Women in Translation: In Conversation with Kristen Renee Miller

Kristen Renee Miller

We continue to celebrate #WITMonth today with another interview! In this instalment, we talk to Kristen Renee Miller, translator of Ilnu Nation poet Marie-Andrée Gill’s collection, Spawn.

As an author, editor, and translator, Miller wears many hats, all of them brimming with talent. (Sorry.) Her translation of Spawn has been called “luminous” by Kiki Petrosino, author of White Blood, and “crystalline” by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, winner of the 2018 National Translation Award. Miller’s thoughtful yet playful approach to translation—which began for her as a writing exercise—makes her work not only refreshing, but a true joy to read. We’re honoured to be able to share her thoughts with you.

We’re also pleased to share an excerpt from Spawn.

B*H: What should people know about translation that they might not know?

KRM: I find that people don’t often think about the many different ways that language makes meaning, especially in poetry. Besides its denotative meaning, every word or line can have a sonic meaning, an intuitive or associative meaning, a figurative meaning. These threads all weave together to create the unique texture of a work. What does it mean, for instance, if there’s a line about violence but it’s written in words that sound like a whisper or a lullaby? How does the sonic meaning complicate the image? And what if the same words, when translated, have a harsher sound? Is the translator’s allegiance to the closest denotative meaning or the closest sonic meaning if both contribute something important to the poem? Negotiating between these modes is the main work of translation, the most challenging and the most fun.

B*H: What is your favourite “non-English” word and its meaning?

KRM: One that I love is “fernweh” from the German, which could be rendered “far-woe” or “far-sickness” (as opposed to homesickness). It’s a longing or sense of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been. Spoken aloud it has a very delicate and forlorn sound, a kind of softer, more whispery “faraway.” In other words, “fernwehsounds like “fernweh.”

B*H: What drew you to translation, and what draws you to it now?

KRM: I started translating poetry while staying at a writing residency. Each morning as a “wake up” practice, I’d translate a short poem from the French, Spanish, or German. I still think this is the perfect way to start a day of writing because of the way translation sort of flips on all the switches in your brain. It activates multiple ways of understanding at once: intuitive and analytical, mechanical and musical. What continues to draw me to translation is that all-lit-up feeling—the sense of discovery and surprise while navigating these modes.

B*H: What are you currently translating, if anything?

KRM: I’m currently translating Chauffer le dehors, Marie-Andrée Gill’s third book of poetry, a meditation on loneliness, place, and decolonial love.

(Special note: we at Book*hug are thrilled to share that we will publish Miller’s translation of Marie-Andrée Gill’s latest book, Chauffer le dehors, which recently won an Indigenous Voices Award for Best French Poetry.)

B*H: Can you recommend a recently published translation?

KRM: It’s a couple of years old, but everyone should read the strange, short, lyrical “speculative noir” novel, The Taiga Syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana.

Please join Kristen Renee Miller for Spawn’s virtual book launch on Friday, August 14th, at 7 p.m. CDT. Joining her are Anne O. Fisher, Derek Mong, and Hai-Dang Phan. Registration is free via Eventbrite. For more information, visit the Facebook event page, which can be found here.

In anticipation of the launch, we’re excited to share an excerpt from Spawn. As a reminder, like all of the titles in our Literature in Translation Series, Spawn is eligible for a 25% discount until August 30th. Enjoy!

The Reserve

In early summer, the ouananiche returns
to her native river, a tributary of the lake,
where she lives large in the cold,
clear waters at rock bottom.

I am a village that didn’t have a choice.

to lick the skin of the water
with a tongue I don’t speak

the day lifts me up on his shoulders to watch
the varnish half-stripped from our memories
the cement pelt poured over our feral skins

how to augur anything
but crooked miracles
anyway

A luck: the arena at night and making out
behind the police station
the northern lights dancing on nintendo
chicken buckets, the monthly allowance
happy meals from nobody’s birthday
and weekends in the woods
and partridges to twist.

And the lake, a luck, the lake.

Kristen Renee Miller’s poems and translations appear in POETRY, The Kenyon Review, Guernica, The Offing, and Best New Poets 2018. A recipient of fellowships from The Kentucky Arts Council, Vermont Studio Center, Blackacre Conservancy, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, she lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is the Managing Editor at Sarabande Books.