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.
Tell Me In Your Own Words
Years ago, I attended a reading by the Syrian poet Adonis in Mexico City. It was the grand finale of a long poetry festival. He took to the podium amid rapturous applause and announced, through his interpreter, that he’d decided not to read any poems that had been translated into Spanish; he was tired of repeating them. Instead, he wanted to read an entirely different poem, a long one, only in Arabic. And he did.
The audience listened as ardently as if they understood his every word. No: as if they wanted to show, with their bodies, how much they wished they could understand. Actually, maybe not that, either: as if they wanted to prove they could experience something that didn’t depend on understanding alone.
Say you’re a famous poet, like a really famous poet. Say you’re also a translator. Say you’re Adonis! Or Anne Carson. Say you devote your life, among other things, to the consuming, meticulous, epoch-vaulting, exquisitely weird exercise of rendering texts from one language into another language, and those two languages happen to be as wildly different from each other as, in Carson’s case, ancient Greek and contemporary English, and you also write your own rich, mineral-hard, glittery-veined English-language poems that don’t sound like anyone else possibly could have written them, because you wrote them, and you become so famous for doing all of these things that translators start translating you into other languages, lots and lots and lots of other languages all around the world, languages you don’t know and will never learn, and those translations—each written by its translator, in the way of Kate Briggs, who suggests we consider the act of translation as the act of writing a translation—keep wandering around the planet sort of all by themselves, sort of independently of Adonis or Anne Carson, which is a translation’s lot in life, and I find myself asking a tiny, tiny question, out of curiosity alone: do Adonis and Anne Carson feel curious about the many translations of their work? Do they have copies of these translations on their bookshelves at home? Do they feel anxious about them? Do they feel connected to them, whether they can read them or not? Do they trust them, doing their thing out there, without them?
Cristina Rivera Garza, a writer I’ve translated, talks about a concept she calls disappropriation: “a practice that, in recognizing writing as labor, endeavors to unveil the different form of collective work that structure and constitute a text.”
“Far from serving as a police force that hunts down any instance of appropriation in sight,” Cristina writes and I translate, “the disappropriative aesthetic produces writing strategies that embrace, welcome, and ultimately incorporate—in open, playful, and nonconformist ways—the writing done by others.”
The idea is that we never make anything alone. We are always already together, working-with, working-thanks-to others, whether or not we (and what we make) acknowledge it. Disappropriative writing acknowledges it. Translation is a form of disappropriative writing.
I once received the unfathomable gift of attending a translation residency in the company of a poet I was translating, Alejandro Crotto. When it was my turn to tell the group about my project, he joined me in recounting a couple especially thorny challenges and how we’d worked together to untangle them. We read some poems in Spanish in English.
At the end, another translator in the group asked Alejandro whether he felt, reading my translations, that the poems in English still belonged to him. He paused. “I think they’re Robin’s poems now,” I remember he said. “I think they belong to her.”
The translator who’d asked the question smiled looked at me. “Is that what you hoped he’d say?”
No, yes—yes, but—
What I really mean is—
(What’s the real question here?)
The old trope of the therapist urging a patient to “Tell me in your own words”—it’s a joke. Not a mean-spirited one—a wink.
In The Restless Dead, Cristina Rivera Garza describes hypothetical books made solely or mostly “of acknowledgments pages—the place heretofore designed for recognizing other people’s participation in the making of a book.” Acknowledgment would take up more space than anything else.
Maybe, in the future, “it won’t be impossible to envision books that are just that: sheer recognition, which means sheer critical questioning, of the dynamic and pluralistic relationship that enables their existence in the first place. And what is recognition if not pure gratitude?”
I live in two languages, but the living happens in different ways. Born in the US and raised in English, I’ve lived in Mexico for almost a decade now, where I speak mostly Spanish most days. I work as a translator of texts from Spanish to English. I write poems in English. Other poets have translated some of them into Spanish. My poetry collections, which I wrote in English, have not been published in English (or not only in English, in/for an English-language market). But they have been published in Spanish, in such a way that the “original” English texts, if and when they appear on the page at all, become—and I love this—secondary to the Spanish, an accompaniment to the translation.
And they accompany me. When I take part in poetry readings in Mexico, say, I read mostly someone else’s translations into Spanish; I’m sharing someone else’s work, first and foremost. I’m externalizing a gift that has already been given to me in the form of someone else’s craft, someone else’s attention. It means we’ve already worked, are working together.
The experiences of translating and being translated start to blur together in the language I reach for to describe them: I borrow words and embody them as deeply I can. They’re part of me, but they’re not only mine. They invite me to be where I am more fully, but I don’t need to own the house. There’s a special comfort in sleeping on the couch.
There has to be more to authorship than ownership. There has to be more to writing than authorship. Acknowledgment takes up more space than anything else. Sheer gratitude.