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Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator from New York, who I first came across after reading Alberca vacía/ Empty Pool by Isabel Zapata. Since then, thanks to the ol’ Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I feel like I’ve noticed her name pop up all over the place, most recently in my interview with María Cristina Hall.
Aside from worming her way into my consciousness, Myers has also authored of three bilingual poetry collections – Conflations/ Amalgama (Ediciones Antílope, 2016), Else/ Lo demás (Kriller71 Ediciones; Zindo & Gafuri, 2016), and Having/ Tener (Ediciones Antílope; Kriller71 Ediciones; Audisea, 2019) – and translated many more, including Lyric Poetry Is Dead by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg.
But she translates prose too! Look out for Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (my review of that is forthcoming!), Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel, and The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza.
Want more? Myers has a bunch of upcoming translations – both poetry and prose – so keep an eye on her website for more info.
Here, we discuss poetry, tricky translation challenges, her (understandable) resistance to learning about poetic meter in Argentina, and the pitfalls of reading in Spanish.
Lauren Cocking: Where do you begin when you start a translation?
Robin Myers: I do sense that there’s some difference for me between translating poetry and prose. Often, with poetry, there’s already been a sort of mulling over that’s happened. These days I’ve often been deciding to tackle an entire book of poems and so I’m thinking both about the individual poem and what it does as part of the whole.
With prose, especially book-length prose, a first draft is very much a first draft and I tend to let myself sort of fall into it. And I find that it sometimes takes me a while to get a feel for how [the prose has been] constructed in the original, and what sort of adjustments I [need to make] in the English to give it the sense of propulsion that I want it to have. There is something, for me, very intuitive about that; I really do feel that there’s a sort of initial kind of release of an English version.
LC: I’ve read that you think humour is the most difficult part of a translation. Have you ever come across something — maybe not a joke or humour — that eluded you?
RM: Yes. There’s a book of poetry I’ve been translating by a Mexican poet named Salo Mochón, which is going to be published [in 2021] by the bilingual Mexican press, Editorial Argonáutica. It’s a remarkably complex book with all of its different registers and layers of irony, and there’s this constant interplay of passages from other sources. Just to give you an example, one of the poems is structured as a sort of free association dictionary entry, so it starts with one word and it defines it and then it picks up on a word in the definition and defines that and it creates sort of this chain. So, I realised that I couldn’t — maybe somebody could! — approach it as a corresponding translation with a dictionary entry, because the words that emerge in an English language definition are going to lead to other words. So I decided that that I just had to approach it — this is also, thank goodness, with the author’s blessing — as a parallel exercise and it was not going to use all the same references.
Throughout the entire book there were many, many challenges where I just thought “I don’t know! I don’t know how to replicate the structure or the tone or the set of references that makes this funny, or even intelligible, in Spanish.” And it just called for getting more radical about it.
LC: With that in mind, do you think translators get the kudos they deserve?
RM: I think that the art of translation, historically, has certainly been invisiblized [but] I think that is starting to change. There are more presses, for instance, that are doing the work of naming the translator and putting them on the covers; there are interviews with translators, not just authors; there is, I think, increasing academic interest in the field of literary translation, which does in some way contribute to [translation] becoming more of a field that’s acknowledged as a creative art. That’s all very exciting and good and overdue.
I [also] think a lot about something a translator friend of mine named Julia Sanches said — who was quoting another translator, Jennifer Croft [of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights] – that maybe there’s still this problem with the word translation. There’s still this expectation somehow that a translation is something that you transfer from one thing to another thing and that if we called it ‘versioning’, for example, if we treated it as something else, people would just relax a little bit.
I’ve heard it said recently that there seems to be a lot more tolerance for these sorts of creative relationships in music. I mean, if a concert pianist sits down and plays her own version of a piece of music, nobody’s like: “well, you know, that sounded very different.” There’s the understanding that you are making something new, in conversation with something that already exists. And I do I think of translation as a musical interpretation.
Related: In Conversation with Multilingual Translator Julia Sanches (COMING SOON)
LC: Are there are any other misconceptions that float around about translation?
RM: I think [the idea that it’s a copy is] one of them, and maybe the biggest one. I think there are lots of sub misconceptions, maybe [related to] the kind of images we use. There’s all this talk of translation as a bridge, for instance, which I think is very simplistic – like, you start in one place and then magically you end up in this other place, and you, as a translator, have made that happen.
I also think that that can be politically very, very complicated and problematic, and it’s often an image used to describe works from other languages or from countries in the global south [crossing] into the very hegemonic approval of the English language. There’s still this idea that if it’s published in English, it must be really good, you know?
LC: You’ve said before that language is for playing with, enjoying, reveling in. Given that, how do you ever come to a final decision about your translations?
RM: (Laughs.) Oh, that question so hard, because I rarely know! It’s just such a difficult call – always — about when something is done, whether that means when a line is done, or an entire book is done. It’s not as if there’s a eureka moment where you realise that it’s finished because everything is perfectly in its place; [it’s more] that I’ve gone through it enough times, I have read every single line and also I’ve stepped back enough to be able to read it as a whole, that it feels independent in some way.
[I can often tell when] there are parts that are — I don’t know how to put it exactly – but they’re sort of mushy if you touch them. They’re not solid or they don’t follow with the same kind of intentionality as the rest. When I’m doing a first draft, there are always times where I can tell that a certain image or a certain adjective is a placeholder in some way. [Making decisions] is one of the dizzying things about translation and writing in general: there are potentially many, many, many options and they’re not necessarily wrong, you know?
Then I think some of it is just the artisanal, textural work of just experimenting with the resonances of certain choices, and probably having a deadline and needing to declare it done.
LC: Who do you have in mind when you’re translating? Is it the potential audience? Is it the original writer? Or is it just the text as a standalone thing?
RM: I’m definitely not thinking about an audience in any sort of abstract or specific way, especially at the beginning. In sitting down every day and churning something out, I feel the sense of weaving something. I’ve got the original in my eye and in my ear all the time, and I’m trying to figure out how to make it sound alive, in the way that it seems that it wants to live.
But I think there are some cases where there is a very regionally or culturally specific term, or a nickname — you know how in Spanish there are all of those physical description nicknames, el Flaco, el Gordo? — when I am thinking much more about an audience. I’m thinking about what will be intelligible to an audience that doesn’t necessarily have the same cultural background as what’s happening in the book. I’m thinking both about the audience, but also about the context of origin and about how to respond in the fullest, most honourable way to express what’s going on.
LC: How have you found the experience of breaking into translation circles and getting the opportunity to work on things like Cars on Fire, for example?
RM: It has felt very slow and very confusing. I moved to Mexico very soon after I finished university, and I didn’t go to grad school and I didn’t get a fine arts degree or work in publishing. I knew that I wanted to translate, but I was initially just feeling my way in the dark. I started by publishing mostly translated poems in journals in English, but in terms of breaking in and publishing actual books, it’s taken the better part of a decade for that to happen. And my strategy was to just do a whole lot of things at once, and send them all over the place, and just sort of keep hustling.
[In Mexico], it’s been much, much easier to develop collaborative relationships. And it’s been really exciting and wonderful to develop [them] just by virtue of sticking around over the years. But for Cars on Fire, for example, there was a feminist literature in translation colloquium that was held in New York and Mónica, the author, was one of the organisers. On a whim, I applied, ended up going, and really liked working with Mónica — and then we decided to keep working together. [Cars on Fire] was the first book-length fiction project that I signed. It was very exciting, but it was also clear to me that that particular collaboration happened because I went to New York and because I was part of this particular community for a few days. It was just a wake-up call that it is difficult.
LC: Do you think being a poet influences your translations?
RM: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially this year, because I’ve been translating all the time and writing very little; so, I’ve often sort of consoled myself by thinking about how poetry influences my translation. A lot of it has to do with thinking of a text, whether it’s a poem or a novel, as a container of sorts. I think a lot in poetry about the shape of a poem, or its own inner economy of words. Like, how it does what it has set out to do?
I also think writing and reading poetry has helped me to think about the textures of different languages and different registers and different vocabularies. Just the physicality of the language that we have at our disposal and its effects.
Also, in poetry, sound and rhythm is very important to me and so I do think — kind of compulsively at this point — about how to use the tension of a sentence in different ways. That’s not specifically the domain of poetry, but it is something that is intensified in poetry and it’s very liberating to think about how to import some of those tactics into translating prose.
LC: If you had to take one path, poetry or translation, which would you take?
RM: Oh! Wow. I don’t know. I think (long pause) …I don’t know. I hope to never have to choose! There is still something very, very primally important to me about writing poetry, that feels unlike anything else that I do. It feels very precious to me in an extremely personal, non-professional way.
But there have been times during the pandemic where writing has felt sort of impossible, but translation hasn’t. [With translation] you’re never alone in your thoughts because you’re always working with something else and toward something else and in conversation with others. And I find that extremely sustaining; it feels like a practise that I’ve come to treasure in a very, very deep way.
I also have absolutely no interest in or delusion about making a living through poetry, so translation feels magically like a way to do something I really love and kind of make a living.
LC: I fear poetry! I was taught how to analyse it but not really how to enjoy it. What would you say to people who feel the same as I do about poetry?
RM: Well, it’s something that really fascinates me, the fear of poetry. I do think that [poetry] is presented like a sort of enigma that you have to have the proper tools to decode, which I think makes it very intimidating. It makes it like math or something and I hate math. (Laughs.)
First of all, I don’t think anybody has to enjoy anything, you know? I’m not like a missionary for poetry. But I just go back to my early experiences of reading poetry, where I just felt that something had happened. And I remember in high school — I don’t know what poem it was even — I read something by [Nobel Prize-winning poet] Louise Glück and I remember just thinking. “woah, I don’t know how she did this.” It just felt like picking up a rock and looking at all this stuff underneath. It was an experience, [knowing] that a poem can do that, this feeling of something being broken open in some way.
And, especially now, there is more poetry, written by more people from more different backgrounds and places than we’ve ever had access to. For me, that’s a constant reminder that if you don’t like this one thing you read, there’s probably something else that operates in a totally different way and that might be very liberating and exciting. And there are all sorts of poetry nerds like me who love prescribing poetry.
LC: You’ve translated a lot of Ezequiel Zeidenberg poetry, including Lyric Poetry Is dead, and vice versa. Can you tell me a bit about that relationship?
RM: He’s been a really important figure for me in both my personal and my professional life. I studied for a semester in Buenos Aires and took a poetry translation workshop, and he was my teacher. In the years that followed, we became very good friends. [Since then] we’ve had this back and forth in our own work, which is still sort of amazing to me on a very humbling, personal level because he was a friend who believed in my work at a time when I was really struggling to do that. And he also gave me a crash course in in poetic metre, which I did not appreciate at the time. I hated it at first.
LC: What was it about it that you hated?
RM: I had this very rosy idea of translating poetry. I just sort of saw it as this purely intuitive exercise and I really wanted to reinterpret poems as I translated them. I would just tamper with them! And his argument was that, in order to translate poems from other eras, you need to know how they work and then decide how you want to apply it. But I found it extremely difficult, because he did make us translate in metre and I did not want to do that. I wanted to do it how I wanted to do it. And so I resisted for a number of months, but it now very much informs the way that I approach translation.
LC: As someone fluent in two languages, how do you approach reading in Spanish? For example, I love reading in Spanish but there are some books that feel so deeply literary I just can’t simultaneously read, translate, and enjoy them.
RM: Ooh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s also, for me, an interesting and often kind of a harsh reminder about how — no matter how comfortable you feel in a second language — the feeling of absolute immersion in a book is still very, very different. It’s still much harder for me to have that experience and there’s always more of a detachment in Spanish, because there is invariably going to be a word that I have never seen before or a colloquialism I’m not sure about. It does sort of sometimes make me sad or self-conscious, but it is the reality of how bilingualism is not a uniform slab of experience.
LC: Are there any translators or writers that you would like to recommend?
RM: Yes, absolutely! There are four translators who leap to mind immediately. One is Kit Schluter. He is a delightful person and is translating some really, really interesting books. And then there’s Julia Sanches who lives in the US and translates from Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese.
LC: Oh, wow! I just got a surge of envy.
RM: Yeah. I feel super envious of her as well! But she’s an amazing translator and I just really like talking about translation with her. Then there’s also Charlotte Whittle, a New York-based translator originally from the UK. And there’s another fantastic translator based here in Mexico City who’s from London. Her name is Ellen Jones and she’s translated for Charco Press.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.