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’m not sure how to start. I decided I wanted to write about co-translation this month, but that’s an excuse, a stand-in for something else. What I really want to write about is friendship. I want to acknowledge something. Someone. It’s October again, and I want to write about Enrique.
Enrique Servín Herrera was a poet, translator, polyglot, scholar, activist, and one of Mexico’s greatest linguists and defenders of indigenous cultures. He directed the Department of Ethnic Cultures and Diversity for the state of Chihuahua, working to protect and support more than eleven indigenous languages of his region, as well as Quiché Maya. He spoke more languages than he would tell you if you asked him, and he translated from English, French, Polish, Arabic, Catalan, Russian, Portuguese, and Hindi. He was outrageously modest and profoundly kind. His generosity was as humbling as his brilliance. Just over a year ago, in October 2019, he was murdered in his home in the capital city of Chihuahua, a crime that remains unsolved.
I first met Enrique at a residency at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC) in 2014. The program was then directed by the translator and writer Katherine (Katie) Silver, now someone I’m lucky to call a friend. And Katie and Enrique were already friends, collaborators, allies in language. He was her advisor and “informant” for her translations of the Mexican writer Daniel Sada, counseling Katie on the particularities of northern Mexican Spanish. A lodestar, Katie tells me now, both personally and professionally. “It wasn’t his curiosity in broad strokes that was so compelling about Enrique,” she says. “It was his curiosity about the other, the other language, the other world that language brings into existence, the other humans who live in that other world… He said that each time a language goes extinct, an entire world dies with it. He lived that potential loss all the time, seeking out worlds on the brink of extinction, learning them and working to nurture their continued existence.”
How many worlds must Enrique have lived in? How many must miss him?
In the days after Enrique’s death, one of his poems quickly began to circulate on social media. It’s an elegy, and it’s about the sorrowful shift in language—present to past—when someone is suddenly gone. The subject is named Jesús Hielo. Jesus Ice.
—Outside the world grows, concrete and vast,
the hills, endlessly trees, conifers
sown fields, grasses, sands, stone.
He died today.
“Elegía” is the first of Enrique’s poems that Katie suggested we translate into English together. In this case, and in others that followed, she sent me an initial version, which I then commented on and edited; then she marked and adjusted my markings and adjustments; and so we went, back and forth, maybe twice more. Sometimes we’ve started with her first drafts, sometimes with mine.
It’s a new experience for both of us, not least because we knew the poet, and because he isn’t here to read what we make of what he made. It’s both poignant and daunting. As we work, ping-ponging our tracked changes between Berkeley and Mexico City, I often think of Enrique. But I think just as much, if not more, about Katie—who is, if I may embarrass her for a moment, one of my translation heroes, and who knew Enrique better and for longer than I did. What is this like for her? I catch myself wondering. How does she wrestle with the ambiguity of a given line or image? Of course, Katie’s craft is predicated on wrestling with the ambiguity of given lines or images: she has breathtakingly translated some of the most transcendent works in the Spanish language, many written by authors who are no longer alive. But this must be different. Does it feel different?
I asked her. And I found her answer deeply moving. As she translates Enrique, she says, she feels him there as an active presence: “He is watching over me and guiding my hand. That sounds ridiculously cliché, but the fact that I’m saying something so cliché means that the sensation is un-clichéable.”
Which doesn’t make it simple, though. Enrique knew so much about so many things, could and did draw so richly from so many traditions in so many languages—and so it’s intimidating to know that we (I’m taking the liberty of including myself in this intimidated “we”) can’t access all those layers of our own accord.
Another factor to grapple with now is Enrique’s “reticence to show me his poetry, that I wouldn’t like it, that it is too political (not!), that it is too angry (also not!)… but really [it] was about his insecurity/modesty/self-effacement/lack of personal ambition. So reading his poetry, translating it, feels almost like going behind his back.”
I feel that way too, now, writing these words. Such a private person—would he be uncomfortable to know that we’re reading his quiet, lyrical, dignified poems so closely, mulling them over on poetry websites, trying to honor him in this small but deliberately public way when he insisted so fiercely on honoring others?
What I find reassuring about Katie’s response is that she acknowledges these doubts and feelings of inadequacy in a way that still affirms the love behind the work, the love through the work: “It’s only right that he should be checking in to see what I think, though I know he is now detached, truly, from ego, just curious… curious and probing.”
At BILTC, I remember Enrique greeting each translator in their own language: Arabic, Mandarin, Turkish, Rarámuri. Or later, outside a restaurant in Ciudad Juárez, gleefully writing out Persian verses with his finger in the dust of a parked car.
The last time I saw him, at a 2016 conference in Monterrey, we spoke about the pending horrors of a Trump administration, the exhaustion of falling in love, and how we both missed our friend Katie Silver.
Es triste, esa primera vez, al hablar de alguien
usar el imperfecto.
El verbo vivo, firme, cede al fin:
hablaba, decía, tenía, era.
Hielo tocaba su violín en la sierra.
How sad, that first time, to use the past tense
when speaking of someone.
The living, solid verb gives way in the end:
he spoke, he said, he had, he was.
Hielo used to play his violin in the mountains.
It’s true: when someone dies, our language changes forever. The present cedes to the past.
But working with Katie to translate Enrique’s poems feels like a different act of conjugation to me. Another tense, gesturing to a presence neither here nor there—
he might have thought, we think he’d be, we hope he’d trust.
Katherine Silver’s most recent and forthcoming publications include works by Verónica Zondek, María Sonia Cristoff, César Aira, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro. She is the former director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC) and the author of Echo Under Story (What Books Press 2019). She does volunteer legal interpreting for asylum seekers.