Between Us: Adriana X. Jacobs & Andrea Rosenberg

In this series, we listen in as Drunken Boat’s renowned translators talk with one another about art, craft, and the role of translation in the world.

Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford. Her translations of Hebrew poetry have appeared in various publications, including Zeek, Metamorphoses, Gulf Coast, Poetry International and The Michigan Quarterly Review. She is a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient for her translation of Nguyen’s The Truffle Eye.

Andrea Rosenberg is a translator from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Words Without Borders, The Iowa Review, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, and other publications. Her translations include Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion (Europa Editions, 2017), Juan Gómez Bárcena’s The Sky over Lima (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), and David Jiménez’s Children of the Monsoon (Autumn Hill Books, 2014). She has also translated a number of academic books on Latin American literature and culture. She holds an MFA in literary translation and an MA in Spanish from the University of Iowa, and she has been the recipient of awards and grants from the Fulbright Program, the American Literary Translators Association, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.


AXJ: I have a feeling that Anna paired us because of the Israel/Palestine connection that our Drunken Boat contributions share. I’d like to discuss that possibility!

We could start with the pleasantries or I could start with a question about your translation of Lina Meruane’s Becoming Palestine and from there we can see where the questions take us. What do you think?

AR: Hi, yes, definitely the Israel/Palestine connection, but I think also the issue of immigration and assimilation too: Vietnamese in Israel, Palestinian in Chile. Go ahead and ask away and we can get started!

AXJ: Here we go:

When I read your Meruane translations in Drunken Boat’s women in translation feature, I kept going back to the section titled “direction: palestine.” As a translator of contemporary Israeli poetry, you could say that I was naturally drawn to it (and all of Becoming Palestine), but what also intrigued me is that both Meruane and my poet Vaan Nguyen have complicated relationships to Israel/Palestine — Nguyen is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and Meruane is Chilean-Palestinian. Nguyen’s poetry challenges preconceptions and expectations for poetry from that region, and that is one reason why I am drawn to translating it. To what extent do these considerations play a part in the choices you make as a translator, and in translating this text in particular?

AR: I was drawn to Meruane’s memoir because of the intensely poetic quality of her prose, but also because I thought it was a text, a set of ideas, that needed to exist in English. In the United States, we tend to see Latin American cultures as being fairly homogeneous, both within and across nations (i.e., largely Spanish-derived with a soupçon of indigenous influence that is greater or lesser depending on the country). My deepening familiarity with different Latin American countries over the years has meant increased awareness of the variations between them, including the impact of their immigrant cultures (in addition to the conquering colonial culture, obviously). This has led me to a much richer and more complicated understanding of the region. Meruane’s book contributed the intriguing detail that the world’s second-largest Palestinian community resides in Chile. In the United States, we tend to think about immigration in somewhat limited terms. This is not to point the finger, really, since human beings don’t generally think too far outside their own experience, but it is precisely this tunnel vision that makes it so important to be exposed to a range of voices from beyond our borders. Our narratives of immigration, like so much of our understanding of the world, are quite US-centric (occasionally expanding to include Europe, especially with the recent influx of Syrian refugees to the continent), and you’re absolutely right that an intriguing element that links your translations and mine is the relatively “exotic” immigration patterns they reflect. The examination of origin, which is so evident in Nguyen’s poem “Culture Stain” as well as in Meruane’s memoir, creates a sort of dual process of translation, and yet at the same time lends a certain universality to the texts. You mention displacement as being inherent in the examination of origin, and I think both of these writers explore that complicated sense of belonging. Yet do you worry about pigeonholing Nguyen as an identity politics poet, or are these issues prevalent throughout of her work? One challenge with presenting a writer in translation is that the readership will have access only to what we choose (have time, are paid, etc.) to translate. Do you feel any curatorial pressure in this regard?

AXJ: I do worry about constraining her work to a single reading, as though being the child of Vietnamese refugees is her poetry’s raison d’être. In fact, Nguyen herself has pushed back on this. A couple of years ago, The Times of Israel published a “where are they now?” profile on the Vietnamese refugees who settled in Israel in the 1970s. Nguyen was asked to comment on this history but declined to do so, telling the reporter to get back to her when her book has been translated into English. This evasion fascinated me, because it suggests that the English translations of her work offer a chance to engage this aspect of her life and poetry on new terms, or at the very least from a different perspective. Of course, I have to consider the reception of any poet I translate. At the end of the day, as much as I enjoy translation as a creative, radical practice, I am doing this so that others can read this work. I am aware that Nguyen offers a compelling story, and that for American readers, her Vietnamese background will resonate in ways that it does not for Israelis. But one reason that I have committed to translating her entire book is that I want readers to get a sense of her range, her humour, her wanderlust — it would be too easy, I think, to curate a collection around identity politics. That being said, poems about identity open and close her collection. Let’s go back, though, to the “dual process of translation” that you mention above. Can you say more about this? I also can’t help but project this on the translator herself. Is this kind of translation personal for you?

AR: What I was referring to with that phrase is the way the texts we’ve translated are both originally attempts to translate a quasi-foreign experience into and for a dominant culture — and then, of course, both of us were tasked with shifting that experience into yet another cultural context. I want to avoid being essentialist here about ethnicity, and I don’t want to use the term “translation” so broadly as to make it meaningless, since all writing is an attempt to lay bare an individual experience. But I think there is something particularly compelling about these transitions into ever-more-distant contexts. I’ve spent a substantial portion of my adult life living in/gallivanting around foreign countries, sometimes switching countries every few months as whims or circumstances seize me, so there is something personal for me about Meruane’s exploration of rootedness, and of finding connections in a place that is unknown to you. Once upon a time in Bangkok, I met a British man who’d been living in Thailand for twenty years, and when I asked him how he’d ended up there, he told me that as soon as he’d arrived in Thailand he knew he was home, that Thailand was the place he was meant to be. That notion has niggled at me for years: What does belonging mean, and how do you know you belong somewhere? (And, looking at my own case, do some people just not belong anywhere — or belong everywhere?) Translation, for me, is an endlessly fascinating way of exploring these questions.

AXJ: Some of the toughest lines I’ve translated are the last two of Nguyen’s poem “Culture Stain”:

Where did I come from, you’re asking
I mean, parents?

The Hebrew is a bit — just a bit — more idiomatic, but I wanted to add a distortion here to muddle the inquiry. Who is asking the question? Whose parents? This translation proved to be the most personal for me, maybe because the poem develops around a very familiar riddle concerning place, origins, home, and belonging. Home bookends most of the routines and responsibilities of my daily life, and yet I’ve also moved house quite a few times in the past four years. I hope to hold off moving again for a while, but I don’t have the faith of your friend in Bangkok and I don’t seek it either. The poet Yehuda Amichai once said that translation “sent him into orbit.” He was referring to how being translated into English brought him to a much wider audience, but I also think that this can be the effect of translation on the translator. It’s thrilling to test out someone else’s turns of phrase, explore the places they’ve been, approach familiar questions like “where are you from?” from their point of view. Interestingly, I encountered Hebrew for the first time in a campsite just outside of Concepción, Chile, so I am struck by how appropriate it is that we are having this conversation!

AR: I love all the layers of displacement among the four of us (authors and translators). Maybe “displacement” sounds negative? Unplacement. Otherplacement. I was really struck by those two lines of “Culture Stain” precisely for their idiomatic quality. I can just hear the poetic voice sarcastically offering an answer that is at once obvious (the “Duh!” is implicit) and, of course, profound. There’s an apparent literalization that takes place in the response, a reduction to the ploddingly basic, and yet it points to an immensely complex web of geographies. It actually reminds me very much of a line from Meruane, as she tries to explain to an aunt she’s never met before who she is:

Ahhhh, family! she says, with wild excitement, Family! Family!, and I, not knowing what else to say, respond, Yes, yes, and I start to laugh because there is thunder and exaggeration and confusion in that word, and also an immense abyss of years and oceans and possible poverty, but with every family she shouts, I laugh even harder, saying, Yes, family, yes, as if I had forgotten all other words.

Have you translated a wide range of poets? (I think poetry translators may have more of a chance to dabble than prose translators do, since the individual works are [usually!] shorter and the rights to publication a bit less challenging to obtain. This is merely my impression from the outside, though, so I may be completely wrong. I imagine it also has to do with a translator’s individual temperament as well. Also, I don’t mean to limit you to poetry if you also do prose! I don’t do poetry; I do poetic, and love it, but for whatever reason I am unmanned by poetry in its pure form. Perhaps it’s just poetry psyching me out, but so far I don’t dare.) Anyway, I wonder how that affects the translator’s launch into orbit. Different lines of transit etched onto the translator’s body. I think my best translator’s voice (which maybe means the one closest to my own voice, were I a writer?) is fairly high register, somewhat poetic, preferably involving some dry wit (to keep me entertained, if nothing else). But I have been grateful to be tossed into orbit with coarser stuff, too, just to flex different muscles — and occasionally deploy the full range of my cussing repertoire. What have you found most challenging in your encounters with different writers? Do you have a type?

AXJ: I do identify primarily as a translator of poetry. That being said, your description of the “poetic” aligns so well with how I think of my literary preferences, which have less to do with genre and more to do with language. Nguyen has this wonderful story, “The Truffle Eye,” which closes her collection, and it’s hardly a conventional prose piece, which is probably why I enjoyed translating it. In this story, a man wakes up and discovers that he has become a woman with truffle eyes. And that opening scene encapsulates what draws me to certain texts over others. I tend to translate shape-shifters: poems that start one place and end in another, stories that suddenly become poems and vice versa. I see that in Meruane as well, and in a lot of writing that comes out of experiences and states of “unplacement,” as you put it. Over the years, translation has become the zone where I give myself permission to experiment, mess up, and play far more than in any other writing I do. And the desire to be in that zone definitely motivates what I translate, but also what I read, which is how most translation projects start, whether they consist of a single poem or an entire collection. I encountered Nguyen’s poetry at the same time as the work of Anna Herman, another poet I translate. They couldn’t be more different (for one, Herman uses rhyme), but both were writing in ways that were entirely surprising, and I wanted to listen in as closely as possible. The best way to do that was to translate. The unexpected, astonishing, and just plain strange constitute strong family ties for the poets I translate. Ah, family.

Reluctantly, I’m wondering if we should wrap up. Maybe a few remarks on our future projects? After Nguyen, I’d like to put out a collection of Herman’s poetry. And I’m also toying with the idea of translating my first novel — something short, and preferably written by a poet. What about you?

AR: I’m currently working on a couple of novels for publishers: Portuguese author Inês Pedrosa’s In Your Hands and Colombian author Tomás González’s The Storm. And I have rounds of edits to get through on some other projects too. But Meruane and I have been discussing my finishing Becoming Palestine. The book is actually structured in two parts and I’ve only translated the title section; there’s a whole second half I’d really like to work on. Earning a living has unfortunately gotten in the way of this passion project, even though I believe in the book so much! To be honest, I have a hard time pulling off the networking and salesmanship that are so important in the publishing world. Yes, to a certain extent, one’s work always speaks for itself, but there’s a lot of amazing work out there all speaking at once. A cacophony of greatness! So having some assertiveness and persuasion backing up the work is crucial — and that’s something I have yet to master. I’ve learned that if I’m not going to drum up the personality to bring projects home, I need to be judicious in translating on my own.

AXJ: I understand this very well. And while I envy that you are working on projects for publishers, it doesn’t escape me that these are novels, which is where one finds whatever money there is in literary translation. The fact that Becoming Palestine is a passion project (the category for pretty much every single translation that I do) says something about the translation economy, doesn’t it? I make my living as an academic and have to prioritize the research/publishing demands of that career, and sadly, my translations themselves do not carry the weight of a scholarly article on translation, even though so much of my thinking about translation happens through the process of doing it. In this context, I have sometimes struggled to stay motivated, to send out publishing queries, and to remember my Submittable password. The PEN grant, though, was energizing — it gave me the boost I needed to push my translation of Nguyen’s book forward. I love the expression “to bring something home,” especially in the context of our conversation and the themes of travel, migration, and exile that run through the work of our writers. So, given the many and different homes that our writers (and we ourselves!) inhabit and create, I hope that home, in this case, takes the form of a launchpad.