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.
Translation is writing. Any literary translator will tell you that. Heads up: if you ask a literary translator, “So do you also write, or just translate?”, they’re probably going to get a little defensive on you. Many of us rankle, you see, at the implication that producing “original” work (whatever that means) is invariably the goal, the standard, the higher calling. That translation, by comparison, is an exercise, a second-tier trade, a stopgap art.
There are other questions that make us squirm. Here’s a personal example, as someone who devotes most of her waking hours to translation but who also writes “new” poems: I’m occasionally asked whether my work as a translator affects my poetry. And I always fluster and say yes, because I think I feel it happening. I feel the doors of my language toed open by the voices and styles I’m exposed to as I translate. I feel them spur me, quicken my senses, keep me attuned to the sheer materiality of words. Beyond that, though? Beyond a feeling? I squirm not because I find the question unsavory, but because I’m simply not sure how to answer it.
Something rustles beneath the surface of these questions. In trying to understand the relationship between writing and translation, in trying to probe (with curiosity or suspicion, with reverence or disdain) where one stops and the other begins, we quickly bump our heads on a pair of old and persistent assumptions:
Doesn’t a writer aspire to be original?
Doesn’t a translator aspire to be invisible?
I’m not going to launch into a disquisition on originality and invisibility. Instead, I want to talk about a poet and translator whose work explores these issues with vitality and rigor.
Adeeba Shahid Talukder translates from Urdu to English, and she’s the author of the poetry collection Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved. She’s intrigued, she tells me, by the trope of the Good Translation as one in which the translator vanishes entirely from view. It’s a thankless concept in itself, and it takes concretely problematic forms in translating from Urdu: “Most of classical Urdu’s poetry every image, metaphor, and thought belongs to a world,” Adeeba explains, and becomes untranslatable beyond it.
The idea and practice of transcreation became essential to her work as a translator and poet. She found inspiration in The Rebel Silhouette, Agha Shahid Ali’s translations of the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. These translations are transcreational in the sense that, in Adeeba’s words, “Shahid sometimes couches the literal with a sort of explanation or exploration of the verse, where the reader is eased into a thought rather than given the literal meanings of words and left to put the pieces together.”
Compelled by this approach, Adeeba began to incorporate it into her own poetry, “using translation as a vehicle for the creation of new poems.” She’d found that her work, which draws from Arab, Persian, and South Asian legend, was often misunderstood. In her collection Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, she takes a new tack: “I attempt to begin the work of translating the context itself… I created a book where ghazal laws were assumed, and whose poems used its images, metaphors, and tropes in place of the ones found in the English canon.”
She also incorporated specific verses of translated text into her poems: not as references, not as mere intertextual nods, but as material to be worked with, reconfigured, transformed, made new. For example, she took a verse from the nineteenth-century poet Mirza Ghalib and translated it straightforwardly at first. The lover in the ghazal form speaks, addressing his beloved:
A sigh needs a lifetime to take effect;
who will live until your curls are conquered?
“When I first heard this verse, it perplexed me,” Adeeba says. “What could it mean for a curl to be conquered, and why would anyone want to do it?” She went on to write a poem that depicts the ghazal lover as a man who makes a show “of worshipping beauty and beautiful women, but also ultimately seeks to dominate them, views them as idols to be felled.”
I’ll quote Adeeba at length as she unpacks her process: “The title of my poem ‘Ah!’ is the first word of Ghalib’s verse (‘ah ko chaahiye…’), and translates to ‘sigh.’ I use translated words from the original verse to build a home to walk around in:
travels the length of age, then receives
a faint reply:
You have conquered a curl, at last.
“The tangles of the beloved’s curls are a metaphor for her mystery, complexity, and unattainability. They are layers to undo, secrets to fathom. In Urdu, the verb sar hona, or ‘to be conquered,’ can also mean to be ascended to one’s summit, as in English. In ‘Ah!’ I thus imagine the lover climbing the beloved’s tresses, and of course, the undertones are sexual:
how long I’ve traveled your tresses,
their black thick as night
forest of tangled twisting thoughts:
hip to waist,
along the length of the back
to the neck—made of softest light—
“I end the poem with a feeble portrait of the lover only mildly successful in his ridiculous task, poking fun at the concept of the verse itself:
but before I could reach your temple’s summit,
my breath collapsed.
I fell, clutching just a lock of your hair.
“Here, I use ‘temple’ to posit that worship and conquest are intertwined, are indeed two sides of the same coin. Here, the sigh, the breath, proves too short, too insubstantial to support the lover in scaling the beloved’s tresses. He falls to his death, having squandered his lifetime in a vain pursuit.”
Adeeba’s poem exists because of translation. And translation exists, can only exist, because of creation. Both are original. Neither is invisible.
Writing and translating both involve the pursuit of freedom within constraints. Maybe the constraints are more obvious when it comes to translation, because there’s already a smattering of words in front of you, a form, a pulse, a place, a time. But we write, too, in response to whatever terms of engagement we’ve been taught.
What I find so compelling about Adeeba’s form of transcreation is that it constantly explores and challenges the terms to begin with. She writes her poems in the English language, but she builds them outside the parameters of English canon. In drawing on Urdu and Persian poetry, she engages with translation as a wellspring and an ally, not as stasis or erasure.
I use translated words from the original verse to build a home to walk around in.
That sounds like freedom to me.
Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a Pakistani American poet, singer, and translator of Urdu and Persian poetry. She is the author of What Is Not Beautiful (Glass Poetry Press, 2018), and her debut collection, Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved (Tupelo Press, 2020), is a winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Poem-A-Day, Gulf Coast, Meridian, and The Margins, and her translations in PBS Frontline and Words Without Borders. A Best of the Net finalist and a Pushcart nominee, Adeeba holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and an Emerging Poets fellowship from Poets House.