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.
When I was in high school, an English teacher took our class on a field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. By that point, I’d stumbled into a fascination with poetry I couldn’t quite explain, but I knew it made me feel more electrically awake than anything else, and I was thrilled by chance to see and hear Real Live Poets doing their thing. It rained that day. I trudged across the muddy field from tent to tent, soaked, abuzz. What I remember most is a reading by Robert Bly, who, as part of his talk, recited a poem by Robert Creeley from memory six or seven times in a row. It’s one of the few poems I now know by heart myself:
Love comes quietly,
about me, on me,
in the old ways.
What did I know
able to go
alone all the way.
Bly drew out the vowels as he read. He tilted his head, moved his hands in the air. He leaned into what invited being leaned into. Quietly, finally. About me, on me. What did I know, able to go, alone. If you’re going to write poems, you need to know your vowels, I remember he said. Paraphrasing now, because the memory is stronger now than the rest of what he said exactly: You need to think about sound so that your poem can do what it says.
A poem is made of words that do. An invocation.
Of course, some poems are explicitly so. Take, for instance, “Invocation,” by Marlon Hacla, translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim. I read this poem right here on Palette Poetry when it was published in May 2020, and it captivated me. I could feel myself leaning into it the way I was once invited to lean into Robert Creeley’s vowels:
In the name of the rock. In the name of the lily blossom.
In the name of white paint smeared across a tomb.
Name, blossom, name, paint, tomb. N is a soothing letter—I hadn’t thought about it before. The seductive and then frightening softness of the echo between blossom and tomb—
In the name of the moon. In the name of the sun.
In the name of the eclipse. In the name of the eyes
Of a blind child. In the name of pigs
Killed for the fiesta. In the name of chicks
Dyed for the fiesta. In the name of children
Who had nothing to eat.
Eclipse, pigs, killed, chicks, children. When anaphora works best, it lulls us for the sake of surprise—it jars us gently along into somewhere we couldn’t have imagined getting ourselves. This passage contains my favorite jolt in the poem: pigs killed / chicks dyed. It’s almost a joke, a dark one; it evokes, archly, the juxtaposition of ornament and slaughter, the surreal pageantry of life and death.
But I digress. What I admire about “Invocation” is how vividly, musically, and disconcertingly it enacts what it says—how embodied it is, and how commandingly it involves our bodies (as listeners, responders, mouthers-of-words) in its reception. And since I am receiving the poem not in Marlon Hacla’s original but in Kristine Ong Muslim’s English translation, then I admire how she has invoked this immediacy, how she has recast its spell.
I asked Kristine to tell me a bit about the experience of translating “Invocation.” She said that this poem—and the collection it comes from, There Are Angels Walking the Fields, Hacla’s debut—made for an unusually neat translation from Filipino, in that the original text hews even “to the reproduction of syntax in English. I suppose I should ask Hacla if he thinks in English when he writes,” Kristine remarked, “and then simply ‘translates’ his thoughts into Filipino.” She posed this question as an aside, and I’m echoing it here for the same reason, because I find it a fascinating subtext of multilingual writing—of work that may not be originally written in two languages but which may well be shaped by them.
Kristine went on to tell me about some of the specific decisions she made so the poem would sound duly invocative: as charged and crackling with intention as the original.
She mentions a couple of lines toward the middle of the poem: “In the name of letters / Making up your name. In the name of your nocturnal name.” The second line in Filipino, “Sa ngalan ng iyong pangalan / Sa gabi,” most straightforwardly translates to “In the name of your name / At night.” But Kristine says she didn’t feel comfortable with the line as it stood: “I thought it would stick out like an eye sore in the poem’s arrangement… I figured that by compressing the line to a more forceful end-stopped configuration and eliminating the enjambment—that inelegant, sometimes seemingly arbitrarily placed, uninspired tooling around for loose interpretations—I could then introduce ‘nocturnal,’ simultaneously conjuring mysticism as well as the smartness of biological design.”
Compressing as a way to conjure, to draw out what’s waiting, latent.
One more example of how Kristine found her way from a first version to the final one, from this is what it says to this is how it works. A placeholder version of these lines:
…Sa ngalan ng mga kamay
Na hindi nahipo. Sa ngalan ng mga mukhang itinatago
Sa itim na tela.
…could be this:
…In the name of hands
Not touched. In the name of faces hidden
By a black cloth.
But Kristine’s translation is this:
…In the name of hands
Never held. In the name of faces hidden
By a black veil.
“The Filipino equivalent of ‘never,’” she tells me, “is ‘kailanman.’ The original-language version has no ‘kailanman.’ But the poem is supposed to be an invocation, and it can’t effectively invoke if it is not even sure of what to invoke or if it keeps hesitating when making value judgments. The intrusion of ‘never,’ for me, is not uncalled for. ‘Never’ is posed with heavy-handed finality and communicates uncertainty. It makes for a more effective invocation. In the context of hands, ‘held’ is more intimate than ‘touched.’ And it has to be a ‘veil,’ not a piece of ‘cloth’ or ‘fabric.’”
It does, doesn’t it? “Veil” is a word that English-language readers know to associate with mystery, concealment, and the possibility of revelation: a shadow that may or may not be lifted. And the “never,” too—explained by Kristine as a slight ratcheting-up, a tonal shift that allows her to fulfill the original poem’s intention in a clearer, more powerful way—feels true to the verdict it delivers, the finality that the poem enacts and honors. And conjures freedom for.
So, translators: in the name of that freedom and its conjuring. In the name of faithfulness not to the text as fixedness, but to the language it’s made of and the other language it lives another life in. In the name of faith in that other life.
Know your vowels.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, including The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015). She is also the translator of several bilingual volumes: Marlon Hacla’s Melismas (forthcoming from Oomph Press) and There Are Angels Walking the Fields (forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books), as well as Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), Hollow (forthcoming from Fernwood Press), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (forthcoming from University of the Philippines Press), and Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018). Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Dazed Digital, Tin House, and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in Maguindanao, southern Philippines.