Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Translate? The Case of the President of Mexico's Secret Book

Just back from ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association conference held this year in (brrr) Milwaukee, which had the theme "Politics & Translation." If you've been following this blog, you've already read reams about my latest book which is, indeed, about politics: Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.

At ALTA, I spoke on two panels and read an excerpt from my translation of a work by Mexico's great novelist and short story writer Ignacio Solares. (Had the scheduling permitted, I would have loved to have also shared new translations of works by Mexican writers Agustin Cadena and Rose Mary Salum. Here's to ALTA in Tucson, Arizona in 2015!) 

Herewith the text of my talk for the second panel, "Why Translate?"


A transcript of the talk for the panel "Why Translate?" 
American Literary Translation Association (ALTA) Conference
Milwaukee, November 15, 2014
[Slightly edited for this blog]

President of Mexico
I translate for the same reasons that I write. There are many, but we have only a few minutes, so I will focus on two, which are: I want to understand, and I want to share that understanding. 

Sharing might just be with myself, as in a diary entry, or with a cadre of of loyal readers and any Internet surfers who happen onto this blog, Madam Mayo. Sharing ramps up, of course, when we start talking about books. 

People have many different and varied motivations for writing and publishing books— and for some, one of them is nothing less than to change the world. Or maybe, to change our understanding of some aspect of the world— and so change the world.

Whether in its original language or as a translation, a book is a vector for a set of ideas, a very unusual and efficient vector, for it can zing ideas from mind to mind, spreading out over great distances and, potentially, far into the future. 

Books can travel through two systems, or rather, an array of systems: at one extreme, the heavily intermediated, and at the other, the direct.

Our commercial publishing industry constitutes that first extreme. To give a stylized example, a book comes into the hands of an agent, then an acquiring editor, perhaps a developmental editor, a copyeditor, a book designer, a formatter, a cover designer, the proofreader, the printer, the delivery truck driver, the warehouse employees, the distributor, the sales rep, the bookstore's buyer, and so on and so forth until, finally, the cashier hands the book to its reader. Very possibly multiple corporate entities and dozens of individuals play some role in bringing a book to any given reader. 

At the other extreme, I scribble on a piece of paper and hand it to you. 

I submit that we tend to over focus on this heavily intermediated system; we often overlook the fact that it is not the only or even necessarily the best way for a book to fulfill its purpose.

The first page of Madero's
La sucesion presidencial en 1910
"To the heroes of our country;
to the independent journalists;
to the good Mexicans"
I'm going to focus on two books, both political, both by Francisco I. Madero. 

If you are at all familiar with Mexican history, Francisco I. Madero needs no introduction. If Mexican history is a mystery to you, the main thing you need to know is that Madero was the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution and President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913. 

His first book, La sucesión presidencial en 1910, or The Presidential Succession in 1910, published in 1909, served as his political platform in challenging the old regime. Though it was after the stolen elections of 1910 that Madero declared the Revolution on November 20, 1910, informally, we could say that the Revolution was launched with this book. 

Francisco I. Madero's secret book
Madero's second book is Manual espírita or Spiritist Manual, which he finished writing as he was preparing for the Revolution; it began to circulate in 1911, when he was president-elect. It is this second book which I translated, and my book about that book, which includes the translation, is Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. 

Apropos of Madero's two books and the two systems to bring a book to its readers, the heavily intermediated and the relatively direct, a bit from the opening of chapter 2 of my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution:

When we talk about a “successful book,” usually what we mean is one that has a brand-name publisher, enjoys prime shelf space in bookstores, and earns its author buckets of royalties. In other words, we talk about it as a commodity—or, if we’re a mite more sophisticated, a hybrid commodity / work of art / scholarship. I say “we” because I am writing and I presume you are reading this in a time and place where books are no longer banned by the government, their authors no longer casually imprisoned—or worse. Lulled by endless streams of made-for-the-movies thrillers and romances, we forget that, as Ray Bradbury put it, “A book is a loaded gun.” 
Francisco I. Madero intended his Manual espírita to be a beam of light, to heal Mexico and the world with his consoling concepts of the nature and meaning of life. However, it is a book that stands on the shoulders of his first book that was, indeed, a loaded gun: La sucesión presidencial en 1910, published in the winter of 1909 when Don Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who had stolen the presidency in a coup d’état and ruled Mexico on and off for over thirty years, was about to celebrate his eightieth birthday and, as Mexico’s so-called “necessary man,” take for himself a seventh term.
Madero had no interest in the capitalist concept of a book’s success; he wanted La sucesión presidencial en 1910 in people’s hands, and as fast as possible, and for that he did not need bookstores, he needed a jump-start on Don Porfirio’s police. He paid for the printing himself (a first edition of 3,000, and later more) and, as he noted in a letter:
[T]he first precaution I took was to hand out 800 copies to members of the press and intellectuals throughout Mexico, so when the Government got wind of the book’s circulation, it would be too late to stop it. . .

Now when we come to Madero's second book, Manual espírita, or Spiritist Manual, there are two reasons the subtitle of my book calls it his "secret book": First, he wrote it under a pseudonym; second, incredible as it may sound, for the most part, historians have ignored it. A few have begrudged it a footnote; only a very few— so few that I can count them on one hand— have dared to write about it in any depth and seriousness. 

The 1924 edition
published by
Casa Editorial Maucci
in Barcelona
In 1911 five thousand copies of Madero's Manual espírita went into circulation, one assumes, among Spiritists. It was reprinted in part by Madero's enemies, the Reyistas, as an attack-- their message being, "Madero is the true author, you see what a nut he is." And I discovered that in 1924 Casa Editorial Maucci in Barcelona brought out a reprint (print run unknown). I do not know what influence the Manual espírita may or may not have had in spreading Spiritism, whether in Mexico or abroad—it would make a fine PhD dissertation to delve into that question— but as far as historians of Mexico are concerned, until very recently, and apart from a very few and very hard-to-find editions published in Mexico, essentially, the Manual espírita disappeared into the ethers. 

In 2011, one hundred years after its publication, I published the first English translation as a Kindle. Earlier this year, 2014, I published my book about the book, which includes Madero's book, under the title Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual in both Kindle and paperback editions. And like Madero himself with both his books, I self-published.

I hasten to clarify that I did not self-publish after a string of rejections. I have already published several books, two with university presses and two with major commercial publishers, among others, so I know that, with patience and persistence, should those have proved necessary, my work would have found a home. My decision to self-publish was a deeply thought-out strategy, specific to my circumstances and specific to this title. In short,  I decided to skip the heavily intermediated system, which for this book probably would have been a university press. My three reasons:

First, I am not an academic angling for tenure, and as I have already published several books, as a writer and a translator I did not see much to gain by going to a traditional publisher, and in fact I had a lot to lose, mainly time and control;
Second, in English, alas (would that it were otherwise) books on Mexico are not particularly commercial, which makes me suspect that, whatever its merits may or may not be, mine would have taken a shoulder-saggingly long time to bring forth a contract I would have been willing to sign;
Third, for many readers, Spiritism is at once disturbing and beneath their notice. Let's say, all this concern with the Afterlife and communicating with the dead creeps them out, as would a book on, oh, alien abductions or crop circles. And I believe this explains why even many of the leading historians of the Mexican Revolution do not know about Madero's Spiritism, or know next to nothing about it. To give you an idea, one major textbook does not deign to mention it, while another textbook, also published by an important university press, blithely labels Madero an atheist, which is rather like calling the Pope of Rome a Protestant.

In our day, what we think of as self-publishing usually includes intermediaries such as In my case this would be and Ingram. Ingram's recent move into the realm of self-publishing is really the topic for another panel, but suffice it to say that for traditional publishing, no exaggeration, this is as momentous as Hiroshima. Ingram is a major book distributor and now also an on-demand book printer, and what listing with Ingram means is that all major on-line booksellers can now, on demand, easily source that self-published book. Libraries can order it, just as they order many of their books from Ingram, and while Barnes & Noble as well as many other major bookstore chains and independent bookstores may not necessarily stock it on their shelves, it's right there, as easy to order as any other book, on their webpagesagain, sourced from Ingram. 

As for getting my book into people's hands, that is a challenge, for without a publisher, I do not have a marketing staff and sales reps. Like Madero with his La sucesión presidencial en 1910, I simply identified key individuals and gave each a copy. These individuals, mainly but not exclusively academics, are experts on Madero, on the Mexican Revolution, Mexican history in general, the history of metaphysical religion, and Masonry (Madero was a Mason).

The process of the book, my little turtle, finding its readers may be a long and winding one, but it is underway [see reviews] and I feel no urge to hurry. Unlike a traditionally published book, which must dash out like a rabbit, digitally available books (ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks sold on-line) are not so heavily dependent on "buzz" generated to coincide with the fleeting moment when a book, thanks to the efforts of marketing staff and sales reps, might be available on physical shelves in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Like grocery stores, brick-and-mortar bookstores must move their merchandize with the seasons and oftentimes, as with the proverbial cottage cheese, even more quickly. Digital bookshelves, however, are of a different nature; at the click of a button, they can unfurl vast dimensions, additions to which impose a marginal cost approaching, or in fact, zero. Now if, on a Tuesday at 4 am, say, seven months or, say, seven years in the future, someone in Oodnadatta, Australia wants to download my Kindle or order my print-on-demand paperback, with a click, he can do just that. 

Will my book with its translation of Madero's Spiritist Manual change our understanding of Mexican history? Well, I do think it blasts the sombrero off the reigning paradigm, to consider that Francisco I. Madero, the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution— an absolutely transformative episode in Mexican history and the first major revolution of the 20th century—was a not only a Spiritist but a leading Spiritist and a Spiritist medium. 

Madero believed that he was channeling written instructions and encouragement from spirits in writing both of his books, and furthermore, in his Spiritist Manual, he detailed his beliefs about such esoterica as astral travel and interplanetary reincarnation, and the moral duty of political action. 

For anyone who chooses to open their eyes and look at the overwhelming evidence, the connection between Madero's beliefs and his politics is clear. As Mexican historian Enrique Krauze writes in his seminal 1987 biography, Francisco I. Madero: Místico de la libertad, in the case of Madero, "Politics does not displace Spiritism; it is born of it."

I do not deny other motives and the millions of other participants in that Revolution. But its spark, and the way it played out, and, I believe, Madero's murder, are a radically different story once we take into account his Spiritism.

My aim with my book and my translation of Madero's book is to deepen our understanding of Madero, both as an individual and as a political figure; and at the same time, deepen our understanding of the rich esoteric matrix from which his ideas sprang, in other words, not to promote his ideas nor disparage them, but explain them and give them context. 

It is also then my aim to deepen our understanding of the 1910 Revolution and therefore of Mexico itself, and because the histories are intertwined, therefore also deepen our understanding of North America, Latin America, the Pacific Rim, and more for as long as a book exists, should someone happen to read it, it can catalyze change in understanding (and other changes) that ripple out, endlessly. 

Such is the wonder, the magical embryonic power of a book, any book, whether original or in translation: that, even as it rests on a dusty shelf for a hundred years, or for that matter, an unvisited digital "shelf," if it can be found, if it can be read, it holds such potential.

Your COMMENTS are always welcome.

***UPDATE: Now available:

[official webpage, with excerpts, Q & A, podcasts, 
and resources for researchers]

[about President Plutarco Elías Calles 
and the research séances of the IMIS]

My anthology of 24 Mexican writers on Mexico

Interview with C.M. Mayo on literary translation

A "Marfa Mondays" podcast interview 
with historian John Tutino