Translation Talk, Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and book artist. She is managing director of the American Literary Translators Association. Her poetry collection Featherbone is forthcoming with Ricochet Editions. Her translation of the Argentine graphic novel El Eternauta by H.G. Oesterheld and F. Solano Lopez is forthcoming with Fantagraphics. She is managing editor at Drunken Boat. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press. You can find more about her online here. Editor Sarah Viren interviewed her for M-Dash.


M—: Before we start talking about more serious things, I’m just wondering what it feels like to know you’re not the most famous Erica Mena in the world.

Erica Mena: Generally I’m amused by it. More so when someone in my circles knows who the other one is (she’s a reality-TV “star”). It definitely can get irksome though, since I’m several years older than her and have our name on most social media sites, and I get a lot of hate-tweets meant for her. It still surprises me sometimes how many people have nothing better to do than watch reality TV, and how many get invested enough to actually reach out and try to contact the people on them. It’s a strange world we live in.

M—: Of course, in my world you’re already super famous. You are not only a poet with a new book of poems (Featherbone) coming out from Ricochet Editions this year, you also translate both strange yet beautiful Argentine science fiction comics and Roberto Bolaño poetry and then in your spare time you’re the managing director of the Association of Literary Translations of America AND the managing editor of Drunken Boat Press AND the founding editor of Anomalous Press. Do you sleep? Or perhaps a better question: do you have any tips for us slackers of the world?

EM: That might be a more terrifying prospect, but thanks! I do sleep, actually, a lot, and I also watch TV and take long walks, and occasionally go to see music. But the real answer is that I get my best work done when I’m busy. I don’t multi-task, but I like to switch from thing to thing in short bursts. I read somewhere that’s an efficient way of getting things done, and it really works for me. So here’s the pro-tip: I keep a massive to-do list, complete with deadlines and priorities (my current favorite tool for this is Asana, which is free project-management software). I spend a few hours every week updating it, and make sure to add things to it as soon as they enter my brain. Then during my work-day, I can focus on getting the things done, and not thinking about what needs to get done next. Also, I listen to records while I’m working. When one side finishes, I get up, stretch, get some water, put on the next side and get back to work. Clearing my mind regularly, but briefly, helps me stay energized.

M—: In your extra spare time you also occasionally blog at Alluringly Short. I really enjoy your close readings of books and occasional rants about moving cross-country. As a blogger myself, I’m curious how you think blogging feeds (or alternately destroys) your creative life? In other words, why do you blog?

EM: I started blogging during grad school, mostly as a way to keep writing as part of my life. I wasn’t writing a lot of poetry at the time, but I didn’t want to lose it altogether. Also, I’ve never been that good at staying in touch with people over time and distance. I’m not a Christmas card sender. I’m not even really a Facebook updater, when it comes to things in my personal life. So I think of the blog as sort of more of a journal space, except that of course it’s public. Now mostly I used it as a tool for reading. I read on average a book a day, and I have a notoriously poor memory, so I find that if I write a mini-review (really, just my thoughts) when I’ve finished a book, it helps me remember it. Or at least I can turn to my record of it and try to remember. I think of it as a kind of informal note-taking. It’s a very different kind of writing than creative writing, and since I very rarely write about myself creatively, it’s nice to have permission to be a tiny bit self-absorbed (or perhaps just self-aware) somewhere.

M—: Can you talk a little bit about your translation of the comics of Héctor Germán Oesterheld, which will be published as The Eternonaut by Fantagraphics this August. How is translating comics different and/or more or less challenging then translating prose or poetry?

EM: Great question. I actually think that comics and poetry have a lot in common, concision and the relationship between image and word being the two main ones. In some ways, comics are easier than prose, because half of the work is already being done by the visual component, which generally translates itself regardless of language and context. But the linguistic component, the only one in which I generally engage, actually has quite a lot of pressure on it, especially in comparison to most literary prose. It’s physically confined within the space of the panel; I imagine this is especially more challenging for translating from languages that are already quite concise into ones that tend to be more expansive. It also has to read in the way the images do: the images set a kind of tone that the language has to work in concert with. Sometimes the language is in the same tone, sometimes it contrasts, or works against it, for various reasons. So learning to read the images and their relationship to the language, and then have that inform the translation, is important.

But most of all, comics are an inherently popular form (unlike poetry, I might argue). So energy and momentum were really important in The Eternonaut. It was originally serialized in a newspaper, it reached a huge audience, and continues to be a popular favorite in Argentina. Juan Salvo, the protagonist, is more than just a national icon, recognizable and recognized across the Spanish-speaking world. So making sure that his voice was clear and strong and engaging was one of my top priorities.

M—: How did you first get interested in translation?

EM: The first time I remember seriously thinking about translation was in a summer writer’s workshop I took during my undergraduate degree. It was led by Martha Collins, an exceptional poet and translator of Vietnamese poetry, and she did an exercise with us where we looked at various translations of a Pablo Neruda poem, and then composed our own. It was sort of revolutionary for me, and I realized immediately that translation was a way to think about and play with poetry that was separate from, and augmented, my own writing. I’m a slow writer, so translation started to fill those spaces in my writing life, until it began to dominate my thinking. I was fortunate to be at an institution, The University of Massachusetts Boston, that valued the creative act of translation, and I was encouraged to pursue translation as part of my undergraduate creative writing degree. I was even allowed to translate a wonderful Puerto Rican poet, Etnairis Rivera, as part of my undergraduate thesis in creative writing.

M—: And what’s kept you interested?

EM: In large part it’s the community I’ve found among other translators and writers who are also translators. There’s no shortage of incredible literature to translate, and that paired with the incredibly kind and generous nature of most translators I’ve gotten to know makes it seem kind of like a never-ending treasure trove. I never really felt at home in the contemporary traditional American poetry aesthetic, and translation has helped me find a kind of aesthetic home that is much broader than an MFA program, or a city, or even a country’s worth of poets.

M—: You’ve translated a number of non-living authors. If you could ask one of them a question, what would you ask?

EM: I hate this question. It’s kind of like at the end of a job interview when you’re asked what questions you have, and you know you have some, but they all sound stupid or inarticulate or weird to ask, and so you try to come up with something simultaneously appropriate and interesting. I really have no idea. I think if I could ask H.G. Oesterheld a question it would be about his neologisms in The Eternonaut and whether he had any suggestions for translating them into English. No one would care but me, but I would really be interested.

M—: What’s the best line of poetry or prose you’ve read in the past week or so? Why?

EM: Best is a tall order, especially because I’m currently reading for the BTBA in poetry, and at about a book a day and with some incredible books, I’d be hard-pressed to pick one over another. But from the book I’m currently reading as I answer these questions, the line that most caught my eye was: “You fly in the feathers and wings, no way to truly rest.” It actually is something I wish I could have used in Featherbone, which uses a lot of quotation, but it’s too late for that, so I’ll have to just love it privately. I like the weirdness of the syntax in the first clause, and then the simplicity of the second. I try to imagine what flying in feathers and wings looks like, and I can’t really, and that’s what I want from an image generally, not realism. I love that strange little article in the first clause, that “the” that makes it so particular. And I love the rhythms of it, almost iambic with a little skip over the article.

M—: What do you read to inspire you as a poet? And does that differ from what you read to help you as a literary translator?

EM: I read a lot of poetry. I think that’s the most inspiring thing for me – to read and see what other poets are doing and how they’re doing it. I also read a ton of science, mostly at the popular level. I couldn’t live without my subscription to The New Scientist. I incorporate a lot of research into my poetry; for me poetry is a lens through which I can approach the world and I take the opportunity to try to learn things as I’m doing it. So currently I’m researching dark energy and dark matter and modern cosmological paradoxes for a project called Theories of Dark (a few of which are coming out in the next issue of PANK).

It’s different in subject matter than what I read for literary translation, but not in approach. Translation is also a kind of research, and so I read a lot of contextualizing work by contemporaneous authors, history, and theory (literary, translation, and otherwise… recently I’ve found that information theory has been informing my translation a lot).

M—: Anything else you’d like to add?

EM: Just that anyone interested in translation should definitely try to come to an ALTA conference. I think I have to say this, since I’m the managing director, but I really mean it. ALTA is a special place, perhaps the only place (for me anyway) that I am surrounded by people who are brilliant and genuinely interested in almost exactly the same things I am. I went to my first ALTA while I was in grad school in 2009, and I haven’t missed a year since.