Arlene Kim and Martha Silano Poem Translations



Translations: Arlene Kim and Martha Silano


As part of our ongoing series, two poets exchange work and create interpretations of each other's poems.






1. Kim to Silano



S.O.S. Szymborska, by Arlene Kim



Mystery of life, endure my plucking threads out of your train.

from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under This Little Star,” translated by Sharon Olds


Times like this I replay the Szymborska. In a quintet. No.

A multitude Distressed stringing Dear Mothers

Dear Fathers. I stooge & ditto. I pin my ears back.


Attention. Repeat. Listen I’m calling.

I flash you with my dits & dahs my incorrect orders my misshapen cheeks

                                                         of doubt

A bit of salt. The steam of answers. I have you so rarely these late days.


I am selfish with your words. I hoard them from rest. Pick at them like this.

Privately preserving peeling pickling

I jam-jar what I can. Who cares. Who cares if I prick my fingers on the spindly t’s

                                                          atop the points of your leggy star so sky it hurts.



Look over the edge. My hawk brings gophers of apology. For flying.

For the hunt how it baits how it borrows

from the copse of your verse. I pinch existence like a claw. Like his scythe beak.


Catch me. Oh please. Ladle me.

In your horn-rimmed nest Again Again





Bear with me, Wislawa Szymborska, a translation by Martha Silano



Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil

—from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under a Certain Little Star,” translated by Joanna Trzeciak



Szymborska: I sing you, I play you. Wear you like a babushka.

You, being Polish, are my mother’s kapusta. You, having

lived through war, are my father’s sailor suit, leaky gas mask.


Sometimes I clear my throat, crane my cranium, call

and respond, attempt to be a tenth as ticked, as resigned,

as resilient. Always I am listening, but my letters

more like litter, like lopped off lamps, less illuming

than alarming. My verbs do not steam, do not stream,

are mostly bereft of answers. Sometimes I strain for sapphire,

sift only through salt, single grains of salt.


I fall short,


but still I horde your words,

pet them as I would a favorite cat.

Embrace them like a bushel of beans,

fetch my jars, my recipe for Uncle Willy’s

Hoppin’ John. Ladle the rubble you scrape,

the splintered, the scum and ashes, the stars.

For midnight munching. For company.  

For keeping.


Did you see it in the wheat field—that kestrel

in a stoop? That’s me—feeding.

Digging my talons into small birds, dragonflies, bloody rags.


Forgive me for wanting to steal

your pricked finger, your labor.

Forgive me, again. Again.




Commentary by Martha Silano


I admire Arlene’s poems a great deal, which made it both satisfying and unnerving to “translate” one of them. Satisfying because restaging her poem forced me to ponder, appreciate, revel; unnerving because a translation from English to English can’t help but feel like unraveling and re-raveling, as if the re-ravel were somehow better than the original ravel (and it’s not!). What I noticed was that, rebel that I am, I had slightly different things to say; instead of finding synonyms of parroting (“literal translation”), I allowed myself in the Robert Bly school of translation, that is, to take liberties. It made me feel tethered, while at the same time free – kind of the best place a writer can be.





2. Silano to Kim



Dear Mr. Wordsworth by Martha Silano



It turns out there is no tranquility. Signed,

The 21st Century.


However, there is powerful feeling. Other things

are powerful too—


the same old powerful things (waterfalls, strength

of a daffodil stem)—


some of them newly-minted (GBU-39, for ultra surgical strikes).

Dear Mr. Wordsworth,


It turns out my son had slippage this June-uary spring,

neglected not only his teeth


but the last four weeks of geography homework,

which means that today,


instead of slipping into a tranquil bath, I’m steeped 

in prehistoric Peru;


in recollection’s place, I get interruption, swimming

smack into Pedro,


five-foot penguin with a seven-inch beak; instead of my heart

with pleasure filling


10,000 cobs in the Valley of Tehucan,

the barking dog timer (did I not


mention I was tending flapjacks?). No, Mr. Wordsworth,

no tranquility to be summoned


while I pull from my son’s gargantuan backpack the crumpled nest

marked D.


Did you, Mr. Wordsworth, get Ds? Do you even know

what D stands for? Nope, not Daffodil!


Mr. Wordsworth: procurement and concealment,

and I’m not talking the inward eye.


His teacher called it slippage. Tranquil’s in the gun safe,

nodding jocundly with the jonquils.


Mr. Wordsworth? Consider it downright twinkling you had no power

outages, no power to speak of.


No twice-a-day-right clock, no dead bulb in the dark,

dark dawn.


Pick and Choose: To on-the-couch lay

or neigh like a jackass?


To spontaneously overflow, out-do the sparkling waves,

toss one’s head


in a sprightly dance, flutter and crowd and host, or stand

at the sink, sponging the morning’s mournful cutlery?





‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’, a translation by Arlene Kim


I can’t recommend writing

letters to gods olden or

nowthey’re all traitors

at some point, serfdom



us their garbled txts via rep,      via courtier  copywriter

                                                        via *courier

experiments in

            I didn’t mean

            to say                                                 

architect  sophistry  supercomputer  skyrocket




in sufficiency

            *authority,              in obstructions.         




Lab coats spook me with their pen-headed hedges,

their blanknesses.


We are held together by a line

of discs. Filled like a donut,

doctor said. Id est,

sacs of sweet & jam

waiting to burst.




I dislike being seen through.


Time calls Place, who pretends not to be there,

doesn’t pick up,

dials Time back,

& leaves a joke message about being

trapped in elevators, batteries

dying                    static   something                    static

& every other

               what? I can’t here



I’ve left some billets-doux

wrapped in paper.

            One like a rope

            from the animal’s throat.

                            One like a fist

                            from its heart.

The old butchers insist on truths,

lest there be mis sed conceptions:


            “Throat”     “Heart”


Both fare but old-fashioned.

Frequently, they come “connected”

the “heart” in the “throat,” the “fist”

wrapped” with “rope.” The “heart”

favored, so



more courtly  




Let us nod to one another

like “friends.”


(When lonely, I fill up

with souvenirs, trombones.

My fist can hold 10,000 balloons.)


It seems there is no rest.



I download & hide


in a “cloud.”


I split the giant.



What does a lamp do in the dark?

Because the black bulb does not look right to live in.


No, Narcissus!

Rise. In place of remembrance,

be “productive.” Divide. Fill, fill

fill the contract.


Stuff the emperors with donkeys.

Slap little penguins in        the katy

                                              the great  the neat  the near  the best

                                              the nasty  the jay

                                              the *


Punch in. Log in. Do not forget to save,

post. Transfer. Other things


remain classified, too powerful to look in the face.

Emotion. Spring. Daffodils. Stillness. Dust.



Commentary by Arlene Kim


When Martha and I first talked about working on this “translation” collaboration, we also got on the subject of the various languages we’d inherited throughout our lives. For her, it was Polish from her mother’s side, Italian from her father’s, Spanish, French, and Italian at school. For me, it was Korean from both my mother and father—with some Japanese words snuck in here and there (though I didn’t know they were Japanese until years later)—German, Spanish, and French at school. And, of course, there’s English. Learning about our linguistic intersections gave me the idea to use them as a translation map: I made a list of our languages in a kind of chronological order from Martha to me, then I took her poem “Dear Mr. Wordsworth” and ran it through Google Translate, working language to language according to the order.


Anyone who’s used an online translation tool will be familiar with the strange detours that texts can take: objects suddenly appear or disappear, people switch places or transform into things, names you never mentioned are introduced, verbs lose all sense of tense and time. Maybe if you’re trying to translate a legal document or a set of instructions, anomalies like these are unwelcome. But if you’re trying to “translate” a poem that’s like a polished thing so shiny and smooth that it’s hard to keep hold of, these kinds of surprises are like discovering an invisible lever or a button that opens a wonderful, hidden compartment. Seeing into the poem’s trick drawers when my map wandered back through English was like getting to peek at some of the poem’s secrets.


Where did trombones and donuts come from? How did Narcissus get here? When did “signing” become “logging in” and “procurement” become “download”—it was eerily like the 21st century was asserting and inserting itself via its very tools. At first, “I was tending flapjacks,” but before you knew it, I was confessing that “I tend to forget pancakes.” Was I to “tilt my head” or “bow my head”? And how did they know I used to get Wordsworth and Wadsworth mixed up?


Sometimes there were secrets I loved but didn’t know what to do with:


Mr. Wadsworth, you have the power to sell the majority of patients.

And that’s not all.


It turns out there are peace.


The last four weeks geographical

In other words, the time


Wordsworth, Mr. Priest. You know what?

Page D. No, not yellow.


Thou knowest also what 500 means?


Choose a bed

or donkeys


Bounce, Dr. Wadsworth. Protection.


dial no dead bulb in the dark


take appropriate action


in place of remembrance, I can break

penguins in the heart


I get 10,000 heads


out-do the tumult


I did my best to figure out the underlying riddles and to shape them into a new skin from the original body, but it was tough. It was like trying to understand a cryptic but very important message sent by medium or oracle. What’s funny and fitting about this is that we both happened to begin with poems that invoked other poets: Szymborska, Wordsworth. The same anxiety, the same question haunted me while writing both the poem that became the translation of Martha’s poem and the poem I submitted to be translated: How will I know if I’ve gotten it right?


There’s an Italian adage that I’ve heard most translators refer to at one point or another: “traduttore, traditore.” It means “translator, traitor.” One out of two is something.





Arlene Kim grew up on the east coast of the U.S. before drifting westward. Her first collection of poems What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? (Milkweed Editions) won the 2012 American Book Award. She lives in Seattle where she reads for the poetry journal DMQ Review and writes poems, prose, and bits between.


Martha Silano is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and an Academy of American Poets Noted Book of 2011. She’s had work in Paris Review, North American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. A forthcoming collection, Reckless Lovely, will appear from Saturnalia Books in early 2014. 



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