Poetry by Isabel Zapata in Translation

Poems by ISABEL ZAPATA

Translated from the Spanish by ROBIN MYERS

Poems appear in both Spanish and English. 

 

Translator’s Note

Like many translators, I grow weary of talking about “faithfulness” and “betrayal,” about whether it’s “possible” to translate poetry, about what gets “lost” in translation. These queries quickly become platitudes, and platitudes are tiresome. But what’s always relevant, always urgent, and always exhilarating to me about translation is the idea of respect. The practice of care. One of my favorite translators, Sophie Hughes, recently said in an interview: “I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations.” And how can we respect anything for what it is until we truly listen to what it has to say about itself and how it sees the world?

I find myself thinking often about Hughes’s words as I translate Isabel Zapata’s new poetry collection, Un ballena es un país (Almadía, 2019; A Whale Is a Country is the working title), from which “Reasons Not to Step on Snails” and “Chaos Theory” are excerpted. I’m so struck by the sureness—the sure-of-themselves-ness—of her poems. The clean unspooling of her long lines, the almost essayistic progression and interconnection of images and ideas, the confidence and freedom with which she sometimes halts the sequence and shifts her attention elsewhere. This precision, this leanness, is part of what I wanted to make sure I respected in my translation.

But I also wanted to respect the respect that defines these poems in their content and focus. Zapata’s book is a kind of bestiary: all of the texts have something to do with animals and the natural world. Some do have an ode-like quality; they are full of wonder, certainly, at the creatures we live among. Yet Zapata doesn’t succumb to preciousness or romanticization. Her work is keenly attuned to suffering and injustice, to the horrors humans can wreak. And it also has—I think this is what I love most—a profound regard for the unencompassable mystery that marks our perception of and relationships with other animals. It respects what we don’t know about them, what we cannot resolve by projecting ourselves onto them, what they don’t offer up for our comprehension and control. Importantly, too, it explores the history and the present of human/animal fellowship—no matter how humans have chosen to honor, damage, or ignore this living reality—in a way that aggrandizes neither people in general nor the particular status of the poet-observer.

In translating Zapata, I wanted to attend to her poems as respectfully as the poems themselves attend to the lives, landscapes, and phenomena they explore. I often struggle to describe exactly what that means, concretely, while translating: how it’s reflected moment by moment, decision by decision. (In the words of translator Julia Sanches, “Translation often feels to me like the art of deciding between equally valid options in a sea of commensurate alternatives while striving every day to draw closer to a platonic ideal that does not, in actuality, exist.”)

But I know it’s another important mystery to honor. 

 

Razones Para No Pisar A un Caracol
Porque son machos y hembras al mismo tiempo.
Porque su concha crece con ellos.
Porque Apicio los cocinaba con vísceras de pescado fermentadas.
Porque su baba quita las arrugas.
Porque su apareamiento dura tres horas.
Porque tienen veinte mil dientes microscópicos.
Porque el papa Pío V dijo que eran peces para poder comérselos en cuaresma.
Porque duermen siestas de una semana.
Porque Leonardo da Vinci los preparó con mantequilla y perejil.
Porque caminan con el estómago.
Porque crujen, pero saben amar sin rigidez.

Reasons Not to Step on Snails
Because they’re both male and female at once.
Because their shells grow with them.
Because Apicius cooked them with fermented fish guts.
Because their slime erases wrinkles.
Because they take three hours to mate.
Because they have twenty thousand microscopic teeth.
Because Pope Pious V declared them fish so Catholics could eat them during Lent.
Because their naps take all week long.
Because Leonardo da Vinci ate them with butter and parsley.
Because they walk with their bellies.
Because they crunch; because they love unrigidly.

 

 

Teoría del Caos

Poniendo un conejo contra el oído, se oye el ruido del mar.
Mario Levrero

Campo de acción

El desplazamiento de los astros o del plancton, el movimiento de una colonia de hormigas, el retraso en el despegue de ciertos aviones, la trayectoria de una gota a través de un cuerpo de agua, cualquier ser vivo caótico, flexible.

Postulados

  1. Si un grupo de ratas de laboratorio aprende un nuevo truco en Harvard, otro grupo en la Universidad de Tokio de pronto lo aprenderá también.
  2. La serpiente no cambia de piel, la piel la deja.
  3. Chicago, 8 de octubre de 1871: Louis M. Cohn jugaba póker en un establo cuando perdió el equilibrio y tiró por accidente una lámpara de aceite sobre la paja. La ciudad ardió durante tres días.
  4. Las flores son crueles. Míralas bien.
  5. El zorro sabe cuando hay un ratón bajo la nieve y ajusta el ángulo de ataque con un leve movimiento de la cola.
  6. Los ríos son anónimos aunque tengan nombre.
  7. Las semillas se plantan en luna llena para que el hilo invisible de la luna levante el brote.
  8. El zorro es responsable de ser un zorro. De preferencia un zorro vivo que salta en una montaña nevada, pero sobre todo un zorro.
  9. Una mano humana avanza sólo hasta adquirir su forma. Los huesos de los tiburones, en cambio, nunca dejan de crecer.
  10. Desde que una hembra de año y medio mojó su papa en el mar para quitarle la arena, toda la manada de macacos lava sus papas y granos de trigo en la isla de Koshima.
  11. Nunca supimos qué era el monstruo de Montauk.
  12. Un día, el estanque de la casa amaneció lleno de peces de colores.
  13. Un murmullo de estorninos, una manada de búfalos en estampida o una ola de aficionados en un estadio, ¿son millones o es uno?
  14. Wittgenstein dijo que no podríamos entender a los leones aunque ellos pudieran hablar.
  15. En el Museo Nacional de Bonsái, en Washington, hay un pino blanco de 400 años que perteneció a cinco generaciones de la familia Yamaki y sobrevivió a la bomba de Hiroshima.
  16. La crin de un caballo electrocutado es la aleta de un pez espada.
  17. Hay tatuajes que cambian de forma por las noches.
  18. A cierta hora de la tarde, las secuoyas convierten sus troncos en columnas de luz.
  19. El poema no es un artefacto, es un espacio al que se entra.
  20. Que los leones no conozcan las metáforas no quiere decir que no sepan quiénes son.

 

Chaos Theory

If you bring a rabbit to your ear, you can hear the sound of the ocean.
Mario Levrero

Field of action

The migration of planets or plankton, the movement of a neighborhood of ants, the delays of certain planes in taking off, a droplet’s lone path through a body of water, any chaotic, pliant, living thing.

Postulates

  1. If a group of lab rats learns a new trick at Harvard, another group at the University of Tokyo will soon learn it, too.
  2. A snake doesn’t shed its skin; the skin sheds it.
  3. Chicago, October 8, 1871: Louis M. Cohn was playing poker in a stable when he lost his balance and accidentally knocked an oil lamp into the hay. The city burned for three days straight.
  4. Flowers are cruel. Take a good look at them.
  5. A fox can tell when there’s a mouse under the snow and adjusts its angle of attack with a slight swish of the tail.
  6. Rivers are anonymous even when they have a name.
  7. Seeds are planted when the moon is full so that the moon’s invisible threads will lift each sprout.
  8. A fox is responsible for being a fox. Ideally a living fox who prances about on a snowy mountainside, but first and foremost a fox.
  9. A human hand develops only until it acquires its shape. Shark bones, however, never stop growing.
  10. Ever since a year-and-a-half-old female dipped her potato into the ocean to wash off the sand, an entire flock of macaws has been cleaning its potatoes and grains of wheat on the island of Koshima.
  11. We never figured out what the Montauk Monster was.
  12. One day we woke up and the pond at home was full of brightly colored fish.
  13. A murmur of starlings, a stampeding herd of buffalos, a wave of fans in a stadium: are there a million of them or only one?
  14. Wittgenstein once said that we’d never understand lions even if they could talk.
  15. At the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, in Washington, there’s a 400-year-old white pine that belonged to the Yamaki family for five generations and survived the bombing of Hiroshima.
  16. The mane of an electrocuted horse is a swordfish fin.
  17. Some tattoos change color in the dark.
  18. At a certain hour of the afternoon, sequoias turn their trunks into columns of light.
  19. A poem isn’t an artifact; it’s a space to be entered.
  20. The fact that lions don’t know about metaphors doesn’t mean they don’t know who they are.

 

Isabel Zapata (Mexico City, 1984) is a writer, translator, and editor. She is the author of Ventanas adentro (poetry, Ediciones Urdimbre, 2002); Las noches son así (poetry, Broken English, 2018); Alberca vacía/Empty Pool (essays, Argonáutica/UANL, 2019); and Una ballena es un país(poetry, Almadía, 2019). Her critical and creative work has appeared in Tierra Adentro, the magazine of the Universidad de México, Periódico de Poesía (UNAM), Literal, Horizontal, Letras Libres, and Este País, among others. In 2016-2017, she received a FONCA Young Artists grant for poetry. She writes a weekly column on gender and culture, “Tiresias,” for Letras Libres online. In 2015, she and four friends founded the press Ediciones Antílope, which publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Robin Myers (New York, 1987) is a Mexico City-based poet and translator. She is among the winners of the 2019 Poems in Translation Contest held by Words Without Borders and the Academy of American Poets. Her translations have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Two Lines, The Offing, Waxwing, Beloit Poetry Journal, Asymptote,and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Recent book-length translations include Lyric Poetry Is Dead by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg (Cardboard House Press, 2018), Manca by Juana Adcock (Argonáutica, 2019), Empty Pool by Isabel Zapata (Argonáutica, 2019), Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel (University of Texas Press, forthcoming, 2020), and Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter Books, forthcoming, 2020).

Poetry by Isabel Zapata in Translation

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