“Tomboy” by Claudia Masin, translated from Spanish by Robin Myers, was one of four winners of WWB’s poetry in translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in Poem-a-Day and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September. Join WWB and AAP on September 17 for “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” a celebration of the contest winners at Word Up Community Bookshop in New York City.
WWB: Claudia, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Tomboy”?
Claudia Masin: I repeatedly return to the idea of physical existence, the materiality of things and of our own selves, and I’m especially interested in how we’re shaped by sensory experience, how our senses help us understand the world. Writing is an absolutely corporeal experience for me. It comes over me like an urge, a physical demand: I write because my body impels me to.
As for “Tomboy,” this poem is from a book of mine called Lo intacto, which is based on different movies. “Tomboy” is based on the film by the French director Céline Sciamma about a gender nonconforming child (a child who was “biologically” born a girl and identifies as a boy).
I feel that experiences related to gender and sexuality are an important means of accessing the idea that the body isn’t a given and identity isn’t a given. They’re a process of construction that operates through the infinite capacity for transformation of whatever is touched by an intense desire. “Tomboy” also speaks to empathy: the complex and singular act that involves letting ourselves be changed by the existence of another, imagining what it would be like to live as he or she or them. What it would be like to be a woman, a lizard, a teenager, an elm tree, a little boy, a dragonfly, an old man. What the physical experience of that existence would be like. I believe that imagination is the basis of empathy, and inasmuch as we can imagine—physically, not as an abstraction or a concept—what it would be like to live in the body of another living being (human, animal, vegetable), the fewer chances we have to conceive of that other as an enemy to exterminate, as a threat from which we need to protect ourselves. At the end of the day, I see evil as an utter lack of imagination.
WWB: Robin, what drew you to Claudia Masin’s work? What were the challenges and pleasures of translating “Tomboy”?
Robin Myers: When I first started reading Claudia’s poems, I was struck by how they move, how they unspool: she has these beautifully long, loose, confident lines that sweep in and out of description, assertion, and interrogation, and I loved watching them follow the tributaries of their own images and ideas. At the same time, I was moved by their warmth, by their compassionate attention to human pain and human tenderness. Claudia’s book Lo intacto, which “Tomboy” is excerpted from (and which I’m translating in its entirety), looks again and again at how we hurt each other and are left inevitably, irrevocably damaged by cruelty and loss. Yet it also examines, in many different ways, what love and desire make possible, not so much despite as given the fact of that damage. I admire Claudia’s work for its openness to deep feeling and how it explores those depths with rigor and grace.
“Tomboy” has a way of feeling both abstract and concrete at the same time, following the threads of specific images into longer, more discursive phrases and open-ended questions. Syntactically speaking, it was both a challenge and a pleasure to try and keep the lines nimble, to make sure the language didn’t weigh them down in their twists and turns. I also felt strongly about protecting the force of the poem’s briefest, most declarative lines, which often follow the looser, more ruminative ones. Lines like “What can never / be touched: that’s the body,” or “We’re forced / to be whatever we resemble.” I was stopped in my tracks by these lines in Spanish and wanted to pay special attention to their impact in English, too.
WWB: Were you in conversation about the translation? If so, what was the process of working together like and were there particular issues you ended up discussing?
Robin Myers: I had a few questions and details I wanted to consult with Claudia about as I translated “Tomboy,” and many more as I’ve worked on the entire manuscript of Lo intacto in English. Most of these issues involved specific turns of phrase, to make sure I understood the crux of a given image. Others involved the intentional ambiguity of gender pronouns in certain poems, to make sure I was honoring them. And once I had an initial draft, I sent it to her, as I always do; I wanted very much for her to be able to see it and respond however she liked. Claudia has been an extraordinarily generous presence and collaborator throughout the translation process, and I’m very grateful for her trust.
Claudia Masin: I trusted Robin’s decisions as a translator from the very start, probably because my relationship with her work is one of unconditional admiration. This made it a beautiful experience for me to be translated by her. Robin’s work is among the contemporary poetry I feel most closely identified with, and so I think there was an affinity that made her versions capture nuances that might have gone unnoticed by another translator. She checked a few details with me, but the final decisions were always hers—which was also a choice on my part, because, as I’ve said, I completely trusted her judgment.
WWB: Claudia, do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?
Claudia Masin: My work probably participates—not intentionally, I’m skeptical of “intentional” quests in poetry—in the Argentine, Latin American, and North American lyric traditions. That’s the source of my strongest influences, from Alejandra Pizarnik (Argentina) to Sharon Olds (US), from Susana Villalba (Argentina) to José Watanabe (Peru). They have an intense, sometimes harsh kind of lyricism, but one that’s also charged with wisdom and compassion.
WWB: Are there contemporary Argentine poets who you wish more people were reading?
Robin Myers: At the moment, I’m really excited about another Argentine poet I’ve been translating, Daniel Lipara, who wrote a beautiful debut called Otra vida.
Claudia Masin: There’s a beautiful, exuberant range of work being produced in contemporary Argentine poetry. I’ll name just a few women poets whose work I’d love to see in circulation beyond Argentina: Paula Jiménez España, Elena Anníbali, Julia Magistratti, Luciana Reif, Susana Villalba.
Claudia Masin was born in Resistencia, Chaco, Argentina, in 1972. She is a writer and psychoanalyst. She is the author of eleven poetry collections: Bizarría (1997), Geología (2001), La vista (2002), Abrigo (2007), El secreto (2007), El verano (2010), La plenitud (2010), La cura (2016), La siesta (2017), Lo intacto (2018), and La disobediencia (2018), a volume of her collected poems. She has lived in Buenos Aires since 1990.
Robin Myers is a New York-born, Mexico City-based poet and translator. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming from the Kenyon Review, the Harvard Review, Two Lines, The Offing, Waxwing, Beloit Poetry Journal, Asymptote, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, and Inventory. In 2009, she was named a fellow of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA); in 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Banff Literary Translation Centre (BILTC); and in 2017, she was selected to participate in the feminist translation colloquium A-Fest. Recent book-length translations include Lyric Poetry Is Dead by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg (Cardboard House Press, 2018), Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel (University of Texas Press, forthcoming), and Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter Books, forthcoming).