“Translating both invites and challenges you to inventiveness, to freedom within constraints”: An Interview with Robin Myers — Tobias Ryan

Robin Myers is a poet and translator who lives in Mexico City. With a translation of Andrés Neuman’s Bariloche recently published by Open Letter Books, and Isabel Zapata’s In Vitro, from Coffee House Press, hot on its heels, I spoke to her about both books, her own writing, and the various processes through which words make it onto the page and into the world.

Your most recent translations seem very different, not only in style and form, but also concern and worldview. Given these differences, I was curious about how you choose the texts you work on.

As different as they are, both projects came about through ongoing conversations with the authors. I hadn’t worked with Andrés before, but we got in touch when he invited me to translate a book of his poetry (Love Training), which is also coming out in July with Deep Vellum. Throughout our correspondence, I learned that his debut novel Bariloche had been acquired by Open Letter Books, and eventually I ended up working on both projects more or less simultaneously.

What I really love about Bariloche is something that I also love about In Vitro, and it’s simply what’s happening on the level of language. I came to translation through poetry – writing it, translating it almost exclusively at first – and if a novel has all its linguistic circuits firing, I’m hooked. Andrés is such a surprising writer. Even at age 22, when he wrote Bariloche (appalling!), it’s all there: these dense, elegant, startling sentences, his sharp, often unsettling images, the way he torques his adjectives, a vivid ear for dialogue. It’s the language I love to plunge my hands into.

As far as In Vitro goes, I’ve known Isabel for years, pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Mexico, and I started translating her as a poet as well. I love and admire her work across genres, and the way both her poetic acuity and essayistic expansiveness evolve. With her, it’s always been a dynamic of: what are you working on and when can I translate it? So translating In Vitro was an entirely natural decision in the progression of our friendship, our conversations.

So in general the people you’ve translated are still around and quite engaged in the translation process?

For most part. I got my start translating around the time that I moved to Mexico and was meeting a lot of young poets (novelists and essayists came later). There was a lovely sense of us coming up together, learning the ropes together, our collaborations born out of incipient friendships. That’s not wholly the case anymore; these days I work somewhat more on commission, and have translated plenty of authors on the basis of loving their work without knowing them personally. But with very few exceptions, I’ve almost always translated authors who are still alive and I really treasure being in touch with them – not as a condition for translating them, but as an added dimension to the process and the conversation around it. I’m quite protective of my initial drafts and rarely share them as they’re under way; the chattier part happens a few drafts in. But yes, it’s a dynamic I’ve always felt nourished by. And, as a poet who’s been translated too, I love being on both sides of it.

Perhaps as a lead into further conversations about translation as a craft versus art … to what extent would you say the final text is a collaboration?

There can be a lot of back and forth, but usually not on a structural level. The exchange often focuses on small things – phrases, images, contextual details. Once I’ve got the whole text fully translated and have a clearer sense of what I still need, what’s still uncertain, then I’ll share it with the author, and if they’re comfortable reading English and are interested in this level of involvement, I invite them to read the whole thing and offer feedback. Of course, some translations end up being more collaborative than others. One example that comes to mind is Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Restless Dead. Cristina has described all writing as rewriting, and there’s no better example of that idea than translation. She walks the walk: she often takes the opportunity to revisit and rethink her original work, reconsider it in its new time and place of reception, sometimes even rewriting entire passages. In a case like that, there’s a lot of collaboration in multiple directions.

You mentioned that poetry, and your being a poet, was a gateway to translation.. When did your interest in poetry take shape?

I was a nerdy child who always liked reading and writing, but it was around the age of thirteen or fourteen that I found poetry. That was it for me! A conversion experience. Oddly, I don’t remember one specific Eureka moment, whose writing it was that marked the shift, but I do remember who I started to read subsequently. I had a sort of poetry mentor as a teenager, a teacher at my high school, who took me under her wing and fed me stuff to read. Louise Glück, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass – those three were really important early on.

And when did your interest in Latin American literature develop?

It took a long time, actually. As a very young person, I learned Spanish less out of an interest in literature than out of a desire to get to know Mexico, where I have some family ties: my father’s mother was Mexican, and her family moved to the US when she was a child. I never met her, but through my dad, who’s always loved being here, I visited central Mexico a couple of times as a kid. There was something about those early experiences – about being in a new place I felt intensely curious about but couldn’t communicate in – that made me want to learn Spanish so that I could be there too. So that I could be a whole person in this place, in this language.

I didn’t study Latin American literature academically, and I don’t approach it, whether as a reader or as a translator, with any intent at regional classification or specialization. (In fact, sometimes I think I became a translator in part to evade specialization – I knew academia wasn’t for me.)  The region is vast and endlessly varied, and my own reading, my own obsessions, have been constellated, hummingbird-y.

That’s fair. Though one thing I would say I enjoyed about Bariloche in particular, was a sense of how it resonated with other Latin American authors I’ve read.

Sure – even as a novel by a very young writer (and the finalist for the Herralde Prize, judged that year by Roberto Bolaño), it clearly converses with aesthetic traditions and themes that emerge in all sorts of literatures (plural!) written in Latin America. The relationship and tension between urban and rural realms, a sort of uneasy nostalgia, the desolate grind of labour and loneliness in big cities, etc….

You alluded to what’s happening on the level of language earlier, what else do you see that Bariloche and In Vitro share?

One thing I love about both is that they’re both more formally subversive than they seem at first glance. Bariloche has a harshness to it, a brooding quality; the protagonist is a garbage collector and we’re met with rough scenes of him traversing the city in the wee hours. But they’re interspersed with flashbacks to his prior life in rural Bariloche, and those passages are written entirely in poetic metre; I translated them in metre, too. So there’s this sort of stealth formalism within what otherwise comes off as an edgy, fragmentary book. Andrés’ use of poetic form in certain passages can go completely unnoticed, but on an unconscious textural level it makes the prose do something richer and stranger than just a realist account of this man’s gritty urban life.

In the case of In Vitro, Isabel takes an unflinching, razor-sharp approach – again, formally, on the level of the sentence, on the level of style – to subject matter (pregnancy, motherhood, the body undergoing extreme states of vulnerability and disruption) that is often softened, whitewashed, condescended to, and lumped together despite its enormous emotional and intellectual range. What I find so amazing about In Vitro is its unsparing examination not just of pregnancy and parenthood, but of many other difficult forces that aren’t always acknowledged in the same breath: illness, death, grief. She really goes there: there’s one image that always stops me short, where she meditates on the resonance between a pregnant belly and a cancerous tumour – this idea of being inhabited by something that isn’t you, and which causes you harm in some way. Her language, her imagery, is arresting and startling and sometimes quite uncomfortable. So both Bariloche and In Vitro use language in ways that catch you unawares.

You mention in the translator’s note for In Vitro, that your initial emotional reaction to the text required a more focused attitude –

Yeah, I saw that I’d have to really focus on craft to see me through.

How different was the process, compared to Bariloche? Was it a heightened version of what you were already doing, or did you take a completely different approach?

As processes, strictly speaking, they were fairly similar. But there’s a minimalism to Isabel’s writing, a spareness, that means there’s nowhere to hide. With In Vitro, I guess the actual mechanics of translation did feel heightened to me, both heightened and slowed-down. I had to avail myself of all of my resources in order to really see what she was doing, because there’s so little fluff, and because I did have a powerful emotional response to the text; I rationed it more deliberately as I went. As for Bariloche, Andrés’s writing is both lush and incredibly precise, which required a different exercise of the same intensified attention: there, too, I felt that I had to have all of my antennae up all the time. It was an experience of real exhilaration, though; Bariloche is one of the books that I’ve viscerally enjoyed translating, the sense of just revelling in language. I often found it quite funny, which I appreciated. So I felt more swept along translating Bariloche than In Vitro, where I was kind of watching my step.

Would you say there are differences between how you approach translating prose and poetry?

I ask myself this question from time to time, especially in getting to translate both prose and poetry by the same authors (like Andrés Neuman and Isabel Zapata, in fact.) For the most part, I see them as fundamentally kindred processes and believe that the differences are often exaggerated – or at least that those differences have more to do with anxieties around poetry than about the actual stuff and substance of poetry vs. prose. That said, translating poetry exacerbates the experience of working inside a form. I don’t mean form in the sense of metre, rhyme, etc., not necessarily, but in the sense that language operates within a vessel with starker, sometimes more intricate contours. Translating poetry involves a kind of hyper vigilance about the materiality of language, often with less space for work-arounds. At the same time, even if the material parameters are stricter, I think of poetry as a perennial call to experimentation and multiplicity. Translating poems both invites and challenges you to inventiveness, to freedom within constraints. At the end of the day, a poem, to me, more than any other written form, is something that does what it says. And so translating the poem is more “how do I make this thing happen?” rather than “how do I say what it says?”

How has translating poetry impacted your own writing?

Translating has made me feel less precious about the idea of ‘voice’ as some sort of essential, abiding force. It’s made me feel not just more porous as a poet but more interested in porousness, in being influenced, in experimenting with what it feels like to use language in certain ways and then explore others. Obviously none of what I’m saying is specific to translating or being a translator! I just mean that translating poetry has, for me, intensified my attention to the material stuff of language and the mutability of style. Maybe I feel more inclined to approach my own poems as a sort of translator.  

Do you ever write in Spanish?

I’ve written one poem in Spanish, and I felt like a completely different person.

In a good way?

Yeah, in a very liberating way. It was during the first year of the pandemic, when I hadn’t felt like writing much at all. A magazine in Mexico asked me to write something, and I decided to try it in in Spanish. It felt like losing control while running down a hill.

I keep circling around questions of process, how they differ and interact between your own writing and translation, at least in part to tease at notions we brushed up against earlier, that of translation more as an art or craft – or both (assuming any distinction matters). In can seem an intractable question at times.

You know, I love how Kate Briggs writes about art and craft in This Little Art, often in a wonderfully inconclusive way – about what it means to do something again and what it means to do something anew, and how the anxieties about craft vs. art participate in that distinction, too. But yeah, I guess these conversations can feel intractable in part because the different iterations of a novel or a poem exist in languages where not everybody can experience both, which makes people nervous, and so it becomes this either/or debate, which I personally find sort of tiresome. As the translator Anton Hur pointed out on Twitter recently, there’s this widespread idea that the original is automatically superior. Why? That in itself is a value judgement that’s worth unpacking. I think about this too as someone whose poetry collections have been published in translation, in several Spanish-speaking countries, but not in the language I wrote them in or the country I’m from. The translations of my work are the original, in a way. And when I participate in a reading in Mexico City, say, I’m sharing Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s translation of my poems. They are not only separate from ‘the original’; they publicly precede it.

Speaking personally, I often find hierarchical thinking or judgements on these topics a difficult trap to avoid – even when consciously trying to! For example, I can think of occasions when noticing the translator was disruptive to the point of diminishment, creating a dissonance that undermined my immersion in the text. In that situation it can be difficult not to feel aggrieved by the knowledge that you are not reading (and may never be able to read) the original …

This is another issue that I can sometimes feel myself bogging down in. Because of course there are translations so stiff that they’re impossible to enjoy, translations that hew so doggedly to each and every word in the syntax of the capital-O Original that they end up dragging it down, never coming to life. But I also reject the long-held idea that the best translation is a translation where you never realise it even is one. Or that the best writing, for that matter, is necessarily ‘smooth’, ‘seamless’, etc. I don’t believe that translations should be automatically praised for being translations; a translator’s work is an infinite web of decisions, and those decisions can fall flat. And still! I think it’s important for readers (and editors, and critics) to remember – and be reminded! – that the translator is in there, doing their work. They’re never not there. And some translations are actually trying to accentuate or intensify differences and tensions at work between two languages in such a way that the very act of translating them, calling attention to their translatedness, is an essential part of the experience.

It’s a rare gift when you get to really think about these issues – about the textures of two languages and the ethics and aesthetics of decisions made in translation – in collaboration with editors. To be sure, I’ve had wonderful experiences with editors who were never able to read the book in the original – editors who were able to engage vigorously and critically with the translation-in-progress without trying to homogenise it, for one thing. Only in very few cases, though, have I worked with editors who are Spanish/English readers themselves, and I found that uniquely rewarding. Not just because they caught things I’d missed (which they did, thank god!), but also because we could really get into the nitty-gritty of both books (original, translation) and the relationship between them. The rarity of this experience is an ecosystemic question too.

I think that goes back to what we touched on earlier around notions of “Latin American literature”, the ways publishing systems mediate access – even those presses doing excellent work – and how these things are packaged.

Of course. What is pushed through these tubes of the publishing world in different places is always only going to be a very narrow segment of what’s published in, for example, Latin America, which in itself is also a narrow segment of what is being written in the first place. That’s something that makes me quite uncomfortable about translating into English too – that the translation of a book into the English language, with all of its hegemonic power, can be treated as a stamp of approval. Quality control. Which is insane!

In addition to everything else you’re doing, you’re also working on – would it be correct to say a memoir?

It’s a hybrid memoir/craft book of sorts – a sequence of essays about the translation of poetry specifically. Some are in a more personal essay vein, like the one that came out in Words Without Borders, while others focus on the nuts and bolts of poetry translation, more rooted in close readings. The book started as a monthly column I wrote for Palette Poetry. When I was invited to write something regularly about translation, I used it as an excuse to interview translators I admired –working in a broad range of languages and time periods – about some aspect of their work, process based or otherwise. Then I’d write little essays, ‘embedded interviews’, around whatever they sent me. Gradually that project evolved into something I started to think of as a book that could also incorporate more personal reflections about translation, bilingualism, migration, etcetera.

What’s that been like?

It’s been both exhilarating and stressful – a very different kind of writing than I’ve done before. I guess I’d gotten comfortable with the obliqueness and refractions of poetry, because here, writing nonfiction, I’ve felt more exposed on some level – challenged to show how I’ve learned to think about things. It’s also pushed me to overcome my resistance to (anxiety about) theory – not that I’ve magically started to love reading translation theory, which I can’t say I have. But I do very much want to learn, you know? To do a lot of reading I hadn’t done before, to educate myself further about translation over time, and to think alongside other practicing translators (my favourite part). It’s felt like a steep, but exciting, learning curve for me.

Maybe it’s early days, but has the writing of it changed how you engage with your poetry or translations?

My knee-jerk answer is evidence based, in that out of the blue I started writing prose poems, which I’d never been remotely interested in before. It does feel like exploring prose has changed something about wherever I’m starting to write poetry from right now – a huge surprise.

With Bariloche already out and In Vitro on its way soon, what’s next?

I have a few projects in very early phases and few others that are wrapping up, but I’d love to mention a few more poetry translations that will be out later this year and next. This year, there’s Andrés Neuman’s Love Training, as well as The Law of Conservation by a wonderful Argentine poet named Mariana Spada. This book – her first – pays acute attention to the unstable edges of things: cities and the landscapes beyond them, running under them; bodies, transitions, transformations, narratives of gender and selfhood; grief and the metamorphoses of memory. Both are out from Deep Vellum this summer. And next year, The Brush, by Colombian poet Eliana Hernández-Pachón (Archipelago Books), and What Comes Back, by Mexican poet Javier Peñalosa M. I’m also working on Like the Night Inside the Eyes,the second book by Argentine poet Daniel Lipara.

In a perfect world, where the grant money flowed freely, would you prefer to be working on poetry or prose?

It’s tough! I genuinely like the mix, and as someone who feels absolutely no compulsion to write fiction, I find it fascinating to translate, not to mention a welcome change of scenery. If I had to choose, though, and if I didn’t have to worry about finances at all ever, I’d focus on poetry. That’s where my heart of hearts still is, the field (as Cristina Rivera Garza would call it – a place more than a genre) I never tire of.

So for the intro, is it “Robin Myers, poet and translator” or “Robin Myers, translator and poet”?

Doesn’t matter to me – it’s all in there.

Bariloche by Andrés Neuman is out now with Open Letter Books.

In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation will be published on May 9th by Coffee House Press. You can pre-order a copy here.

Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator. Alongside book-length works, her translations have appeared in Granta, The Baffler, Kenyon Review and elsewhere. As a poet, Robin’s work has been selected for the 2022 Best American Poetry anthology, and appears in The Drift, Poetry London, Yale Review, and other journals. Twitter: @robin_ep_myers

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in France. Twitter: @tobiasvryan