Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The Poet as Translator and Translator as Poet

By Eric M. B. Becker

Words Without Borders spoke with poet and translator Rowan Ricardo Phillips, whose work appears in WWB's April 2016 issue feature, (In)Verse: Poets Translate Each Other, for which he and Melcion Mateu dialogued between Catalan and English.

Here the audio and view photos of WWB's April 27 event at Poets House in New York City, which featured Melcion Mateu, Flávia Rocha, Idra Novey, and moderator Mary Ann Newman in conversation about collaborative translation.

Words Without Borders (WWB): Asking just about any translator to talk about how he or she started to translate often results in a rather similar answer: that translator—often a writer, too—fell in love with a literature in a language other than English and decided to take a stab at translating so as to share the work with other Anglophone readers. But there’s also often a second ingredient in this mix, one that perhaps doesn’t receive as much attention as the various iterations of the “How I got into translating” narrative: the role of translation mentors, people who not only reinforce the initial impulse to translate but provide a sort of framework for why translation is important. Who have your translation mentors been? Were they also poets? What was their influence not only on your practice as a translator but on your practice as a poet?

Rowan Ricardo Phillips (RRP): I never thought of such a role––a translation mentor––as being an actual thing. But given that I now teach translation to graduate students, I suppose I should think of it as an actual thing. Hmm . . .

I’ve always thought of translation as a conversation in which you only discover what language you were speaking after the conversation ends. You have to get lost a little in the doing. There’s so much more to fixate on and bend to your will (or in turn be bent) that mentorship was the furthest thing from my mind when I set off into translation. Was I being mentored? My mentors were the publishers who decided to publish books of translated poetry with the original on the adjacent page. That’s how I learned to translate poetry. Nothing makes you more brave or chaste as the page does. To this day I’m extremely grateful to those publishers who made the choice that the translation should always dance with the original. They helped me see translation as a sustained conversation instead of a replacement.

WWB: You’ve translated Salvador Espriu’s story collection Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth as well as numerous other works from Catalan, Spanish, and Italian. In other interviews, you’ve characterized translation as a sort of exercise against writer’s block. Was that your journey into translation and does that continue to be translation’s principal role in your creative process, or has that changed over time?

The history of poetry in English, from Caedmon’s Hymn to Hamilton, is an engagement in the performance of translation. I don’t translate to stave off writer’s block, I translate because translation is and always has been in the marrow of writing poetry. I know poetry and translation are considered different operations and I know there are excellent translators around who are not writers. And I’m grateful for them. But this schism between translation and writing is strange territory for poets. Are the poems in Tottel’s Miscellany originals or translations? Is Yeats’s “When You Are Old” a translation? Logue’s Iliad movements? I’m mentioning canonical texts here to point out the fact that translation need not be a journey toward, which implies a teleology that as an artist makes my slightly uncomfortable, it can be a journey within and without––a journey then without end. Obviously, translating literature, in particular poetry, is different from other engagements with translation that have their inevitable elements of praxis: audience and function. That said, going back to the original comment, I do feel that writers who feel at a loss regarding what to write should translate to get the juices flowing. One, it compels a writer who may not have done so otherwise to engage in translation; two, it gets a writer writing. I don’t think I’ve ever said that translation’s principle role in my creative process is to act as a stay against writer’s block. But if it can be for someone, then it should. 

A brief example of how translation weaves in and out of my work: I wrote Heaven after starting to translate Dante’s Paradiso. I wasn’t working on new poems at the time. I just wanted to translate. But one act led into the other, the latter stopping the former in its tracks. I started translating Paradiso because I had told Jonathan Galassi that I wanted to translate Purgatorio, a fragment of which is in The Ground. Jonathan surprised me by suggesting I do Paradiso instead, that I’d find something in it that would remind me of myself. It’s no secret that Jonathan has great instincts. But there are so many moving parts in that story: I had to have been translating; I had to have been talking with my editor, who is my friend and also a translator; my editor had to have a sense of my art and how the act of translation for an artist is also about a conversation of temperament (which is to say he could have just responded, “Cool! Purgatorio it is then.”); and I had to have an ear for that bell which tells a writer when the translation has steered from the river of translation into the ocean of one’s own work. 

WWB: You’ve translated from Catalan, from Spanish, and from Italian. What is it that your work with each of these languages—which, despite belonging to the romance language family, each have their own peculiarities—has brought to your writing in English? Is there a differing degree of influence from poets who write in other languages that you have a reading knowledge of but do not translate from and poets from languages you do translate from?

RRP: If I could answer this question I would be worse off as a poet for it. I honestly have no idea.

WWB: This month’s issue of Words without Borders includes a special feature, (In)verse, of poets who translate each others work, including your work with Melcion Mateu. How did you two find each other’s work?

Anyone who reads Melcion’s work will know he’s the real deal. There’s an earned quiet audacity in his work that draws a reader toward it. I met Melcion on the page. I was simply reading poetry and came across some of his poems and then searched for more and more, and I was blown away by everything I read. So much so that I wrote him to tell him so. It turns out he was living in New York at the time and we met and have been friends since. I was years away from publishing my first book and he was already a few books in.

WWB: With respect to translating Melcion’s work and Melcion’s translating your poetry: is that translation process any different from your other work? Have the discussions you’ve had around your work affected the way you approach the translation of Melcion’s work? Allow me to explain my question a bit further: A translator’s questions to a writer are indicative of that translator’s reading of a writer’s work, and the translator’s reading of a writer’s relation to and use of language; has knowing how Melcion reads your work in any way influenced your reading of his poetry in Catalan and opened up the possibilities that exist when translating it?

RRP: Influence is a tricky word. You want to be read by good poets. And Melcion is the type of poet you hope is reading you because he reads everything, he’s a polyglot and he knows how to handle a line like surfing on lightning. His moods are so transnational but without pandering to that as a mode. Innately Catalan, he worries about that less and invites the French, American, British, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Provencal, Latin, all of it in. So in translating each other, I know he’s reading me extremely closely. I don’t recall us ever talking about what a given poem is about; neither of us is wired that way. But all of that said, there’s something too neat in the idea that how he reads me influences how I read him. Influence, first of all, is a tricky word. We’re both insanely in love with music, which may be the elephant in the room here. If Melcion and I didn’t share a language, we’d probably play albums for each other, point to poems, and figure it out. I’m way too far down the rabbit hole to be able to climb up, peer out, and answer this. We don’t discuss our work with each other as much we read each other, share books we like, ask questions when questions need to be asked and––here’s the kicker––we live it. That’s the thing about translation: it better get in your soul. 

Here the audio and view photos of WWB's April 27 event at Poets House in New York City: (In)Verse: Poets Translate Each other.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of two books of poetry, The Ground (2012) and Heaven (2015), both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a collection of literary essays, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and a translation (from the Catalan) of Salvador Espriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers' Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, and the GLCA New Writers Award. He was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the NAACP Image Award for Poetry, and was a long-listed finalist for the PEN Open Book Award and the National Book Award. Heaven has been named one of the best books/poetry collections of the year by The Washington Post and NPR, among others. His poetry has been translated into Catalan, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Spanish. Phillips has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Stony Brook University. He is a Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU and lives in New York City and Barcelona. (Author Photo: Sue Kwon.)

Published Apr 25, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.