Interview with Robin Myers

© Robin Myers

How do you normally begin a translation? Did you use the same approach in the translation of Eduardo Espina’s poetry?

I usually start rough: I don’t do a starkly literal translation per se, but I start with a certain literal-mindedness, trying to get as much of the ‘stuff’ of the poem on paper as possible without worrying too much about cohesion or grace. From there, I return both to the original and to my draft, looking at how the particular phrases and images happen in Spanish – what they do, how they move, what they’re made of – and then trying to find a way to get them to happen in English, too. In abstract terms, I begin a translation by letting the poem teach me how to read it. Nothing about my approach as such was different in translating Espina’s poetry. But even the ‘literal-mindedness’ of the beginning was much harder, much more painstaking, than it often is, so there were more holes in my rough drafts as a result, more fits and starts along the way.

As the translator of these poems, do you agree with Espina’s views of his work being untranslatable? How successful do you feel you were  in translating his poetry?

You know, when I translate, I worry a lot about the other questions (some more rhetorical than others) that I think are embedded in your first question, and in Espina’s description of his work as potentially untranslatable: Can a poem really be defined as untranslatable? If so, does that mean we shouldn’t attempt a translation? What are our responsibilities and limitations – surmountable or inevitable – when we translate? Which are attributable to the poet and which to the translator? Is anything translatable?

In any case, Espina’s poems daunted me more than anything else I’ve translated, and I completely agree with him that some of its most important components – its syntax, its atonal music, its overlapping and fragmentary images and tenses – can so easily be lost. I know I lost them sometimes. And when I did, I often knew I was losing them, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to find instead. Those are the times when I was unsuccessful as a translator: when I could tell I wasn’t fully doing justice to the original self-contained complexity because I couldn’t fully configure a new one. There were other times when this reconfiguration did, I hope, take place.

That said, and without letting myself off the hook for what I didn’t pull off, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that a poem isn’t a collection of elements to be recreated, and that this isn’t what translation is for. Successfully or unsuccessfully, you have to move away from the original syntax, vocabulary, etc., in order to move closer to a new one – and the new one will have, like the first, its own logic, its own restrictions, its own possibilities. Ultimately, the poem must stand on its own two feet. And then walk around, run, skip, swim, whatever. A translator friend of mine says it’s like a musician covering a song: you must honor what you’re playing (you’re not making stuff up), but you are not beholden to every single thing that made the original what it was, and, in fact, you must imbue it with other things. I don’t think I always got the hang of this with Espina’s poems, but it’s an ideal he made me work towards; and so to him, and to the poems themselves, I feel both apologetic and thankful!

How were you able to cope with the non-conventional syntax in Espina’s poems?

Espina’s poems – his entire poems, but also their syntax – often seem almost ‘coded’: bristling with images and phrases that can be hard to parse on the most literal level. Even the grammar can be unorthodox: Espina sometimes elides verbs and sentence structures, condensing an entire serious of actions or emotions into a sort of suggestion of what has happened. To translate them, I had to try to learn his shorthand – to examine the literal pieces hidden from view, understand them, and hide them away again, albeit by different means and in different guises, in English. In some cases, even if it was impossible to maintain, say, the particular music of a particular phrase, or a particular rhythmic pattern, I tried to understand the effect of this music or this rhythm in the original, and then tried to find a way in English to reembody the effect, to keep the wheel turning in English as it turns in the original Spanish without trying to reproduce every cog.

Also, the more I read Espina’s poems and grappled with his syntax, the more I felt that not only the level but the nature of their complexity was a very tricky business. Even at their densest and most abstract, his work feels extremely meticulous and his choices deliberate. So, it was both sobering and liberating to realize that part of ‘coping’ meant not only permitting ambiguities (because there are so many, and of so many kinds) but making them sound sure of themselves. A line that’s intentionally opaque in the original needs to stay opaque in translation – but that doesn’t mean it can be sloppy. It should be confident; it should encourage the reader to follow.

Could you give us an example of a line or an image that was particularly difficult to translate?

Here’s a passage from the poem ‘Que pase el que sigue’ (Next in Line, Please):

desde el principio supo a la perfección
cómo respirar despacio, acercarse a las ideas huidas al jardín
que por diciembre en la mente era otro mes aquel, respirando
de menos a esto, o al revés porque está bien que el viento vea
de vez en cuando, cierzo al que solo el olvido ha podido dividir.

And my attempt:

since the start she’d mastered perfectly
how to breathe slowly, approach the ideas that had fled to the garden,
which, around December, was another month in the mind, breathing
from less to this, or else the opposite, because it’s good the wind can see
once in a while, the wind that only oblivion has managed to divide.

Has Espina’s work given you new insights into contemporary Hispanic poetry?

I don’t think any single poet can really do this. I know reading Espina’s work has given me new insights about what makes it Espina’s work: that means, even unconsciously, a clearer sense of how he inhabits language, the kinds of ideas that matter to him, even the other writers and thinkers who have shaped his own writing and thinking. In this way, reading Espina (or any other writer) can expose us to ideas or patterns or concerns that are threaded through, in this case, contemporary Latin American poetry, but I wouldn’t ask or expect him to expressly speak on their behalf.

Robin Myers (USA, 1987) is a freelance translator and editor. Born in New York, she has spent the past several years between the USA, Mexico and Palestine. She was a 2009 Fellow of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and she is working on a collection of her own poems.

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