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.
I throw up.
Like a broken-down engine
Like a dragon
Magnús Sigurðsson, translated by Meg Matich
In the months since I started writing this column, I’ve found myself mulling over the different ways we talk about translation. “We” meaning anyone: anyone who translates, anyone who doesn’t. It’s a strange thing, translation. A strange act. We seem to need lots of analogies for it. My friend Ezequiel Zaidenwerg often speaks of the translator as a musician performing a cover of a song. I once heard the poet Francisco Segovia describe the experience of translating as walking across a bridge and then watching it catch on fire behind you. And years and years ago, as a teenager in the audience of my very first poetry reading, I heard Robert Bly say writing poetry was like walking alone down the edge of a highway, while translating poetry was like dancing naked down the middle line.
All these images! All this grasping-at-straws, all these metaphors that grow contradictory or at least very complicated in their aggregate: translation is intensely exposing, yet the translator is somehow protected or at least accompanied by her relationship with the existing text. Translation is a solitary craft, yet the translator is bound in communion with an authorial Other. Translation is an experience of consuming absorption and an exercise of clinical distance. Translation is the most intimate possible act of reading. Translation is a practice of empathy.
It’s easy to talk about empathy as a conclusion, a gift. But it’s also—isn’t it?—a force. A reaction, an irruption. Something that does and undoes.
Meg Matich, a poet and translator from Icelandic, writes to me about empathy. “As translators and writers,” she says, “we know that ‘working through another draft’—even in the third round of proofreading—is an intense close reading of a text, a spiritual involvement that calls upon the deepest parts of the translator. You must examine each world with the precision of a poet.” You must make something happen. It happens to your body, too. And what happens can be terribly painful.
Meg describes herself as a traumatized person. Once, she found herself in the position of translating a book (which is not the work I’ve quoted at the top of the page) about an experience of abuse that pushed her, again and again, to relive her own.
“Our emotional and intellectual selves are inextricable from our somatic selves,” she writes. “We…are in fact organisms reliant upon our cognitive and affective faculties—and there is beauty to that, beauty in the light of the brain, beauty in its mechanisms for protection, trust, and love, and terror, discomfort, resiliency, empathy—powers that are essential to more than our individual survival. When two bodies move together in dance, talking, symposia, mirror neurons allow imitation (of facial expressions, posture, movement), and make us sensitive to and empathetic toward others—we feel their feelings. The same is true of the states of anger and fury, which can lead us to feel down or depressed. When we feel that we are not understood, valued, and safe, we shut down.”
For Meg, the empathy she experienced as she translated (and this was, I’ll add, a translation she was contractually obligated to complete) was violent, invasive, suffocating. “When your body stops working, and language cannot exist within you to be called forth, you are devastated. Language, the tool of my trade, became impossible to conjure.”
We speak of empathy as an unreservedly benevolent force, an instant opening-out of our own experience to connect with others in a generative way. As Amy Coplan writes in her essay “Engagements With Narrative Fiction” (and poetry, of course), readers (or translators) are able, through empathetic experience, “to connect to characters while still remaining separate from them.” Trauma, though, can turn an empathetic experience into sheer, unfiltered, unwanted connection; the self-protecting separateness becomes impossible.
And then translation becomes violent embodiment: the repeated reconstruction of your own pain, in your own words, unaccompanied and before you’re ready.
When we read, Meg reminds me, “our empathic connection with characters in novels, with the lyrical I of poetry…is a psychophysiological response of the body.” Hearts race, stomach sink. Fight or flight. Mirror neurons. There’s been quite a bit of research into the neuropsychology of reading; surely there’s much to learn, much we must learn, about what can happen to us—our brains and our bodies—as we translate, too. About how we hurt and how we heal in language. About the alarms that sound in us when our language is gone.
I’ve chosen to begin and end this essay with two of Meg’s translations—two gems by the Icelandic poet Magnús Sigurðsson, published several years ago—because her language is not gone.
Because, as her reader, I want to receive Meg’s words with respect and amazement for the mysteriously beautiful things that happen when those words clink against each other in time and space, and for everything I can’t know about what it’s taken for her or anyone to bring them together.
Because the first poem, “Ink,” makes my jaw go tight and my hand protectively drift to my throat.
And because the second, below, makes me soften. As I walk down the mossy steps of the last stanza, I feel something shift and creak open inside me. Here:
Song of a Lone Composer
I read and raise
into stone walls
and wait for moss to grow.
like a treaty
Magnús Sigurðsson, translated by Meg Matich
Meg Matich has received support for her literary translation work from organizations like the DAAD, the Icelandic Literature Centre (through publishers), PEN, and the Fulbright Commission, and has translated poetry into English (and into Icelandic, too) for UNESCO as a representative of Reykjavik UNESCO in Lviv, Ukraine. Among other projects, she is the translator of Cold Moons (2017 Phoneme Media/Deep Vellum) by Magnús Sigurðsson. Composer David R. Scott subsequently translated the work into a choral symphony.