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.
Recently, toward the end of a virtual panel on literary translation, someone asked a question in the chat that went unanswered. It was actually more of a request: “I want to hear about translation faux pas!” they said. Mistakes, misinterpretations, oversteppings, renderings gone awry. But time was running out, other queries had piled up, there were six of us on the panel plus the moderator, and we just didn’t get there. Also, hey, it’s not easy to confess your screw-ups in public! I’ve been thinking about this question, though, and I’d like to share one of my blunders here.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small one. If it hadn’t been corrected, it wouldn’t have caused bodily or psychological harm, wouldn’t have been ethically compromising, wouldn’t have done much more than make me look either a little sloppy (which I was) or a little presumptuous in my choices. But it does serve as an example of how we all need a good editor—and of the difference a single word can make.
One of my favorite writers is the Mexican poet and essayist Isabel Zapata, and I’ve had the honor of translating her work in both genres. Her beautiful book Una ballena es un país (Editorial Almadía, 2019), which I’ve translated as A Whale Is a Country (not yet published in English), is a series of poems about animals and about human interaction—yearning, exploitative, loving, uncomprehending, awestruck, projected, cruel—with the natural world. Her poems often fill me first with a kind of essayistic admiration, then spark a more visceral rush of delight, then make me sad, then give me pause, infusing me with both wonder and unease (often but not always in that order). Here’s one, in Spanish first:
Diorama con oso polar
Al fondo del pasillo vive un oso polar.
La entrada es cara pero si te acercas
lo verás devorar una foca de sangre falsa.
¿Sueña el oso disecado con focas vivas?
El taxidermista que arregló su cuerpo
conoce la elasticidad de su piel,
la aritmética de su esqueleto,
el ángulo exacto de sus articulaciones
pero no el espíritu de hielo que en ellas se agitaba.
Como el vigilante del zoológico,
es guardián de un animal vencido.
También de tu soledad hicimos una ciencia.
And here’s my English translation exactly as I first submitted it to Lauren Peat, the features editor of Volume Poetry, when she commissioned some work of mine:
Diorama with Polar Bear
A polar bear lives at the end of the hall.
The entrance fee’s expensive, but if you go
you can see it gorge on a seal, dripping false blood.
Does the stuffed bear dream of living seals?
The taxidermist who mounted its body
knows all about its pliant skin,
the calculations of its skeleton,
each angle of its joints,
but not the spirit of the ice that used to stir there.
Like a watchman at the zoo,
he’s the custodian of a vanquished animal.
We made a science of his desolation, too.
Readers of Spanish may have already noticed my oversight. Lauren did. She emailed me and asked very diplomatically if I’d meant to translate the possessive pronoun in the last line (“También de tu soledad hicimos una ciencia”) as his instead of your. Was there a reason why I’d interpreted it as his, or why I’d decided to change it? The whole poem hit her differently, she said, when she considered the alternative that hewed closer to the original: “We made a science of your desolation, too.”
I cringed. I still cringe! The truth is, and I can’t quite explain it, I’d simply read the original—countless times—as “su” (his) instead of “tu” (your). I don’t know why! I mean, it happens. It happens to us as readers in the world, looking around, our eyes mistaking one word on a street sign for another, sometimes to comical effect. It happens, sure, to writers and writers-of-translations, overlooking the same stealthy typos in our zillionth draft. Rereading can dull our sight to even a glaring error: a flubbed pronoun, a skipped line, a misconstrued image. But it still feels embarrassing, silly, and worthy of self-recrimination: Such a basic mistake! How could I have missed it?! Am I not, as the translator, supposed to be the text’s Most Intimate Reader?
The real issue here, though, isn’t the mistake itself, but what Lauren said: that the poem hit her in two completely different ways when she read the poem with or without it.
“Diorama with Polar Bear” maintains, until the very end, a descriptive distance: the speaker contemplates the stuffed bear (who nonetheless “lives” at the end of the hall) as a being who won’t be speaking back. Same for the taxidermist: the poem holds him at an observable distance, speculating in turn about what he does—and doesn’t—know about the dead animal whose lost vitality he tries to simulate.
And then, at the end, comes the you: a lurch, a sudden, wincing shift from narration to address. And to apology. You, bear, hunted, stuffed, displayed, orphaned of your landscape: we made a science of your desolation, too. Forgive us. Of course it has to be “you!” It has to be you: the living creature suddenly an interlocutor, offered at least the respect of speech, a greater honesty than any taxidermist or museum can imitate.
Lauren’s question led me to change one word: a single syllable. But that syllable contained something essential about the entire poem and how it moves, how it invests its attention, and where it guides the reader’s as well. However passive my error had been, however easy it is for a complacent eye to mistake a su for a tu, it meant I’d been misreading—not fully reading—the poem’s intent. It took a keen-eyed reader and editor for me to see what I’d missed. And in seeing what I’d missed, I could read the poem not just again, but anew.