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.
The Way Out Is In
If you’re looking for a new source of stress in your life, may I suggest you try translating a sonnet? You’ll get to grapple not only with the constraints of the form itself (fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, one of several possible rhyme schemes), but also whatever other constraints the poet has imposed on their own work before you ever got your hands on it. The form will give you a road map to follow, as May Huang (featured in The Guest 11) writes about translating sestinas—but you’ll also have to draw a new map from scratch. No matter how hard it is, you’ll want to make it look easy, which will make it even harder. Like dancing in ankle weights.
Emma Rault, who translates from Dutch and German, is intimately familiar with this dance. She has been translating a sequence by the Flemish poet Kurt De Boodt, whose rich, dense poems are marked by sound play and formal limitations. (You can read the full translations here, at Flanders Literature.) Some are full-fledged sonnets; one is a “deconstructed sonnet”: “something that starts out as a traditional sonnet and then falls apart,” Emma tells me, “to mimic the mental disintegration of the character featured in the poem.”
I felt vicariously daunted by this challenge even before I’d read the poems themselves. Of course, translation always involves the struggle to find freedom within constraints: that’s the point. That’s the art. A deconstructed sonnet, though, means a whole other level of restrictions. How did this translator find her way out?
By finding a way in. Emma says she thinks of translating poetry “as creating a chink in the poem, a crack that’s just small enough for me to slip through and ‘live inside it’…it helps to think of what I do as ‘trying to get the poem to open up,’ just sort of tapping away at its exterior.” I love this idea: the translator hovering outside a sealed object, a hermetic vessel, probing the surface until it yields and lets her through.
I also love the way the image helps de-romanticize translation as a craft. It sometimes bothers me how literary translation (especially poetry translation, considering how insistently poetry itself is romanticized) can be construed as an act of esoteric channeling. As if the translator gets beamed up into the spaceship of the poem and deposited back onto solid ground, translation magically in hand. Caught and released. Which isn’t to say that translation doesn’t involve moments of mystery, affinity, and intuition: thank goodness for those. But poems are made of words, and words are material to be labored with. That, too, is the point, and the art.
Emma’s labor begins, she describes, with a rough cut, an unvarnished, here-is-what-the-words-are-saying rendition of a line. “And then I just start trying to rephrase it and rephrase it, trying to get to the point where the artistry sneaks its way in there”: first on paper, then a round of editing triggered by the act of typing it up. Then pages and pages of free-associated notes: lists of similar words, alternate turns of phrase, possible formulations and reformulations. This is the tapping part. Tapping and tapping and tapping until the mysterious crack opens up: the quiet shift that tells a poet and translator that’s the one. Come in.
Back to Kurt De Boodt’s deconstructed sonnet. This poem is called “Seam,” and it’s from a cycle about deterioration and recovery, both mental and physical, after World War One. “The central metaphor is a sewing machine,” Emma explains to me, “which may be repairing an item of clothing, or may be attempting to repair a person.” De Boodt has described the poem as a sonnet that falls apart: fourteen lines, with the first four lines having ten syllables each—
The Brother Contraption snores below us
She’s wrapped in dreams of mending fraying thread.
The rattle of her breath soothes nightmare demons
into a hail of bowler-hatted heads.
—before the poem swerves in the second stanza, veering away from the original form. The effect is instantly destabilizing:
Brother waits impatiently
What Brother makes of you
This stanza reads, in Dutch, Brother [the sewing machine] wacht (…) / je herstel / niet af / niet af / niet af, which means “Brother doesn’t wait for your recovery.” But in Dutch syntax, Emma tells me, “the ‘not’ is tacked on at the end, so the line break creates surprise: it sounds like Brother is waiting, and then it turns out the opposite is true.” Brother waits / for your recovery / not. What’s more: niet af / niet af / niet af, the repeated negation, is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a sewing machine.
Emma’s challenge, then, was to keep tapping until she found a way in English to convey not one but both of these critical elements: the delayed, subverted resolution of the line, and the rattle of the machine. These aren’t mere devices in the poem. They are the poem: they help enact both the subject’s disintegration and the sonnet’s. Form follows function, as the saying goes.
So Emma tapped and tapped, repeating variations of the line to herself throughout the day, especially while cooking (I can relate to this tactic!), until she stumbled into the word “undone.” It was perfect for niet af, “for the surprise at the end, because it means unfinished, and there’s also the sense of ‘coming undone’ as in having a mental breakdown, and it was the closest to that sewing-machine sound that I was going to get. I knew I could come up with a line that ended on that word… I just had to find my way there.”
As I revisited my conversation with Emma to write this column, I found myself thinking of a word I love in Mexican Spanish: “talacha.” An etymological amalgam between the Náhuatl “tlalli” (land) and the Spanish “hacha” (axe), a talacha is a tool: a mattock, used for digging and prying by hand, for loosening hard ground, for pulling up stalks and roots. Today, though, the word is also used in reference to maintenance or repair, especially for cars. And it can invoke any kind of small-scale, hand-executed, slow-and-steady kind of labor. “Talachear” or “hacer talacha” conjures a general sense of plugging away, keeping at it, getting something done a little at a time.
A translator is an artist, but an artist is also an artisan. This, I’d like to think, is what we talk about when we talk about craft—or at least it’s how I want to talk about it, and what thrills me about how Emma does. Talacha: tap-tap-tapping against a poem, exploring what it’s made of, learning what we can make with what’s inside.
Emma Rault is a writer and a translator from Dutch and German. She is a 2019 Idyllwild Arts Non-Fiction Fellow and the recipient of the 2017 GINT Translation Prize. Her work appears in Guernica, the LA Review of Books, Literary Hub and elsewhere. Her most recent book-length translation is The Dandy by Nina Polak, published by Strangers Press. She lives in Los Angeles.