SPOTLIGHT | The Tangibility of Translation

globe_flagsThe Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review published Linda Kalaj’s translation of five poems by Saša Perugini. Below, she writes how the craft of translation is more than just Literary Recycling.


Every creative work begins in that space where intangible facets such as the imagination, sub-conscious or creative spirit reside. Writing thus becomes the articulation of these intangible facets. And their life-force is transferred onto paper and into the hands of the reader. But how does this tangibility affect the translator?  After all, any specific work that sits in front of the translator is tangible — literally, intellectually, and emotionally — only because the translator can read its original text. How does the translator capture the figurative essence and literal facets of the work? Certainly, Blanchot’s comment — “Translation is madness” — has a certain amount of credibility. When working on a translation of poetry from its original language, in this case, from the Italian to English, the tangibility of the poetry, is obviously, only accessible to the reader that speaks the language. So, where does this leave the translator and how does the translator capture the essence of the work, translate the work, and escape the notion of what I superficially refer to as Literary Recycling?

When translating poetry, the tangibility is initially literal, as it is on my desk, on the screen, in front of me, and so on. But it still exists in its original form, its original language. As I read and process the work, I must play with words, feelings, interpretations, my own experiences, reflections, or thoughts so that I can reproduce the work with minimal alteration (or, minimal Literary Recycling).  The work is not directly transferred from its direct source (the author) to the page, but rather becomes channeled through the translator: the translator is left with a tangible poem which becomes intangible in the mind of the translator until the tangibility is reproduced by the translator in his or her language of choice.

What I had not known or anticipated in my initial translation of poetry from Italian to English was how challenging it would become. As with any language, there are words or phrases that simply cannot be translated, as they are aspects of the language directly tied to dialect or culture or tradition. For example, there are words in Italian that rhyme or play off one another, but once translated into English, reveal far from what they do in their mother tongue. This, in part, always causes me to drown in my own thoughts about the relation between language and words and their meaning within a larger context.

And, often, while drowning in these new-found thoughts, just as I’m about to come up for air, I am weighed down again by the larger than life dual language dictionary and thesaurus sitting on my desk. In these books, I always discover the application of fundamental language basics and, at the same time, a new-found respect that arises for the daunting task of those who have translated poetry. Translating has a way of causing one to undermine all that one does. Perhaps, it is part of the challenge as well as the reward.

For me, the most important task in translating any work is to capture its essence, and this is even more so with poetry, because one has to substitute the space in which words cannot.  This is not to set up my own contradiction. I still recognize and believe there are components in which facets of one’s work cannot be translated. But it is to say that this is part of the translator’s most difficult duty: when a word or aphorism or alliteration specific to a particular language and its culture cannot be translated, where does that leave us? Our option and, perhaps, even duty at that point is to capture the essence of what is being said to the best of our ability. The ultimate gratification is to know that the work’s sentiment remains the same and only the words change. I have asked myself: Should someone be translating my own work, what would be essential?  I would expect the feeling and life source of my piece to be captured and come across the page. In the case of Saša Perugini’s poems, each time I walked away from her text, I returned with a different set of eyes and found myself saying: no, this word isn’t enough or this could work better or Linda, what the hell were you thinking? While I may often feel there is still room for playing with words and meaning, I also seem to believe these feelings can be endless and, recalling Blanchot, obsessively crazy making. Open to discussion or debate will always be: when, if ever, does one feel completely content that the translation is flawless? Much like many artists, I ask, as a writer, does one ever truly feel as if their work is complete, that it exists in a perfect space or form, or once concluded, never looked at again without wanting to change something? Of this, I am unsure. With translated works, perhaps the original author is the final judge.  

The triumph, for me, as a writer and translator, is that someone has entrusted me with their work. I have been assigned to uphold and protect the emotion and integrity of the work. The original author, to some degree, has relinquished what once stemmed from the intangibility of their imagination, produced in their tangible poem, to continue through the process that becomes intangible in the mind of the translator only to become tangible once again in a language other than its own.

Within my own creative work, I would like to believe that what remains consistent and ties one genre to another is the importance of conveying the deeper elements of the human condition and evoking the deeper senses of our existence, and so I keep this philosophy at the forefront of my mind when translating. This means if I can uphold this philosophy as a foundation, even in translation, then I am also allowing elements of the work to be awakened without limit to their true shape and form. Perhaps then, a virgin-like form of translation can take place without constraints, whereby the reader’s experience can also exist within a realm free of constraints: where one can identify, connect and process the poetry through the figurative and literal transference of the human condition. Thus, translation can allow both emotion and intellect to be examined in a different way, where the story of the poem is an echo of the reader’s sentiment rather than a replication of the author’s. 


Linda Kalaj resides in southern California, born to parents emigrating from Montenegro and raised between the United States and Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and BA in Government with a focus in International Relations and minor in Creative Writing from St. John’s University. Her work, both fiction short story and translation, have appeared with Sequoya Literary Magazine, Simply Shorts Review, and Aldus, a Journal of Translation.


Five Poems by Sa

Stavo Correndo

by Saša Perugini

I Was Running

trans. by Linda Kalaj

Stavo correndo,
a volte,                         
col volto girato indietro.
Stavo nuotando,
verso un giorno da giornale                                         
verso un futuro
verso la fede
di non-vuoto.
Stavo correndo,
di fretta e
sono rimasta
A te.
Come lingua
su ghiaccio secco.
E il sole
mi è scoppiato in bocca.
E la pioggia
nel ventricolo
Giovane arbusto
di ginestra
fibroso e flessibile
odoroso e improbabile.
Il vento mi ti sventolava
mentre cercavo teoremi
che stabilissero
se fosse meglio
o risparmiarmi.
E non potendo io,
brandello di vessillo
continuare a correre,
mi sono ibernata dentro,
per mancare lo scontro
strappandomi la lingua,
anestetizzando il dolore,
allattando rancore.
Finalmente caduta
ho ripreso
la camminata
e mi sono ritrovata
in collina
salire verso
un panorama
e per un attimo
il fiato mi ha distratta
e costretta
ad incontrare l’intorno:                                                       
c’erano ovunque
schizzi di ginestre
come fiori qualunque
a benedire
la ritrovata libertà.
Non da te,
ma dalla corsa.
I was running,
at times,
other times
with my face turned backward.
I was swimming,
toward a sensationalized headline of the day’s paper
toward a future
toward the faith
of non-emptiness.
I was running,
In a hurry and
without warning
I remained 
With you.
like tongue
on dry ice.
And the sun
burst into my mouth.
And the rain
into the left
Young shrub
of broom
fibrous and flexible
fragrant and unlikely.
The wind motioned you
against me
while I was seeking theorems
that could establish
if it were better
to tear me,
sever you
or save myself.
And because I could not,
a shred of a flag
continues to run,
I hibernated within,
so to miss the collision
tearing off my tongue
anesthetizing the pain,
breast-feeding hate.
Finally falling
I regained
the walk
and found myself again
on a hill
moving upward toward
a view
and for a moment
distracted by my breath
to encounter all that encircled the surroundings:
everywhere there were
spatters of broom
ordinary flowers
my re-found freedom.
Not from you,
but from the race.



by Saša Perugini

Write Me

trans. by Linda Kalaj

Scrivimi ti prego.
concedimi un cenno,
o la rassicurazione
che non sono sola
in questa ossessione.
Se il mio pensiero bastasse
a muovere il destino
offriresti una possibilità.
Cercami allora,
fammi essere una novità.
Scrivimi ti prego,
concedimi un segnale:
che anche tu
come me
pensi ai se,
i ma e i meglio così.
Centoventi minuti,
o poco più.
Tanto è durato il nostro
incontrarsi per decidere
che era necessario
Ti ho dovuto allontanare
per non subire
la tua paura di me.
Ma ti vorrei.
Si, ti vorrei ancora
cercare, conoscere,
Scrivimi, ti prego.
Non ti eserciatare,
ad allontare,
almeno questa volta.
Giusto per provare.
Cerca in me
la verità che nascondi a te. 

Write me I beg you.
grant me a hint,
or the reassurance
that I am not alone
in this obsession.
If my thought were enough
to move destiny
you would offer me a chance.
Look for me then,
let me become a novelty.
Write me I beg you,
grant me a signal:
that you too
like me
think of the what if,
the but and the better like this.
One hundred and twenty minutes,
or a bit more.
That is all it lasted our
encounter to decide
that it was necessary
to withdraw.
I had to distance you
to not endure
your fear of me.
But I want you.
Yes, I still want
to search, to know,
to listen to you.
Write me, I beg you.
Don’t rehearse
at least this time.
Just give it a try.
Yield to me.
Seek in me
The truth you hide from yourself.



by Saša Perugini


trans. by Linda Kalaj

e proibirsi di sognare.
Nuoto nel tempo
aspettando il ciclo
del mio sangue.

mi gonfio
mi sgonfio.
mi gonfio,
controllo prima,
controllo dopo,
va sempre tutto bene.
Gli anni passano
il sangue aumenta
il dolore pure.
Dovrebbe partorire
prova a dire
il dottore.
E tu ti mordi le labbra e continui ad aspettare
di imparare a non curarti di quelle parole
di imparare a vivere nel presente
senza convenzioni né costrizioni.
La verifica dell’attesa,
che conferma l’attenzione
per ciò che sta per arrivare
e non per ciò che c’è.
E’ un’educazione
questa del sangue
a vivere in perenne stato

To dream
And to forbid oneself to dream.
I swim in time 
waiting for the cycle
of my blood.
checking first,
checking after,
it always goes well.
The years pass
the blood increases 
the pain as well.
You should get pregnant
the doctor
tries to say.
And I bite my lip and continue to wait       
to learn to not take note of those words
to learn to live in the present 
without conventions nor constraints.
The verification of expectation,
that confirms the attention
for what is coming 
and not for that which is here.
It is an education
this one of blood
to live in a perennial premenstrual state.


Non m’invitare a cena

by Saša Perugini

Don’t invite me to dinner

trans. by Linda Kalaj

Non m’invitare a cena
ti prego,
non a vedere un film, o al mare,
non mi chiedere, non mi spiegare,
non mi leggere, non mi telefonare.
Io vorrei solo
fare l’amore.
Adesso, spesso, al più presto.
Così, sconosciuti, lenti sembrando
impazienti. Senza parole
da dirsi, senza desideri
se non quelli di far incontrare i nostri corpi
da soli, senza noi due lì in mezzo a disturbare
ognuno con le sue paure.
Lascia che i nostri odori si mischino
ti prego, prima di presentarmi
un’anima che non conosci.
Lascia che le nostre pelli ci guidino
in dialoghi senza imbarazzi,
che le nostre mani si stringano
attorno alle attese
e raccontino i nostri irriverenti desideri.
Allora forse riusciremo a tentare l’esperimento dell’amore.
ma non ti preoccupare, non è questo
l’altare su cui sacrificare le nostre intenzioni.
Questo è solo un divertimento che veloce evaporerà
nel passato se io accetterò
il tuo prossimo invito.

Don’t invite me to dinner 
I beg you,
not to see a film, or to the sea,
don’t ask me, don’t explain to me 
don’t read me, don’t call me.
I would only like to
make love.
Now, often, as soon as possible.
Just like this, unknown, slow, looking 
impatient. Without words 
to say, without desires
apart from those that our bodies meet     
alone, without the two of us in the middle to disrupt
each one with their fears.
Leave our scents to mingle
I beg you, before introducing me 
to a soul you do not know.
Leave our skin to guide us
in dialogues without shame,
that our hands tighten
around expectations
and tell our irreverent desires.
Then maybe we will be able to attempt the experiment of love.
but do not worry, this is not 
the altar to sacrifice our intentions.           
This is only a diversion that will quickly evaporate
into the past if I accept 
your next invitation.


A volte

by Saša Perugini

At times

trans. by Linda Kalaj

vorrei essere una nave
anzi, una piccola chiatta
un’asse di legno, una foglia, una barchetta
sottile e leggera per scivolare via indenne
tra i dolori che vedo
mentre percorro la vita.
I pesci al mercato stipati, infilati in vetrina
qualcuno a testa in giù
boccheggiare senza nemmeno lo spazio per sperare
qualcuno a pancia in su
zeppati come parole dentro al cervello
nella vasca verde per essere venduti
assieme alla speranza di un pasto lauto
che allontani l’idea della morte.
L’amica di famiglia invecchiata, ingrassata,
una piccola toppa sulla spalla, i vestiti non alla moda,
addosso a lei una sorpresa.
Come stai, le chiedo, diciamo bene, sorride ma con la testa si lamenta.
Il cucciolo di cane abbandonato al suo tremore
dentro ad una scatola di cartone
per ripararlo dal pavimento dell’inverno
e dai sensi di colpa dell’ ex-padrone.         
La vecchia contadina
alta come una macchina
Che aspetta, guarda, sospira, aspetta
E poi, senza smettere di aspettare si carica
il sacco pieno di mercanzia
sulla spalla sinistra e la borsa piena di sospiri
sulla spalla destra e lenta s’incammina verso altro aspettare.
Dolore, mi pare,
chissà che non siano i miei occhi a travisare      
e ciechi vedere qualcosa che non c’è.        
Una barchetta quindi vorrei essere
per scivolare via sulle onde di questo mare.
Una barchetta senza timone
e senza timore del dolore.
Un piccolo pezzo di legno
che si lasci trasportare a quell’unico mare                                                    
a cui tutti i fiumi portano e dove nessun legno 
può affondare.

I want to be a ship
no, a small raft
a plank of wood, a leaf, a small boat           
slender and light so to slip away unharmed
between the pain I see
while passing through life.
The fish at the market: crammed, stringed in a showcase   
some with their heads down
gasping without space for hope                
some with bellies up
wedged like words inside the brain 
in the green tub, to be sold
together in the hope of a hearty meal
distancing the idea of death.
The family friend aged, fat,                     
with a small patch  on her shoulder, her clothing unfashionable,
placed on her like a surprise. 
How are you, I ask, well she says, and smiles but with her head complains.
The pup of a dog abandoned in his tremors                                                 
inside a cardboard box
as if to repair the winter’s pavement
from the sentiments of guilt of the ex-owner.
The old peasant
the length of a car
who waits, looks, sighs, waits
and then, not ever stopping to wait she loads
the sack full of merchandise
over the left shoulder and a bag full of sighs
over the right shoulder and slowly walks toward more waiting.
Pain, it seems,
or who knows, if it’s not my eyes that misrepresent
and blind see something that does not exist.
A little boat then I’d like to be
to slip away on the waves of the sea.        
A little boat without a helm
and without fear of pain.
A small boat, is what I want to be
that lets me slip away onto the waves of this single sea
carried to where all rivers meet and where no wood
can sink.


Linda.KalajLinda Kalaj resides in southern California, born to parents emigrating from Montenegro and raised between the United States and Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and BA in Government with a focus in International Relations and minor in Creative Writing from St. John’s University. Her work, both fiction short story and translation, have appeared with Sequoya Literary Magazine, Simply Shorts Review, and Aldus, a Journal of Translation.


Sasa Perugini

Saša Perugini is a Serbian-Italian writer born in Siena to a mother from Belgrade and father from Siena. She currently resides in Florence and serves as the Director of Syracuse University’s campus in Florence. She holds a Laurea Magistrale in English and Russian Literatures and Languages from the University of Siena and a Ph.D. in History of Theatre from Tufts University. Her publications include: Intimo Abbecedario (2004), Variazioni Cromatiche (2010); Con un Buco nel Cuore (2011); and Assaggi (2012).