Laura Cesarco Eglin’s fantastic translation of Hilda Hilst’s Of Death. Minimal Odes won this year’s Best Translated Book Award in poetry. A week after the prize was announced, Englin and I corresponded about the depth of Hilst’s work and the process of translating Of Death.
The Millions: First of all, congratulations. It was such a pleasure to read and discuss your translation with the other judges this year. How did you first begin to read Hilst’s work? Do you have other favorite books of hers?
Laura Cesarco Eglin: I became acquainted with Hilda Hilst more than seven years ago when a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where I was doing my PhD, suggested I read her work. The first text of hers that I read was Kadosh because the Hebrew word in the title caught my attention. Whenever I read a book by Hilst it becomes my favorite book. Her work is profound, and it requires commitment and thought. Therefore, after choosing to include Hilst’s poetry in my doctoral dissertation, I soon realized that in order to fully engage with her work, reading would not be enough. I needed another way to go deeper into her work. I decided to translate her poetry as a way to live with her poems and ideas. That is: translation as reading, translation as re-reading, translation as inquiry, translation as interpretation, and translation as conversation.
TM: I’m so impressed by the way you’ve maintained the conversational tension in these poems—or maybe it’s better to call it intensity. Did you have particular translation strategies that helped to maintain this kind of spare forcefulness?
LCE: I don’t know if I would call it a strategy, but I understood from the very beginning that Of Death. Minimal Odes is not simply a collection of poetry, it is a treatise, a poetics on death, life, the self, and the other. It is philosophical and sociological in nature. I think that I was able to maintain its intensity because I was paying attention to both the poetry and the poetics. The tension, in part, comes from the nature of the book itself.
TM: I’m curious—does the original also open with the watercolors? Did you rearrange the poems at all, or is this the order Hilst chose? How does opening with those images set the tone for you?
LCE: The original, Da morte. Odes mínimas, does open with the watercolors. Of Death. Minimal Odes follows Hilst’s order. The watercolors add to the complexity of the book. The images, with their colors, already subvert the typical imagery and color palette associated with death in the Western world. The reader is already confronted with unconventional ideas: death as colorful, death as part of ourselves, death as an integral part of life.
TM: The phrase “the problematic of death” from your translator’s note gets to the heart of the energy I feel in these poems. It offers a kind of lyric that’s actually a dialogue, but where only one voice is heard. Could you say a little more about how Hilst’s problematic operates, and how you captured it in English?
LCE: This “problematic” points to something unresolved. Hilst did not align herself with the Western view of death as a single moment at the end of life, or death as the negative counterpart of life. Through her poetry she looked at her perceptions of death, and placed them at the focus of her investigations, and from there, she started developing a worldview that made more sense to her. I say research and investigation because Hilst always took her work very seriously. For her, fiction and poetry were intertwined with other disciplines. In and from this poetry book she is in conversation with philosophical ideas regarding time, physics theories, and so on. Writing and dialogue are the speaker’s modus operandi in Of Death. Minimal Odes. Yes, she does not hear death’s answers to her questions and negotiations, but even so, readers feel that she gains further understanding of death, time, life, and herself in the book. The speaker remains open to different forms of receiving “answers” and communication. At the same time, Hilst shows us that life-death is not something that can be cracked and completely grasped or dominated. Of Death. Minimal Odes embraces this kind of knowledge, the discomfort of inhabiting a world and a body without knowing all the answers.
TM: What was the hardest part of translating this volume?
LCE: I see this question being related to the last part of the previous question. The hardest part of translating Of Death. Minimal Odes was being attentive to the depth, the inquiries, the sounds, the musicality of the poems, all at the same time. That was my way of being true to Hilst. Translating this book was hard, challenging, and exciting. I feel that I would have done Da morte. Odes mínimas a disservice if I had only obsessed about one aspect of this book. The book is complex and that is what it required of me as a translator and what it requires of the readers: complexity, being able to enjoy the language, question the status quo, entertain possibilities, understand and connect to the poems at different levels.
TM: What are you working on now?
LCE: I’m working on several things at the same time, as usual: I’m translating the Galician poet Lara Dopazo Ruibal’s latest poetry book, I’m editing a chapbook of poems that I wrote on the experience of having melanoma repeatedly, and I’m finishing an article on poetry and political activism in the work of the Argentine Juana Bignozzi.
LM: If you had to pick, which three books of poetry are at the top of your list right now? What should we read next?
LCE: That’s a hard question. Those three books, and lists in general, are in a constant flux. I would say: poetry books by the Galician Chus Pato are high up there (Erín Moure has translated her), Härte by LaNay Sade, and The Territory Is Not the Map by the Brazilian Marília Garcia (translated by Hilary Kaplan).
LM: Lastly, what was your revision process like as you worked on translating these poems? How long did you end up spending with them?
LCE: I’ve been living with these poems for a few years now: reading them, translating them, editing the translation. The editing part is difficult because as you are working on it, you know it’s the prelude to letting go of this dwelling, this companionship.