We’re pleased to welcome Soleil Davíd as a WWB editorial fellow. Soleil is a poet, writer, and translator who moved from the Philippines to the United States at age 17. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Arkansas International, Cream City Review, and The Margins, among others. She received her BA from UC Berkeley and an MFA from Indiana University, where she served as poetry editor of Indiana Review. Soleil spoke with us about her relationship to translation, her work as a poet, and the books that have influenced her.
WWB: What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
Soleil Davíd (SD): I’ve wanted to get into literary translation since my time as an undergraduate at Berkeley, especially since Robert Hass was always offering a yearly workshop. For a number of wrongheaded reasons that I hope I’ve mostly unlearned—chief among them colonial mentality and an insecurity about who needs translations from the Philippines, a place where most writers read and write in English, among so many other languages—I never applied for it. I have always regretted that, so when I got to graduate school, I took literary translation classes with Bill Johnston as soon as I was able. Those workshops were one of the highlights of my grad school career, and enabled me to reconnect with Philippine literature on a deep level. I don’t remember when I first heard about Words Without Borders, but I feel that its name was always swirling around in the atmosphere, even before I started calling myself a translator.
Because I’m a poet, it probably comes as no surprise how enamored I am with language. I also grew up in a multilingual country, but since most people spoke more or less the specific languages that I speak, I never really had to translate anything for anyone. If anything, I was usually the person who was less fluent in the languages being spoken around me, as in the case of Bikol and Ilocano, which my father and mother speak, respectively. I was always the grateful recipient of translation and interpretation. Now I get to do the translating for other people, which is exciting.
I see translation as a way for me to engage with one facet of my country’s literature, a hopefully productive excuse to read works in Tagalog and Bikol. It’s a way to strengthen ties that feel ever-fraying, because as an immigrant, it’s impossible not to feel that every day you’re away is a day you’re losing more and more of home. So I read works in Filipino and sometimes I translate, to fill a deep homesickness.
WWB: Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
SD: That’s always a hard question. I will always have a special place in my heart for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I read as a high school student in the Philippines, with no thoughts nor plans of migrating at all. I haven’t reread it in a while, but it occurs to me now that maybe because Gaiman is also an immigrant to the US, it struck me as a sort of outsider perspective on the country that the Philippines, as a former US colony, is always being told about. What else? Neil Gaiman, again, The Sandman this time, because I think it exploded literature for me early on, revealing that a rich attention to language doesn’t just belong in literary fiction. The rhythms and breathlessness of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, translated by Gregory Rabassa, will always haunt me. All of Adrienne Rich’s work, Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria, Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land has stayed with me all these years. There are so many great books. Ross Gay’s work, especially The Book of Delights, felt very close to salvation during the darkness that was 2020.
I think these days I’m gravitating toward the kind of work that Ross Gay has been doing: a poetics of grace and gratitude, but with a deep sense of history and of justice. The feeling that the writer has faced their anger, their deep mistrust of the American project, and come out the other side. These days I’m looking for deep, hard-won joy, in spite of, in spite of.
WWB: You’re both a translator and a poet. Have you noticed that your translation and poetry practices influence each other, and if so, in what ways?
SD: I think both poetry and translation are practices that require precision, so when I work to be more precise in my translation, the skill transfers over into my own writing, or so I hope. I pay even more attention to language(s), and in that sense I feel that I’ve not only become a better writer and editor of my own work, I’ve also become a better reader.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to school for poetry was because I wanted to be better at revision, to better figure out what to do after that initial poetic impulse. Translating taught me that it’s all about refining the diction, prosody, or meter of the work so that it more clearly says in English what it’s already been saying in the original language. Thinking about my own poems in that way, as works that already have something to say—if it’s a salvageable first draft, that is—has made it easier for me to help the work along. Or so I hope. You never know with writing.
Translation is also such a wonderful way to get out of the self. There’s a point in the writing of a poetry collection, or nonfiction, or even fiction, where it feels like everything has to come from the self—the self’s experience, the self’s life, the self’s research, interests, and preoccupations. It’s refreshing to read somebody else’s preoccupation and to interact so wholly, so closely with somebody else’s mind in the form of their writing. It’s a great way to explode and expand the writing self, and to return to one’s own work replenished.
WWB: Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
SD: Of course I want to see more translations of Philippine literature, contemporary and classics. There are at least 23 folk epics in the Philippines, which means at least 23 oral storytelling traditions, not counting the many other languages spoken and written in the country (about 180 languages). There’s a lot there that I would love to see, selfishly because I speak so few of the languages, but also because so many of these languages are dying, and if we could make it so that new translations could spark more interest in Philippine languages, if we could jumpstart a moving away from the hegemony of English, then maybe these 180+ languages could have a fighting chance.
WWB: Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
SD: I was the little sister reading game guides while my brother played RPGs on the PlayStation, and I somewhat recently got back into video games, really as a way to cope with the stresses of graduate school, then later on, the pandemic. I’ve expanded my gaming repertoire so it’s not just The Sims and Stardew Valley (and Animal Crossing, along with millions of people last year), but also games that require a bit more hand-eye coordination, like Final Fantasy XV (my brother and I grew up on the Final Fantasy franchise). With this rediscovery of and reengagement with activities that gave me a lot of joy growing up, I’m also getting reacquainted with fandom, relearning how to love something sincerely, unapologetically, almost uncomplicatedly.
In terms of what else occupies my time, I, along with everybody in the United States, got a pandemic puppy. I grew up with dogs and have always wanted one of my own, and have been one of those annoying people who’ve built a personality around liking dogs. The pandemic finally gave me the time needed to raise a puppy into a sometimes mostly-behaved dog. Balut, a Swedish Vallhund often mistaken for a cross between a husky and a corgi, is a whirling motion of a dog, a force of nature, too smart and athletic for his own good. He is currently drooling at my feet and is the center of the known universe.