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.
Love Is a Canned Sardine
There’s a book I love called Apricots Tomorrow, an illustrated collection of adages from across the Gulf region. Each proverb is presented in the original Arabic, a literal English translation (the book’s title is one example), and an equivalent English maxim. The book is charming, to be sure, but it’s also effective: it reminds us that translation is all about context. In other words, we’re all permanently enmeshed in place and time, which means our language is, too.
Context is a backdrop of complicity and rupture. When we hear a quip, a punch line, a saying, a truism, or a play on words, we almost always know whether we’re “in” on it: whether the remark includes us or excludes us; whether it affirms something we already know or compels us to learn something new; whether it’s a product of our own social reality or has dropped in on us from elsewhere.
Which is also to say that translating colloquialisms (comical or otherwise) involves unpacking what has been neatly packed to feel “natural,” fluid, and instinctive in the source language; studying it to understand how it got that way; and then re-crafting in a way that makes sense to the target language.
Easier said than done, as usual.
I love hearing how translators from different languages grapple with questions of context and register. Recently, I had an exchange with Jacob Rogers, a translator from Galician to English, about a poem by the Galician poet Luisa Castro. In the poem, excerpted from her groundbreaking 1988 collection Baleas e baleas [Whales and Whales], the speaker recalls a conversation with her mother in the coastal town where she grew up:
Miña nai traballa nunha fábrica de conservas.
Un día miña nai díxome:
o amor é unha sardiña en lata.
And in Jacob’s translation:
My mother works in a cannery.
One day my mother told me:
love is a canned sardine.
This is an origins-poem: the mother informs the daughter where she comes from, and the daughter wants to know more. “You come from / a platform of mussels / to be canned,” the mother says brusquely. At the back of the factory, where shells and crates of fish are rotting. “An impossible stench, a blue / worth nothing.” The daughter tests out another, sweeter image, only to be corrected:
Ah! I said, then I’m a product of the sea.
You’re a product of a break.
Ah! I said,
I’m a product of the sandwich hour.
Yeah, in the back, with all the worthless things.
Jacob tells me that there’s a sense of retranca, a specifically Galician brand of irony, at work in this poem. The trouble, he says, isn’t that this subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor won’t come across in English at all. But if the humor is rooted in something that’s culturally specific—or even specific to the atmosphere of the canning factory, the coastal village where Castro grew up—then how can he possibly convey that rootedness in English?
In Jacob’s words: “I think there’s something really important, something very Galician, about this brushing away of her daughter’s attempts to romanticize a comparison to the discarded fruits of the sea—a sea which, on top of providing food and livelihood, is also a constant cause of uncertainty and danger for those whose husbands and fathers spend weeks and months at a time on fishing expeditions, only to go right back out after a couple days. It’s like she’s telling her this isn’t a place for pretty things or fanciful notions, and the blunt banality of statements like ‘No. / You’re a product of a break’ seems to me to enact this way of thinking coming from her mother, who isn’t really joking, and yet she’s being funny. And I think that’s where I see the retranca here—it’s not a lightly humorous poem; no one is making jokes, but it’s somehow also hilarious in this very dark, subtle way that has everything to do with that no-nonsense attitude towards her mother.”
Another challenge, Jacob continues, is how to express what we learn about the mother from how she speaks. Si, detráis, she says at the end of the poem: Yeah, in the back. Her detráis, Jacob explains, is a thickly accented version of the Spanish detrás (behind). “These things are so minor in context,” he says, “and create no barriers for a Galician reader in terms of capturing their meaning, but they convey a whole world of connotations about the person speaking them—they mark her as older, from a pre- or during-Franco generation [Francisco Franco was the dictator who ruled over Spain from 1939 to 1975], before Galician was taught in schools, they mark her as being from a rural community, as being uneducated, from a poor background.”
Yet this very group of people (older, rural, less educated) makes up the largest demographic of Galician-speakers to begin with. Jacob explains: “The centuries of Spanish colonization of [Galicia] and lack of political and financial power behind the language led it to languish, being infested by and inflected with so much Spanish that for many speakers of the language, this Spanish-ized version is the only one they know.”
Jacob’s discussion of this poem leads him to a concluding question, if not to a concluding answer: “How on earth do you convey that kind of complexity in a language that is itself colonial?” Not just because the challenges at hand are simply a matter of colloquialisms, but also of something in between “that is as much generational as it is socioeconomic as it is regional as it is colloquial.”
As I think about Jacob’s reflections, I find myself returning to moments in my own practice as a translator. Is it even possible to get this tone across? I’ve often wondered. How can I render this joke or expression or image without going into everything that’s behind it? How can I do justice to what I’ll have to leave out?
After all, as a translator, you’re constantly deciding what you’ll have to leave out—and how the leaving-out will help you bring something else to the fore. It’s tempting to write off such sacrifices by invoking the cliché of what’s “lost” in translation. But I think there’s much more to it than that. Maybe, if we can accept that it’s impossible to import the entire social universe of a poem—and a language, and its speakers—into a translation, then we’re compelled to act with even greater accountability to it.
To translate in even greater solidarity with it.
And to reconsider the idea that a good translation makes the reader forget they’re reading something translated at all.
Because isn’t it also a gift, a joy, and a privilege to acknowledge that a poem can take us somewhere new—and then make an effort to learn more about where we’ve ended up?
Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish. He was a winner of a 2020 PEN/Heim translation grant, and the Words Without Borders + Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest. His translations have appeared in Asymptote, Epiphany, Best European Fiction 2019, ANMLY, Copper Nickel, PRISM International, Cagibi, Lunch Ticket, Your Impossible Voice, Nashville Review, the Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, and the Portico of Galician Literature, with work forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online.