Iztok Osojnik & Klaus Detlef Olof

Reading time: 10 minutes

As part of our ‘Authors & Translators’ interview series, Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik and his Austrian translator Klaus Detlef Olof discuss the nature of their work and creative credo on the publishing of the German edition of Osojnik’s poetry book Kosovel and the Seven Dwarfs.

Klaus Detlef Olof translated the Osojnik’s poetry book into German (Kosovel und die sieben Zwerge, 2020).

This series of discussions between authors and their translators was developed by KUD Police Dubove in cooperation with Društvo humanistov Goriške within the purview of the ‘Migrations in Reality’ project and co-funded by the European Union’s Creative Europe Programme.

Series: Authors & Translators
Online discussion: Iztok Osojnik (Slovenia) & Klaus Detlef Olof (Austria)
Premiere: 11th March 2021 | City of Books Festival, Nova Gorica
Video with English, German and Slovenian subtitles


“Living relationship that goes beyond the level of purely objective translation is the essence of literature”

Iztok Osojnik (IO): It must be a blessing for you, Klaus, to have professorial experience. I am convinced you’ve often found yourself taking part in online discussions with your students after exams to confirm they really have the knowledge of what they demonstrated in their exams. It is nothing new for you.

Klaus Detlef Olof (KDO): I have never found myself in such situations. I’ve always preferred avoiding exams, being confident my students knew more than I.

IO: That makes two of us, then. We have to have a conversation about this book, about me being the author, and you being the translator of it into German.

KDO: Into my own German.

IO: Yes, into your own German as I’ve written in my own Slovene.

Let’s start in a rather formal way. I’ll ask a question, you’ll answer, then I’ll respond to your answer, and so on.  

I, of course, being its author, have a specific relationship with this book. And I see it from myself, therefore, from within. It’s always difficult for authors to evaluate their own books from the outside. So, first of all, I’d like to ask how you translated this book, especially because my poetry is not considered classical in the traditional sense.

Penetrating the text

KDO: That’s exactly what made things rather difficult, as I was not inside it, I was outside. I looked at this book I could barely comprehend and had to articulate it in my own language. It was a process. I did not have such an intimate connection to this book, so I looked at it as subject matter to be decomposed and…

IO: Yes, and conveyed in German.

KDO: In this regard, I am not a theorist, I view things from a practical perspective. I take the text, one single poem, and begin. I try to penetrate the text, to look for meaning, pictures, images, and I have to somehow translate this into my own language and transpose it onto sheets of paper. There it is, and it’s lying there, telling me something afterwards, slowly, slowly inviting me in, but somewhat shyly, I’d say.

IO: Fortunately, there are two things here. First of all, you already have a lot of experience as translator. You’ve translated many books from Slovenian into German. Therefore, the way you relate to Slovenian text cannot be purely ad hoc, you also have some specific experience which establishes you as a qualified translator. So, you do not tackle the task as a mere amateur, you already have some knowledge about this kind of work.

KDO: Well, knowledge cannot be a hindrance. In fact, I see things personally, every translation is a challenge for me, it’s like doing sport.

This text of yours seems rather enigmatic to me. There are notions, images, dimensions unknown to me because I didn’t have much to do with them. There is a text almost without form at first glance. There is, of course, structure, yet not in any classical sense. This is not a solid form one can keep, one has to draw out these images, understand them, and convey them. Then comes structure. This, for me, is a terrain to walk upon for a little bit, looking to the left, looking to the right, and there gradually comes into being …

IO: Yes, the translation assumes its shape.

KDO: But this is incomparable to translating novels, like when I translate Jančar, for example, or I don’t know whom. Novels are a linear process in which, according certain logic, some worlds …

IO: Yes, worlds develop, and one follows them.

KDO: Then the picture slowly moves toward completion. Here, the process of completion also takes place, but stutteringly.

Iztok Osojnik: Kosovel in sedem palčkov (2015, Slovenia)
Iztok Osojnik: Kosovel in sedem palčkov (2015, Slovenia)

Meaning simultaneously creates itself

IO: To offer some consolation, for me too as the author, I did not write it in such a way, with an idea being there in advance; quite the contrary, it was a spontaneous process, I broke into the text in the first verse, then that text kept coming from somewhere and I did not have rational control over its flow because, after all, the text is not intended to clearly and recognizably express meaning the way traditional forms do because my text’s meaning simultaneously created itself. As I see it, the text was created by my unconscious, by something that transcended my clear, rational images.

The way I wrote it challenged my unconscious, inside, so my things might come out, no doubt. I am the one experiencing the world in a complex way and reflecting on this subject matter, but if I tried to control this rationally, with sense, with clear meaning, I’d never be able to embrace it because I would be acting as my own censor.

KDO: If I practised stream of unconsciousness translation, you’d get a very strange thing.

Entering an unknown, new world

IO: Yes, I agree, but regarding the fact that I, as an author, enter this whole thing, this world which is totally unknown and new to me, and take risks; I do not know exactly how this shall transpire. I do have experience and a mastery of language to some degree, so I am bridled. But as for the world itself, the world then opens up within poetry, and this is a new thing for me as well. And this is what I find so exciting.

KDO: So, we are treading through the unknown together, each at his own end.

I do not have such freedom. I have this text. Otherwise, I would write my own text, make things up. I could take, for example, your cue, your sentences, and start philosophizing around them. This is not translation. This discipline, this restraint I freely give, as I accept it consciously, restricts my imagination. And, again, not. Because to comprehend what’s been written, to comprehend these jumps, and all this …

IO: Yes, to be able to follow.

KDO: To grasp these inventions, I also need my own imagination. I have to follow you: there is no other way. And you are a seasoned mountain climber, so you take all sorts of risks. I am a restrained here, there is nothing I can do with the picture itself.

Dialogue with the original text

IO: Of course. On the other hand, the text offers you some firm points, even if they are a bit hazy. Even when something is lost because one is not allowed to let one’s imagination soar freely, the risk of going astray while climbing is thereby diminished, there is always something to hold on to.

And your contribution is precisely this ingenuity, your ability to follow the text in your own world of representation, in your own language. And herein the creativity of translators finds its expression. You do not merely translate in a linear fashion; it is not just word for word; it is about entering language’s multi-dimensional space, where you respond dialogically, using your own language.

KDO: That’s true. It is, at the same time, a joyful feeling when poems open a vista you’d never imagined, then you go around the corner and see something totally new, …

But I have some well-known cues and notions, too, I got them from your biography. I don’t know everything, but I know where you’ve been. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years now and I do know something. Some things then arise from my memory. Stories you told at journey’s end. And this dimension of remembrance, as well, of these stories, …

IO: And of our joint adventures, …

KDO: Somehow buried memories that also come out, and that’s nice, actually.

Faithful but animate translation

KDO: It has been, in every regard, a most felicitous adventure for me. And I wanted to hold close to the original, but in such a way that the German translation doesn’t seem raw or intractable but equally alive.

IO: Yes, that’s what’s great. For that, I’m most grateful to you. Such is, after all, the task of a literary translator as opposed to that of the technical translator.

KDO: And one more thing. Because it is still poetry in a way, its readers should, its potential readers, and I hope there will be many of them, …

IO: Crowds!

KDO: Readers should be spared footnotes. One should not comment or explain, the effect should be direct, a face slap, as it is with  your original text. The same has to be true for mine.

IO: Such is the difference between the Catholic and Protestant Bibles. The Catholic Bible contains commentary everywhere.

KDO: Well, in this respect, we are both protestants.

IO: This Lutheran approach allows us to be direct.  

Inner dialogue, living relationships

IO: If we put aside the purely professional aspect, namely, that this is a text translated from one language into another, etcetera, what seems crucial to me, is the fact that an inner dialogue is established between us, a living exchange. Of course, you are able to actualize the unconventional quality of my text in your own language.

By making my text unconventional, by not clinging to certain forms and formal structures, I endeavour to free myself, to shake them off, so that the living kernel might come out.

I am glad you took this task. I think you are exactly what is needed, an animate translator, not merely someone translating things formally, and this I know because I know you as a person, as a friend. Even though we don’t see each other very often, I am connected with you in a living relationship, every time we see each other, it is as if we saw each other just the day before. And this, it seems to me in this case, goes beyond the level of purely objective translation: we are dealing here with a phenomenon that is the very essence of literature.

KDO: There are many authors that I cannot talk to anymore because they are already gone. And when I translate them, I fulfil an obligation, so to speak, to the paradigms of Slovenian and Croatian literature, etcetera. This is my professorial, encyclopaedic approach to translation and it’s still so very much alive.

Profound correspondence

KDO: I’m currently translating Bekim Ceranović, who passed away only recently, a young man. But shortly before he died, I talked with him, and we discussed various matters. I talk to him now …

IO: Through literature, yes.

KDO: Across that border.

So, experience differs greatly for every text. Our project is, therefore, an extremely challenging and felicitous combination for me. It’s marvellous and I really am grateful to you. I don’t know who came up with the idea that I should do this work, but I think we were on a right path here. Translators should also feel gratitude for being allowed to do this work.

IO: You needn’t be that modest. Yet what surprised me, in a positive sense, was that you set to work without asking me too many questions in advance. Why? You started and we only met later.

KDO: Perhaps I was a bit ashamed to ask.

IO: No, it’s not that. This could point to a more profound type of communication where one needn’t ask, ‘What was your intention here? What did you have in mind there?’, because you independently created a very clear picture, clear meanings of certain matters, and afterwards just checked whether you’d understood it correctly, or managed to grasp the meaning, or not.

Textonic movements

KDO: Including typing errors. Such a nice thing, the editor asked me about that, too. The word textonic, very nice, some textonic stuff. It is tectonic, or textual, or textonic. This is your new word. Perhaps you typed it that way by mistake?

IO: No, it wasn’t a mistake. I tried to explain that, in the text, identical movements are made as they are with tectonic plates. Some complex structures are at work there, pushing ahead, breaking, sinking beneath each other, etcetera. So, the text has its volume. If I merely limited it to tectonic, I’d have reduced the expression to a metaphor, whereas with textonic I’ve given it a more structural dimension.

KDO: I can see that. Yet when I see it in the text, I have to ask myself whether this it is an unintended mistake, a typing error, perhaps. But it’s so beautiful, it had to be put that way intentionally. This was the last question asked when we proofread the text. It was clear, of course, this was a nice invention.

I have written about it all in my afterword. It was a bit too much for me to translate into Slovenian. This is probably the task intended for you, that is, for you to translate it.

IO: My German is, alas, not good enough, to follow your German translation. It’s rather basic, to order a beer, to buy a newspaper. Literary German language exceeds my power and potential. Unfortunately, I shall not taste its pleasure.

KDO: As I can see, you also quote German authors. So, do you read them in translation? For example, Wittgenstein …

The problem of interpretation

IO: Often, when I read something and find it interesting or important, I read it in its original language, too. I understand German well enough to be able to help myself using a dictionary. Namely, I’ve noticed that translations can be disputed; they are already interpretations of originals. And essential things might be lost in translation. So, especially when regarding theoretical texts, I regularly refer to the original.

But this is hard toil. If I tried to read integral texts that way, it would be time-consuming. So, I prefer to use translations.

KDO: Of course, it is a question of time.

When it comes to translation, there’s a trap, we are faced with a dilemma. There is an inclination to make everything smooth, comprehensible, so that it doesn’t …

IO: That it is not textonic.

KDO: Yes. So this textonic quality, the contact.

We had an earthquake here in Zagreb yesterday, it threw me out of my bed. Actually, at 6.30 a.m., I was already sitting at the table.

And there are textonic shocks in the text that should not be made smooth, they require no interpretation. It requires not taking the reader into consideration, as if to say, poor wretch, and considering whether they’ll understand anything when they take up a book anything, or just stare at it.

We also have to confront readers. Here we have Hart im Raume stossen sich die Dinge [Things Collide Hard in Space]. It’s Goethe, or Schiller. And we have to stick to it.

IO: We shouldn’t underestimate readers.

KDO: No, we needn’t do that.

IO: There’s no need, readers are intelligent people.

KDO: At this point, we give our best regards to presumptive reader. We salute you!

Dialogue and communication carry the accomplished work to a higher level

IO: Even though we are compelled to use technical accessories to have a discussion, I find such online discussion most constructive, they signify dialogue and communication, the raising of the accomplished work to a higher level.

So, once more, thank you. First of all, for not hesitating for a moment when you were asked to translate my text; and secondly, because I’m convinced your translation is in many respects even more inspiring, perhaps, than its source material, my original text. I know you are a spirited, jocular person, and I know your breadth. And I’m grateful that such a great man, such an excellent translator, has translated my book.

KDO: Let’s give a protestant cheer to that.

IO: The protestants would have already burnt us alive for it.

KDO: We shall conclude with that.

IO: Yes. So, have a nice time.

KDO: You too. And when they let us cross the borders, let’s go out for a drink.

IO: Yes, one hundred percent!

KDO: One hundred percent!

IO: Be well, Klaus.

Translated by Martina Soldo  

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