Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!
This month, I talk to Robin Myers, US-born, Mexico City-based literary translator and poet, nominated by Charlotte Whittle.
1. Could you start by telling us about your beginning in translation?
I first became fascinated with translation in my late teens. At the time, it felt like the natural amalgam of several other interests: poetry, the Spanish language, and Mexico. I was born and raised in the US, but part of my father’s family came from Mexico; I visited a couple times as a child and always wanted to spend more time here. So I studied Spanish as the means to this very specific end. I lived in the city of Oaxaca for a few months after high school, then again halfway through college. It was during those early experiences of real immersion—in the language, in a place I loved, in my first Spanish-speaking friendships, in my first forays into reading contemporary Mexican literature—that I started experimenting with translation. There was something very simple and earnest about those initial explorations: I just wanted to share what I was reading (whether in English or Spanish) with people I cared about. As innocent as this may sound to me now—or at least as far removed as it can feel from certain parts of the day-to-day grind—I still believe that the desire to translate springs from the desire to connect, period. Of course we want that! Of course we want to bring disparate words, disparate worlds together.
In any case, it wasn’t too long before my translatorly hopes and expectations came into contact with more technical realities. In college, I spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires and took a workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, a remarkable Argentine poet and translator. Ezequiel’s approach emphasized the metrical building blocks of the Spanish-language poetic tradition, and at first I railed against this focus on syllable-counting and form. But I came around, and I started to genuinely enjoy the search for poetic “solutions” within a set of formal parameters. Ezequiel’s mentorship was very important to me as I started translating in a more professional way, and we’ve both gone on to translate each other’s work over the years, which has been a great gift.
2. Besides being a translator you are also a poet. Does being a poet help as translator and vice-versa? If so, how?
It absolutely helps. Both poetry and translation (and by this I mean the translation of anything, not just poetry) are practices rooted in the materiality of language. If you write poetry or translate anything, you are in the business of dealing with words as stuff, as resources, as concrete elements you shape and combine to form certain structures and spark particular effects in the reader. Of course, in translation, you’re using language in response to—in relation to—language that already exists in the world. You’re writing (because translating is also writing) in the service of and in complicity with that language. In this sense, too, translation demands both that you saturate yourself with the original text and that you distance yourself from it. That doubleness has helped me write my own poetry, I think, at least in the sense that it’s made the experience of writing poetry much more interesting. For one thing, it’s made me more conscious of the artifice of whatever I’m doing (and I mean “artifice” not as an insult but as a fact). For the same reason, it’s also made me feel freer to experiment: to think with more curiosity and more gratitude about language as “tools” and how I might try them out. I do feel that writing poetry affects my translations as well, or my approach to translating. For example, I care a great deal about sound when I write poetry, about what happens to words when we string them together and speak them aloud, and I feel a similar need to “hear” what language does in translating both poetry and prose. That said, I don’t mean to talk about this obsession with sound as if it were strictly the domain of poetry, much less of poets, because that’s not the case at all! I’m just musing about what it feels like for me in going about things as I go about them.
3. Could you please kindly share one of your (short) poems with us?
Here’s an untitled poem (they’re all untitled) from a collection called Having, which was translated into Spanish by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg and published as Tener in Argentina, Mexico, and (soon) Spain:
You can have it.
You can have the mad dash
and the mist,
the burned tongue
The night rage, the gray dawn
The soft hairs
at the nape of the neck,
the thrilled plunge
and the cast.
You can have the rest of it.
You can rest.
It will drive you mad.
You will scald your way through
the days, trying
to have all of it,
4. In this interview you gave for the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said “translation is a weird, lovely, mysterious, largely invisible relationship, both for the translator and for the translated.” Why is that?
I mean, it’s so intimate! Even if the author and translator never meet, even if the author can’t read the language she’s been translated into, even if the author’s been dead for hundreds of years. No matter what, the translator gets to—has to—inhabit the text, figure out what makes it run, spend an unholy amount of time studying how the author thinks and what she cares about.
The translator invariably has to make tradeoffs, has to figure out what can or should or under no circumstances ought to be sacrificed. It feels like a serious responsibility!
The translator is entrusted with something. With any luck, if she and the author exist on the same mortal plane and can talk to each other and choose to do so, they’ll both view the translation process as something that links them together. And they’ll both register this as an honor: the translator, honored at the invitation to engage with the text, attend to it, and deliver it somewhere new; the translated, honored to have her work—which she, too, once produced in a solitary act of faith—engaged with, attended to, and delivered in this way. But even if the translator and the author walk the earth at different moments in history, or are never in personal contact, or don’t even personally like each other very much, this relationship still exists. The devotion, the attention, the responsibility, the anxiety, the fact that the translator ultimately creates a second work of art that is both inseparable from and necessarily independent of the first: it’s all there, all the time. I find it so strange! Thrillingly strange, though.
5. Your poems are translated into other languages, including Portuguese, right? How is it like being in both sides, as translator and translated author?
It’s been very joyful and moving. Yes, poems of mine have been translated mostly into Spanish, with shorter selections into Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese. Many of these translations have emerged from long-term dialogues and friendships; several of the translators are themselves poets I’ve translated from Spanish into English. So it’s hard to be objective about it; it’s all felt like a series of long, warm conversations, marked by a sense both of deep connection and of distance. Distance in the sense that I always hope a translator will feel that the poems also belong to her, you know? In all her particularities, all her personal styles and tastes and approaches.
If I write a poem and someone else translates it—or the other way around—it’s ours.
Part of what I still find uniquely powerful about the experience of being translated into Spanish, though, is that my books have only been published in Spanish translation. Not in English, and not in my own country of origin. And since I’m based in Mexico, when I take part in poetry readings, for example, I mostly read in Spanish. Which means I’m directly and constantly identifying myself with someone else’s work as my primary form of participation. Which means I’m inhabiting and sharing theirs as much as my own.
6. Are you currently translating any books? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?
I currently have three prose projects in the works: by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Chile), there’s Cars on Fire, a wild, free-wheeling, darkly funny collection of short stories set between Chile and New York, forthcoming from Open Letter Books in 2020; Animals at the End of the World, a novel by Gloria Susana Esquivel (Colombia) about a young girl growing up in her grandparents’ house in Bogotá, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in 2020; and The Restless Dead, a book of critical essays by Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico) about disappropriation, “necropolitics,” and contemporary literature. I’m also working on various poetry projects in hopes of eventually finding homes for them in English. These include work by Javier Peñalosa, Maricela Guerrero, and Isabel Zapata (three Mexican poets whose recent books take beautifully and radically different approaches to the natural world and its relationship with contemporary humans); Daniel Lipara, Claudia Masin, and Alejandro Crotto (all from Argentina); and Adalber Salas Hernández (from Venezuela).
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
I’d like to nominate Juana Adcock, a Mexican-born, Scotland-based poet and translator. Juana translates between Spanish and English in both directions (a superpower that never ceases to amaze me!). Into English, she is the translator of Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (with Lucy Greaves) and An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (with Sophie Hughes). I met Juana in person only recently, although we’d been in touch for months before that, because I had the privilege of translating her poetry collection Manca into English. By the end of the process—which involved great openness, engagement, and creativity on her part—I really felt that Juana and I had become co-translators. I feel lucky to know her and learn from her in both languages!