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How We Translate Together

Joshua Beckman and I have translated two books and a handful more poems together from Spanish to English. Through the years our process has evolved, and this is for many reasons, including the source material, our individual approaches to translation, and our conversations on the topic—in other words, our friendship, as letters are woven into its fabric. I want to think through what I’ve learned in our collaboration.

The first thing that occurs to me is that our translations are part of a much wider ongoing series of conversations about literature, reading and writing, and the presentation of pages and books that goes back many years. We are not just writers but voracious readers of translations, and not just translations in the usual sense but also footnotes, introductions, commentaries, and so on: all of the material that can make an old or difficult text available. A significant part of our dialogue has unfolded in the form of a correspondence that is now in its third decade. Working with Joshua means working in a way informed by that backdrop, the great wealth of informal and occasional communication and sharing that it involves, as well as the sheer persistence of having written to each other for so long, and so being aware of each other’s work and thinking over the years.

The second thing that occurs to me, and here I will slip into a chronological frame, is that we really began to work together when Joshua shared with me a sense of poetic translation that was unfamiliar. I had done some translating before, in the framework of my philosophical studies, and with the ease that many bilingual people bring to translation. (As is the case for others who grew up bilingually in several countries, constant informal translation was the condition of my youthful everyday life, a regular source of curiosity and humor.) The ease, I came to learn, is false, or at least suspect, though not the curiosity, or better, the insistence, the exigency of moving back and forth between languages and bringing pieces of writing with you. But what Joshua shared was that sometimes poets translated from languages they knew very little, or did not know at all. For example, I recall Joshua telling me he had translated Tomaž Šalamun, and my immediate thought was—what does he mean, since he doesn’t know Slovenian? And through a series of conversations and readings I came to be introduced to a very different idea of translation than the one I had encountered in the university, at least in the context of philosophy, in which the translator is a figure of expertise who always moves with mastery among languages and texts. A fine prejudice I am glad to have been disabused of! Indeed, Tomaž had put his poems into the English he knew, and Joshua was there to dialogue about the meaning of Slovenian words and add his sense of another English, his own or one he had heard or read, and I was finally able to understand what in all that was translation.

It was around this time that Joshua took a trip to Peru, a country where he spoke the language with difficulty, and made trips to many bookstores to find books on a list I had sent him. (For example, I recall being particularly interested in the complete works of José Carlos Mariátegui.) As a result of seeking out my requests, and his own searches, Joshua returned with the amazing Cinco metros de poemas by Carlos Oquendo de Amat, the sole publication of an avant-gardist who died young, an incredible accordion-book that we began translating soon after. We followed a process that I imagine was familiar to Joshua from working with other poets: I rendered an English draft leaning toward the literal and we dialogued based on that, mainly over one week in Austin, Texas, but also over the phone and by post. I recall thinking that the best I could do was to create a literal translation so that the poetry would arise in our conversation and thus belong to us both. Now I think my sense of the literal as the necessary first draft was a transitional stage, a way of hanging on to my older, narrower concept of translation. (It has been demoted to simply being one sometimes useful approach among others.)

Joshua had found the book we eventually brought out as Five Meters of Poems; I was the one who discovered a reference to Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Microgramas in a book on haiku and communicated my excitement to Joshua when I tracked down the charming little square volume at the Benson Latin American Library in Austin. I created a draft of the Ecuadorian poet’s book, published in Japan, mainly to share the book with Joshua, to put it in our conversational space, and as an expression of my excitement about his book of short poems, Your Time Has Come, and his reports on reading R.H. Blyth and others on Japanese traditions. We decided to finish the translation together not long after that. The main differences between translating Oquendo de Amat and Carrera Andrade were, first, that I found myself, as I wrote the first draft, less in the mode I’ve called “literal” (as though preparing for a second, distinct “poetic” mode or moment) and more in one of anticipating specifically the kind of exchanges and language that Joshua and I shared. Second, I think it merits comment that we did all the work over the telephone. Micrograms, the book we eventually produced, includes poetry and prose; the prose is an essay filled with citations of poets who inspired the “micro” mode, and the poetry includes not only Carrera Andrade’s brief haiku-inspired poems, but also his mini-anthology of classic haiku, which we retranslated from Spanish, convinced that he had given these old poems his own characteristic tone, and that they added to the charm and integrity of the book as he conceived it.

Our current project of several years is centered on the Argentine writer Antonio Porchia, whose brief “voices” defy expectations of genre, falling somewhere between poetry and prose. Our way of working on this project is similar to the previous book in terms of the order of contact with the material: I continue to prepare first drafts, which we then work through phrase by phrase, sound by sound, word by word, sometimes even comma by comma; and, again, so far most of this by phone. Much of this work involves reading the drafts aloud to each other, or listening to proposed variants, repeating, listening again . . . . What I’ve noted is new in the Porchia project is that the drafts are being written and transmitted piecemeal instead of as a single manuscript; this has the effect of allowing conversation earlier in the translation process. A second novelty is our interest in making the possible eventual modes of publication part of the discussion. I would rather not go into this too much here, as the work is ongoing; suffice it to say that we engage in detailed discussions as to placement of the poems on the page, as freestanding pieces, as citations in blocks of prose, as graphic elements in their own right, etc., and these conversations then feed back into the fine grain of the Spanish-English negotiation.

I have two goals for the future: one is to translate the poems of a living author; the other, to translate from a language I don’t know. I imagine translating a living author not just as identifying an exciting work to render into English, but foremost as figuring out how to welcome a third (at least a third) into a space of correspondence and conversation out of which a translation may result—among other things. As for working from a language I don’t know, Joshua’s experience with Tomaž and our work with Carrera Andrade’s Japanese-to-Spanish poems may prove to be precedents. In any case, I want to advance further into a space that forsakes mastery and too much ease for openness and, still and always, curiosity.

Works translated by Joshua and Alejandro:

Five Meters of Poems by Carlos Oquendo de Amat

Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade

Poems by various authors in Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity, ed. Jed Rasula and Tim Conley

English

Joshua Beckman and I have translated two books and a handful more poems together from Spanish to English. Through the years our process has evolved, and this is for many reasons, including the source material, our individual approaches to translation, and our conversations on the topic—in other words, our friendship, as letters are woven into its fabric. I want to think through what I’ve learned in our collaboration.

The first thing that occurs to me is that our translations are part of a much wider ongoing series of conversations about literature, reading and writing, and the presentation of pages and books that goes back many years. We are not just writers but voracious readers of translations, and not just translations in the usual sense but also footnotes, introductions, commentaries, and so on: all of the material that can make an old or difficult text available. A significant part of our dialogue has unfolded in the form of a correspondence that is now in its third decade. Working with Joshua means working in a way informed by that backdrop, the great wealth of informal and occasional communication and sharing that it involves, as well as the sheer persistence of having written to each other for so long, and so being aware of each other’s work and thinking over the years.

The second thing that occurs to me, and here I will slip into a chronological frame, is that we really began to work together when Joshua shared with me a sense of poetic translation that was unfamiliar. I had done some translating before, in the framework of my philosophical studies, and with the ease that many bilingual people bring to translation. (As is the case for others who grew up bilingually in several countries, constant informal translation was the condition of my youthful everyday life, a regular source of curiosity and humor.) The ease, I came to learn, is false, or at least suspect, though not the curiosity, or better, the insistence, the exigency of moving back and forth between languages and bringing pieces of writing with you. But what Joshua shared was that sometimes poets translated from languages they knew very little, or did not know at all. For example, I recall Joshua telling me he had translated Tomaž Šalamun, and my immediate thought was—what does he mean, since he doesn’t know Slovenian? And through a series of conversations and readings I came to be introduced to a very different idea of translation than the one I had encountered in the university, at least in the context of philosophy, in which the translator is a figure of expertise who always moves with mastery among languages and texts. A fine prejudice I am glad to have been disabused of! Indeed, Tomaž had put his poems into the English he knew, and Joshua was there to dialogue about the meaning of Slovenian words and add his sense of another English, his own or one he had heard or read, and I was finally able to understand what in all that was translation.

It was around this time that Joshua took a trip to Peru, a country where he spoke the language with difficulty, and made trips to many bookstores to find books on a list I had sent him. (For example, I recall being particularly interested in the complete works of José Carlos Mariátegui.) As a result of seeking out my requests, and his own searches, Joshua returned with the amazing Cinco metros de poemas by Carlos Oquendo de Amat, the sole publication of an avant-gardist who died young, an incredible accordion-book that we began translating soon after. We followed a process that I imagine was familiar to Joshua from working with other poets: I rendered an English draft leaning toward the literal and we dialogued based on that, mainly over one week in Austin, Texas, but also over the phone and by post. I recall thinking that the best I could do was to create a literal translation so that the poetry would arise in our conversation and thus belong to us both. Now I think my sense of the literal as the necessary first draft was a transitional stage, a way of hanging on to my older, narrower concept of translation. (It has been demoted to simply being one sometimes useful approach among others.)

Joshua had found the book we eventually brought out as Five Meters of Poems; I was the one who discovered a reference to Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Microgramas in a book on haiku and communicated my excitement to Joshua when I tracked down the charming little square volume at the Benson Latin American Library in Austin. I created a draft of the Ecuadorian poet’s book, published in Japan, mainly to share the book with Joshua, to put it in our conversational space, and as an expression of my excitement about his book of short poems, Your Time Has Come, and his reports on reading R.H. Blyth and others on Japanese traditions. We decided to finish the translation together not long after that. The main differences between translating Oquendo de Amat and Carrera Andrade were, first, that I found myself, as I wrote the first draft, less in the mode I’ve called “literal” (as though preparing for a second, distinct “poetic” mode or moment) and more in one of anticipating specifically the kind of exchanges and language that Joshua and I shared. Second, I think it merits comment that we did all the work over the telephone. Micrograms, the book we eventually produced, includes poetry and prose; the prose is an essay filled with citations of poets who inspired the “micro” mode, and the poetry includes not only Carrera Andrade’s brief haiku-inspired poems, but also his mini-anthology of classic haiku, which we retranslated from Spanish, convinced that he had given these old poems his own characteristic tone, and that they added to the charm and integrity of the book as he conceived it.

Our current project of several years is centered on the Argentine writer Antonio Porchia, whose brief “voices” defy expectations of genre, falling somewhere between poetry and prose. Our way of working on this project is similar to the previous book in terms of the order of contact with the material: I continue to prepare first drafts, which we then work through phrase by phrase, sound by sound, word by word, sometimes even comma by comma; and, again, so far most of this by phone. Much of this work involves reading the drafts aloud to each other, or listening to proposed variants, repeating, listening again . . . . What I’ve noted is new in the Porchia project is that the drafts are being written and transmitted piecemeal instead of as a single manuscript; this has the effect of allowing conversation earlier in the translation process. A second novelty is our interest in making the possible eventual modes of publication part of the discussion. I would rather not go into this too much here, as the work is ongoing; suffice it to say that we engage in detailed discussions as to placement of the poems on the page, as freestanding pieces, as citations in blocks of prose, as graphic elements in their own right, etc., and these conversations then feed back into the fine grain of the Spanish-English negotiation.

I have two goals for the future: one is to translate the poems of a living author; the other, to translate from a language I don’t know. I imagine translating a living author not just as identifying an exciting work to render into English, but foremost as figuring out how to welcome a third (at least a third) into a space of correspondence and conversation out of which a translation may result—among other things. As for working from a language I don’t know, Joshua’s experience with Tomaž and our work with Carrera Andrade’s Japanese-to-Spanish poems may prove to be precedents. In any case, I want to advance further into a space that forsakes mastery and too much ease for openness and, still and always, curiosity.

Works translated by Joshua and Alejandro:

Five Meters of Poems by Carlos Oquendo de Amat

Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade

Poems by various authors in Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity, ed. Jed Rasula and Tim Conley

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