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.
“I Can Hear It!”
There’s a phrase I love in Spanish, “de largo aliento,” used to describe something that continues over time. “Un ensayo de largo aliento” is a long-form essay; “un proceso de largo aliento” is a long-term process. “Aliento” in itself means breath. Depending on the context, the noun can also refer to encouragement, inspiration, spirit, even courage. But I’m especially taken with the idea of the long breath to evoke what can be sustained and allowed to evolve without hurry, the respiratory flow that accompanies a gradual unfolding. The idea of an experience or a work of art or a relationship as fundamentally long-breathed, capacious. I like to think of particular forms of reading and writing in this way: the long-breathed bond you might have with an author or book that accompanies you for years, flutters along with you as you change, fills the lungs of your thinking.
Chloe Martinez, poet and scholar of South Asian religions, has a long-breathed relationship with the work of Mirabai, one of the earliest known women poets, who lived in north India in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century. An ardent devotee of the god Krishna, Mirabai (or Mira) is also known as a Hindu saint. Chloe first encountered her song-poems in college and has been rereading and thinking about them ever since. Eventually, she also began to translate them from the original Braj Bhasa, an early form of Hindi—and to write her own poems influenced, in different ways at different times, by Mira’s.
“By Mira,” Chloe tells me, “I should really say ‘Mira’: we don’t really know which poems were written by a historical person, since they were first sung and shared orally, then gradually written down over centuries. It’s nearly certainly true that other people wrote songs in Mira’s persona and signed the poems with her name… Nevertheless, there’s a corpus of poems that are widely known today as ‘Mira poems’ and that’s what I’ve drawn from in [my] translations.”
I’m intrigued to learn that Chloe spent so much time studying and absorbing these poems before attempting to translate them herself. Why? “Something that stopped me… is the fact that they are songs, as much as they’re poems. The first line of each is its refrain, and many English translations don’t let a reader know about that, and I thought maybe any textual version was just too limited in relation to the sung versions.”
It can take a lot of long, long breaths to find a solution while translating—to find a key to a puzzle posed by a line, form, poem, or poetics. Here’s a Mira poem in Chloe’s translation, key and all (note how this poem, like all the others in the group, includes Mira’s name at the end: that’s the “chaap,” Chloe explains, the “stamp,” the poem’s internal signature).
Mira With Exclamation Points
I can hear it: the sound of Hari’s arrival!
Climbing to the top of the palace, I keep looking out—
oh my friend, when will the Great One come?
I can hear it!
The frogs and peacocks and papihas all shout
and the koyal sings her sweet song
Lord Indra got excited and it rained everywhere
and the lightning gave up being shy
and the earth itself put on a new outfit
just to meet god
Mira’s man is Hari the Indestructible!
Come to me quickly, Lord—
As Chloe explained, the first line of the poem is the refrain: I can hear it: the sound of Hari’s arrival! Her solution, as we can see in the indented, italicized lines, was to thread the refrain through the poem like an echo. It’s a gesture to the poem’s essential sungness, a structural decision that charges the written form with musicality. Breath.
Mira has found her way into Chloe’s own poems for a long time, too (it isn’t lost on me that the word “inspiration” is etymologically rooted in breathing). Poems of Chloe’s have explored Mira’s characteristic “how-to-get-close-to-the-Other,” like this one; the third section of her first chapbook, Corner Shrine (Backbone Press, 2020), consists of “disembodied love songs that use a Mira-style direct address.” Throughout our conversation, I’m struck by the number of other poems that occur to her bit by bit, as if they were peeking out to be looked at in the retroactive light of influence: she mentions one of her most recent publications, for instance, based on a sculpture, “that feels, now that I think about it, also connected to Mira.”
Because that’s how it works, isn’t it? The connections can feel amorphous, refracted, accidental, out-of-sync. Yes, we can delve deeply and intentionally into certain poems and books and poets in the desire to be influenced, guided, even, as we write in engagement with them. But so much of the time, especially with the works and writers we spend years of our lives revisiting—haunted by gentle, companionable ghosts—we can’t know exactly how they’ve tinkered with our voice and our vision, just that they have.
And then the echoes come. Chloe sent me another poem first published in Waxwing, which I’ll share here in its entirety:
Afterlife (Jaipur, 2008)
“Agar Firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast,
hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast.”
—couplet by Amir Khusrao
inscribed on the tomb of the
Mughal Emperor Babur, Kabul
If there is a paradise
we arrived, as if at the far bank
of a river, and sat on a cool verandah
upstairs among leaves and
more shady leaves
it’s not mango season, they keep telling us,
so I settle for mosambi, sweet lime, for now.
Every day I drink half, leave the rest
for you to finish
It is this,
our hotel used to be a haveli; the family
still lives in one wing, the women
veiled like proper Rajputs, like
ghosts, sweeping the courtyard
it is this,
we have no family here, observe no holidays,
and I have given up my phone. Our
life back home takes on the warm
glow, the softened edges of myth
it is this.
you say you don’t like graveyards, tombs,
even beautiful ones, but here we walk
among them and you in a cloud of parakeets
forget about death
Chloe describes this poem as “maybe a long-ago genesis of [the] echoing refrain idea” she wove into her translations of Mira’s poems. It is this, it is this. Maybe she heard the echo, caught wind of its possibility, long before she consciously applied it to her work as a translator.
But maybe the point isn’t—it certainly isn’t mine—to pinpoint what came first, or to trace what went where. Just to marvel at the quiet rearrangements in a poet-translator’s thinking and language, even her form, when she spends a long time steeping in the work she keeps close. Mirabai is in the air of Chloe’s poems and translations. Both breathe it, growing there.
Chloe Martinez is a poet and a scholar of South Asian religions. She is the author of the collection Ten Thousand Selves (The Word Works) and the chapbook Corner Shrine (Backbone Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah and elsewhere. She works at Claremont McKenna College. See more at www.chloeAVmartinez.com.