Translator's notes

In Praise of Sleeplessness


In late twentieth-century Yugoslavia, a ‘great generation’ of poets gained national and international acclaim. Their youth was marked by the harsh experience of the Second World War, and they were given full creative rein in the 1950s, when the Communist Party relinquished control over literature. Ivan V. Lalić (1931–1996) was one such poet.

The 1965 first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation featured two of his poems, translated from Serbian into English by Lalić himself. Several English-language collections have followed, some translated by Charles Simic and some by me. These trace his poetic development from his early blazing vividness of image to more measured and contemplative explorations, but with a sensuality throughout that is rooted in bodily experience – especially of the Mediterranean, which Lalić saw as his physical and cultural homeland. Key motifs in Lalić’s poetry are the relationship between the seen, the felt, and the poet as seer, perceiver. Another theme is that of time, transience, and the fickle power of memory – including collective, cultural memory – to bridge them. Linking both is Lalić’s meditative questioning of how far the word can both preserve and interpret the world.

Free verse dominates Lalić’s 1960s–1980s work, which has been most translated. I’m now translating his 1992 collectio Pismowhich I’ve called ‘Letters’. Here, Lalić returns to traditional fixed forms. As this was an important poetic decision, I feel I need to respect it. That means transferring Lalić’s forms into their best-fit English equivalents – rhymed hendecasyllables into rhymed iambic pentameters, say. However, Lalić is also a master of the straight- between-the-eyes poetic image, which it’s crucial to respect too – such as, literally translated, ‘the semantics of [rain]drops contains the shape of future gardens’. The conflict between these two pressures – form and meaning – can usually be resolved, though only after slow, painstaking work. Here, I eventually changed ‘contains’ to ‘dream’, a key word elsewhere in Lalić’s poetry, so as to rhyme with ‘scream’ two lines later. What’s important in such cases, I feel, is to stay faithful to Lalić’s underlying poetic image, style and formal drive, even if the surface wording has to slide slightly at times.

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