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.
What’s Left (Open)
Who do you write for? writers are often asked. Who are you trying to reach? Who’s already reading your work in your imagination?
And the answers are legion: I write for myself. I write for my family. I write as if I had no family. I write for people who share my cultural context. I write for people who’ve never encountered this context before. I write for an imaginary but familiar someone who lives between worlds.
Translators, by contrast, aren’t often asked who they’re translating for. Maybe there’s a latent assumption that we don’t have to think about it—that “audience” is an author-only concern.
But it isn’t. Not just because the actual readership of an “original” work and that of its translation, its site of reception, are invariably different, but also because the translator is a different person, an autonomous creative agent, with a history and inquiries and inner dialogues of her own.
When I approached Jennifer Shyue, who translates from Spanish (focusing specifically on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers), in hopes that she might talk about her work for this column, I was thrilled that she began by addressing her own answer to the question “Who do you translate for?”
Recently, she says, she’s been “sharpening” this answer by consciously articulating to herself that “the reader my choices are aimed at (though of course I ultimately translate for whomever comes across my work) are bilingual (or multilingual) readers—people who, by the nature of their linguistic crossings, are accustomed to the sensation of not always knowing what everything means and to words that are theoretically the ‘same’ not ‘feeling’ like they’re exactly the same.”
In other words: “Who do you translate for?” is a question that also asks “Who is implicit in the decisions you make while translating?” In Jennifer’s case, both the engagement and the decisions are already bilingual (or multilingual). They already invite the fluidity, ambiguity, and mutability of living in and with and through several linguistic contexts at once.
And in still other words: “You could say I’ve been following the formal logic of code-switching,” Jennifer says. It’s a logic that helps her feel more supported in leaving words in Spanish: place names, food names, references so localized that their role or texture would be lost if flattened into some more generic image in English. “I think I already basically did this before, but it’s been nice to have this reasoning to help guide me when making these sorts of decisions anew.”
Among the poets Jennifer translates is the Chinese-Peruvian writer Julia Wong Kcomt (you can read some of her poems in Jennifer’s translation here, here, and here; a chapbook-length collection will be published later this year by Ugly Duckling Presse). Wong Kcomt’s work often explores aspects of being a Peruvian with Tusán (Chinese) heritage, presenting ample opportunities and challenges for code-switching in translation. I’ll focus on the poem “Ayacucho,” first published in Shenandoah, which Jennifer discussed in reference to some of the decisions she made—and would make differently in retrospect.
First, the poem in both Spanish and English:
No me duele la muerte
me duele el brujo
mirando un retablo
El fucsia de las mujeres
a llanto de chicharrón
y aguacero de uva
Y lamiendo las llagas
casi como cirio
Casi como otros
recontando los cuervos
uno por cada olvido.
Death doesn’t hurt me
the medicine man hurts me
as he stares at an altar
The fuchsia of the women
pork rind weeping
and deluge of grape
And licking wounds
I stand watch, lit up
almost like a wax candle
Almost like the others
recounting the crows—
so many, thousands
one for every forgetting.
Jennifer reflects on two place-specific words: chicharrón and retablo. The meaning of “chicharrón” shifts from country to country; in Mexico, for example, it means pork rind or pork cracklings, which is what Jennifer remembered and settled on for this translation. But then she recalled having a meal of chicharrón de pollo in Peru that was essentially “deep-fried chicken nuggets or…mini-tenders (‘chicken tenders’—another fascinatingly regional term for fried chicken).” If she could edit her translation—and why not? translation is mutable and so are we all—she says she would have left chicharrón in Spanish.
“Retablo,” meanwhile, posed another challenge. In Peru, retablos are a form of folk art: boxes of various sizes that contain miniature scenes, depictions of events (historical, religious, quotidian) that are significant to the indigenous communities of the Peruvian highlands. Jennifer opted to translate the word as “altar,” since “retablo” isn’t a concept most English-language readers are familiar with. Over time, though, she has learned more about the cultural singularity of retablos, including the fact that they originated in Ayacucho, and says she wished she’d kept this term in Spanish, too: as a way to honor not just a particular art form but also the specifically Andean traditions that created it.
What I’d like to underscore from my exchange with Jennifer is not her regret about having made certain decisions over others—a regret I often experience in my own work, including work that’s supposed to be “finished”; who hasn’t?—but her willingness to revisit even her published translations as part of an ongoing interpretive process. A process of how thinking evolves, how decisions are shaped not just by information but by experience, too. And how these decisions—micro-decisions: this word or that one? x register or y?—necessarily participate in even broader, deeper explorations of how we use language and what it means to us.
Jennifer has a gorgeous essay in The Common that explores both the magnitude and the intimacy of these questions. “Sometime in these past few pandemic-colored months,” she writes, “I decided to stop translating ‘mamá’ as ‘mom.’ A little while ago, as we video chatted, Julia [Wong Kcomt] asked about that choice in a translation I was reviewing with her. ‘Why did you leave it as “mamá”?’ she asked—whether in English or Spanish, I can’t remember; our conversations, especially about my translations of her work, often slip between both languages. ‘Because… it’s such an intimate word,’ I said—in Spanish, I remember; I remember pausing more than I would have in English as I searched for the right words. ‘Mamá, papá, these are the first words you learn. They’re close to the heart.’… Julia smiled and said, ‘I’m going to put what you said in my next book.’”
Later, in my back-and-forth with Jennifer, she returned to this question by way of a different one: “If even someone who knows no Spanish at all would understand what ‘Mamá, what are you doing?’ means, has ‘mamá’ really been ‘left’ in Spanish?… I think this is another one of those cases where our collective vocabulary hasn’t quite caught up with the subtleties of how things actually are—I also feel this way about the terms ‘native language’ and ‘mother tongue.’ I’ve personally tried to stop using those terms just because they feel inaccurate; among other issues, both terms seem to presuppose monolingualism as a baseline condition, which is of course not true for vast swaths of the world.”
The choice to “leave” certain words untranslated can be an act of respect for the singularity of what they name. Yet it’s also an acknowledgment of multiplicity: the writer’s or the translator’s or the reader’s own potentially intricate, mutable, simultaneous, multivalent relationship with language, with languages, and with how we live in them.
“And anyway,” Jennifer continues in the same essay, “is ‘mamá’ always ‘mom’ in American English? ‘Mom’ is never what I call my mother in the American English I use. I call her ‘ma,’ or I call her 「媽咪」/ ‘mommy’ / ‘mami’ (if you witness me calling to her, you are free to choose the language in which you hear what I say).”
Jennifer Shyue is a translator focusing on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers. Her work has been supported by fellowships and grants from Cornell University’s Institute for Comparative Modernities, Fulbright, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa. Her translation of Vice-royal-ties by Julia Wong Kcomt is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse’s Señal chapbook series. She can be found at shyue.co.