Michelle Gil-Montero (photo: Dawn Zacharias)

Earlier this year I found my way to Michelle Gil-Montero's brilliant translation of Edinburgh Notebook Cuaderno de Edimburgo by Mexican poet Valerie Mejer Caso. The notebook is a body, a landscape of grief and dying, of vanished paths. In the landscape (in the body) are mountains, shadowy ponds, quicksand, clouds compressing time, hallucinatory apparitions and transformations.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you decide to take on this project? Did the book find you or did you find it?


MICHELLE GIL-MONTERO: I had recently translated Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel, another book that confronts death and loss, and I really wanted to continue with her work. As soon as I began to read Edinburgh Notebook, I recognized a relationship between the two books that compelled me to translate Edinburgh Notebook next. At first glance, the books are pretty different—formally, and in scope. This Blue Novel is a sweeping long poem that maps generational trauma, while Edinburgh Notebook is a very sectioned, layer-by-layer excavation of loss and grief. But both books approach autobiography in a fascinating, peculiar way: by greeting death. The poem is a strange alternate dimension where the living meet the dead. Both books invite us to know a person, the poet, by befriending the things and people she has lost—as in a line from This Blue Novel:“I will introduce you to my dead, one by one.”  


SG: Willis Barnstone has written that translation is, among other things, “the art of revelation.” Do you agree? What are some other ways you would describe the art of translation?


MGM: I love how swiftly this definition flies in the face of the persistently limited thinking of translation as treasonous, compromising—in other words, as a failed, foggy copy of an original work. Yes, I agree that translation is revelatory—and even doubly revelatory, because it illuminates the translator’s reading/writing in addition to the author’s (and I think that the two coexist in weird translation space-time). I’d only add that, in my own practice, I don’t always presume to reveal—I really try to honor a sense of what is unknown and unknowable to me in a text. I love to translate, maybe most of all, because it reminds me of how fiercely language resists becoming fully knowable or settled in meaning. Every translation is touched by uncertainty. I admire translators who find ways to harness some of that uncertainty, make a bit of that mystery palpable—translations that, in making “the unknown known” (as Barnstone also says), find ways to reveal some of the unknown-ness too. 


SG: These poems feel wildly revelatory, and sometimes incendiary, even when their materiality is weighty or watery. What are some things you grappled with in bringing these qualities over to the English-language poems?


MGM: I was very interested in the tension between the book’s subject matter and its wild whirling-up of images, echoes. Matter, for all its weight, gets sucked into a kind of “high vacuum,” to use one of Mejer Caso’s metaphors. She writes that, “Edinburgh,” the site of her brother’s suicide, “does not exist, except in a high vacuum.” It (the poem? life?) tosses us around, as swiftly as things are created and destroyed, there is a stillness at its center (death?). One example that comes to mind is “Third,” which was one of my favorite poems to translate, because it feels like an ecstatic vision or violent prayer. It’s phantasmagoric, sonically rich, emotionally charged, but when I step away from it, I’m not even sure what it’s “about”; ultimately, its apparitions shape an eerie sense of absence. In Mejer Caso’s work, I’m often amazed by the combined speed and precision of things flying into view, but there is this deep stillness as well. In my translation, I tried to remain aware of that stillness. I spent a lot of time fine-tuning the sounds, especially the rhythms, because it was important to capture the momentum of her lines, and that feeling of things suddenly stopping short, and also, to create an echo-chamber of assonances and consonances. 


SG: The poems occur across vastly different landscapes, some recognizable, others fantastical, fabulous. How might some of these landscapes be read differently by Spanish-speaking and English-speaking readers? (Is this even a fair question?)  How did you approach differences in the familiar and the strange, in landscape or imagery, across linguistic and cultural divides?


MGM: Your question has me looking back to some of the landscapes in the book and wondering—for the first time, I admit—about this! How these landscapes present as “familiar” or “strange,” culturally—but also, as you point out, how many of these spaces appear otherworldly. There are just so many landscapes in the book—it’s not, as we might incorrectly assume from the title, a book “situated” in Edinburgh. On the contrary, the title names that city, I think, as a place that (for the poet) “does not exist”: she was never there. That city came to her from afar, via a horrible phone call about her brother and suicide note. Describing that city—the place where her brother lived, a child playing outside across the street, etc.)—she invents it, contours its absence, as an exercise in grief. I think many of the landscapes in the book are similarly speculative. They take shape through imagined scenarios—often, when picturing a distant friend or loved one across impassible stretches of time or space. Encountering the landscapes in the book, to me, usually feels like jumping into a photograph or painting, which becomes suddenly animated by an urgent need to search for someone, something—not like travelling to an actual place in the world. Which is not to say that culture is not present or relevant—only to say that feelings of dislocation are very prominent, and endemic in the Spanish, and probably shared—in different ways, no doubt—by readers in different cultural contexts. 


SG: There’s perhaps no closer reading than in the practice of translation. Working so closely with poetry of such passionate intensity as this: what challenges and what gifts did you find?

MGM: In this book, maybe more than in any other book I have translated, I was left with the sense of having navigated deeply through someone else’s life—her memories, dreams, and trauma. It’s a profoundly autobiographical book, and as I worked on it, Valerie shared a lot with me about the experiences in her life that informed it. This knowledge was a unique gift, and challenge. My task wasn’t just to translate the language—I also felt a sense of responsibility to the intimate world “behind” the book, and really, to the poet herself. This deeper sense of responsibility really stretched me.   

Read "Echo | Eco" here

Find Edinburgh Notebook here