Silvina López Medin and Sarah Lawson in Conversation with Hilary Kaplan
In 2017, Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP), where we are both editors, published a chapbook by the Brazilian poet Marília Garcia, who just recently won the prestigious Oceanos Portuguese Language Literature Prize. Titled The Territory Is Not the Map, UDP released it as part of its Señal series for contemporary Latin American poetry. We met with Hilary Kaplan, Garcia’s translator, when she came to New York City for the book launch at NYU’s KJCC (King Juan Carlos I of Spain) Poetry Series. We were interested in talking with her about a book which—instead of obscuring the process of translation and the role of the translator—begins with the poem “A Departure with Hilary Kaplan,” exposing this very practice: “When you say / erase / do you mean / stop existing?” … “is departure simply / when someone goes out / or does it mean they’re / going away forever?” Garcia wrote this poem from a series of questions Kaplan posed to her about her translations, in the vein of Charles Bernstein’s “A Test of Poetry.”
In this book, both the poet and translator explore the limits of language and the confines of space. Garcia works with the actual and metaphorical distance between territories and points on a map, between a journey and the language used to write about it, and between languages themselves. In her poetry, there is no straight line from one to the other—there is displacement.
SILVINA LÓPEZ MEDIN
You once said that “playfulness” guided your translation of another poet, Garcia’s contemporary, Angélica Freitas. We wonder if there’s a specific element that guided your translation in the case of Garcia.
Departure was really my guiding impulse—the first word of the first poem of this book, partida. The word could also mean a “match” or a “game,” but I went as far out as I could—to departure. That was my guiding light for this book, going with Marília on the journey. These poems are so much about her traveling and her journeying and her wandering—the geographic error, the geographic mistake—and when you turn one way, you turn another way, and what is the map—where is it really guiding us? I think UDP described it so nicely as being a map to get lost. But the idea of a departure is exactly that for me, it’s both taking off from a starting point, and really expanding from there.
SLM: How do you relate that idea with translation? For example, going from match to departure. What do you mean by that idea?
HK: I think part of it for me is slightly less of a literal and stick-to-it approach, although I am a particular and kind of nitpicky person; you have to be as a translator. It’s not that I don’t value that, but having the opportunity to think about things in another way, to think differently, that’s what it meant to me with this book. It was nice to be able to do that because, as you know, there were a lot of challenges along the way. What I found in working on this book was that I could communicate the meaning of the poems and also the sense that they create, the feeling that they create, the rhythm that they create, the sound that they create—if I was able to think more openly. That’s what I needed in order to get to the translations that I made: the freedom for myself to think more openly.
SLM: The territory and the map—maybe that is what differentiates the translation from the original?
HK: “The territory is not the map.” I think you’re making a nice allusion, that the translation is the map, and the original is the territory. Even this title prioritizes the map a little bit. Prioritizing the difference between the original and the translation, and valuing the difference that’s in the translation. That’s a really beautiful way of thinking about it.
We were talking about the first poem in particular—in terms of the geography of the poems and how spread out they are, but also how intimate they are at the same time. I wonder how you worked with that intimacy, and also the intimacy of translation itself—as it is an intimate thing, the act itself.
HK: It is a very intimate activity. People often use the word “close”: “Translation is the closest form of close reading.” But there’s something standoffish about the word “close,” even. We always want to be close to each other. But it is an intimate reading. There is a particular thing, especially with the first poem in the book. I know Marília; she’s a friend and I’m lucky to be able to call her that, and this first poem—it was hard for me. The title of the poem is Uma partida com Hilary Kaplan. I gave a presentation at the University of Iowa in October and Aron Aji pointed out—and of course I knew this and hadn’t phrased it to myself this way —but the poem is written in my voice; I’m the speaker of the poem. So it’s kind of strange.
SLM: Your voice filtered through Marília, it’s the perfect feedback loop—author, translator, author…
HK: You’re exactly right about it. The poem is really neat in that way, and that’s some of the feedback that I got from this group in Iowa. People appreciated this poem because of that relationship between the writer and translator that it portrays—that it embodies—but it was really hard to translate, and it was hard to make it sound as funny and strange in English as it is in Portuguese because of the reverse process. There were some interesting choices in here.
SLM: I’m curious if it’s also your favorite poem in the book, or do you have a special relationship with some other poem in the book?
HK: I do have a special relationship with that poem. I like all of the poems in the book. It’s a small and sweet selection. But At Berlin Schönefeld Airport, which is the other longer one in the book… I really like the story that’s being told there. A lot of these poems are comings and goings, and this one is a going poem: here’s the writer in Berlin, a Brazilian writer in Berlin, and she leaves her Havaianas, her Brazilian flip-flops, in the airport, with the little Brazilian flag on them. She’s heading home and it’s about what’s in her backpack as she goes through security, and what memories she brings home with her. I think one of the challenges in this poem for me to translate was that, in some sense, you have the writer from the tropics who goes to this cold and northern place, and experiencing the idea of snow, and the smell of the air when it’s really cold outside, who shows up with the flip-flops but it’s too cold to wear them, so the flip-flops remain abandoned. I laugh a little—here we are in Brooklyn and the idea of cold is not foreign, so I find a challenge in that, too—how am I going to communicate the strangeness and the newness? This writer is talking about how strange and new and unexpected it was to find herself in cold, and I have to communicate that strangeness to an audience that already knows—they are jaded to it, I think. It’s not unfamiliar for us, but we might have a sense memory and maybe this poem—if this poem can somehow trigger that sense memory…
SL: I wonder, then, about the idea of encountering what is untranslatable and what you do with that, how you work with it, and how that affects how much room you have to play and experiment.
HK: Right now, the way that I know how to approach it is through play. I think other, more experienced translators probably have better ways of dealing with the untranslatable, but for me, what else can you do? You have to be inventive.
Ugly Duckling Presse editors Silvina López Medin and Sarah Lawson interviewed translator Hilary Kaplan on the occasion of the publication of Marília Garcia’s The Territory Is Not the Map from UDP’s Señal chapbook series. Among Kaplan’s other translations are Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas (Phoneme Media) and Ghosts, a collection of stories by Paloma Vidal (Story Front). Her translation of Rilke Shake won the Best Translated Book Award and the National Translation Award for poetry in 2016, and was a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Her translations of Brazilian poetry and prose have appeared on BBC Radio 4 and in journals internationally, including Granta, Modern Poetry in Translation, The White Review, and Action Yes. She received a PEN Translation Fund award and a Rumos Literatura fellowship in literary criticism from Itaú Cultural. She teaches in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College.