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. This is the final installation.
Hush You Goodbye
As I wonder how I might bring this column to a close after two years of monthly installments, I find myself thinking about lullabies.
Some years ago, I attended a residency for translators from all over the world. As the days wore on and our camaraderie deepened, we’d often gather in the common room in the evenings to chat, unwind, listen to music, or make it.
Someone once suggested we each sing a lullaby from our culture of origin or a language we lived in. We sang to each other in Farsi, Spanish, Turkish, Rarámuri, English, Hebrew, French, and Icelandic, then gave the group a rough sense of what the lyrics meant. We were awake for a long time.
Many lullabies are troubling. As we were reminded that night, and depending on where we were soothed to sleep as children, the songs that did our soothing are full of werewolves, baby-snatching eagles, marauding horsemen, and cradles tumbling out of treetops. They’re laced with menace: with what’s lurking in the forest, circling in the sky, waiting to swoop away an infant in its sacred helplessness.
After I listened to all those different lullabies from places I’d never been and sang one of my own (“All the Pretty Horses,” I think—the bees and the butterflies pecking out his eyes), I was amazed by how universally dark they can be, how strange.
And yet they do soothe. They’re crooned and hummed and singsongily recited with the child in the crib, the cot, the rocker, the arms. They can be absent-minded, whispered rote by a tired parent who learned the words by heart from their parent without remembering when or how, or chanted with rapt attention. They are ancient and they change. Who knows who wrote them. Our brains and bonds are shaped by them.
Today, I find my thoughts lingering not on the baby being sung to but on the singer: the parent or grandparent or other caretaker delivering a message of danger in their gentlest, most devoted voice, tempered with their desire for solace, safety, and rest. When you wake, you shall have all the pretty little horses.
If you sing someone a lullaby, you are also soothing yourself. A lament turns to comfort because your voice has made it so. It’s the words beyond your oldest recollections and the sounds in your living mouth that will carry you into tranquility.
This too is translation.