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Emily Beyda

Conversation with Emily Beyda (MFA ’18)

Translation as a mode of “empathic time travel” and her recent collaborative project, Suspended Whispers 

Emily Beyda discusses her work on Suspended Whispers, the latest chapbook published by harlequin creature. It is a trilingual illustrated edition of poems in Persian, French, and English. The book is a collaboration between three women, all currently based in Austin, Texas: Beyda, the poet Roja Chamankar, and artist Jade Fusco. Find the book for purchase here.

Erin Salada: Talk to me about the beginnings of Suspended Whispers, the chapbook you worked on as translator. How did you get involved with harlequin creature? What were the seeds for this project?


Emily Beyda: I started this project through my work in a graduate class I took with Kathleen Peirce, which focused on a history of translation theory and practice, as well as persona poetry. Part of the classwork was finding a person who spoke a language you didn’t understand and working with them to collaboratively build towards translation in a mutual language. Roja and I entered into conversation, and things just kind of bloomed and spiraled out from there. As for the printing process, I was familiar with harlequin creature’s amazing work with translation, poetics, and linguistic experimentation, but Megan [Forbes, president of harlequin creature], who is a total visionary, was the person responsible for transforming this into a book, and seeing the possibilities for ekphrastic weirdness.


ES: Through your work on this, what did you discover about the relationship between translation and creation?

EB: I came to this work because I had a background in comparative literature. A lot of my work as an undergraduate was focused on the more academic aspects of translation work, taking a poet whose work was somewhat archaic (I did a lot of work with Petrarch, for example), and using translation as almost a mode of empathic time travel, trying to understand the immediate concerns of a person whose experiences were totally removed from my own understanding. This project was a really interesting continuation of that dynamic, but with contemporary translation, you’re able to really literalize that relationship between translator/translated, take it into a relational space. So I do think that there’s an aspect of creation, of bringing something new into the world, in translation work, but my interest is more relational: how we can work together to build something new that neither of us would have dreamed up on our own.


ES: To produce this chapbook, a good deal of collaboration was required. I’m especially interested in your interactions with the poet Roja Chamankar during the process. What were your roles? Was the process straightforward, or was there back-and-forth? What kind of information did you need from Roja, apart from the direct text, to translate?


EB: This was probably the least direct, most conversational translation project I’ve ever done. I met Roja through our good friend Athenais, who lives in Strasbourg, shortly after Roja moved to Austin, and this collaboration really emerged as we became friends, sort of as an extension of that personal connection, developing a philosophy of translation that became the basis of the book. We did almost all of our work, from the planning stages on, in the same coffee shop in Austin, Cherrywoodmeeting up, hanging out, and occasionally even working a little. It was a totally unique process, because of course I don’t speak Farsi, which is the language Roja primarily writes in. We moved from Farsi to French through a series of discussions about the emotional resonance of each line, how it was occupying cultural space, what effect we wanted it to have. Then both Roja and I independently worked on concepts for the English translations, finally getting together and talking our way towards a final draft over espresso and sugar cookies. It was an incredibly malleable process, with lots of exchanges.

“A valuable aspect of collaboration for me is discovering a lack of correspondence, a lack of understanding, figuring out ways to think about and discuss work that is totally unlike your own.”


ES: More generally, what purpose does collaboration serve in the creative process? How do you see the artist’s work as collaborator in relation to the sense of the writer as a private, even lonely, creator? How has your time in the MFA community informed your understanding of this balance?


EB: When I started my MFA at Texas State, I had a lot of people tell me that the most valuable thing I was going to get out of it was lifelong readers, people who really understood my work and whose work I understood. And I think that this was definitely true, it’s a pretty fantastic thing to find people who, you know, Get It, to feel empathized with in whatever particular creative space you occupy. But I think the more valuable aspect of collaboration for me is discovering a lack of correspondence, a lack of understanding, figuring out ways to think about and discuss work that is totally unlike your own. I think that the lonesome aspects of writing are probably my favoritethe solitude of the page, is, after all, why we all got into this gig in the first place but the idea of building a community founded on difference is, for me, a super powerful one, and probably my favorite part of my MFA experience.


ES: Apart from your work as translator, you’re working on a novel and have a budding repertoire in food writing—both in Los Angeles and, since your relocation, here in Austin. For instance, you are the Glutton behind Austin Chronicle’s “Dear Glutton,” a quirky advice column and quick fan favorite. What drives your interest in writing about food? What else obsesses you in your art and journalism?


EB: This is such a great question, because for me the connection between food, language, and storytelling feels incredibly vital. My interest in writing about food comes from the same place as my interest in translation: a curiosity about the ways we humans use the raw materials of survival (i.e. language, calories, creating a narrative structure to tell our fellow cave people not to hug bears) and transform them into something more vital, compelling, more urgent than that. So I guess the commonality here is excess, how excessive humans are, which is something we usually talk about in a negative way, but I actually think can be a tremendous source of power, especially when we’re talking about marginalized voices. I think there is such a huge power in commanding your space, taking more and giving more than you explicitly need for survival. I’m curious about excess, about want in all its forms, and gourmandise is definitely a part of that. As for the fan favorite thing, well, takes one to know one.


ES: Finally, you’re in your third and final year as MFA candidate at TX State. Do you have a sense of what’s next? If not (totally fair), what are you dreaming of?


EB: I’m pretty sure the main reason you asked this is to see if I’m interested in moving to a Greek island with you for a few months, but yeah, I have no idea, and I kind of feel like anyone who says they do is full of it. My main focus at this point is making a career that gives me enough time and emotional energy to focus on my own work, so I’m applying to all the obvious fellowships, and if I’m lucky enough to get one of those that’d be ideal, but really, any work that would allow me to keep writing, exploring, and asking questions, any work that feels urgent and new. I hope to remain in a space of teaching, learning, and exploration for as long as I can.


Nov. 26, 2017