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.
It spoke to me. I love this phrase. To encounter some form of art and feel spoken to—it’s a special thrill. A coincidence. It’s strange, in a way, to feel personally addressed, directly involved by work not made with you in mind. To feel it stitching itself into you. It’s one thing to watch a movie or hear a song or read a poem and find it beautiful, admirable, impressive, but having it speak—to you!—is something else altogether. That’s the language of affinity. A fluke, a gift.
Boris Dralyuk, poet and translator from Russian, speaks to me about the affinity between translator and poet. “When I was younger,” he says, “I welcomed the chance to translate just about any poem that came my way; now I shrink from those that don’t speak to me—that don’t express, in some familiar-feeling (though still surprising!) manner, a perception I can adopt or a state of being into which I can step. And as I say, this sense of familiarity can catch one unawares—just as one sometimes forms instant friendships with people who, by all appearances, are of a character radically different from one’s own. At some level, more basic and vital than that of appearances, there is resonance, a bond… These unexpected instant friends are the poets and poems I stick with.”
Familiar but still surprising, surprising because it feels familiar—
Mulling over Boris’s words, I realize I still enjoy the challenge of apprenticing myself to poems I don’t get, of poems so stylistically different from what I seek out as a reader or experiment with as a writer that I can’t fall back on my usual instincts in the usual ways. I don’t believe in the ontological rift between artist and artisan. You learn a craft, you learn to practice it, and you learn to adapt it; to adapt with it. There’s real satisfaction in the mutability of technique—
But there’s nothing like affinity. When I translate a poem I’m interested in but don’t viscerally respond to, if I’m curious about it but it doesn’t speak to me, translating can feel, gratifyingly, like exercise: stretching, free weights, a brisk walk in the sun. But when “there is resonance, a bond”—what to compare it to? Dancing, maybe, because dancing is a celebration of reciprocity: with the music, with the person you’re dancing with, or with whatever feeling surges in your own solitary chest.
Папа оставил мне мой дом,
И всё, что в доме моём.
В дом свой зайду я на полчаса –
Бьётся в окно оса.
В день рожденья его посидим,
Молча попьём вино.
Слово жить – значит быть живым.
My father left me my home
and everything it contains.
I enter for half an hour—
a wasp beats against the panes.
On his birthday we’ll sit a while,
silently drinking wine.
To live means a life being lived—
not necessarily mine.
From “Mirror,” by Julia Nemirovskaya, translated by Boris Dralyuk
In a brief text about translating Nemirovskaya, Boris says: “The moment I first encountered [her poems], I felt I had acquired a magical mirror—a mirror that promised to reveal, with striking clarity, traits of my own personality that I had barely glimpsed before. I saw a version of myself in her lyrics and heard a version of my voice; but the self was brighter and better, the voice gentler yet surer than the ones I was used to.”
Which makes me think, in turn, of the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who described feeling at home onstage because “I could express everything that I couldn’t express elsewhere—yes, anger, but also tenderness. It’s not always easy to be as gentle as you wish to be.”
Translation is an act of interpretation, which is an act of performance, which is an act of expansion. Translation-with-affinity means you get to practice speaking in a voice that feels like your voice but is also more than just your own.
A memory. I’m on a night bus from Oaxaca, a city I know, to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city I don’t. I’m nineteen. On arrival, I find myself walking into town with two thirty-ish French Canadian men. I’ve never traveled alone before and I’m not any good at it, my face is so transparent it frightens me; the men, lifelong best friends, are funny, affable; we are a hazy Venn diagram of languages (I speak okay Spanish and zero French; one speaks excellent English and excellent Spanish; the other speaks little of either); I don’t even know where I’m going to stay, they recommend their hotel, which is cheap and pretty, I book a room there too. Instantly, exuberantly, we’re friends, we take long walks and drink beer and jump around to a live ska band, we double over with laughter in all our languages, they get horribly sick in Palenque, I don’t, they take me to the station at the end of my trip and we all choke up and they wave like my brothers as the bus pulls away.
That was fifteen years ago, and I’ve since learned what an improbable experience I had: no assault, no coercion, no macho condescension, just a sweet, spontaneous affinity that unfurled into a four-day friendship. Translating the memory now, I see myself experiencing an unfamiliar joy that gave me a glimpse of my own capacity for it—for joy, I mean. (It’s not always easy to be as joyful as you wish to be.)
Comparing the affinity between poet and translator to the affinity between friends, Boris muses, “Perhaps the new friend embodies more boldly that trait, that desire, that view that’s very much part of you, but that you’ve kept secret even from yourself.”
Nemirovskaya’s poem “At a Glance” ends like this:
Чтобы всё спасти, притворясь слепою
Я под ноги себе смотрю,
Я стараюсь быть не самой собою,
И живу как будто хитрю.
To safeguard the world, I look down at my feet,
pretend to be blind.
I try to be someone other than me,
to exist on the sly.
Without the first phrase, the speaker’s desire to be someone else, to exist in secret, would strike me as almost mournful. But I keep circling back to the tenderness of “to safeguard the world.” What does it mean? I love the mysterious expression of loyalty to the world—how the speaker tries to protect it by keeping herself in a state of unknowing, or unlearning. By practicing multiplicity somehow. A magical mirror. To live a life means being lived, after all, and not necessarily—not only—ours.
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Criterion, The New York Review of Books, The Yale Review, Jewish Quarterly, First Things, The Hopkins Review, and elsewhere.