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.
A Tale of Four (or More) Translations
The serendipitous affinity of translation—the gift of connecting with a text you like in a language you know and feeling compelled to translate it—can feel like making a friend while traveling.
For the translator, poet, and editor David Shook, that’s exactly what happened: they met Adam Coon, who would become one of their co-translators, on a plane from Mexico City to Houston. “He was sitting a row behind me,” David recalls, “and on my way to the bathroom mid-flight I noticed that he was reading a book on Mexica history.” The Mexica were an indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who eventually ruled the Aztec Empire. “I had studied the Guerrero dialect of Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, several years prior, living for several months with a Nahua family in San Agustín Oapan, a village of about 1,000 people in South Central Mexico that’s been inhabited since at least the time of Christ. By that point, my Nahuatl was rusty, to say the least, but I was intrigued.”
David asked Adam about the book after landing. As it turned out, Adam had traveled to Mexico as part of his doctoral studies, researching early historical texts in Classical Nahuatl—“which is about as far removed contemporary Nahuatl as Shakespeare’s English is from ours,” David adds. “I asked him where he had learned the language. San Agustín Oapan. It turned out that we had been taught by the same instructor, Jonathan Amith.” They had even lived with the same family just a year apart. The two translators spoke briefly about their work, as well as David’s interest in learning more about contemporary Nahuatl poetry, and exchanged contact details.
When two people meet each other, they are already translating.
A coincidence is a co-translation between people and their circumstances.
Juan Hernández Ramírez is a poet from the Mexican state of Veracruz. He writes both in Huasteca Nahuatl—a language now spoken by about a million people in La Huasteca, a region that covers seven states along the Gulf of Mexico—and in Spanish. More specifically: he writes simultaneous versions in both languages at the same time. “They’re mirrors for each other” is how Hernández Ramírez describes it: an idea that marks not only his creative process, but also his everyday reality as a speaker of both Huasteca Nahuatl and Spanish. The textures and imagery of his poems are influenced by both languages. Each is somehow reflected in the other. Two mirrors.
Metaphors are translations, too.
David and Adam decided to co-translate one of Hernández Ramírez’s books: Chikome xochitl (Seven Flower), a poem cycle about the different stages, as chronicled by traditional Nahua agricultural science, of the maize plant’s flowering. Adam’s scholarly notes explain how the texts reference and describe the Nahua corn deity. For this book, Hernández Ramírez won the 2006 Nezhualcóyotl Prize, Mexico’s most prestigious prize for indigenous literatures. “As beautiful and approachable as Hernández Ramírez’s poetry is to the casual reader,” David tells me, “it is as deeply grounded in Huastecan theology, science, agriculture, and literature.”
As co-translators, Adam (a fluent speaker and scholar of Huasteca Nahuatl) and David (a translator from and fluent speaker of Spanish but not of Huasteca Nahuatl) undertook their own mirroring. They email back and forth as they work, David says, “noting syntactic departures between the two [versions of each poem] and asking ourselves what effect the poet’s attempting to achieve by making those diversions.”
Translation is a study of departures. Of what diversions make.
Poems about the flowering of the maize plant are chock-full, as one might suspect, of vocabulary to name and describe corn. Juan Hernández Ramírez was concerned that English might come up short in this regard.
It does, in a way. But translation is all about the transformation of what you have on hand.
The challenges of corn-translation presented themselves right away, in the title of the very first section. David: “Miauaxochitl, which Juan rendered as ‘Espiga de maíz’ in Spanish—espiga is often used to refer to an ear of grain in Spanish, or to the spike or spine features of plants, and I think that breaking down the Nahuatl title is a good example of what Juan means when he says that the two languages play off of each other. That is, it’s clear to me that Juan’s choice to use a word that encompasses both potential images is deliberate. In the Nahuatl title, Miauaxochitl ends with the word ‘-xochitl,’ perhaps the most famous Nahuatl word known by non speakers—besides, of course, the many words that have made their way into English and Spanish from Nahuatl, including avocado, chocolate, and tomato—meaning ‘flower.’ Nahuatl allows its speakers to easily build complex nouns by combining them according to several rules, and this corn-specific flower translates most directly into English as ‘corn spike flower.’
“While interesting, we felt that the rhythm [of ‘corn spike flower’] didn’t correspond to that of the Nahuatl or Spanish. Given the relative freedom that Juan had taken in composing the poem’s Spanish title, we asked him about the possibility of simplifying the title in English [into ‘Maize Flower’], an idea he readily accepted. Part of our process with Juan has been to read him the English-language versions of his poem, to see what sticks out to his ear, and what he particularly likes.”
Juan, writing poems that translate a relationship between his two languages. Adam and David, studying how the poems enact that relationship, how Juan innovates within it.
Juan, listening to how sound transforms his poems in a language he doesn’t speak. David and Adam, listening to what Juan hears echoed back.
Translation is listening with prepositions. Listening for, listening towards, listening with.
- Miauaxochitl / Maize Flower
Riffing, then, on how Hernández Ramírez explores complex nouns, and on how Huasteca Nahuatl encourages this to begin with, David and Adam came up with many fresh and vivid ways to describe corn in their translations.
Small-grained flame. Life’s living gold. Flower of fire.
When you translate, of course you learn about the language you translate from. But you’re also always learning more what’s possible in your own.
Ipan ueyatl axiuitik sintli
Makuilxochitl kipatlaua imamal.
Xali xochitl tiokuitlatik.
San eltok kuikatl tlatsotsontli.
Tender green corn upon the great sea
Makuilxochitl unloads her shawl.
The barbed corn blooms.
Gilded sand flower.
The house of dew
is dressed with flowers.
Only hymns and holy melodies.
Poet David Shook’s most recent book-length translations are Jorge Eduardo Eielson’s Room in Rome and Pablo d’Ors’s The Friend of the Desert. Their new verse collection, Atlas estelar, is forthcoming in 2020.