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.
Back to the Tree
Do you find yourself getting tired of translation-metaphors?
I do, which is an awkward admission for someone who uses an awful lot of them.
The title of this column is a metaphor for translation. Almost every month, I end up examining metaphors for translation in order to poke holes in them, or celebrate them, or sweep them off the table, or fold them into different shapes. But sometimes all the comparisons make me want to throw up my hands. Even the metaphors I like (I’m partial, for instance, to thinking of translations as cover songs) can feel stiff and over-earnest. They make me bash my funny bone against the big questions I never quite know how to answer, both as a translator and as a writer of poetry: how does it all come together? how do I know if I’m getting it “right”? who am I speaking to when I do my work? is anyone speaking back?
I can only bring myself to defend the irresolution of these questions. And in my protectiveness, I find myself even more irritated by the translation-metaphors I don’t like.
One is translator-as-ventriloquist. I can’t even remember where I read or heard someone making this comparison, but I keep circling back to it because it drives me crazy. A translator isn’t a puppeteer. A translation isn’t a puppet. An original text isn’t mute and lifeless—voiceless—until goaded into translated speech.
A good thing about metaphors, though, is that they’re provocative by design. As much as I dislike the ventriloquism image, it still gives me things to think about.
Silence, for example. Not the silence of marionettes, but of listening.
Ottilie Mulzet, who translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, wrote to me about silence. But first, I want to share the translation that made me fall in love with her work:
Death of the Emperor
A Chinese emperor, in order to preserve
his power, decided that he would never
grant clemency to anyone. His reign
gave the Celestial Empire its longest
peace. Through his resolve,
he conquered Fear, Vainglory, Self-
Recrimination, and Savagery.
And he caused his kingdom to prosper.
One day, Compassion was brought before
him. He knew that in the name of Truth,
justice had to be rendered. For days he sat
in a darkened room. In his dreams he
pleaded for Compassion’s forgiveness. Which was
granted. The execution took place the following day.
Szilárd Borbély, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
The poem is a fable and a circle, ending with an ambiguity that shatters on contact with the beginning: the title. As a narrative, it feels both perfectly self-contained and somehow explosive, radiating farther out with each read. I admire the deft, confident stride of the translation, nimbly toeing the line between overt and oblique, oscillating in and out of the passive voice. And it makes me realize how doggedly I cling, in my habits as a poet and my taste as a reader, to the lyric “I,” and how garishly out of place it would be here.
In an essay on Borbély, Mulzet describes receiving a package that contained the poet’s agenda book for the year 1998. On January 24, he wrote, “The lyric text is always very aggressive.”
But back to silence.
Borbély (1963-2014) wrote a novel, essays, and verse dramas, but he was first and foremost a poet. As Mulzet remarked in an interview, his poetry “tends to be terse (apart from his more narrative poems) and dense with allegory. He was also writing from his experience of deep personal trauma…”
He took his own life in 2014. “On a personal level,” Mulzet wrote to me, “the loss of Szilárd Borbély as a friend and poet has felt hard, over the past seven years. Altogether, I knew him for 11 years (2003-2014). Now his absence in my life spans a timeframe more than half as long as his presence.
“In more concrete terms, it means I can’t ask him about certain things that may come up while translating. I feel lucky in that there are a couple of other people I can consult with whose judgment I trust implicitly. I feel Borbély’s presence while translating his work: his voice was inimitable, both in terms of what he actually wrote down and the way his physical voice sounded. I recall once reading a remark—from one of the many ‘writers’ camps’ held in Hungary—about his voice, how at times it was hardly audible. It seemed, even in happy moments, to seem to be coming from a great depth.”
“There is a Mongolian folktale, Sidet kegür-ün üliger, ‘The Tale of the Enchanted Corpse,’ that was originally translated from Tibetan into Mongolian in the 17th-18th centuries (the Tibetan version itself was translated from Sanskrit in the 11th century). The frame narration tells how King Vikramaditya must cross a charnel ground, place a corpse (a vetala) in a bag, and bring it back to an ascetic; in the Mongolian and Tibetan versions, a prince must bring the corpse back to Nagarjuna. Getting the corpse into the bag is not problem: but it keeps talking, telling one fascinating story after the other, and the Prince may not react in any way, not even allowing himself the smallest reaction. Of course, at the end of every tale, the Prince can’t help himself: a few words escape his lips, upon which the corpse goes flying back to the tree, and he has to retrieve it all over again. Meaning the corpse will tell yet another story.
“I tend to think about this folktale a lot—I’ve also had the chance to ask Mongolians and Tibetans, on occasion, what it means to them. ‘This story taught me the importance of silence,’ I recall one person saying. Another person recalled that ineffable moment when the corpse flew back to the tree with a huge whoosh—the arc of storytelling remaining unbroken.
“I think about my silence—or lack thereof, because I am speaking now—as a translator, in relation to this folktale.”
And what do you think? I want to cry out, eager as the prince, for Mulzet is the (living!) storyteller here and I the listener doing my best to keep quiet. Which I can’t do.
(There’s something about the sweet cyclicality of this folktale that gives me as sharp a jolt as “Death of an Emperor” does. Both disrupt what we might expect of the values at hand: justice, silence.)
Unable to keep from engaging with the corpse’s story, the prince fails in his quest: he must start over from the very beginning. And yet his “failure” assures him the joy of listening—“the arc of storytelling remaining unbroken”—again and again.
(Food for thought not only in terms of translation, but of friendship, too, and grief.)
In a way, it’s the opposite of ventriloquism. If you translate a poem, the poem isn’t silent; you are. You’re listening as hard as you can.
But of course, you can’t help but speak back.
Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, including the work of László Krasznahorkai, Szilárd Borbély, Gábor Schein, and György Dragomán. She was awarded the Tibor Déry Prize in 2020.