attention is the beginning of devotion
Like the Night Inside the Eyes
“Today, translating a book I loved long before I came to love the person who wrote it, I’d say all of the same things. Yet I’d also say: love is full of information that can’t be processed all at once”
To translate Another Life, the first book by Argentine poet Daniel Lipara, I finally read The Odyssey. I had to. It’s in the DNA of Daniel’s work, which metabolizes an ancient epic into something intimate and tender: the journey taken by a teenage Daniel with his mother, aunt, and younger sister, from Buenos Aires to an ashram in Puttaparthi, India. His mother is gravely ill; his aunt, a devotee of the late guru Sai Baba, hopes this holy place will cure her. Making use of Homeric epithets and anti-heroic cameos, Another Life is a life-sized odyssey, in the sense that any life is made of many others: centuries upon centuries of lives and deaths, loves and struggles, losses and wonders, omnipresent and invisible.
I needed to read The Odyssey so I could learn to flail in my own way at the absent presences in Another Life, and so I could hone my own sense of curiosity about them. This was a private exercise. I spent months reading Emily Wilson’s translation on my Kindle before bed, hoping to get the clean pulse of her iambs in my ear. Sometimes I fell asleep to the beat of them. It took me a long time to get through the whole thing, far longer than it took me to translate a first draft of Daniel’s book.
In an email conversation about the role of love in translation, the translator Jae Kim once told me about an essay called “Obsession,” by Amanda DeMarco, who translated Nathalie Léger’s Exposition into English:
The genesis of the book was Léger’s attempt to curate an exhibition of photographs of Castiglione for a museum… And so Léger is simply one of the most recent in a long line of people to be moved by Castiglione’s force of fascination. But Castiglione was never my obsession, nor even my subject… Reflections upon reflections, one woman’s life within another’s, and another’s, and another’s.
This resonates. Homer wasn’t my obsession in translating Another Life, nor even my subject. I didn’t need to think every thought about The Odyssey that Daniel had thought, didn’t need to wrestle with the poem as he did. But I needed to read it so that I could devote my attention to his own. After all, attention is, as another poet once said, the beginning of devotion.
To translate Like the Night Inside the Eyes, Daniel’s second book, I’m finally reading The Iliad. I have to. It’s in the DNA of Like the Night…, which alternates between brief fragments of autobiographical prose and verse poems woven from Homeric similes. The book involves the early death of Daniel’s mother; his decision to leave home as a teenager and move in with his best friend; his estrangement from his father; his father’s illness and death; his bond and collaboration with a poet who nurtured him and his work in the years before she died; the start of a loving relationship that would last for many years. It’s a book that plumbs the mysterious moments of a person’s life when they feel compelled to change it. Or when they can’t help but change it, and then find themselves both stricken and exhilarated by the force of their instinct, irrevocable, alive.
Interspersed with these prose passages are poems fashioned out of similes from The Iliad in several of its Spanish and English translations. Concise or complex, the similes part the veil of the epic to reveal some other scene behind it, or inside it. Often they’re scenes from nature: lions and boars, storms and stars and bees. Agamemnon’s eyes flash like fire. Tethys appears like mist. A heart tears, as when a wave surges skyward and then plunges back down onto a tossed ship, wind screaming into the sails. Achilles lays his hands on Patroclus’s chest and sings to him, weeping, as when a lioness returns too late to the forest and finds that a hunter has absconded with her cubs. Where are they now? Hushed and thunderous, forever convulsing and quieting down, transforming and healing itself, the natural world becomes—is always—enmeshed with human brutality and ardor, with the humbler scale of our losses, our loves.
“I’M TRANSLATING AN EXPLICITLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WORK THAT DEPICTS PARENTS AND LOVERS, PAST GIFTS AND WOUNDS, JUST AS I’M HEARING MORE ABOUT THEM FROM THE ACTUAL PERSON RIGHT ACROSS THE TABLE FROM ME”
I need to read The Iliad so I can learn to flail in my own way at the absent presences in Like the Night…, and so I can hone my own sense of wonderment at their invocation. This is turning out to be, in one sense, a private exercise. In another sense, it’s never felt so vivid and immediate as a conversation with the writer I’m translating. Just today, I spent some time reading Daniel’s own copy of The Iliad in Caroline Alexander’s English version. Which means it’s his notes I see in the margins: soft, spindly handwriting, gentle brackets and arrows and circles, all in pencil. It moves me, this intimate evidence of his own thinking.
Homer isn’t my obsession in translating Like the Night…, nor even my subject. I don’t need to think every thought about The Iliad that Daniel has thought, don’t need to love the poem the way he loves it. I’m reading it so that I can devote my attention to Daniel’s devotion. (Attention is the beginning of devotion.) I’m reading it because—
Here’s the thing. Once I translated a book that changed my life. It’s called, appropriately, Another Life, and it’s a poem in fifteen parts by Daniel Lipara. It changed my life because it introduced me to Daniel, who became a dear friend. Not long ago, after years of long-distance camaraderie and collaboration, we fell in love. I’m reading his copy of The Iliad in Caroline Alexander’s translation because we live together now.
Why, I ask myself as I write these words, do I feel sheepish to be writing these words? Because I worry that I’ll be taken less seriously as his translator, or that he’ll be taken less seriously as a writer? Because I don’t want to romanticize his work, or mine, or our personal relationship, or our creative one, or the conversation between any writer and any translator, or, hell, poetry in general; because I’d rather not reduce any of these things to, you know, romance? Yes. But also because it does feel different to translate the work of someone I love, and I’m learning to admit this. And before I admit it to anyone else—that it’s different, at least to me, at least right now—I must accept it myself.
It shouldn’t feel like anything new, I sometimes catch myself thinking. I’m no stranger to translating the work of people I’m fond of. Occasionally someone asks me about it: How does personal affinity for the author affect the translation process? When I translate (I usually respond), my primary relationship is with the text itself, not with its author. At the same time (I qualify), friendship poignantly exacerbates the idea that every translation—even when you don’t know the author at all, or you never get to ask them anything, or they’ve been dead for hundreds of years—is in some sense a collaborative act, a conversation. I relish (I conclude) the chance to have that conversation in real life, in real time. It’s not necessary, but it’s often more fun.
Today, translating a book I loved long before I came to love the person who wrote it, I’d say all of the same things. Yet I’d also say: love is full of information that can’t be processed all at once. I’m translating an explicitly autobiographical work that depicts parents and lovers, past gifts and wounds, just as I’m hearing more about them from the actual person right across the table from me. I’m teasing out the cadence of his prose in my English while getting to hear him repeat and vary the inflections of his Spanish at in-person poetry readings. As our shared daily life grows and changes, so does the book when I think about and reread it, sometimes faster than I know what to do with.
The porousness I feel—it doesn’t make the translation easier, doesn’t quicken my step. On the contrary: it calls on me to slow down.
I’ve been reading a book about Homeric similes on the bus in Buenos Aires. The scholar explains their collaborative substance and significance: simile “families,” essential elements of an oral tradition, would have been familiar to audiences in a way that allowed each performing poet to reiterate, riff upon, and rework them. On the page, too, they cleave an alternate temporality into the poem: they lead the reader’s (or the listener’s) attention forward, outward, inward. Scenes of war, killing, dying, grieving, endless wrangling among humans and gods: lyrical, often digressive similes refract them through images of birds, trees, fire, fawns, wheat, the pangs of childbirth. They halt the action, humble it, transfigure it altogether.
Daniel tells me that he started transcribing and then retranslating similes from the Iliad at a moment when he wasn’t sure what to write or how. He’d published his first book: now what? His friend and mentor Mirta Rosenberg was sick, then dying. Together, they’d been translating Memorial, by Alice Oswald, who defined her own book as an “excavation” of the Iliad. The similes became part of his palimpsest. I imagine him copying them down in the dark.
I can’t forget that the life I’m living as I translate Like the Night Inside the Eyes—slowly, slowly—is not the same as the one I was living when I first read it. How to keep track of our changes as they happen? Maybe, over time, it becomes easier to remember who and what was with us than what exactly we were doing as we changed. The Iliad was with Daniel, and so was Memorial, and so was Mirta. Like the Night… is with me today, and so is Daniel, roasting cauliflower in the kitchen. The comparison of disparate elements is always a transformation: the very act of describing something as like something else is what allows it to become more of itself. Or more than itself. Who knows how much more? This is what I’m learning now. That uncertainty. That devotion.