeton edition of Kocbek short shrift when it’s actually an essential book. It includes many poems that I hadn’t seen before but now adore, such as “Rain”: “The hollow drum drums / rain falls the whole night long / the hollow drum drums / fate knuckles its old song...” The original poem rhymes ABABAB for 16 lines, and although Scammell and Taufer abandon the B rhymes halfway through the poem, they have done an excellent job making it sing.
Kocbek’s “What Happens to the Mountain” (“Kaj je z goro”) is something of a grammar exercise. Each line begins and ends with “mountain” (“gora”), with different tenses in the middle. The notorious difficulty of Slovenian verb tenses becomes a site of both humorous play and serious questioning:
The mountain has not yet been a mountain.
The mountain is not yet a mountain.
The mountain will soon be a mountain.
The mountain is almost a mountain.
The mountain is a mountain.
The mountain continues to be a mountain.
The mountain is only just a mountain.
The mountain is no longer a mountain.
The mountain will no more be a mountain.
The mountain will never again be a mountain.
The mountain was never a mountain.
The mountain is a mountain.
And then there’s “Lippizaners,” a tour de force unlike anything else Kocbek wrote. Scammell and Taufer strike just the right tone(s) throughout this 84-line poem, one of Kocbek’s longest. A brief ars poetica appears in the sixth stanza; it seems like a good place to call it a day:
There is nothing darker
than clear speech,
and there is nothing truer than a poem
that cannot be grasped by reason...