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.
“Can the light that shines after reveal the fictitious moon?” reads a line from “Gecko,” a sestina by Chung Kwok-keung, translated from Chinese by May Huang.
Forgive me for plucking this line out of its context. But it keeps flashing back to me all by itself as a way to think about translation: light shining after. Light-as-evidence, light as new thing across a great distance, connected to a prior thing, both real in itself and fictitious in our perception.
A sestina is a puzzle. This verse form has six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line “envoi.” Crucially, the words that end each line of the first stanza become the end-words, rotated in a fixed pattern, in the stanzas that follow. As May writes in a fantastic essay on sestinas and literary translation, “the form gives poets a road map to follow—you don’t know how the full poem will manifest, but you do know that one of six special words awaits you at the end of every line.”
As for translators of sestinas, the form obliges them both to follow a map and to create a new one altogether. Translating a poem means writing it—an idea exacerbated, dramatized, when it comes to translating a verse form like a sestina. You’ve been told from the beginning what the parameters are. Now you must live in them.
The trouble with road maps is that they imply dominion. (YOU ARE HERE!) The language of dominance often creeps into translation, too. “I think that translators are sometimes expected to be ‘total experts’ on the text they are translating,” May remarks to me, “and to know what every line ‘means’…Chung Kwok-keung is known for his dense and abstract language, and it’s often very challenging to unpack what he’s trying to say, or what a certain image conveys I think this is in part what drew me to his work in the first place.”
May mentions a particular image that puzzled her:
Your whole posture is an untouched wall
Always there, webbed feet stay in a neither coming nor going wind
What’s happening here? How is it that the gecko “stays”? What’s up with the wind if it isn’t coming or going?
May asked the poet about this image. “His reply was that the ‘wind’ wasn’t really that significant and that what he wanted to achieve in that line was to emphasize the loneliness, [the] stillness of time.” The “aha!” moment she was expecting—it didn’t come.
May and Chung’s brief exchange conveys so much of what can be both nerve-wracking and liberating about translating poetry—or about having anything else to do with poetry, for that matter. Anyone who’s ever been struck by a poem, by the language in a poem, has probably experienced the visceral wonder of realization-without-knowing. A charge, a connection, a little surging yes. And yet, if someone demanded you deliver a surgical analysis of What It Means, you probably couldn’t. And why should you? It’s this very sense of unfetteredness, of language going places without declaring itself, behaving in unexpected ways, that makes poetry unlike other kinds of written expression.
Poetry gives us a road map, yes. But maybe the names are off, maybe the scale is strange. Maybe there is no compass rose. Maybe there’s an unmarked stream in the middle of the desert.
As a translator, May suggests, the great challenge—the great invitation—is the tension between mystery and mastery. Translators are expected to be a text’s closest reader. But being a close reader doesn’t mean shedding our relationship with, our reverence for, a poem’s original mystery. It doesn’t mean mastering it—and what an aggressive way to think of something as slippery and generous as words.
Why blast a searchlight into the shadows when you can sit in the dark and let your eyes get used to it?
In the spirit of light-shining-after, I recently heard the poet and translator Lindsay Turner muse aloud about the obsession with what’s “lost” in translation. What if, she suggested, some things in translation are not lost but kept secret?
“At the end of the day,” May says, “I’m also a reader. And If I read my translation of ‘Gecko’ and feel the same puzzlement I felt when reading the original poem, maybe that’s okay—maybe that means I’ve not only translated the poem, but also translated its mystery.”
The light that shines after reveals the fictitious moon. It doesn’t explain it, not it, not everything. The secret is safe.
May Huang is a freelance writer and translator from Hong Kong. Her translations of Chinese prose and poetry have appeared in Circumference, InTranslation, Asymptote, Pathlight, and elsewhere. She graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in English and Comparative Literature, and is a member of the Third Coast Translator’s Collective. She was a mentee in ALTA’s 2020 Emerging Translators Mentorship Program and received an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation. You can find her on Twitter as @mayhuangwrites.