Of Death. Minimal Odes, a verse collection by Brazilian poet Hilda Hilst translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin, was a recipient of the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards. The prize jury commented on the book:
The first collection of Hilda Hilst’s poetry to be appear in English, Of Death. Minimal Odes is masterfully translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin. Hilda Hilst’s odes are searing, tender blasphemies. One is drawn to Of Death in the way we’re drawn to things that might be dangerous. These are poems that lure readers well beyond their best interests, regardless of whatever scars might be sustained. In language that is twisted, animalistic, yet at times plain, Eglin reveals another layer in the work of this Brazilian great.
Jeannine M. Pitas: How did translation come about for you? How did you begin to translate?
Laura Cesarco Eglin: I was doing an MFA at the University of Texas at El Paso, and my thesis director was Rosa Alcalá. She is also a translator, who has worked on Cecilia Vicuña, among others. Hearing her talk about and reading her translations got me interested. It had never occurred to me that I could translate; I respect the profession enough to know that just because you know more than one language does not automatically mean you can translate. Literary translation involves knowing about the author’s culture, the culture you are translating into, being a reader of literature, and other considerations besides language.
I started translating sporadically. I translated stories and poems for Memorias del silencio, one of BorderSenses’ projects. In Boulder I started translating more frequently. I translated the Uruguayan poet Emiliano Martínez and published individual poems in different magazines. Then I translated Ana Strauss, from Mexico, and again, this work was published in a magazine. After that I read a book by Arturo Ramírez Lara, a poet from Juárez, and I felt the need to translate the work as a way of understanding and engaging in it better. It pulled me in. This is what happened when I worked on Hilda Hilst for my dissertation. Translation requires us to become deeper readers, to stay with the text longer than we normally would. I find translation extremely important, which is why I keep doing it. Today I translate from Spanish, Portuguese and Galician into English. I have also translated from English into Spanish. My translation of M. Miranda Maloney’s The Lost Letters of Mileva into Spanish has recently come out with Yaugurú.
JMP: You translated Hilda Hilst into English. It is somewhat unusual that you translate into a language that is not your mother tongue. What is it like translating a text when neither the source nor target language is your first?
LCE: It’s complex. It takes courage. I feel comfortable in Portuguese and English, and at the same time, I am fully aware that neither is my mother tongue. But it also takes courage because by doing so, I’m going against those who believe that you should only translate into your mother tongue. At least twice a year I read conversations on social media where people voice their opinion that to translate into a language that is not your native language is a mistake and will undoubtedly render the translation invalid and subpar. The translation of Hilst’s Of Death. Minimal Odes is my response to these conversations, which seem to be fueled by a fear of what will happen to English if someone not native to the language translates into it. As if a language will be ruined by the influx of other languages and voices. But that is precisely what poetry and literature are about—stretching the language as much as possible, working with language and against it. Poetry, literature, and translation have never been and are not about maintaining a language just like it is or about not questioning language. I see translation as activism in breaking down rigid conceptions of what a certain culture is, showing that cultures are not monolithic.
JMP: You said that you see translation as a kind of activism. How is this the case?
LCE: Translation is activism because it involves bringing one culture into another. As a reader, poet, and translator I operate under the assumption that cultures can benefit from contact with other worldviews. As translators we extend bridges between cultures. Translation is very similar to migration: diversity helps whatever community receives migrants. It’s not just the literary community that benefits, but the language itself and the way we think do as well. When someone reads something from a different culture, in a different language, they think of different possibilities. Reading different ways of expression, which are tied to underlying beliefs and values, opens opportunities.
JMP: What about Hilda Hilst made you most certain that her work needed to be translated into English?
LCE: At first I was translating just for myself in an effort to understand the text better. But at some point the project became a translation project in and of itself. I felt I needed to publish this because the English-speaking world had read three books of her prose and nothing of her poetry. But Hilst started and ended as a poet. Her poetry is extremely important. You can’t really have a complete picture of Hilst as an author without her poetry. Of Death. Minimal Odes is her first poetry book to be translated into English. I felt the urgency to share Hilst’s poetry and how it questions the status quo, how it is conversing with philosophical and socio-cultural ideas that are often taken for granted.
JMP: Who were the other writers you studied for your dissertation? Can you give me the “elevator pitch” of your dissertation topic?
LCE: Along with Hilst, I studied Ida Vitale from Uruguay and Juana Bignozzi from Argentina. I looked at the poetics of time in the work of these three poets, and I explored how these women enter into a dialogue with philosophical and culturally accepted ideas.
JMP: You speak English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Galician in addition to your native Spanish. How did you learn all your languages?
LCE: I learned English because my family and I lived in Rochester, NY for two years when I was a child– it’s interesting that that’s where the Best Translated Book Award came from. For my BA and MA I majored in English. I learned Hebrew because I lived in Israel for nine year. I don’t translate from Hebrew. I learned Portuguese while living in Israel and being part of a group of Brazilians. Knowing Spanish and English helped me pick up the language. Years later I took Portuguese classes. I have taught Portuguese at UTEP, CU-Boulder, and Simpson College. The first work from Portuguese that I translated was a short story by Maria Alzira Brum Lemos. My connection with Galician goes back to the big Galician migration to Uruguay at the end of the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century. The whole country is connected to Galicia. Then, in Boulder I became friends with three Galicians doing the program with me, which got me further interested in the language and soon began reading Galician poets. I first translated Andrea Nunes Brións and I’m currently translating Lara Dopazo Ruibal.
At the same time, I became fascinated with Portuñol, the language spoken at the border of Brazil and Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. And I have translated Fabián Severo from the portuñol.
JMP: What is the relationship between translation, your own writing, and your critical scholarship?
LCE: For me these three processes inform each other, feed off each other and influence my thought and work. Of Death. Minimal Odes is a clear example of the connection between poetry, translation, and critical scholarship. I feel that translation is an interesting way to think. It fosters creativity; you look for different options; you deal with ambiguity and different possibilities at the same time. Those two exercises involve a creative process. Academia, even though scholarly work can be more rigid in its structures and requirements, also involves a lot of creativity and making connections while analyzing literature. It requires an open mind. You’re not reading yourself—you need to be open to the Other, to listening to someone else’s voice. Translation is about listening to an Other.
JMP: How do you see Hilst’s attitude toward death as it is expressed in her poems?
LCE: In the Western World in general, death is seen as scary and taboo. Children are rarely taken to funerals, for example; they are kept separate as if death were contagious. It also has to do with our Western tendency to privilege and overvalue the young and the new; we see wrinkles and gray hair as terrifying and undesirable, so we marginalize the elderly. Death forces us to reckon with a body that’s constantly deteriorating; it raises questions related to spiritual beliefs. This can all be uncomfortable. There is also the way we think of time. The Western view conceives of time as linear, as moving forward and fast toward the future.
In Hilst’s Of Death. Minimal Odes death is not outside the self. Death is part of life at all times, death is a process. Hilst is saying she does not exist without her own death. She looks at her own death with curiosity. There is a relationship with this part of her and it involves fear, sensuality, all the ebbs and flows of a partnership, and in turn, Hilst welcomes these possibilities into the conception of her own life. Death not taboo; it’s not black and white or gray; it has vivid colors and blurs different boundaries. Death has to do with life, love, our fear, our profession, our whole identities, with knowing ourselves. The book’s speaker investigates death and herself in an active and fully engage manner.
JMP: Do you think that she challenge her own culture’s view of death with this text?
LCE: Brazil is a huge country with many attitudes and values. What is clear is that Hilst grapples with a cultural notion rather than taking it for granted. That is what is interesting to me: how in Of Death. Minimal Odes Hilst raises questions and proposes a different way of conceiving of death, life, self, and poetry.
JMP: Which poem was the most difficult for you? Did you come upon anything that seemed untranslatable, and how did you resolve it?
LCE: There were some difficult moments, which is the beauty of it. Hilst is very sound oriented, with repetitions of certain sounds and what seems like incantations. I obviously could not find the same sounds in the same words. There is a dance between two languages, two sound systems. When translating, you have to let go of trying to be exactly like the Other—that’s impossible, and undesirable even. In letting go you can find a solution. Translation is the art of listening and paying attention to what the work is doing and saying so you can write the poetry in the other language.
Translated by Jeannine M. Pitas