Translator Spotlight: Christopher Merrill of the International Writing Program

Literature’s path to English usually begins with an inspired and dedicated translator who is so moved by a piece they want to share it with the world. In the follow interview with Underpass, Christopher Merrill, translator and director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, shares what has motivated him to translate and to support international writers and cross-cultural collaboration at IWP.


Like many translators, Merrill is also an accomplished writer. He’s published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages and his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of IWP, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.


How did you become a translator?

Obliged to take a year of Old English in graduate school at the University of Washington, I found the experience of translating riddles, poems, and then the whole of Beowulf (at the rate of 100 lines a night) to be profoundly moving, even transformational. I felt as if I were returning to the origin of the language of poetry, where the deepest springs of the human imagination lie; drinking from the source inspired me. Sometime later, I translated a poem by André Breton, and for the next hour I felt like a genius. Of course Breton was the genius, but I took immense satisfaction from living inside his skin, as it were, for the duration of Englishing his poem. Translation gave me the chance to become someone else for a while, and that pleasure has never left me.


You’re also a celebrated poet. How do you think your creative work informs or affects the way you translate, if at all?

It was not long after translating Breton’s Constellations, a book of prose poems based on a series of gouaches made by Joan Miró, that I began to write Necessities, which I regard as an exploration of the poetic possibilities of prose. And I know that some of what I learned from translating Aleš Debeljak’s book of prose poems, Anxious Moments, informs my collaboration with Marvin Bell in our book, After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts. Translators internalize poets’ rhetorical moves, music, and patterns of imagery, which may come to bear on their own future creative work. This is a good thing. Indeed it is part of the border-crossing mentality that in my view is integral to the most interesting periods of literary history.


How do you pick books to translate? Do authors or publishers approach you, or do you seek out texts that you feel compelled to translate into English?

There is for me no set way of proceeding. I may want to know a poem from the inside out, or be dissatisfied with available translations of a book, or find myself drawn to a poet who wants to have a book work in English. For some years I have worked with a Korean translator, who sends me literal translations of contemporary and classical poets, often when I have decided not to translate anymore. Inevitably, though, I find some spiritual affinity with the poet, which leads me to try my hand at rendering the work into English. In a dry spell with my own writing it is good to know that there are poems that can and should be brought into this language.


How did you become involved with the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa?

I was hired in 2000 to rebuild the IWP, a storied institution that over the previous decade had fallen into ruin, and I spent my first years in Iowa City dealing with one crisis after another, learning, in the process, a variety of administrative and political skills that I had heretofore looked down upon. It was an education that I do not regret in the least, and in my better moments I like to imagine that it adds another dimension to my literary work.


How many international writers take part in IWP each year, and what is the central goal of the program?

In the fall we bring together 30-40 distinguished poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, playwrights, and film makers for a three-month residency, the central focus of which is the creation of new work. We invite the writers to give readings and panel presentations; to visit classes in Iowa City and around the state; to participate in a translation workshop; and to go on field trips. We hope to create conditions conducive to writing, reflection, and conversation, believing that in the give and take between many lands (this year we have 36 writers from 30 countries) we will all have a chance to broaden our horizons—aesthetic, cultural, geographical, political, and spiritual.


In the past the IWP focused on accepting writers from parts of the world with restricted literary and personal freedom. Does the IWP operate in the same way today?

Hosting writers from oppressive regimes remains central our mission, and we are committed to providing safe haven for writers from dangerous parts of the world.


It seems as though the authors who attend the IWP participate in a variety of events: they attend readings, go to lectures, and focus on their creative work. Does the study of translation play a part in IWP’s itinerary, and if so, how?

We host a translation workshop, where we pair the writers off with graduate students from our various writing programs, hoping to bring as much work into English as possible.


Which authors will be attending the IWP this year?

May I encourage you to visit our website? There you will find the writers’ biographies, samples of their work, and a range of other materials relating to various projects, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in poetry, fiction, and the writings of Walt Whitman, in English and in translation; documentary films and readings and interviews; a literary journal, books, and collaborations. In short, a tour of the world. Enjoy!