#TranslatedLit Poet & translator Milan Šelj talks to A Midsummer Night’s Press publisher Lawrence Schimel

One of A Midsummer Night’s Press’ most recent titles, published just before the pandemic started, is a translation from the Slovene in our Body Language imprint: Tracing the Unspoken by Milan Šelj, translated by the author with Harvey Vincent. This is Milan’s fourth poetry collection for adults, but his debut in English. He is also the co-author of an epistolary novel and one collection of poems for children.

Specially for GLIL I asked Milan a few questions about poetry, translation, being translated, and Slovene poets.

1) You are both a poet & a translator, has translating the work of others influenced your own writing and if so how?

Translating the work of others is a privilege and it influences my writing indirectly. Writing is a solitary act and sometimes it leads you up an overgrown path where you can lose perspective.

Translating forces you to read (and engage with) someone else’s work on a much deeper level. It is like walking around a new house; it always opens a new window and you realise different views are possible and that’s wonderful and exciting.

2) What was it like working with Harvey Vincent to translate your collection into English?

Harvey was always interested in my work and a tremendous support. As he doesn’t speak a word of Slovene, he was unable to read any of my poetry. At the beginning it all started as a fun exercise; I would translate one of my poems from Tracing the Unspoken into English as best as I could and send it to him. He would always come back with suggestions for how we could improve the translation. We worked on one poem at a time and when we were somehow happy with the result, we would move on to the next one. During this process we became more and more ambitious, and that forced us to go much deeper into the language itself and, in particular, the meaning of each word. Towards the end, immersed in English, I wrote a few poems in English first which we then edited together. I then translated the final versions into Slovene.

The whole process was a unique experience. The process of translating nourished the process of writing and the other way around. It was incredibly creative; Harvey says our working together to translate my poetry into English was one of the most extraordinarily creative experiences of his life and he believes our frisson is in the result.

3) When you translate other poets into Slovene, what sort of involvement or interaction with the writers do you usually have?

It depends on the poetry itself. I am spoiled and incredibly lucky. I usually translate the poetry that speaks and is close to me. If I can (and the author is willing) I like working with the author. This always helps and as a result you end up with a better translation which is much truer to the original version. Everybody benefits, the author and the reader.

(Milan Šelj, photo by Peter Uhan)

4) What poets would you love to have the chance to translate into Slovene?

Whenever I have a choice I deliberately choose LGBTQ+ authors. We have an exciting LGBTQ+ literary scene in Slovenia and I am proud to be a part of it. However, our work is constantly being pushed to the margins by the mainstream literary scene and my belief is we deserve more exposure.

If I had the opportunity, I would love to translate selected poems by British poet Gregory Woods. His work can be very witty and (homo)erotic. Some of his poems use a strict form and translating these would be a real challenge.

Another author I would love to translate into Slovene is Polish-British poet Anna Błasiak and her bilingual book of poetry ‘Kawiarnia przy St James’s Wrena w porze lunchu/Cafe by St James’s in the Wrens at Lunchtime’. The poems have a haiku-like feel; they present a pared-down idea which is open for readers to interpret however they choose. Unfortunately I don’t speak Polish but with her help I would love to give it my best shot.

5) Slovenia is a very small country, and yet it is one whose poets seem to have a large international footprint, as it were, with work translated into many languages and poets appearing at festivals worldwide (in pre-pandemic times). Can you tell us briefly about one or more Slovene authors or books whose work excites you (and which has not yet been translated into English)? (These can be recent or older titles that may have gone “overlooked” so far.)

One author who definitely deserves at least a book of his selected poems to be translated into English is Ciril Bergles (1934-2013). Together with Brane Mozetič and Nataša Velikonja he belonged to the first wave of LGBTQ+ authors in Slovenia who started to publish explicitly homoerotic poetry in the early nineties. His poetry means a lot to me and is of outstanding quality. It deserves to be more widely known and to gain a much wider readership and greater recognition both in Slovenia and abroad.

(Lawrence Schimel writes in both Spanish and English, and has published over 120 titles as author or anthologist, in various genres and for all ages. His writing has been translated into over thirty languages, including Icelandic, Maltese, Estonian, and Turkish. In addition to his own writing, he works as a literary translator between Spanish and English.)

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