Translation and Collaboration in Poetry: An Interview with Beatrix Gates

Translation and Collaboration in Poetry:
An Interview with Beatrix Gates
by Karen Terrey (QUAY, a journal of the arts, 2011)

Beatrix Gates ( is a member of the Goddard MFA faculty, where I first met her in 2005, as my advisor in my second year of the program. She sent feedback on my poems every three weeks by tape and listening to her calming voice on the sometimes raspy tape player reinforced my faith in my own writing. As she says herself of teaching, the point is to inspire confidence in the search for the right form. The translation of Spanish poet Jesús Aguado’s The Poems of Vikram Babu translated by Beatrix Gates and Electa Arenal came out in 2009 (HOST). On May 24th, 2010, we discussed her collaborative process and translating with Electa Arenal, work on Gates’ own bilingual book of poetry Nothing to Hide/ Nada que ocultar with Yolanda  Moreto (accepted for publication by Spain’s puerta del mar) and thoughts on her next manuscript.

Karen Terrey: You said “The point of collaboration is to turn your brain around and demand that things be made differently in ways you would not dream of alone…” How are translation and collaboration linked?  You call them a “commitment to engagement.” What does this mean to you?
Beatrix Gates: When I worked on the opera “The Singing Bridge,” I wrote a libretto and invented the story before the music came.  The composer writes the music into the words, and I learned the words have to leave room for the music.  This is a form of translation. I discovered with the opera that I’m quite flexible and like doing things I don’t usually do.  Offering musicality in the words came in surprising places. I told the composer to choose words to repeat which could be used in repetition and echo (rhyme is music too) to help the power of the music to come through. And there are difficult sounds and words too. For example, you can’t end a line with an ‘m’, as in “fathom”, on a high note because the mouth will close on the ‘m.’ I learned a huge amount about words and sound working collaboratively and would do it again in a minute.

KT: You mentioned you are in the process of working with Yolanda Moreto who is translating your poems for a bilingual edition called Nada que ocultar/ Nothing To Hide to be published by puerta del mar, in Malaga, Spain. Do you think this work will influence how you write new poems in English?
BG: The process of talking and making suggestions about the translation or corrections is totally fascinating and weird.  I have realized things about my own work that I had not been conscious of.  I have thought about making more space on the page.  My writing has so much muscle inside the lyric twists that it is hard to pull it apart – it’s really tight.  This is not a bad thing.  But I ask myself, what would it be like to alternate simple direct language with some of that muscle?  What if the impulse was to wait a few beats – the rhythm of telling – how the poem moves – how would that alter?  What would it be like to interrupt motion of the poem differently?  Would that be a good idea or not?  Jesús Aguado’s language in The Poems of Vikram Babu is lean and direct.  There’s a framework.  It’s not laden with a lot of imagery.  It’s a different way of telling.   This was refreshing for me.

KT: How did you become involved in translating the poems of Jesús Aguado?
BG: Through friendship and curiosity.  My friend and co-translator, Electa Arenal, introduced me to the project by asking, Could we have fun doing this?  I said, I don’t know.  She said, Let’s try it!  I have a history with translation. At Antioch,  Alastair Reid was my teacher.  When he first met Pablo Neruda, they had talked over Neruda’s translating Shakespeare, and at Antioch, Alastair talked about translation being this totally impossible and thrilling art.  I didn’t know what a gift that experience was–meeting Alastair and hearing him talk about the process–until later.  Harold Wright, a wonderful translator from the Japanese, was also teaching there.  He had us work in clusters to translate into literals– literal translations of a poem where each word is defined literally.  In each group, working from the literal, a person with a working language of Japanese helped us collaborate on a translation. Those experiences taught me the adventure of translation and possibility of collaboration.  What is it like to love poetry in another language?  The world was opened up.
In the early 80’s I studied with Grace Paley, fabulous writer, person and activist for many causes, including the solidarity movement in Central America at that time.  I noticed there were hardly any translations of women poets from Central America.  When I became a trade publisher at Granite Press, my goal was to publish unrepresented women, so I chose to work on publishing a bilingual anthology of 50 poets IXOK AMAR.GO, Central American Women Poets for Peace with 50 women translators edited by Zoe Anglesey.  A whole other story, a gigantic project.  I founded Granite Press as a trade publisher in 1985, moving from life as a small letterpress print shop to publishing Grace Paley’s first book of poems, Leaning Forward, in that year.  Hearing from other people matters.  Grace taught me that more deeply.  She underlined this every day, every way.  It was how she was as a person, a real story hearer.  My work in translation began with Alastair’s introduction to Neruda’s poems, as he worked on them, then churned around and reconnected through hearing the strong voices of the Central American women.  So taking on this project with Jesús Aguado was part of a natural flow over time.

KT: Can you describe the actual translation process – for example, when you wrote what you call your “early, far out” version of the poem, how much did this version inform the final translation?
BG: Electa and I worked together on two books what you say about me and Vikram Babu.  Electa is a native speaker and long-time professor of Spanish language and literature.  She makes the literal translation, then I write some versions of the poem – almost paraphrases of the poems – and in parentheses I extend the sense, or write something to experiment with.  It’s very porous.  I start making poetry, loose versions in parenthesis.  It’s just a way to add to its meanings as we work.  We discovered a process of passing the poems under the door to our different rooms, sometimes 10-12 times.  Each time a little bit more tuning, making checks beside things happening well.  Then it’s down to having a conversation.  If we tried to have a conversation too soon, we’d go mad in a matter of minutes.  This gives space to the process.  Then we’d go on a walk and talk about one word or get out ten dictionaries, spread all around, and talk about words, the things we obsess about.  It’s really fun.
With my book Nothing to Hide, Yolanda Moreto did a translation and now Electa is helping me look at it.  I don’t think I quite get the good news yet, that people I don’t even know are going to read it.  It makes me so happy.  For example, the poem “Good Seeing: A Poem of the Full Sky From East to West”.  ‘Good seeing’ is an astronomical term for the available dark, being able to see the sky well, meaning planets and stars.  The poem focuses on scientific contributions from the Arab world, such as algebra and astronomy.  The subtext is seeing from the other side.  We’re so focused on the west.  It is about how to see in a larger way.  I would love to work on this poem for a year.  I would want to talk with people in Spain about this poem.  The permutations of the Moorish culture and the accomplishments of Muslim Spain are so right there in Andalucía. Aguado is from Seville and his recognition of the meaning of the poem was instant. That was very gratifying.

KT: According to Paul Auster in writing about translating French Surrealist poems in 1968, questioning can be a path to breaking the shackles of our own limitations.  He wrote “In light of that tumult (that questioning), the Surrealists were a major discovery for me: poets dreaming of revolution, of how to change the world.  Translation, then, was more than just a literary exercise.  It was a first step towards breaking free of the shackles of myself, of overcoming my own ignorance.”  Did you have a similar experience while translating?
BG: This is a wonderful quote.  It hits the point.  Translation is about breaking out of our own cultural and linguistic prison, the limitations we don’t even know we have.  Without translation, where would we be?  Where would I be without the words of these poets?  The issues of how to transmit culture and story go back to Horace. How are we going to keep learning?  There is not a cultural superiority to the present, just because this is the present.
In translation, the question is how can you transmit the atmosphere, the cadence, the content, the preverbal emotion.  You need to understand the poem physically before you move into the full meaning.  You try to create triggers that are equivalent to what is created in the original language, the same meaning.  It’s a problem, and sometimes you find a really good solution.  For example, Margaret S. Peden imitated the alliteration in her translations of Pablo Neruda.  This is very difficult, yet she can captures things other people don’t get.  Electa told me we could create alliteration using a different hard sound, for example a hard C instead of a T, while still indicating a physical rhythm.
In translation you have the meaning and then you work back into the source of the poem.  You must experience this from the poem.  You try to re-enact the poem, so it’s comprehensible and comprehensive.  This is a circular process because as poets we start at the source and write out towards meaning.  When we brought our translations to Jesús for the first time, he was very excited because the translations were taut and clear.  We had a few things wrong.  Overall, he was very excited.
Electa and I are going over my poems translated by Yolanda Moreto now.  Electa already knows the poems and knows them differently now.  And so do I, because of coming to understand via the translation exactly what’s at stake in the language and the meanings implied or missed.

KT: How do you know your poems differently?
BG: Two things–I noticed the imagery has a very dense sound, at times, and sense, almost marbled, the metaphors, and hard to take apart.  Trying to literally paraphrase an image is very difficult.  The image and sound are working together.  Second, the way I use narrative and dialogue–I see that the narrative is truncated and the dialogue is very ironic.  Irony and double meanings or puns are difficult to translate, because they are so dependent on the colloquial, that specific overlay within a word as well as cultural circumstances. I realized I let my characters hang themselves with their dialogue. This can create real problems in translating the ironies of speech that I rely on for meaning.
KT: Would you recommend translating for a poet who is not fluent in the other language?  How can this approach work?
BG: I believe you absolutely need a native speaker to sit with and talk with.  Otherwise it is disrespectful.

KT: Let’s hear more about your writing process for long poems.  How do you use or discover history “as weave and tongue” as you say?
BG: The two long poems, “Daylight stunned in purpling tongues,” published in Host’s magazine The Dirty Goat and “Seeking Tenderness” in Ten Minutes are connected in that their first understanding is brought through sensual experience.  Hurricane Katrina happened, while I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  I arrived in Virginia on a bus that was on its way New Orleans.  People on that bus were going to New Orleans.  I got off the and the storm hit.  I was shocked by the whole thing, and I wondered if writing about it was too ‘scavengy’?  So for “Daylight stunned …”,  I took little notes each day of what was important. I turned the page without reading and scribbled the next note.  I looked at it later.  Right then it was too appalling.  Making notes can be great. You have enough that you can remember what you experienced, the essence without shaping.  I wrote from the notes with more research, later on.  I had to take it in.  I needed some open time to work over that winter and spring; 4 months later, I took a draft to my writing group for help.
For “Seeking Tenderness”, the poem about Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming, I had a 3 week deadline.  I wrote notes again, so I could enter without saying, “This is a poem about…” There was no judgment, and in the poem each person speaks so we can ask, “How can this happen?”  I wrote this poem for an anthology for Matthew Shepard called Blood and Tears published by Painted Leaf Press.  In both of those poems, place was a character.

KT: Have you had the experience where one poem requires a long period of time to revise and another appears to be nearly done when you first wrote it?
BG: A couple poems came out of dreams – they were clear in the image.  “Dream: Bay Foal” from In the Open–I wrote it down right after I had the dream.  The image may not be a poem, but it is alive.  I didn’t find the ending for the poem for a long time.  I didn’t know what the poem was about, until I found the last 4 lines.  I thought this poem was about being with something incredibly precious like touch and then realized it can’t be taken for granted.  It needs to be held carefully.  I was so stunned to have this beauty in the dream.  You do nothing with it.  You just receive it.  Sometimes things come, when you don’t know what they are.

KT: Can you talk about a poem that began as image or phrase and describe its birth?
BG: Sometimes people say things that stick in my mind.  Or I write into an image.  That’s part of my job.  In Ten Minutes, the poem “Flickering” is the voice of an old woman we met, Muriel.  She started talking to us in her front yard, and we went on to have this totally unexpected afternoon with this woman.  She gave us a tour of her house and talked.  I got back in the car and said, Oh my God, do you have a pen.  I wrote down everything she said and how she said it.  Her voice was so wonderful.  I didn’t want to lose anything.  I wrote it all down.  A couple of months later, I shaped the poem, moving lines around, but kept her voice.  I asked myself, How am I going to end this?  Then I thought, How would she end it?  And she had given me  the line early on, the last line, “I’m Muriel Stanhope/and I don’t mind being old.” She caught me.  I learned from Grace Paley about the voices all around us and how to hear them.  Our languages, what we come from, the way things happen in our house, all have a rhythm and a language.  Imagery is a language.  You’re meeting a unique story in Muriel; she is very aware.  There are all kinds of ways of being aware.

KT: Czelaw Milosz said of reading poems from the beginning of the 20th century that “posterity will read us in an attempt to comprehend what the 20th century was like.”  Do you feel your poems carry a sense of this communication for future readers?  Do you think this is one reason you write poetry?
BG: I have to write.  I need to connect and express.  I don’t think about who is going to understand my poems and our poems in 2000 years.  We may all be ants by then.  Literature is a window into who we are and who we’ve been.  It’s a way to understand complexity of other civilizations that are dust now, looking back in a way that will help others look forward.  Literature gives tradition and knowledge its due.  This is so true for poets who have made contributions to history.  Langston Hughes and Muriel Rukeyser with poems of portrait, witness, history, and Adrienne Rich and Marilyn Hacker. Whitman, who loved us so much.  And so many other contemporary poets – Yusef Komunyaaka, South African poet Yvette Christianse, and the young lesbian poet Kristin Naca, writing in innovative weaves of Spanish, English, and Tagalog where the original language becomes the de-coder of meaning. Poets have exposed our shames and reinvigorated histories that were lost.  Poems move through time, back and forth.
I think about keeping readers alive, how to create readers.  How to help them imagine.  I think there is a hunger.  I taught a literature class in many genres to non-English major freshman, and I taught Whitman and June Jordan, who both wrote so much about our country.  We read the short prose of Whitman when he was ministering to the sick during the Civil War in hospitals, wounded soldiers from both sides.  One of my students said to me, I usually sell back my books, but I’m going to keep my Whitman.  That made me very happy.

KT: You have been involved in publishing writing and poetry through many different venues.  I have to admit I’m a bit discouraged by the limitations of the publishing world today for emerging poets and for poetry.  What do you feel is the role of the individual poet in the world of publishing?
BG: Stop thinking as an individual poet.  It’s about creating room for poetry and room to respond.  It’s about having a conversation in different ways. The imagination can be welcomed through teaching, radio, chapbooks, groups. Ask, How can I participate?  Feel good and comfortable with the people you choose around you.  Find other writers, five to six committed people, and start doing stuff together: thematic anthologies, publishing, blogs, word of mouth, handmade books, whatever.  Find other people who can help with infecting the next generation. Encourage others. Poetry helps us know more about the world.

Karen Terrey’s ( chapbook, Bite and Blood, is available from Finishing Line Press.

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