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3 Aug

Sharing Speech: On Translation as Conversation

A MEMORY. I’m fast asleep in the primary room I’ve rented in Mexico City. I’m 23. I’ve been gathering my mettle after my first cataclysmic break-up, newly wading into the tide pools of hedonism and the shells that may slice your feet there. I’ve been comforted by the presence, secured by probability on the web, of a delicate roommate and his great galumphing pewter-colored dog, Pechuga (“chicken breast,” if you have to know). I’m jolted awake before dawn by a thunderous noise, the floorboards shuddering. Mexico City is a seismic zone and I’ll soon make the acquaintance of several earthquakes, but that is something else, I discover after I stumble off the bed and over to the window: it’s a brick wall, shoddily affixed to the facade of the constructing round the corner as a decorative layer, that has collapsed in a single precipitous rush of matter, filling the passageway between the 2 buildings with debris.

I’m going downstairs and stand within the doorway. It’s barely light. At that moment, I see my roommate appear on the front gate, dazed and rumpled after an extended night out, a baguette tucked under his arm, gaping on the felled wall that might have crushed him if he’d returned even a few minutes earlier. Inside half an hour, police are picking their way over the rubble and a jaunty neighbor is distributing coffee in little glass cups. I’ve never witnessed an emergency more cheerful or less consequential. It’s a period in my life when most things feel unreal, partially due to how ferociously I need them to be real, to get realer, to maintain going, to remain. I’m moved by how neatly the brick wall manages to translate itself into the space it’s been given. Not harming a soul.


I began translating as an accidental overlap between two things I’d tried way more deliberately to find out about: poetry and the Spanish language. As a really young English-speaking person, it didn’t occur to me that my writing and reading lives might someday involve one other language, too. And as a really young Spanish-learning person, what I wanted most desperately was to speak with other people; books had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until a university semester in Buenos Aires that I made my first ungainly forays into translation. And it wasn’t until I moved to Mexico City a number of years later that I started to view translation not only as a possible career but because the type of each/and-ness I wanted for my entire life.

I’d tripped over poetry as a teen, amid or despite whatever chirping, expository verselets I used to be fed at college. In poems, I got here to search out something I still seek there: an exacerbation of language in a way that each binds it to and releases it from every little thing else we use it for. Poetry didn’t feel linear, instrumental, or obedient. It wasn’t inquisitive about small talk and didn’t appear to wish it. It looked as if it would foster an intensity of being-alone, which I aspired to. What wasn’t to want? Adolescence is terrifying partially due to how easy it’s to feel condemned by whatever you’re turning out to be like. Poetry helped me tap into something I knew I needed before I could trust it.


As my every day life puttered along in English, Spanish flitted within the background that might eventually turn out to be a foreground, a language I had never heard spoken by the one who put it there: my paternal grandmother, Estela. Her parents left Mexico for america when she was a baby, moving farther and farther north until they settled in Janesville, Wisconsin, of all places. When their friends and neighbors got here calling, my great-grandparents would dress up the youngsters in traditional suits and skirts and have them sing Mexican folk songs. A mini-pageant of mexicanidad for his or her latest Midwestern fellows.

Estela, I’m told, was warm and spirited and had an almost Sleeping-Beauty-in-the-forest way with animals: the occasional hummingbird assented to alight on her palm. When her father forbade her from going to varsity, she ran away from home. Once married to my grandfather, Francis, a philosophy professor, she taught Spanish to would-be Peace Corps volunteers. She and Francis raised my dad and uncles in Denver, periodically road-tripping to Mexico to go to relatives and old family friends, dreaming of moving there together someday. But Francis died unexpectedly and young, and Estela waited to return until what turned out to be her final years.

Most of what I find out about my grandmother, who died years before my birth, is that she missed Mexico her entire life. She crooned in Spanish to the family dog, cursed him sweetly within the language her own parents had stopped talking to anyone but one another.

My first real contact with this language transpired on a childhood trip to town of Guanajuato, where Estela’s youngest brother Charlie had moved from Wisconsin on his retirement. I used to be nine. He lived in a house with a brick dome within the bedroom and a view of a hillside I’d peek directly I used to be imagined to be asleep. The dark slope glittered beguilingly, and dogs barked until late. In my mind, they’re connected now with an almost synesthetic sense of longing: the night’s flickering embroidery, the dogs calling out to one another. Within the mornings got here the scent of bleach from people scrubbing the sidewalks outside their homes and storefronts. It’s still considered one of my favorite smells, a preference for which I haven’t any explanation however the early indecipherable prickle of wanting to know where I used to be.

Growing up without grandparents means, amongst other things, that you simply don’t get to witness your parents being another person’s children, or receive your parents’ own origin stories from the individuals who told them first. I never experienced my grandmother’s nostalgia for Mexico, yet I experienced my father’s nostalgia for hers. As a child, I used to be excited to go to a latest country for the primary time, but it surely was also thrilling to know that Mexico had something to do with my dad and due to this fact with me. He was suddenly different, equipped with brand latest words. I envied him, yearned to affix the deft, confident band of the bilingual, coveted the special power of becoming a complete person elsewhere. In other words, I wanted other words. A language you speak is the place you get to talk it in.


I studied Spanish in middle school, then highschool, as diligently I could manage. But diligence doesn’t get you far within the swerves and swoops of conversation. In college, fondling my depression like an amulet, I took some day without work, then studied abroad for a semester in my junior 12 months, partly because I wasn’t sure I’d finish otherwise. “Didn’t you love it?” people would gush after I returned from my six months in Buenos Aires. I didn’t. Town felt aggressively lonely to me, or at the least I used to be while in it. I shared an apartment with a married couple, a pair of cheerful, dreadlocked journalists who smoked a remarkable amount of weed while working nights for a Berlin-based newspaper, and a fourth person, a business student and devout Catholic. None of them could stand one another. In the future, the pious business student moved out unannounced. Then the couple broke up and I used to be left alone with the grief-stricken husband, still a relative stranger to me, a housing arrangement I wouldn’t recommend to anyone for any length of time. Soon he too was gone.

I took long, grim walks, ate medialunas, craved strong condiments, avoided my apartment, and felt profoundly uncomfortable within the Spanish I’d come to talk, a mash-up of the Mexican cadence I clung to and the Argentine declarativeness that surrounded me now. Because I hadn’t really realized I had an accent in Spanish. I mean, in fact I had one; everyone does after they speak anything. However it takes an act of displacement, not necessarily geographical though at all times social, to understand that the way in which you speak hearkens back to the place that taught you the way. In Argentina, people asked me often about Mexico, hearing traces of it; some teased me concerning the lilt of my questions, a music I didn’t know I’d learned. This thrilled and consoled me: I missed Mexico, found Argentine Spanish indignant and shouty, often feared I’d put my foot in it without knowing why. When a professor urged me to adopt the swishy Argentine double-ll and y-sound—sho soy, está shoviendo—I resisted. I desired to sound just like the place I longed for.


The issue with loving a spot isn’t love but reciprocity. It’s easy to like together with your senses, to thrill at the feeling of being swept up in something enormous, a tiny cog in an enormous and delightful wheel. It’s easy to marvel on the mountains in the space, occasionally visible through the smog from the valley they once cleaved. Their nearness is a solace. You might get there in the event you desired to. But you don’t need to: you ought to be here, in the midst of the human swirl, swallowed up. You hear yourself say it: I really like this place. Which doesn’t must love you back.

Within the years after I moved to Mexico City in 2011, I lived with roommates (eight? 10?) a partner (twice), and several other animals (at all times cats, apart from Pechuga). I briefly rented a room from an ancient woman who kept a canary named Fernando and distrusted The Simpsons (“I hate those monsters,” she’d mutter after they got here on TV). Just once, for a number of months before the beginning of the pandemic, did I live alone. I used to be happy with my repeated relocations whilst I wearied of them. I liked learning the rhythms of various neighborhoods, the dense, erratic punctuation along an unfamiliar block: the crazy clang of the brass bell rung by the rubbish collectors on their beat; Doppler-effected snippets of salsas, rancheras, reguetón; the polyphony of markets; the prerecorded proclamations of vendors passing slowly of their pickup trucks or tricycle carts, selling fruit or bread or tamales oaxaqueños. And yet, in ways which can be dawning on me only now, I’ve generally been more engrossed on this amorous remark than in actively assembling my very own domestic space. My decision to live on this particular city felt as everlasting as anything I’d ever ventured upon, but I rarely put much of anything up alone particular wall.

Twelve years later, I’m attempting to loosen my grip alone desire for permanence. But I feel these years in me, and sometimes I find myself trying to find tangible evidence of them. Not the passive love of place, however the enmeshments born of it. The changes in my habits, syntax, humorousness; the way in which I greet a stranger. Where I find them—the proof of my very own minor transmutations by the hands of this city—is in my accent, my friends, and the poems I’ve translated, some written by those friends themselves.


As a university student in Buenos Aires, I took a translation workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, a poet and translator only a number of years older than I used to be. He turned out to be militant about poetic meter, which was not something I’d learned anything about within the English-language tradition that was ostensibly my major. The mechanics got here as an unpleasant shock. For our first creative task, he urged us to translate a poem inside a set of metrical constraints. I used to be baffled. Worse, I wasn’t any good at it. And I used to be vexed, in an entitled form of way, to feel what I’d come to discover as my only real aptitude being squashed by some neurotic fixation on form.

I hacked my way through an extended sequence of dismal translations in the course of the weeks that followed, continued my strange trudges through town, and bumped into my last remaining roommate outside our constructing, attempting to rip apart his wife’s wedding veil along with his bare hands. The trees I hadn’t noticed after I arrived, within the winter of one other hemisphere, burst into yellow blossoms within the spring and slicked the sidewalks.

The clicking got here eventually. I first felt it with a Lorca poem: the push of affinity I used to be already accustomed to as a reader of poems—this!—plus the satisfaction of fitting a puzzle piece into place. I felt myself slip into something that was already there—something with a shape, a voice, a gait, a history, a wake trailing behind it—and take a look at to maneuver around inside.

Ezequiel’s exhortations about meter had something of an old adage: needing to learn the principles before you break them and so forth. It strikes me now, though, that whilst a bona fide baby poetry nerd, I’d still been conditioned to associate poetic form with punishment, or at the least with regiment. It hadn’t occurred to me that such “rules” were also resources: tools to explore and experiment with, a well to plumb, an invite to suppleness in perpetual exercise. And in urging me to translate metrically, Ezequiel was mostly just urging me to practice excited about each parts and wholes, and about how translation must attend to each.


Parts and wholes. The entire is the place. The parts are the people fluttering around in it, talking to one another in slang that ages and changes as they do, buying cups of sliced mango speckled with tajín, forgetting their umbrellas, burying their moms, getting fired from their jobs, groaning hungover, deciding to have children, resolving to not, overhearing snippets of ominous news on the radio, mistaking the blare of an 18-wheeler for the earthquake alarm, writing poems concerning the unseen histories of the bottom they tread.

Mexico City: it’s considered one of the most important on the earth. It was a lake. It’s flanked by volcanoes, however the air is so smog-marred that they’re often invisible. Entire neighborhoods, including considered one of the richest, were built over or with or through ancient lava formations. The volcanic rock still simmers motionless through contemporary life. Tamed with loam, gardened into affluence. Over time, the atmospheric transformations dictated by money and dominion have drained, plugged, or fatally sullied countless rivers that when ran through town. Through what town is now. I believe of them wistfully, have translated poems about them, still can’t imagine them, not likely.

That’s the sensation I even have when I believe of this city I really like a lot. I like it and yet it escapes my imagination. Time and again, I’ve tried to search out my way into it through poems. Poems by Javier Peñalosa concerning the missing rivers themselves, and a couple of mysterious band of travelers who set out looking for the water they lost—a search that also evokes the stark contemporary reality of Mexico’s forcibly disappeared people, numbering within the a whole bunch of hundreds. Poems by Maricela Guerrero on learning to watch and classify local plants; on the imperial lexicon that governs systems of classification in the primary place; on the best way to be a part of the natural world that is the world even here, in a city of 23 million residents and their corresponding cement. Sharp-edged, lurching poems by Juana Adcock that explore the unfathomability of violence and the disparate political implications of Spanish and English. Poems and more poems by poets whose work might not be centered thematically on Mexico but who wrote here, and whom I got to know here; whose syntax as poets nourished and accompanied the changes wrought to my two languages as I continued to live in each.

I’ve felt these changes as I speak, but additionally as I write and translate. It’s here, in any case, that the exercises of translation, writing, and friendship feel inextricable to me. Soon after I moved to Mexico City, I met several young poets who with virtuosic playfulness unlatched me after many months after I’d struggled to write down in any respect. Their poems were irreverent and improvisatory, caustic, crackling, wealthy with consonance and slant rhymes. As I emerged, timorous, from an inner gridlock, these latest friends’ freewheeling poems returned me to the tactile pleasures—and the messiness—of language. The swoops and shapeliness of their Spanish in some way gave me permission, or helped me give myself permission, to explore sound more brashly in my English; to begin there and see where it went, even when I wasn’t entirely sure of what I needed to say. They helped me translate something into my poems: a desire, a way of possibility, a reveling.

Even “solitary” art isn’t made alone, and the language we use to write down or translate is the stuff of the speech we share. The sounds we make with our mouths and receive with our ears. The gasps, the laughter.


When people talk concerning the original versus a translation, there’s a general consensus that “original” refers back to the text within the language of origin: the very first iteration of a text that’s then translated into (derived from) the previous. Yet the accompanying assumption is that the primary version to be written can also be the primary to be published. I write in English, but my poems to date have lived their small public lives primarily in Spanish—due to my old friend Ezequiel, their translator. If my life is a bilingual one, theirs is more so. His translations are the unique, in a way: they’re quicker to point out their face.

I feel this slipperiness, this porousness most intensely at poetry readings. For the primary several years I lived in Mexico, I felt slightly rift between the humming intensity of reading my poems aloud in English and the hesitancy of reading Ezequiel’s Spanish versions. In English, I could internalize what I’d written in a way that allowed me to really perform it. In Spanish, though, I felt an alarming proximity between the translated words and myself, as if I’d by accident sidled up too close, invaded their personal space. I needed to focus my eyes and train my lips to do anything greater than recite what the lines simply said. For a very long time, I’d read in English and ask another person to affix me for the Spanish.

In some unspecified time in the future, though, I shifted to reading almost entirely in Spanish—which meant opening myself and my poems to the differing intimacies of my two languages, warts and all. Not that they’re mine. In reading another person’s translations aloud not as if they were mine, but in acknowledging that they will not be, I even have the dignity of sharing their work as much or greater than my very own. It’s their words I’ve taken into myself, their words I release. It might be obvious, this fact and what it has to say about translation, whether you’re the translator or the translated, but I’m at all times moved to recollect it: it’s never nearly you. It’s never just you in any respect.


An individual’s life can at all times be otherwise. Migration brings this truism to light—to life—with singular starkness. You already know it’s true because your life was otherwise. Now it’s this, reconfigured, transposed. Translated. You might change again. You do.

I’ve lived in Mexico City long enough to witness the ends of many relationships, including my very own; to see friends lose friends and oldsters and mentors; to understand that not one of the spots I frequented in the primary neighborhood I lived in even exist anymore. Long enough to forget what a few of them were called. Not long enough to know what town was like before the infamous earthquake that might ceaselessly give my first roommate’s mother a panic attack each time the bottom began to undulate underfoot, the hanging lamps ducking their heads like dandelions. Not long enough to know if I could still call it home if I ever left.

Some days, after I catch myself wondering what it means to belong, or be rooted, or have a house in any respect; after I feel concurrently stricken and captivated by the rhythms of loss and renewal that jostle even the bonds that appear most certain, most secure; after I feel weighed down by books, or, alternatively, appalled by how easy it might probably be to pack them up and put them away, I take into consideration all of the poems I’ve ever heard someone read aloud in Mexico City. In bars and conference rooms and public parks and the living rooms of strangers, sitting on the ground and drinking warm beer. And the poems I dog-eared in books, and the poems someone pushed across a table to me with a way of shy, conspiratorial joy, and the poems I translated because they were already working their way through my bloodstream, right where I wanted them.

They, and town I’ve lived in, longed to remain in, and still yearn to really see, make me consider a remark by Don Mee Choi: “The poems must live inside us and so they are modified by being inside our bodies.” I feel modified by having them inside my body. I take them with me, treading as calmly as I can across this metropolis, on the times when the clouds and smog disperse enough for a glimpse of the volcanoes in the space, and on the opposite days once you might forget they’re here. At all times have been.


Robin Myers is a poet and translator whose work received a 2023 NEA Translation Fellowship and was included within the 2022 Best American Poetry anthology.

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