In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
Shared Breath Resounding
It’s not easy to quiet the mind these days. Amid the onslaught of dire news, the whir of grim projections, and the general haze of uncertainty, I find myself longing just, as a friend put it an email, to find space and time to think. I don’t yet feel like writing poems. I don’t yet feel like taking part in virtual readings or watching them. Even reading for reading’s sake feels elusive for now.
Translating poems, though, already feels different to me. Grounded, grounding. I’ve often heard translation described as a kind of inhabitation: when you translate a text, you live inside it for a while, studying how it works, building something of your own with what you’ve learned. It’s intimate, methodical work. But it’s also profoundly relational. If you’re staying in someone else’s house, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve invited you to be there. When I translate a text I really love, I feel nourished by this sense of invitation. Something engages, fastens. Something opens up and stays open.
One of my current projects—and consolations—is a beautiful collection of poems called El sueño de toda célula [The Dream of Every Cell] by the Mexican poet Maricela Guerrero. By turns playful and reverent, these poems are fueled by both protest (against political oppression, economic injustice, linguistic hegemony, ecological destruction) and praise (of nature and its wonders and autonomous flourishing, of communal struggle, of possible harmony and reciprocity among humans and plants and animals, of our capacity to imagine other ways to inhabit the world).
The poems in this book have a breathlessness to them. They whorl around each other like tree rings. Some are written in prose, others in verse. Some read like miniature essays or especially evocative encyclopedia entries (“A single date contains 21 grams of water and vitamin C for resisting and sustaining itself in the desert”). Others feel more like lullabies, or fables (“Once upon a time there was a world in which cells dreamed only of becoming cells and this dream flowed along in vernacular tongues”). Or like overhearing someone muse aloud on the origin of a word or an idiom. Some veer in and out of scientific language; some are steeped in the simple words we often resort to in expressing love or fear (“Do we write poems to save the species?”).
When I translate, which entails thinking obsessively about syntax, I also think a lot about tension: how to sustain it, or break it, or complicate it, in a way that honors what the original does. When I translate Guerrero’s work, specifically, I try to pay close attention to her leaps and swerves among registers and sentence structures. Take this passage about cells,
[b]ecoming words in flowing water:
syllables, sounds, varied and unusual combinations
like a group of trees:
poplars, pine groves, crop fields, jungles, woods:
the vacant lot next door:
shared breath resounding: breath
a respite millions of light years away:
just imagine that, Ms. Olmedo would say,
your heart expanding: springs springing forth in hazy and possible languages in
organic and inorganic chemicals and lungs and the vacant lot next door inhabit:
cells dreaming of cells
fir and maple
we’re not alone:
Weeks ago, when I started mulling over what I would write here, I planned on including this passage because I thought it would give me a way to talk about movement and stillness in poetry and translation. Now, as I write, I’m including it mostly because it’s giving me a way to think about movement and stillness in general, today, during a pandemic that has billions of people thinking—sometimes with panic, sometimes with wonder—about our shared breath resounding.
About cells and their sickening.
About borders and hegemonies.
(“The language of empire doesn’t care about recognizing that a cell comes from another cell,” Guerrero writes in another poem; “it only wants to know which cell came first”.)
I love this part of Guerrero’s poem because of how it flings itself into the air and then pauses to marvel at where it is. And I love translating because it invites you to experience the accident of your own marvel and re-experience it on purpose.
we’re not alone:
In the space after the colon and before the “we”: that’s where the invitation is.