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David Shook is the founder of Phoneme Media (now an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing) and a literary translator and poet in their own right. Born in Texas, where they were the heir to a megachurch dynasty, Shook spent their teen years in Mexico City, was most recently based in Iraq, and is currently settled in California with their partner and child.
You might know Shook for their excellent moustache (which once garnered a compliment from Jimmy Carter) or maybe you’ve seen their name attached to titles such as Death on Rua Augusta by Tedi López Mills (Eyewear Publishing, 2014), The Spines of Love by Victor Terán (Restless Books, 2014), or the forthcoming re-translation of Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin. Frankly, I just enjoy their hairless dog photos.
Here, we discuss their interest in literature from under-translated regions and languages, Paraguayan poetry, and a frankly slapstick translation episode which saw them bleeding profusely in the kitchen while wearing high heels.
Lauren Cocking: So, you were born in Texas and are currently based in California, but I know you recently spent some time in Iraq. How was it?
David Shook: Oh, it’s really wonderful. I was there about two years and I had a great time; I still have an apartment there. My partner’s PhD’s in Kurdish studies and I got to do a lot of co-translation from Kurdish and Arabic with young poets which was really fun.
LC: Oh, cool. Did you have a grasp of those languages before you moved out there then?
DS: Grasp is a nice term but no, I did not have a grasp on them, and even today I don’t want to overstate my grasp of either. One of my backgrounds before I came to literary translation was in generative linguistics. So, I can often learn how a language works on the page, especially when I’m working in collaboration with someone who is more intimate with the language than I am. That knowledge gives me an entry point even to a language I can’t speak much of.
LC: Do you think that it’s essential to work with people who are more intimate with the language, when engaging with languages you don’t know very well (if at all)?
DS: I think it is essential to work with people who know the language well. There is a tradition of translators – and primarily white translators – using what they call ‘native informants’ or ‘bridge translators’. And I think it’s an outmoded and, frankly, often racist practise where the white translator (who may not speak a word of the language) is solely or primarily credited for translating.
That is certainly not what I hope to be doing when I’m translating collaboratively. I want to share the credit, and in fact, I want the bulk of the credit to go to my collaborator, however I can make that happen.
LC: Sure. From what I’ve read about you, one thing that comes across is that your love of translation arises out of a curiosity for language. Do you consider a translation to be a responsibility?
DS: I hesitate to answer yes to that question because I think the moral argument is quite complicated, and I feel like when you talk about responsibility, it becomes questions of life purpose and obligations to the idea of a better world. I could easily romanticise the profession along those lines, but I’m a little hesitant [to do so].
That said, I do hope that the work I do as a translator – and in particular as an editor and publisher – is making the world a better place. And I do believe in translation as a medium to connect people and to introduce people to new worlds, although it hasn’t always been used that way.
LC: Definitely. It also seems like it’s the ‘never-quite-finished-ness’ of translation that charms you too. Would you agree with that?
DS: Yeah, I definitely think that is a part of it, and I think another part is residing in the in between spaces; spaces between languages, cultural traditions. And that’s something that dates back to childhood and inhabiting those spaces as a kid, feeling comfortable there. Perhaps more comfortable than anywhere else.
LC: Absolutely. You lived in Mexico City for about a decade as a teen. Do you have a favourite place in Mexico City?
DS: Mario Bellatin’s house is one of my favourite places in Mexico City. That’s often where I stay when I’m there, in Colonia Juárez. I just love walking the streets in Mexico City.
One other place I like is the aquarium market. I used to go there as a young teenager because I had a big freshwater aquarium, and it’s like entering another dimension. The whole ceiling, the walls are covered in little plastic bags with every water creature imaginable, and that’s a very magical place. I think Mexico is full of places like that and that’s one of the things I love about it: its unpredictability or the way you can discover new things, even if you’ve known it or lived there a long time.
My knowledge of Mexico City is a teenager’s knowledge of the city though. I’ve spent a lot of time there as an adult – in a normal year I’m there at least two or three times – but I’ve been able to preserve a bit of the childlike wonder that makes the city so magical.
LC: Have you found that the pandemic halting travel has affected your work as either a translator or poet?
DS: Yes, both. I often think that travel is really important to my writing practice –and it is, of course – but I actually don’t get much writing done when I’m travelling. And while the emotional exhaustion of the pandemic has certainly led to stretches where any concept of productivity has gone totally out the window, it’s also given me the space and the stillness to finish projects, which is really cool.
LC: What projects have you managed to finish up?
DS: Well, at the end of 2020, I finished the new translation of Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, which will come out in the fall. It’s often considered one of the definitive responses or literary texts confronting the AIDS epidemic in Latin America, but it’s also much more than that and I think it has a lot of contemporary relevance.
I’m also finishing up a translation from São Tomé and Príncipe by Conceição Lima, who writes in Portuguese. I had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017 and I actually used it to go there. I didn’t do any translation while I was there, I just hung out with her, smoked Angolan cigarettes, and talked about poetry. And I’ve been very slowly working on [the translation] but being in a single place for a while finally gave me the opportunity to finish it.
And then I have a few other projects on the horizon. I am actually working with the Mexico City based publisher Gato Negro to start a new imprint, publishing translations from other languages into Spanish. Our first two books will be a translation from the Icelandic and then a translation from the Kurdish, which I’ve been collaborating on with my Kurdish colleague Jiyar Homer.
LC: Thinking about publishing a bit, you’re also the founder of Phoneme Media, now an imprint of Deep Vellum. You were and are explicit in seeking out diverse voices for the editorial. Did that hunt for diversity extend into the translators you chose to work with too?
DS: Yes, certainly. I was led to a lot of those books by my enthusiasm and curiosity, like you said, and before long Phoneme developed a reputation for being interested in books that might not be considered by other publishers or might be translated from languages that have never been translated into English before.
With regards to our translators, we do face a reality in the world of literary translating that most literary translators are white and come from an upper middle-class background, if not higher, and that’s what enabled them to become literary translators. Because they could survive making very little money professionally for long enough to make it.
I have published quite a few translators’ debut translations, and I would love to publish more emerging translators, especially from underrepresented communities. I encourage those translators to please reach out with proposals, ideas, or questions. I have always been a proactive editor, in terms of acquisitions. If I read something interesting in a magazine or see that someone has won a grant for an interesting project, I’ll often reach out.
I’m also very proud to work with translators like Dong Li, who speaks English as a second – or perhaps third – language. I’ve published two of his translations from the Mandarin and he’s a wonderful, wonderful guy who was born in China, translates in both directions from English and Mandarin, and also into and from German.
I would really like to be publishing the widest diversity of translators possible and to encourage young translators from communities that aren’t typically offered the same opportunities. I know this is something I can do a better job of, and I hope to be proactive in doing so.
LC: Is there anything you wish you knew before starting your own publishing imprint?
DS: Oh, yeah, a million things. Like translation, my work as a publisher really came out of my own practise as a writer and my own relationships with writers and translators around the world. I came into it with a real passion for the editorial work, but not much experience – and certainly not much passion – for the logistical side of operating a publishing house; everything from fundraising to distribution, sales and marketing, royalties, all of that stuff. And I pretty quickly got subsumed by it.
It took me half a decade to figure out a balance that worked and to find a home for my publishing project, which I now have in Deep Vellum. I’m still editing four to five books of poetry a year, and now the imprint is only doing poetry.
LC: Speaking of poetry, I read that when you’re working on your own poems you like to pace out the meter. Do you have any similar rituals for translation?
DS: Reading things aloud is really important to me. Actually, now that I have a baby, I have an audience, which is nice although I’m a little quick to bore them at times.
I do find walking just a really valuable creative practise, generally speaking, although walking can be tricky for translation. You can’t walk with the text in front of you, although for teasing out complicated issues or the types of fun riddles we get to solve, it can be really nice. And oftentimes, if it’s a knotty issue the answer occurs to you a month later when you’re doing something else.
What other rituals do I have? I think, depending on the text I’m translating, that will dictate my process to a certain degree. With fiction in particular I am interested increasingly in a kind of method translation, where I really want to get into the mindset of the writer and/or the character I’m seeking to voice in translation.
LC: How do you manage that?
DS: This is something I’m still experimenting with—I don’t translate much fiction, because I generally much prefer poetry—but in the case of Beauty Salon the protagonist dresses in women’s clothing and basically goes cruising. So, this one evening, when I was working on the translation, I decided I would be better able to embody this voice if I put on a pair of high heels. So I went and got my high heels and sat at my desk.
I think it was working, but then I decided to make myself just some eggs and I was cutting up basil and tomato to put in the eggs and I cut open my hand. And then, as I was wrapping it up, I cut my other hand. And so I was in the kitchen and both my hands were just spurting blood and I’m in high heels, trying to run around my own house to find everything I need to clean it up and bandage them.
That kind of pulled me out of the voice I was trying to inhabit. It was quite a scene.
LC: Oh my god! To shift tack to something a little less slapstick(!), I wonder if translation ever tips over into appropriation?
DS: Yeah, I think it does and I think about that all the time. It’s troubling to me and I don’t have any easy answers, unfortunately.
I’ve joked before that there are some poets who, in a certain sense, try to improve upon the original [in translation]. And that may mean, you know, making it “work better” in English, which means making it work according to the conventions that we know, and in many ways invalidating the tradition it comes from and what in my opinion makes it so special.
The classic argument about ‘domesticisation vs. exoticising’ the writers and translators is really important and one I’d like to see more public conversation about, especially as it relates to broader conversations about race and class. And, often, good conversation is not the same thing as comfortable conversation when talking about these issues.
LC: How do you decide between making it work in English and upholding the original version?
DS: All of this is a little difficult to talk about because we’re obsessed with this idea of accuracy, which I don’t think serves us well. We often talk about a poet-translator taking liberties in what they’re doing, but that boils down to the idea that a poem is entirely a lexical object, and that’s not true.
A poem also has form, it matters how a poem sounds. And if the lexical congruity of every word in a poem is as precise as humanly possible, but the poem doesn’t sound like a poem or doesn’t replicate the orality of the original, how can you call that accurate? You’re prioritizing certain elements but it’s an incomplete understanding of what makes a poem work and what makes a poem so wonderful.
LC: Absolutely. The obsession with accuracy in a field which by definition can’t ever be entirely accurate.
DS: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that appeals to me about translation. If you flip that on its head, it becomes a field of immense possibility where you can never be right in everyone’s opinion. You’re always going to be wrong.
And if you take that as a certain freedom, that can be very empowering. Of course, you can take too far, and we see this a lot in reviews of translations, especially when people are nitpicking and disagreeing with the word choice. So I’m anti-accuracy; I’m from the anti-accuracy school of translation.
LC: Have you received criticisms of your translations?
DS: I haven’t received a lot of criticism of translations, which sometimes surprises me because perhaps I deserve a bit more. But many translators are amongst the harshest critics of their own work. I don’t know a translator that hasn’t received a finished copy of a book they’ve translated and not felt they should have made a different decision somewhere, if not all over the book. I certainly relish the opportunity to make a few small changes before the reissuing of a book, if it indeed gets a second printing.
LC: What are you reading at the moment from Latin America?
DS: I’m editing an interesting book by Radna Fabias who’s from Curação and writes primarily in Dutch. I’ve been reading a lot of Jorge Eduardo Eielson’s work. I’ve translated one of his books and I’m planning to translate a couple more for Cardboard House Press. I also like what Circulo de Poesía is doing and I’m really excited to read the new Rita Indiana book, Tentacle. I’m a big, big fan of hers and I think the Achy Obejas translation of Papi, her first book in English, is really an achievement.
I’m also very interested in the literature of Paraguay. I like Giselle Caputo’s work a lot, and Melissa Patiño from Peru, whose book Matría is good. Then there’s another Paraguayan writer I like called Lia Colombino. She’s part of a publishing house there called Ediciones de la URA and they publish some really beautiful books.
LC: It’s interesting you mention Paraguay because I’m struggling to find fiction writers from there.
DS: I don’t really know Paraguayan fiction, but I would be interested to learn more. A lot of Paraguayan poetry is really in conversation with Latin American and Spanish language poetry more broadly. But it also is uniquely Paraguayan and often rejects a lot of the conventions of traditional Spanish orthography and grammar in ways that I think are really transgressive.
LC: Do you think that’s because Paraguay is a bilingual nation?
DS: To be clear, I’m an enthusiast but not an expert in Paraguayan literature, but I think that’s partly it. A literary culture that values rebellion against any aesthetic authority is really exciting, and I suspect, although I don’t know, that a lot of that is the remnants or influence of having lived under such a brutal dictatorship for so many decades.
LC: Yeah, absolutely. I think you’ve mentioned a few translators already, but are there any others you’d like to mention?
DS: You’ve already interviewed a lot of the ones I would immediately mention! Kit Schluter, Will Vanderhyden (who translated Fernanda Garcia Lao’s book [Out of the Cage]) and Ellen Jones are doing some interesting work. There’s Julianna Neuhouser, also based there in Mexico City. JD Pluecker, whose work with Antena Aire is really inspiring.
In terms of Mexican poetry, particularly poetry from the border region, there’s my friend Anthony Seidman from L.A. And Wendy Call, who translates Irma Pineda and others. She’s someone who started working with Isthmus Zapotec via Spanish but then felt immense responsibility to really go back and work with Zapotec speakers to learn what was happening in the original. Outside of Spanish, I really admire Corine Tachtiris, Nick Glastonbury – there are so many!
I do think, as translators, we have a responsibility to continue [questioning] ourselves and [not resting] on easy answers. And I think that’s what a lot of these amazing translators I’ve mentioned are doing and that’s why I admire them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Header image of David Shook is © Travis Elborough.