Art Talk with Translator David Shook

By Rebecca Sutton
David Shook. Photography by Eric Curtis
David Shook—one of our 23 newly announced Literature Translation Fellows—is a self-described dabbler, particularly when it comes to language. A poet, translator, and publisher, Shook learned Spanish while growing up in Mexico City, which also introduced him to indigenous languages such as Zapotec and Nahuatl. He later studied Portuguese, and while traveling for a former career in microfinance, picked up the basics of Swahili, Fang, Ndowé, and others. Lest that make him sound unapproachably cerebral, please see his submitted headshot above. For his NEA Literature Translation Fellowship, Shook is translating a collection of poetry by Conceição Lima from the Portuguese. Lima lives in São Tomé and Príncipe, located on the west coast of Africa and the second smallest country on the continent. Shook’s translation project, No Gods Live Here: The Selected Poems, will be one of the few book-length poetry collections from São Tomé to appear in English. We recently spoke with Shook about his work, and his endless fascination with the spoken and written word. NEA: How did you become familiar with Conceição Lima’s work? DAVID SHOOK: I came across Conceição Lima’s work in 2012 when I was the translator-in-residence at the Poetry Parnassus, which was part of the cultural Olympiad in London before the London Olympics. They had invited a poet from every participating Olympic nation to London. Conceição wasn’t able to attend unfortunately, and I had been asked if I could stand in for her and read her poems at an event. And I said sure. I had assumed I was going to be reading someone’s translations of her poems. But in fact, about five minutes before I went onstage, I was handed the poems in Portuguese. It was very much an “uh-oh” moment. But it turned out fine, and her poems immediately grabbed me because of their vivid imagery and their evocation of São Tomé. They are poems that are very much grounded in place.   NEA: How do you convey this sense of place? Can you talk about the interplay of language and culture in your own translations? SHOOK: I place a very high value on going places when I can, and experiencing the cultures whose literature I’m translating. I think that's a big part of the translator’s job, especially when it comes to translating literature from places like São Tomé that most Westerners know so little about. My interest in African poetry more generally does spring from my experience in Africa. I worked a lot with Burundian literature and with the literature of Equatorial Guinea, and that's been inspired by my time in those places. I haven’t been to São Tomé yet, but I have had quite a few discussions with Conceição about some of the cultural elements that her poems feature. I’ve already learned a lot. Language is such a powerful tool for conveying culture, and as translators, we have a responsibility to use it to that end. NEA: Can you give me a few examples of São Tomé’s cultural elements that have informed your translation work? SHOOK: One thing that’s been a lot of fun is learning about its music, which Conceição refers to several times by name throughout her poems. Her poetry interacts with a lot of Santomean music. She’ll often use lines from lyrics to title poems, or her poems will dialogue with popular songs. So one thing that I like to do when I’m translating is actually listen to music from São Tomé. That’s been something I didn’t know anything about but that I’ve really enjoyed discovering. NEA: I know you have a background in linguistics. How has that background impacted your translation work? SHOOK: I think my interest in linguistics has played a huge role in my work as a translator. At times it’s a more direct role, when I can read a linguistic grammar and understand how a language I don’t speak works, which can be incredibly useful, especially in collaborating with language experts or native speakers. But most of the time I think it’s more subtle than that. I have an intimacy with language that allows me the confidence and flexibility that I think is required to render an effective translation, especially because I primarily work with poetry. NEA: Can you talk about the difference between translating poetry and prose? SHOOK: I think the biggest difference is that translating poetry is so much more fun than translating prose. I find myself hewing more literally to the source text when translating prose. Perhaps that is because I, myself, am a poet more than I am a prose writer, and I have more confidence in my abilities to render certain effects in English. Prose I will translate when I have a specific project or a commission. Poetry I translate compulsively almost every day. Most of the time it’s just for me. Sometimes they’ll wind up being published or they’ll evolve into a bigger project like Conceição Lima’s poems. But most of the time it’s just my fascination with language. I love translating poetry. I find it endlessly fascinating—the variation and endless possibility. I think the idea that you can translate a single poem so many ways and that none of them are necessarily wrong is so exciting and fun. NEA: Can you talk about the relationship between your own work as a poet and your work as a translator of poetry? SHOOK: I think the difference is primarily in how others consider what I’m doing. When I translate a poem, every word in English is my own word. I have a different starting point, and I have a great respect for the poems and poets whose work I start with, but I think for me both my own poetry and my translation form part of my larger project as an artist and writer. So yes, they certainly inform each other. I translate much more quickly than I write my own work because I have a starting point. I’m a very slow, slow writer of poems. It might take me a few years to write a poem, whereas I translate a few poems a day on average, at least first drafts. But there’s a definite influence in both directions. I think my skills as a poet give me confidence to take certain liberties in my translation. And my work as a translator has influenced my poetry in myriad ways, in terms of my influences and the poets whose work my own poems engage and converse with, and in terms of more subtle turns of phrase and use of syntax. NEA: Something I’ve noticed as a reader is that there seems to be an increased American interest in African literature right now. Do you agree? If so, why you think that is and what we can do to further boost this? SHOOK: I think there has been a recent uptick, and it’s been led by a lot of smaller publishing houses and by up-and-coming reviewers and critics. I think it’s part of a larger impulse for us to be interested in literature from around the world. Africa is arguably the least represented continent in what I suppose could be controversially termed world literature. It’s also an incredibly rich place. I mean, we refer to African literature but we’re actually referring to 55 nations with literally thousands of languages each with their own literature, whether that’s oral tradition or literature as we conceive of it here in the West. I think we are just beginning to tap into that. I think it’s so wonderful that the NEA is excited about this. I think that’s exactly the sort of thing we need to continue to bring African literature to the world. What I’m eager to see is a greater diversity even in the books from Africa that are being published in English, and especially in terms of translations from major African languages like Lingala and Hausa and Amharic, which are slowly but steadily beginning to come to light. NEA: I know you’ve done some translations from oral poetry. How is that process different from translating written work? SHOOK: The biggest difference is that you’re dealing with a different genre, and you can’t try to cram it into our written forms. At least in my experience, working with oral tradition from Burundi and Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda, these poems—if we want to call them that—often have very different social functions than poetry does in our context. Therefore it can often seem more didactic or more explicitly political or moralizing than we want a poem to be in English. I think allowing that to remain is an important part of working with those oral traditions. Also, the influence of song and musicality is part of what makes it fun and exciting too. So often the performance of these oral traditions is much more exciting than we might be used to at a typical poetry reading. Trying to reflect some of that orality in translation is both a challenge and a pleasure. NEA: Over the years you’ve been called a literary activist and a diplomat. How do you view translation as an act of diplomacy or activism? SHOOK: I think language is fundamentally a political instrument. As translators, we have a great responsibility and a great power to wield language in ways that either empower our subjects or ways that don’t. Part of most translators’ practice is also a kind of curatorial role, or introducing audiences to voices they likely would not otherwise be exposed to. I think that’s a very good example of the translator as literary activist, which is a role that I’ve embraced. I’m hesitant to assign too politically explicit a role to my work as a translator. But I do think there’s an element of broadening the range of voices that English language readers are exposed to, certainly. NEA: Why do the arts matter? SHOOK: The arts matter because they teach us how to be more fully human. I think that’s incredibly important, especially in today’s world as we seek to engage and connect with people who on the surface, superficially, seem unlike us.