Robin Myers possesses many of the traits I believe are most important in a translator: a keen ear, a sharp eye, and a heartfelt, generous empathy toward texts and their writers that makes her an ideal bearer of words across lines of language. I have admired her work as a translator of both poetry and prose from Spanish to English for years, and we have had the pleasure of publishing reviews and previews of her work in LALT. Robin and I corresponded via email—she in Mexico City and I in Tulsa, Oklahoma—about projects past and present, and about her unique take on the task of the translator.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon: First, congratulations on all the good work you’ve been up to. You’ve been translating prolifically, besides writing your own poetry and cultivating literary community with endeavors like your blog The Guest and your Poem Per Diem newsletter, all of which is very impressive!
I was inspired to get in touch when I recently read The Science of Departures, your translation of poems by Adalber Salas Hernández, published last year by Kenning Editions. As I was reading, I noticed one poem, called “A Day in the Life,” seemed very familiar—then I remembered I had translated the same poem a few years back for a feature on young Venezuelan poets in LALT! I like your version a lot better, I must say.
What memories come to mind when you think back to working on The Science of Departures? There’s a lot of rather esoteric language in the book (medical terminology, etc) and also a lot of historical and literary references—one poem paraphrases the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance. How did you manage this referential language in your translation?
Robin Myers: First of all, I’m tickled to learn that you translated “A Day in the Life,” too! Adalber is a big believer in multiple translations and so am I; I love the idea of our different versions all hanging out together.
Working on The Science of Departures was a continual lesson in how palimpsestic translation can be—and how many rabbit holes it can beckon you down! My first drafts tend to be very loose and rough; I focus on getting an almost gestural feel for the poems, surrendering to the way they move, trying to move along with them. Adalber’s poems flow and fork and send out syntactic tendrils in a way I found especially pleasurable to drift with. In (many) subsequent revisions, I focused more intently on peeling back the different layers of historical and literary references you’ve alluded to. As I delved deeper into those references, and into the “original” language they’re made of (Adalber’s work often draws from his own readings and translations from English, French, and Portuguese, in such a way that the question of the “original” soon blurs into the palimpsest), I often tried to incorporate them directly. For the poem that paraphrases the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, I quoted from Gregory Rabassa’s translation. For the poems dense with medical terminology, I asked a friend who’s a nurse to help me revise for technical accuracy.
At the same time, I’m sure there are underlying references I missed, which meant I ended up translating them on their own terms, as part of a poem on its own terms, without necessarily tracking where they came from—and I think, when it comes to poems that don’t declare their intertextuality as an objective per se, that that’s okay, too. Take the title, for example: I’d translated the whole book before Adalber told me that “la ciencia de las despedidas” is in itself a Spanish translation (one of many!) of a line by Mandelstam. Rather than turtles, it’s translations, translations, translations all the way down.
AMD: Another poetry book you translated that I really enjoyed is Lyric Poetry Is Dead by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, which came out from Cardboard House in 2018. As the title suggests, the book is a sort of tongue-in-cheek obituary for lyric poetry, its preoccupations and form, but at the same time it’s a very formal book, I think—one that repurposes and plays with poetic traditions. I loved your metrical renditions of the poems, which likewise adhere to form in a playful, ironic way. How did you go about capturing this unique take on meter and form in your English versions? And what are your thoughts on translating metrical poetry in general?
RM: I love translating metrical poetry, and it was Ezequiel himself who got me hooked on it; I took a poetry translation workshop with him as a college student in Buenos Aires, where our friendship and collaboration began. He insisted we learn the nuts and bolts of meter as a way to approach translation with a deeper sense of poetic tradition, a more extensive formal toolbox, and a keener ear. I was very resistant at first, but I changed my tune when I started to experience translating in meter as a more concrete form of contact with what I find challenging and exciting about translation in general: you’re searching for freedom within constraints, trying to create something new within the armature of something that already exists, paying obsessive attention to the relationship between the parts and the whole. Meter won’t let you forget either one (parts, whole).
In translating Lyric Poetry Is Dead, I used mostly iambic lines of different lengths, veering pretty freely in and out of them, to evoke Ezequiel’s own multifarious use of meter (which in Spanish is defined in terms of syllables, not stresses, as in the English tradition). I wanted my own use of meter to feel rigorous but also playful, free—which is the tone and the drive of the book itself, as you’ve pointed out so thoughtfully in your question. The idea of tradition as something to be engaged with, reappropriated, reinvented, teased.
AMD: I was happy to hear that you’re currently translating Andrés Neuman’s novel Bariloche, which will be published by Open Letter. I’m a big Neuman fan and I’m looking forward to reading your translation! He has been translated into English before by a number of translators, most notably Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, who have done three of his novels and a book of short stories to date. What’s it like to work on writing by a contemporary author who has been translated before by other translators? Have you looked back at existing translations of his work, or do you find that distracts from your own translation?
RM: I’m a huge admirer of Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s work, which I first encountered when I read Neuman’s Traveler of the Century some years back. They’re incredible, and I admire them so much that of course I find it daunting to work on an author they’ve translated so extensively! At the same time, I like to think of translators and authors, and our overlapping relationships with each other, as inhabitants of shared ecosystems—keeping each other company in some way, working alongside each other, contributing together to the environment we’re all part of. While I’ve worked more often with previously untranslated authors, that has started to change. For example, I translated Cristina Rivera Garza’s book The Restless Dead when she’d already been translated and has continued to be translated by other people, and I think the multiplicity and simultaneity of those author-translator relationships is a healthy and wonderful thing. In one case, it’s even led to a collaboration: Sarah Booker (who is the translator of The Iliac Crest and Grieving, among other works, as well as an exceptionally kind and generous person) and I have been co-translating another of Rivera Garza’s novels.
To answer your second question, I usually don’t look back at extant translations with the explicit purpose of informing my own, at least not at the time. In the specific case of Bariloche, there’s also the factor that it’s very different stylistically from Neuman’s later work (it’s his first novel, written when he was 22 years old!). In general, though, once I’ve gone through my own process (which sometimes means I’m “finished” and sometimes just that I’ve wrangled with my translation enough to feel that I know where I stand with it), then I’ll go back and read existing translations out of curiosity and eagerness about how the different versions might be conversing with each other, or how they might continue to. I’m excited to return to Caistor and Garcia’s past translations and to read their upcoming work.
AMD: I’m also very much looking forward to reading your co-translation with Ellen Jones of Ave Barrera’s The Forgery from Charco Press. I’ve never done a co-translation before and I’m interested to know more about the process. How are you and Ellen divvying up the work? Do each of you do different things or work on different sections? And how does it work in practical terms? Do the two of you meet up in person and literally “work together” or is it more about sending your respective translations back and forth and swapping notes?
RM: Ellen and I split up the book by chapters, then worked independently on a first draft of our respective halves. As we finished our initial versions of the chapters, we swapped, and each of us revised and commented in detail on the other’s work. (Truly, what would we do without Track Changes?!). Then we swapped again, so that the “first” translator could have another pass at the chapter she started with, and so on. Once we had a cleaner draft, we switched to Google Docs for our subsequent revisions, and once we had the copyedits back from Charco (thanks to the wonderful Fionn Petch), we went through everything in person. We also kept ongoing lists of doubts and tricky bits to resolve later, names and terms to standardize throughout the book, discrepancies in expressions used in the UK vs. the US (Ellen’s from the former, I’m from the latter), etc. And we WhatsApped each other lots of long and ruminative voice notes! I loved the continual conversation that this project became, and I think our system worked well in allowing us both real creative independence while also keeping us involved in—and part of, and accountable to—all the stylistic decisions that ultimately shaped our collaborative whole. I learned so much from Ellen along the way. And I found it both comforting and freeing to share the experience of continual thinking-out-loud that translation usually requires in solitude.
AMD: How does personal closeness to the author manifest itself in your translations? I understand you’re good friends with many of the authors you translate, and I’ve heard you say you work quite collaboratively with some of them. What impact does a close, collaborative relationship have on the finished translation (if a translation is ever really finished)? And what about when the opposite is true? If and when you translate entirely without the author’s input, how does that feel in comparison?
RM: Personal closeness to the author means, for one thing, that I feel comfortable asking as many questions as I need to while translating. Because there are always, always questions (with this word, did you mean more x or y? can you help me unpack this image? how crude or how formal is the register of this exclamation I’m not familiar with? etc.). I treasure the chance to have an ongoing conversation not just with the author’s work by translating it—which is the nature of translation itself—but with the author as a real live person with whom I already share a sense of camaraderie. I also get a thrill out of accompanying the author as they revisit their work through the questions that arise during the translation process. Of course, all of this can happen with an author I have no prior relationship with. But to start from a place of lightness and trust—my trust in the author’s intent and stylistic decisions and how those decisions both assert and open themselves to interpretation; the author’s trust in my creative independence as a vehicle of respect for their work—is both gratifying and uniquely fun. It makes for a more playful collaboration, I think.
When I don’t have much contact with the author, the process is, unsurprisingly, more solitary, which makes the process of combing through my doubts and making my Final Decisions more solitary, too. The conversation remains an essentially inner monologue, though supported and enriched by the research I do, the contextual questions I ask other people, the fellow translators I may consult on one thing or another. Which means it’s never really a monologue in the end, not ever.
AMD: I understand from previous interviews that Spanish is your second language—although you do have family roots in Mexico—and that you’ve been living and working for some time now in Mexico City. As a first-language English speaker living in Mexico, how does everyday immersion in your source language affect your practice as a translator (if it does)? What do you like and/or dislike most about working as a translator into English in Mexico City? Do you think your translations would come out differently if you were completing them elsewhere?
RM: In The Restless Dead, Cristina Rivera Garza writes that the responsibility of The Second Language “is questioning everything (what is original and primal and natural) by the sheer fact of its existence… If the mother tongue achieves an effect of intimacy through familiarity, The Second Language produces intimacy by way of hypervigilance” (my translation). I love the hypervigilant intimacy of living in my second language, and I love the concentric circles of my contact with it. To put it one way, my second language isn’t simply Spanish, but Mexican Spanish; not simply Mexican Spanish, but Mexico City Spanish, with its particular accents and slangs, its obscenities and nostalgias and social stratifications, which I know something about by virtue of living where I live and which I’ll always, always need to keep learning about (and asking about, and listening for, and stumbling into). As a translator, this means I’m most comfortable translating literature from Mexico—not because living anywhere makes you an expert in anything, but because it’s what most comprehensively orients your ear. And also because it’s where I have the broadest web of friends and books and resources I can call on when I need more information or input on what I’m translating. I certainly translate work from other places, too; it just requires a different kind of legwork from the get-go.
I guess the only thing I’ve sometimes disliked about translating into English while living in Mexico City is that, for a long time, the distance (less geographical than contextual) made the English-language publishing industry feel even more daunting and inscrutable than it already is. I was translating for several years before I got my act together to pitch any book-length work, and it took several years after that for any projects to land. I just didn’t feel like I knew how anything worked. And although I started getting to know a warm and vibrant community of Spanish-language writers soon after I moved here, it took me much longer to meet other translators into English, both in Mexico and in the US. Having more translator-solidarity and mentorship in my life has been a great gift in every way.
AMD: I’ve been thinking recently about the trickiness of writing an “artist statement” as a translator—of coming up with a specific proposal, or a specific set of ethics, let’s say, that guides what one does as a translator. Would you say you have a specific goal or a particular ethical prerogative in mind when you translate? Is there something you’re always “going for” when you translate, or does that change depending on the author or the text at hand?
RM: It certainly changes depending on the author or text. But there are a few things I always think about and try to bring to every translation. I’ll quote the translator Sophie Hughes for the first one: “I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery…” Of course, there’s something subjective and interpretive about defining “what it is”; same with “linguistic butchery”! But I mention this remark of Sophie’s because I love her invocation of respect and care: how the translator assesses what the text intends to do, and how the author carries out that intent, and then works to honor both (intent, execution).
I also find myself thinking of something the translator Conor Bracken once wrote to me as part of an interview for The Guest, a monthly column I wrote for Palette Poetry: while translating poetry (surreal poetry, in this case), he said wanted to focus on sound “as another plane on which important arguments are being made.” I love this idea of sound as argument, an idea I think is essential to any sort of relationship with poetry (not just translating it but also writing and especially reading it).
Finally, I’ll say that I approach translation as a cover artist: as a musician who studies and performs an existing text with devoted attention to the original score and, simultaneously, with curiosity and excitement about how the music will change—because it must change—by the sheer fact of being reinterpreted.
Photo of Robin Myers by Nuria Lagarde.