Seth Michelson on Translating Melisa Machado

Seth Michelson is a poet and translator whose collections of poetry include Swimming through Fire, Eyes Like Broken Windows, Kaddish for My Unborn Son, and Maestro of Brutal Splendor. His translations include the books The Ghetto (Tamara Kamenszain, Argentina), roly poly (Victoria Estol, Uruguay), Poems from the Disaster (Zulema Moret, Argentina/Spain), and Dreaming in Another Land (Rati Saxena, India). He currently teaches the poetry of the Americas at Washington and Lee University. Our Senior Translation Editor, Jesse Lee Kercheval, recently had a chance to ask Seth a few questions about his translations of Melisa Machado’s poetry.
JLK: You have finished translating Melisa Machado’s El canto rojo (“The Red Song”), which is forthcoming from Action Books. Is there anything you would like to tell us about her poetry?

SM: Translating Melisa’s poetry is deceptively difficult. Each poem is tense with verbal volatility, ferocious precision, deep reflection, and layerings of shifting lexical shadows. The resulting poetry is as explosive as a field of landmines, with each triggered detonation illuminating in a flash of scalding light the artificiality and inadequacy of presupposed limits of the referentiality of language, while also creating newfound possibility in the strewn wreckage. To read the book, then, is to engage in a mode of creating through the atomization of the object of focus by Melisa’s laser-like blasts of verbal light, with the destruction revealing new forms and modes of being. And how to translate that deft handiwork into English?

JLK: What are the particular challenges to translating Machado’s work?

SM: Melisa writes with such fervor, precision, and intricacy that I was forced to develop a host of new techniques for translating her poetry. For example, to grapple with her diction, which is richly and inventively layered with connotative and denotative values, I devised a method of creating multiple translations of each poem and juxtaposing them digitally into an almost collage-like series of kindred versions to help me to discern and prioritize various, subtle valences of meaning to emphasize in the final draft. It was an almost geological process, whereby I would struggle to descry and differentiate the nuanced coloring of layers of minerals in the chromatic strata of sedimentary rock and then work rigorously to ensure that I’d calculated and registered the layering correctly in my reproductions. Such is the vibrant, artful beauty of her poetry.

JLK: Are there any other contemporary poets in translation or recently published books in translation—in any language—you would like to recommend to Tupelo Quarterly readers?

SM: If you’ll forgive the unimportant waft of indirect self-promotion, then I’d suggest several other superb poets from the Southern Cone whom I’ve translated, such as Tamara Kamenszain, Victoria Estol, and Zulema Moret. I think Anglophone readers will very much appreciate discovering the work of these fabulous poets. More broadly, I am very much committed to translating feminist poets like them for Anglophone audiences, believing such writers to offer crucial and underrepresented poetry to the world.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a 2016 NEA in Translation Fellow and is the author of fourteen books including the poetry collection Cinema Muto, winner of a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; The Alice Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize; the memoir Space, winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. She is also a translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations include The Invisible Bridge: Selected Poems of Circe Maia and Fable of an Inconsolable Man by Javier Etchevarren. She is also the editor of the anthology América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets. She is currently the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the Program in Creative Writing.