Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator. Her recent book-length translations include The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza, Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos, and Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel—an excerpt of which was recently featured on this blog. Myers’ work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Harvard Review, and Asymptote among other publications. In this interview, she speaks with us about her approach to literary translation, her experience working on Animals at the End of the World, and rethinking the role of the translator.
Can you describe how you became interested in and involved with literary translation?
It’s been both an accidental and a predictable process for me. I’d always loved literature and writing (I write poetry), and I became curious about contemporary Spanish-language literature as I learned Spanish. Although I’d add that my desire to learn Spanish as a teenager was less academic than personal, visceral: part of my family is from Mexico, I’d spent short periods of time here as a child, and I’d always had a powerful sense that this was where I wanted to live.
I started translating in college (a workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, now a close friend, was an especially formative experience) and moved to Mexico City not long after I graduated. It was at that point that I started translating in earnest, both in my excitement about the literary landscape I was getting to know (I was meeting lots of Mexican writers whose work I admired, mostly poets at that point) and in the timid, tentative hope that I might actually be able to translate for a living somehow. For me, this has meant translating lots of non-literary texts, too. And as far as literary translation is concerned, it’s meant translating prose as well as poetry; it brings me a lot of joy to do both.
I do think being a translator has helped me demystify the experience of writing poetry, in a way, and vice-versa. And it’s made me more alert to and hungry for the communality of literature, the collaborations and conversations at work in anything we write or read.
How has being a poet (and one whose work has been translated other languages at that) affected your work as a translator?
As a poet, I’m fascinated by the concept of “voice.” It’s something lots of writers and readers talk about in both abstract and matter-of-fact terms, as if it’s something that magically appears and never changes. But I guess part of what I love about writing (and reading) poetry is how it constantly confronts you with the materiality of your own decisions—the texture of your language, where it tightens up and opens out, where it’s harsh or jarring or where it’s smooth and clean; the length of your lines, your use of enjambment, the physical shape of your poem on the page; what you do or don’t do with punctuation, etc.—and how all of those decisions, no matter how technical or cerebral they sound in summary, help forge that nebulous, intimate, nearly indescribably personal thing we call “voice.”
Translation, too, is all about decisions, and about the inextricable relationship between form and function, intent and execution. It’s not that I don’t believe in intuition and affinity and spontaneity when it comes to writing and translation—I absolutely do. But I do think being a translator has helped me demystify the experience of writing poetry, in a way, and vice-versa. And it’s made me more alert to and hungry for the communality of literature, the collaborations and conversations at work in anything we write or read. Translation may be an especially dialogic practice, but we don’t write anything in a vacuum, either.
The translation process feels like a long, gradual zoom-in: I start out pretty loose and gestural and panoramic, then work toward microscopic focus.
Do you have a specific approach when doing translation work? If so, what is it and how did you formulate this approach?
I’m a fervent believer in the roughness of a rough draft. No matter what I’m translating, I tend to feel my way through an initial version, leaving as many doubts and questions and notes-to-self as I need to; then I go back and revise many times, filling in gaps, honing the register, often rewriting pretty drastically. If I’m translating a contemporary writer and they’re willing and able to be in touch about the project, I’ll often contact them with specific questions once there’s a first or second draft to work with. In some cases, if we’ve had a fairly close collaboration and if the author is comfortable reading English, I may show them a more polished version down the line.
A few revisions in, I’ll print out the text and revise again by hand—it’s always amazing (and alarming) to me what jumps out on the page that hasn’t onscreen! I also like to read translations aloud. This is something I do with my own poetry as I write, and in both contexts it’s a really helpful way of bringing in the ear. In short, the translation process feels like a long, gradual zoom-in: I start out pretty loose and gestural and panoramic, then work toward microscopic focus.
How is your approach different when translating a poem versus a novel?
In broad strokes, the approach I’ve described above is often pretty similar in both cases. But there are other differences that have to do with scope and form. Scope in the sense that a poem asserts itself so wholly to you from the very beginning: no matter how complex or oblique or baroque or unclassifiable it may be, you’re still looking at a compact, self-contained thing of text that visibly, physically unfurls on the page. And so the sort of attention and tension I try to harness as a translator, the focus on the poem’s elements and how those elements interact with each other over the course of the poem, kicks in with a different sense of immediacy than in a novel, which develops so expansively over so many pages.
In working on a first draft of a poem vs. the first draft of a novel, then, maybe my approach is a little more deliberate and self-observant in the first case; maybe I give myself even more permission to be “loose” in the first draft of a novel, because I both need more time and have more time—and may be under less formal pressure—to get a feel for the text in its unfolding.
Which brings me to the issue of form: whether a poem is written in a specific meter or not, broken into stanzas or not, uses punctuation and capital letters or not, etc., it draws on formal elements that guide us as we read, and I certainly want to let myself be guided by them as I translate. The whole idea of form, as I see it, is that it gives you a shape to work inside, a contour. Rather than seeing those parameters as constraints in a repressive way, I see them as an invitation: a chance to find solutions inside a given space in a way that makes you feel comfortable there. This is among the challenges (invitations) of translation, period, but I think the experience of translating poetry throws that challenge into particularly vivid relief.
It’s no easy feat to explore adult darkness through a child’s perspective without that perspective feeling too precious or facile—or without adult anxiety and adamance interfering. Esquivel achieves a painful depiction of childhood, but also a genuinely respectful one; she treats Inés with the complexity she deserves.
Can you describe what the process was like translating Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel?
From the beginning, I felt arrested by the voice (there it is again!) of six-year-old Inés, the narrator, and how the story is told through her perspective while also making it very clear that many years have passed since then. So there’s a doubleness to the narration: kid-Inés and adult-Inés are both present, in a way, speaking together, in a way that subtly filters urgency, concreteness, and confusions of a child’s experience through an adult perspective, an adult vocabulary.
As I translated, I came to see this doubleness as the major challenge of the book: Gloria Susana Esquivel pulls it off in the original with great dexterity and care, and I knew I had to be careful, too, if I wanted to keep my translation from veering into the precious or the stilted. So this was an issue I thought about a lot as I went, and there were a few others that Gloria Susana and I went back and forth about: how to handle specific pop culture references from 1980s Colombia, for example, or how to adapt passages from Spanish-language schoolbooks and nursery rhymes. I’m so grateful for her warmth and collaborative spirit and sense of humor throughout the whole process. Working with the editorial team at the University of Texas Press was also a joy; they’ve all been so supportive and solidarity-minded.
What interested you in this translation project in particular?
I was so struck by the subtlety, acuity, and courage of how Esquivel portrays Inés’ perception of the animal forces at work in adult life: sexual desire, physical violence, the urge to hierarchize and humiliate each other.
Inés lives with her mother and maternal grandparents, and she’s very much at the mercy of her mother’s whims and her grandfather’s cruelty; her parents are separated and she powerfully longs both for her parents to reunite and for her father to whisk her away forever. I was drawn to (and harrowed by) this portrayal of a girl who’s buffeted about by the fickle, sometimes abusive grown-ups in her life—and who’s also trying doggedly to assert herself, in a precocious but still childlike way, as a person with needs and desires and hopes for what her life might be made of.
It’s no easy feat to explore adult darkness through a child’s perspective without that perspective feeling too precious or facile—or without adult anxiety and adamance interfering. Esquivel achieves a painful depiction of childhood, but also a genuinely respectful one; she treats Inés with the complexity she deserves. I found this moving from the start, and I still do.
I’m drawn to projects that are comfortable in their quirks and to writers who aren’t interested in softening their edges or flattening their volatilities. These are all things I could say about what I look for as a reader in general, too.
What do you look for or what draws you in when choosing new translation projects?
I like to be surprised: I like writing that has a sense of both urgency and self-awareness, and that uses language in ways that startle me, keep changing the terms. I’m drawn to projects that are comfortable in their quirks and to writers who aren’t interested in softening their edges or flattening their volatilities. These are all things I could say about what I look for as a reader in general, too.
As a translator, though, there’s another something that I don’t always know how to predict or describe. I may read a poem or a book of poems or a novel that I find impressive and exciting, and I may carry on in that state of pleasure and admiration without necessarily feeling an urge to translate it. Because it does feel like an urge when it comes: an affinity, a sense of connection that makes me want to get closer. A crush! It’s like hearing a song you want to hear again as soon as it’s over, and again, and again, until you can sing it to yourself.
I’d love to keep challenging the idea of the translator as some sort of neutral third party in a diplomatic negotiation between “the original” and “the translation.” Why is it so unsettling to see the translator as a craftsperson with styles and tastes of their own, with an individual history and readerly education and expressive tendencies that will of course shape the original in a way much like the author’s have done?
What are some misconceptions about literary translation that you’d like to clear up?
I don’t know if I want to clear anything up as much as I’d like to keep muddying the waters! I’d love to keep challenging the idea of the translator as some sort of neutral third party in a diplomatic negotiation between “the original” and “the translation.” Why is it so unsettling to see the translator as a craftsperson with styles and tastes of their own, with an individual history and readerly education and expressive tendencies that will of course shape the original in a way much like the author’s have done?
I think it’s fascinating that this—the role of the translator, but also the relationship between original and translation and the “possibility” of translation in the first place—remains a source of controversy. Or anxiety.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something Julia Sanches wrote in her translator’s note to Permafrost (And Other Stories, 2020), a novel by the Catalan writer Eva Baltasar: “When I think of discussions surrounding translation—of its possibility or impossibility—I often wonder whether the issue is not purely semantic, rather than practical. Would translation be quite so controversial if we were to simply call it something else? Would people still enter a translated text with as much suspicion if we called our little art something like ‘versioning’ or ‘againing’?”
In turn, Sanches quotes the translator Jennifer Croft as saying that what she wants “to argue, ultimately, is that everything is indeed untranslatable if what translation is is making something new that stays the same. But that’s not what translation is.” The italics are mine.
What are some translated works by women writers that you would recommend and why?
I’d fervently recommend Hurricane Season, by the Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor, in Sophie Hughes’ astonishing translation. It’s an exploration of misogynist violence and the fairy-tale narratives that protect it, a devastating portrait of domestic trauma, and a ventriloquist tour-de-force: It’s told in a breathtaking array of different voices that Hughes inhabits with seemingly boundless imagination and intensity.
I’d also recommend a short story collection that hasn’t been released just yet: Here Be Icebergs by the Peruvian Katya Adaui, forthcoming from Charco Press in Rosalind Harvey’s translation, which I got to know as its copyeditor. The stories are searing snapshots of family life—both its long-term hairline cracks and its final ruptures—and Harvey’s English version is alive with mournful, restless energy. Coming soon!
Finally, and while this isn’t a translated work itself, I’d recommend This Little Art by Kate Briggs (the book Julia Sanches alluded to in her comment about “our little art”!): an enthralling essay-in-parts about literary translation (and writing, and authorship, and women working in literature).
Alternatively, what is one untranslated book by a woman that you would like to see translated into English someday?
There’s a beautiful book of poems that comes to mind: Principia, by the Mexican poet Elisa Díaz Castelo (who just published a new collection called El reino de lo no lineal, which I’m eager to read but haven’t yet). Her poems feel both graceful and grounded to me: They’re thoughtful and incisive in their inward-looking, and yet they’re also constantly turning outward and drawing from the natural world, from scientific phenomena and narratives, from the realm of medicine (and a long et cetera). I recently learned that the fantastic translator Charlotte Whittle is in the process of translating poems from Principia—something to look forward to!
Interview by Cindy Brzostowski