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10 Questions for Karen Hilberg

I am this naked
echo of underground:
I am glad
to have come so far
from so much earth:
I am last, barely
entrails, body; hands
—from "XXIII" by Pablo Neruda, Translated by Karen Hilberg, Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
I studied poetry in college and was learning Spanish during the summers working in Mexico. As a way to work on both at the same time, I planned a poetry translation independent study with my poetry professor. She told me to pick out a Spanish language poet from the library and we’d choose a poem to start with. At the library, I pulled out Pablo Neruda’s Las Piedras del Cielo. When I flipped through it, the book fell open to a photo of my mother stuck in the pages. I didn’t remember checking it out, but I must have and used her photo as a bookmark. Her photo marked poem XXVI which begins: “Leave me a place beneath the earth, a labyrinth/ I can retreat to afterwards.” My mother had just passed away a few months before. I don’t believe in signs from the dead, but of course that was the book I chose the work with and I began with that poem. It is still my favorite poem from that book.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Neruda is the poet I know best and whose voice is loudest in my head. It’s hard to separate my writing style from his influence over it, since I’ve always been writing my own work while simultaneously translating his. He is a good teacher of how poetry doesn’t need to avoid plain language.

Another writer that’s influenced my writing is Jason Molina, a midwestern blues musician. He’s local to Chicago, but sadly I only found out about him on the event of his death. His lyrics often deal with his struggles with depression. His lines are so stripped down that it seems like they should amount to nothing, but instead they evoke so much.

I often risk writing like a teacher; piling on examples and metaphors and perspectives until I trust that the whole room is with me. I needed writers to show me that plain language becomes interesting when it’s the most honest way to say something.

What other professions have you worked in?
I studied secondary education and writing in college, with a plan to become a high school teacher. After graduation I worked for a non-profit in Mexico for several years and then moved to Chicago to work at a south side high school. In my second year of teaching I suffered a brain injury. It was a debilitating injury and I have been disabled ever since. I am still able to use my education and non-profit skills as a volunteer for Chicago Books to Women in Prison, which provides free books to incarcerated women all over the country.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I did not set out to write a complete translation of this book. I started working on Las Piedras del Cielo in undergrad as an exercise in understanding poetry and improving my Spanish. It’s not the most accessible of Neruda’s works; thirty poems about stones titled only with numerals.

I continued working on the poems on my own after college. My years living in Mexico gave me the fluency to see that the published translations contained errors that were muddying the meaning of the poems. Errors like a false cognate translated as a cognate, a noun confused for an adjective, or an active sentence translated as incomplete sentence fragments made the poems seemed much more obtuse and esoteric than they are. In such a small and tightly written volume, these missteps accumulated quickly. The result were poems with beautiful Neruda lines, but no cohesive movement or narrative.

I stuck with the poems for years. putting them away, listening to and speaking a few more thousand hours of Spanish, and returning to see if I could untangle another part that I didn’t quite have yet. The parts I loved in these poems weren’t reflected in the published English translations. I wanted to share these poems with all the poetry lovers I knew, and my only options were to teach them all Spanish or attempt to do the book justice on my own.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t listen to anything when I write, though that wasn’t always the case. I’ve always had music on if I’m able, even if I’m doing work that I know would be better done in silence. This changed after my brain injury. For several years afterwards I was unable to listen to music. There was a delay between the sounds entering my ear and my brain’s ability to process them, which made everything sound like a jumble of noise. When I did start listening to music again, it required a lot of concentration so it wasn’t something I could do while multitasking. So for several years, silence was my default state.

I found writing was so much less of an effort in silence. I also found that I begin writing lines in my head throughout the day when I live in more quiet. I can listen to musically normally now, and still prefer to always have something on in the background, but if writing is an effort I know it’s because I don’t have enough silence in my day.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I write best when I’m on a porch or a patio outside. This habit comes from a time before wifi, when I wouldn’t have internet on my laptop outside so that’s where I’d go to force myself to write. Now being outside with a laptop makes me feel like it’s time to write. Since I live in Chicago, this means I write a lot in the summer and hardly at all in the winter.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I met one of my best friends in a poetry workshop in college. We were sharing writing early on, so he has seen all the worst of my writing, as well as the best. It’s such a valuable thing to have in a reader because he knows exactly what I’m capable of and will call me out if I am not doing the best I can on something. He is a more talented writer than I am, and very difficult to please, so when he stoically admits something is good I take it as high praise.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
In the last few years I have begun hand-sewing bespoke feathered clothing. It’s not something I ever expected to do, and they are not the kind of clothes I wear, but I love making them for other people. I have an online shop, and have had a handful of orders, mostly from brides and for special occasions. It’s a very different creative process than writing, so it’s nice to have a project to switch to that is based on a totally different set of skills.

What are you working on currently?
I am currently translating Pablo Neruda’s La Espada Encendida. It’s not currently in print, but I was able to find a used copy. I became interested in it when I read an article identifying it, along with Las Piedras del Cielo and Fin del Mundo as Neruda’s “apocalypse cycle” of books. The latter two have both been published in English but La Espada Encendida has not. It’s a post-apocalypse fable based on a stanza from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Earth and the Patagonian myth of the lost City of Caesars. Neruda was a translator of Blake, so it’s interesting to work on a translation project inspired by his own translation.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Duma Key by Stephen King. I picked it up at a thrift store to donate to the books to prisons program I volunteer with because he’s always in high demand. I started reading it mwhen I realized it’s about someone recovering from a brain injury. It is a weird and horrific experience to realize you brain has stopped working, so Stephen King’s style captures it well.


KAREN HILBERG has worked as a education and literacy advocate in Chicago and Mexico. Her poetry is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2012 that left her struggling to speak and write. She returned to writing poetry and translation that she started in undergrad to help relearn to write and to practice searching for lost words.

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