Mark Schafer is an accomplished translator and visual artist. His latest translation to be published is a selection of David Huerta’s poems, Before Saying Any of the Great Words (Copper Canyon Press, $20). A longtime friend of Huerta, the project was long anticipated, and truly makes a significant contribution to English-language poetry’s dialogue with Mexico. Belén Gopegui’s The Scale of Maps, his next available translation, will be published by City Lights in 2010.
Mark and I corresponded by email. In the postscript to each of his emails there appears a quote by Rilke, in which the poet writes, as part of his advice on how to live, that we ought to “try to love the questions themselves.” That, it seems to me, is a pretty precise description of what the best literary translators do, and over the course of our exchange I think that Mark proved that that’s what he does, too.
I’m interested in the way that translators come to the poetry that they translate. How did you come to Huerta’s work?
Most of my translations originate in personal connections, and my translation of David’s poetry is no exception. I first met David Huerta in Mexico City in 1987. At the time, I was translating the first novel of another Mexican author, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, and reading the poetry Efraín Huerta, David’s father. I didn’t know David’s work at all, but he was very friendly to me, and he recommended that I translate the short stories of another Mexican writer, Jesús Gardea, which I did. Nine years after that, David asked Alberto to recommend a translator for some new poems, and Alberto recommended me, David contacted me, then sent me a batch of eight poems or so, and I got very nervous. I hate saying no to writers with whom I already have a relationship, but neither do I like to take on new projects unless I feel drawn to the texts, unless I have a sense that I want to inhabit them in Spanish and make a house for them in English. When I finally read the poems David had sent me, I felt great excitement and relief: I found them fascinating and started translating them. That led to my reading and translating a larger selection of his poems for an anthology edited by Mónica de la Torre and Michael Wiegers for Copper Canyon Press: Reversible Monuments, published in 2002.
Two years later, I was invited to the inaugural session of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and that is when I committed to producing an anthology of David’s poetry. I started by reading nearly all of his published collections of poetry in chronological order, making a rough list as I read of poems I wanted to translate and possibly include in my anthology. It was only when I began reading his monumental, nine-part, 389-page poem, Incurable, that I had to stop reading before I got swept away altogether. It would be another three years before I came back to that book, ready to dive in and swim/be carried along its length.
Comparisons across language and culture are never entirely accurate, but they are interesting. Who’s English-language poetry do you think especially dialogues with Huerta’s work?
This is a particularly interesting question when talking about Huerta’s work, because from the very start, from his first book of poetry, published when he was only 22, he was a world citizen of poetry, a voracious reader of poetry across continents, languages, and centuries. Just in terms of the contemporary poetries in English that his early poetry is manifestly in dialogue with, there is a range from Eliot and Pound to the Beats. At the same time, his poetry has always been in an intense conversation with language itself—with words and the way they mirror the beauty, joy, sorrow, doubt, connection and disconnection with the world that we humans, who have made them and now awkwardly try to wield them, embody ourselves. So, rather than perceiving Huerta’s poetry as wrapped in conversation with a few specific English-language poets, I’d say that one of the inter-literary conversation his poetry participates in is with the work of poets who consider language itself a conversationalist and at the same time a substance as essential to human life as DNA or colors. On the other hand, perhaps I just haven’t read enough! I’d be very interested to hear which English-language poets readers of Huerta’s poetry consider conversationalists with his work.
Tell me about your process, from selection of individual poems to finished translations. Do you work one poem at a time, perfecting it, or do you translate a selection of cribs, later polishing individual poems?
The particular process I used for this book was defined by my residency at Banff. Anticipating working on a new translation project—which in my case, involves so many full and partial revisions that I usually lose count—and preparing to work far from home, I bought a laptop. But just before I left, for reasons I can’t recall, I decided to jettison the computer altogether and instead bought a 14” x 11” spiral-bound artist sketchpad with blank pages, a bunch of black pens, and a bunch of colored pencils. As a poet, I’ve never been able to write first drafts on the computer; I have to write them by hand. I found this project demanding that I do it by hand as well. Perhaps it had to do with David’s loving relationship with the written word. The idea of writing and revising a poem on a large, blank sheet of paper had lain dormant in my mind ever since I heard Elizabeth Young-Breuhl describe doing this—so as to be able to revise outward into the margins in any direction—in college. I had another goal in working this way: to document my movement from first draft through subsequent revisions in an aesthetically beautiful way.
I wrote the first draft of the translations I began at Banff in black ink, then my second draft revisions, thoughts, and notes in blue pencil, then my third set of revisions—after working on the translations with David, who came for the third week of the residency—in red pencil.
How many poems would you work on at a time?
I translated the poems in batches of three to six at a time, starting with the poems I liked the best or felt most compelled to try my hand at them in English. As I started firming up the final list of poems for the book, I reviewed critical literature on Huerta’s poetry and started filling up some holes in my selection; also David suggested a few poems that he felt were important to include. In the end, my selection reflected my own preferences balanced by my desire to present an overarching panorama of David’s poetry that was, in turn, weighted toward the last fifteen years of his published poetry, as of 2007.
So how long did the entire collection take you to complete?
From start to finish, the whole process lasted eleven or twelve years. I am not a fast translator. My modus operandi was to read each poem in Spanish several times, then annotate them using two bilingual dictionaries, a few monolingual dictionaries in each language, and a thesaurus in English. Then I’d write my first draft, often including various options for words or even lines in English. I find that I need time before I can come back to my translations with a fresh eye, better ideas, more accurate readings. Even late in the game, I would read the poems in Spanish and understand things that had escaped me over the course of many readings and drafts.
Over the years, as I accumulated batches of poems I’d translated and revised a few times, I would gather together my questions and send them to David, then incorporate his responses into my next draft. Four or five times over that period, I got together with him and read my most updated drafts to him aloud as he followed the poems in Spanish, then we would talk about both, and afterward I would produce a final or near-final draft of each translation. My final revision took place over the course of two days, shortly before I handed in the complete manuscript to Copper Canyon. Taking my cue from my first editor, Juan García Ponce, I sat on a park bench facing Boston Harbor and read the whole collection aloud to myself (in the absence of anyone I could think of reading a whole collection of poetry to.) I could read the poems as loud as I pleased and repeat them as many times as I wanted without worrying about looking any stranger or more dangerous than the next nut declaiming poetry in a public park. That was the final revision stage.
You’ve translated a wide range of Huerta’s poetry. How does their variation affect your translations? Were any time periods easier than others to translate?
Certain time periods were easier than others to translate, in two senses: the chronology of David’s writing on the one hand, and the chronology of my translation of his poetry on the other. I found Huerta’s early poetry at times harder to translate than the poetry he wrote later. I found some of his early poetry to be a little more formal and traditional, his language a little stiffer than in the poetry he wrote later on. Perhaps another way of saying it is that in some of his earlier poetry I sense that he is conversing with Poetry, whereas later on he is talking with Language. I definitely feel more comfortable participating in the second type of conversation than the first. But I don’t think I can divorce my experience of translating his poetry from my initial point of entry, which was the poetry he was writing in the nineties: playful-serious poems constructed around images, filled with references to other texts, and showing more than a touch of surrealism. From there, I moved both backward and forward through his writing, and as I inhabited it more, I started to find my voice for his poetry in English. By the time I translated the fifteen excerpts from Incurable, considered his most difficult work, I found myself virtually bodysurfing down the torrential flow of his poetry, with a bit of the feel an interpreter has as she or he rides the momentum of the speaker’s thought as structured by language and the speaker’s particular idiolect, style, tone. So, I cannot tell to what extent the ease or difficulty for me of translating David’s poetry was due to his development as a poet and to what extent it was due to my relationship as a reader and translator of his poetry.
I do remember wondering to what extent my chronological reading of David’s poetry was imposing a retroactive or perhaps ‘foreshortened’ view of the living, growing body of his poetry, which I suspect is much more complex and complicated than that defined by linear concepts of development. I do know, however, that when I told him that I was planning to structure my collection of his poetry into “Early” and “Later” poetry, divided by “Incurable,” he liked the idea a lot.
Who else are you translating? What other translations are you reading?
My translation docket is all over the place. I recently finished—once again, more than a decade after beginning it!—my translation of La escala de los mapas, the first novel by the Spanish author Belén Gopegui. It is completely different from Huerta’s poetry, but at the same time, another great conversation with language. City Lights will publish it next year as The Scale of Maps. I am hoping eventually to translate the remaining untranslated short stories of the astonishing Cuban author Virgilio Piñera, which I hope would lead to the republishing of my first translation, a collection of Piñera’s stories titled Cold Tales, which has been out of print for years. Next year, for something completely different, I plan to translate a book documenting a wildly successful project of radical educational reform in Mexico: Gabriel Cámara’s Enseñar y aprender con interés: logros y testimonios en escuelas públicas. As with the poets and fiction writers I’ve translated, I can’t wait to get the word out in this country of the inspirational work being done in education in Mexico, as described and documented in this book.
But one of my great pleasures in translating authors I like and know is, after the book has come out, to go on the road with them, albeit briefly, to present our work in person to live, poetry-loving audiences. This past April, David came to the East Coast and we read from Before Saying Any of the Great Words in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. (Links to videos of our reading at the Library of Congress—and much more!—are available at www.beforesaying.com.) Currently, I’m working with Copper Canyon to arrange a series of readings in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California in January. The website will have more information on these readings. I’ve come to really love David, so I will take any excuse to spend time with him.
As for translations I’m reading, a reading I attended recently by my friend and colleague Jim Kates, put two of his recent translations into my hands as I travel around Boston by bus and subway: When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree (poetry by Jean-Pierre Rosnay) and Say Thank You (poetry by Mikhail Aizenberg.) Rosnay was the youngest member of the French Resistance when he joined at the age of 15, and in fact his poetry reminds me a bit of David’s, the way it mixes our political and emotional lives with a loving and skeptical attachment to language, and to poetry in particular. I have just sent the Rosnay to Huerta, who translates from the French, to see what he thinks. The Aizenberg is fascinating to me for other reasons: his bleak humor matched to Kates’s and the fun of trusting an able translator like Jim when I can’t even spell out the en face poems in Russian Cyrillic.
Are there any Mexican poets that ought to be translated into English that haven’t been?
I confess that, appearances to the contrary, I’m not the best person to answer this question. My reading habits, while wide-ranging, are also haphazard and provincial. Ask Jen Hofer, Mónica de la Torre, C.M. Mayo, or Forrest Gander.