Thursday, October 29, 2015

Translating Across the Border: Transcript of My Talk for the American Literary Translators Association Panel, "Translating the Other Side," Tucson, Arizona

[C.M. Mayo and Wendy Burk at the "Translating Across the Border" panel
American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference,
Tucson, 2015.
Mark Weiss, chair of the panel, is in the back on the right.]

Translating Across the Border
Transcript of a Talk by C.M. Mayo

American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)
Conference 38, Tucson, October 29, 2015
Panel: "Translating the Other Side"
Moderator, Mark Weiss. 

Panelists: Wendy Burk, Catherine Hammond, C.M. Mayo

Muchísimas gracias, Mark Weiss, and thank you also to my fellow panelists, it is an honor to sit on this dias with you. Thank you all for coming. It is especially apt to be talking about translating Mexican writing here, a jog from the Mexican border, in Tucson—or Tuk-son as the Mexicans pronounce it.

I grew up in Northern California and was educated in various places but mainly the University of Chicago. As far as Mexico went, until I was in my mid-twenties, I had absorbed, to use historian John Tutino's term, the “enduring presumptions.” Translation: I had zero interest in Mexico.

You know that old saying, if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans? 

What brought me to translating Mexican poetry and literary prose was that I married a Mexican—my fellow graduate student at University of Chicago— and we moved to his hometown, Mexico City, in 1986. I am happy to say that we are about to celebrate our 30th anniversary. 

For me, as a writer, and as a translator, these decades, mainly spent in Mexico City, have been a grand adventure in learning and exploring the cultures, histories, and geography of Mexico and of course, learning Spanish. I cannot claim that I speak and write Spanish like a native—I started learning Spanish when I was 24 years old. But after three decades in Mexico... well, after three decades of living in any country, if you haven’t learned the language, at least to level of conversation and daily business... I was about to say something unkind.

My husband has his own and very distinguished career as an economist but I call him my Translation Assistant. Although I would say I am fluent in Mexican Spanish, as all of you well know, literary translation can be fluky-tricky. Many a time he has rescued me from what would have been toe-curling embarrassment. May we all have our translation assistants. 

It was back in the early 1990s, when I started writing my own poetry and short fiction, that I had two epiphanies. First epiphany: I could do this! I mean, I knew some Spanish and at the same time, I could write literary fiction and poetry myself. I was beginning to get my own stories and poems published in well-regarded literary journals, such as the Paris Review, The Quarterly, Southwest Review. That gave me a shot of confidence. To this day, I really believe that the best literary translators are not necessarily the most fluent, the most perfectly bilingual, but rather, those who can render the work into the same literary level in the target language.

And the second epiphany was that appallingly little Mexican work was being translated into English.There were some books, mainly from university presses, the occasional anthology, and here and there, a poem in a literary magazine, but I was in Mexico City, in Coyoacán, I could see what was going on, the rich, flourishing literary culture. It was obvious to me that this was not registering in the literary communities north of the border, not the way it should. 

For me, getting to know Mexican poets and writers was not difficult. Back in those days of yore, before the Internet ... well, one important poet, Manuel Ulacia, was my neighbor. We would often see each other out walking our dogs. 

But let me back up for a broader perspective.

Mexico shares a 2,000 mile border with the United States, spanning the southern borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the greater part of Texas. And Mexico has some of the richest literary traditions in the world. 

It starts with the codexes of the Maya and the Aztecs, and others—and as a quick side note, there is a book forthcoming in 2016 from University of Texas Press by archaeologist Dr. Carolyn Boyd, in which she argues that the White Shaman rock site near the U.S.Mexico border in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, which is thousands of years old, is actually a codex— and basing some of her arguments on the work of Mexican anthropologists, Dr. Boyd has decoded it. It tells the story of creation. And so we can think about “White Shaman” as the first known book in North America. North America, of course, includes Mexico. And the Texan side of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands was once part of Mexico. 

And speaking of books, you may recall the hullabaloo about the 14.2 million dollar sale of a copy of the first English language book printed in the New World, The Whole Booke of Psalmes of 1640. Well, that was more than one hundred years after the first Spanish language book was printed in Mexico City. That was Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Christiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana, printed in 1539. And there may have been an even earlier book printed in 1537, Escala Espiritual par llegar al cielo, but no known copies survive.

In the prologue to my anthology of 24 Mexican writers, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, I write, “Mexican literature—a vast banquet—is one of the greatest achievements if the Americas. And yet we who read in English have gone hungry, for so astonishingly little of it has been published.” 

Mexico: A Literary Traveler’s Companion was published in 2006 and although I know many of you and other members of ALTA, and other translators, have since then published many Mexican works in translation, and anthologies, this scarcity, this appalling scarcity of translations of works from our neighboring country, continues. 

I could go on with names, book titles, and numbers from the publishing industry, but it would be too sad.  To give you the simplest and most concrete sense of how sad this situation is, when the sales team asked for blurbs for Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, I really had a problem. Of course there are many anthologies of English language writing about Mexico. But Mexicans writing about Mexico? I would have to ask a Mexican for a blurb. But what Mexican?

Octavio Paz? Yes, he won the Nobel Prize. But he was dead. 

Carlos Fuentes? He was in the anthology himself, so asking him for a blurb would have been awkward. Anyway, he wasn't answering his email.

Sales reps and bookstore buyers, for the most part, did not recognize the name of any Mexican writer. 

Salma Hayek? I suggested. 

The sales rep answered, “WOW! That would be GREAT!”

(No offense intended to Ms Hayek, an accomplished Mexican actress and producer. But methinks a blurb from her, had I been able to wrangle one, would have carried about as much clout as that of, say-- to scramble it into Texanese, porquois pas-- a rodeo barrel racing champion opining on the national polo team.)

We ended up using a blurb Isabelle Allende had provided for the Traveler’s Literary Companion series itself—a series from Whereabouts Press that includes many countries, among them, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and as far afield as Australia and Viet Nam.

And I managed to wrangle a blurb from a translator who is a queen among us—I know many of you will recognize her name—Margaret Sayers Peden. She wrote: 

“This delicious volume has lovingly gathered a banquet of pieces that reveal Mexico in all its infinite variety, its spendid geography, its luminous peoples. What a treat!” 

Bless her heart.

Apart from the anthology and various contributions to other anthologies and literary magazines, for a few years I founded and edited Tameme, a bilingual literary journal of new writing from Canada, the US and Mexico. That was a project I did with my dad, Roger Mansell, who had 25 years of experience in the graphic arts and printing business in San Francisco. So if I do say so myself, the three issues of Tameme and two chapbooks were quite beautiful and they should be collector’s items. Unfortunately my dad passed away, and with my own books to write, Tameme was more than I could handle.

But I have continued to translate. A few of the writers and poets I have translated in recent, post-Tameme years include Agustín Cadena for BorderSenses and Chatahoochie Review and various anthologies, most recently, Sarah Cortez’s Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. I also recently published a story by Ignacio Solares in Lampeter Review, and am working on a second story by Solares and another by Araceli Ardón. 

A story by Rose Mary Salum was published in a very fine a new literary magazine edited by Dini Karasik called Origins. And I am also working on translating Rose Mary Salum's forthcoming book, El agua que mece el silencio, as The Water That Rocks the Silence. 

Apart from Tameme, the largest translation project I have undertaken to date is a strange one, and I bring it up because I know that for many of you the question of rights is a concern. A book that is out of copyright, you can grab that, you can translate that. Go to it! 

Last year for ALTA, when the topic was “Politics and Translation,” for two different panels I talked about that book, or rather my book about that book. The title of my book is METAPHYSICAL ODYSSEY INTO THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION: FRANCISCO I. MADERO AND HIS SECRET BOOK, SPIRITIST MANUAL. And it does include the complete first translation of Spiritist Manual. 

Francisco Madero was the leader of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution and President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913, when he was overthrown in a coup d’etat and murdered. Madero was a Spiritist medium, that is, he believed he could communicate with the dead—and so can you! His secret book, Spiritist Manual, written in 1910—the year he launched the Revolution—and published under a pseudonym when was president elect in 1911, is... all about that. And I translated it because nobody else had. 

As I said in my panel talk last year,

I cannot deny other motives and the millions of other participants in that Revolution of 1910. But its spark, and the way it played out, and, I believe, Madero's murder, become 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.

To conclude: I mainly translate contemporary Mexican short fiction and poetry. It is a labor of love and, as an English language writer who lives in Mexico City, a way for me to engage with Mexico and with my Mexican colleagues. And finally, translating is a way to bring what I can, whether it be a monster on a platter or algún taquito sabroso, to the literary banquet.

To quote myself again from the prologue of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, “Throughout Mexico there are so very many writers whose work has yet to be translated, or, though translated, deserves a far wider readership in English.” 

Any and all of you who have an interest in translating Mexican literature— know that you have my heartfelt good wishes.


Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

***UPDATE: See the post about my other talk for the ALTA Conference, Translating Contemporary Latin American Poets and Writers: Embracing, Resisting, Escaping the Magnetic Pull of the Capital

Monday, October 26, 2015

White Shaman and Fate Bell

The several thousand year-old "White Shaman" is one of the most stunning rock art sites in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Here is my brief video of my recent visit with the Rock Art Foundation:

Dr. Carolyn Boyd's book on this magnificent site known as "White Shaman" for its luminous central figure will be out in the fall of 2016 from the University of Texas Press. She has decoded what she claims is a codex, and it is the oldest known record of a creation story in North America. In essence, "White Shaman" is a book. 

> Check out the fascinating interview with Dr. Boyd by Mary S. Black, an expert on the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, here.

One of the other sites I visited during Rock Art Rendezvous was Fate Bell, in Seminole Canyon State Park. Here's that video:

Much more anon.

Your comments are always welcome.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Curly Tail Panther

Just back from the Rock Art Foundation's annual Rock Art Rendezvous at the White Shaman Preserve on the US-Mexico border near Comstock, Texas. 

Here is a mini-clip of my visit to Curly Tail Panther, one of the several (yes, several) marvels I visited this past weekend (1 minute 49 seconds):

According to the Rock Art Foundation's website:

"The Curly Tail Panther site is high on the cliffs with a breathtaking view of the Devils River valley but accessible only by a very narrow ledge. Such settings were conducive to the visionary experiences that are the core of shamanistic belief systems. Two large mountain lions flanking an anthropomorphic shaman, typical of the Pecos River style, dominate the scene but Red Linear, Red Monochrome, and geometric designs testify to the enduring appeal of this shallow overhang with its spectacular vistas."

Mosey on over to Mary S. Black's blog for an interview with Dr. Carolyn Boyd on her jaw-dropping research about these sites and in particular, White Shaman

More, indeed, waaaaay more, anon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Big Hike in the Big Bend: "Over Burro Mesa and into Apache Canyon" now in the Fall 2015 Issue of CENIZO JOURNAL

I am in deepest Mexico for the moment and so haven't yet put my paws on the new issue of the Far West Texas' always-lovely Cenizo Journal, but my on-the-spot informers tell me it is out and it does contain my essay, "Over Burro Mesa." Herewith:


By C.M. Mayo

I had ghosts on my mind—not in a spooky way, just stray thoughts about long-gone people on a bright, hot morning in the Big Bend National Park. In the foothills of the Chisos, I parked on the road-side. My aim was to hike over Burro Mesa west into Apache Canyon, to a corral where Apaches stashed stolen horses, and to explore an arrow quarry. 

The week before in this canyon, two Italian women fended off a mountain lion. Apparently it was a young lion and their screams caused it to scramble off—but that wasn't the kind of adventure I was looking for. I figured my guide, Charlie Angell, could handle any critters better than I could. 

Sun blasted down. The only clouds were wisps, as if from a paintbrush dipped in milk. Thorns snagged my jeans. The trail became so faint, I surely would have lost it on my own. Just when the hill dipped, then came another trudge up another rise through whips of ocotillo, lechugilla, biznaga, beargrass, stunted soap trees... Many had been incinerated, probably from lightning strikes. 

No sign of burros on Burro Mesa. In two hours in this merciless landscape, we had seen no animal tracks, no scat; one lizard; one butterfly; two ravens.

It began to seem we were hiking not so much to a place but into the past, for this was a soundscape deeply strange to me. I live in Mexico City, one of the biggest in the world, where the thrum of traffic surges and fades, but never ceases. On myriad saint days, firecrackers pop like popcorn; weekends, the thump-a-thump-a of parties. Helicopters roar; dogs bark. 

Less than two centuries ago, Burro Mesa and Apache Canyon, indeed, the whole of the Big Bend, were Mexican territory—Mexico City the capital. But notionally. Maps of the period tell the truer story, a blank space with a name that was a shrug of ignorance or, for those who had heard the stories of kidnappings and scalpings, a drum-beat of horror: LA APACHERIA.

Finally, not that there was anyplace to sit, we sat down. 

"Drink up," Charlie insisted, handing me another bottle of water.

And this was when, suddenly as that mountain lion must have appeared, a lone figure carrying a pole taller than he was, loomed above us. A Texan in expensive-looking drab olive gear. He'd been hiking for several days, he said brightly—yesterday, the Mesa de Anguila. Mighty surprised to see us. We were the first hikers he'd encountered in the past three days.

And the pole?

For scaring mountain lions. But it didn't weigh much; it was bamboo. After twenty years, its bottom was starting to split-he lifted it to reveal a mass of duct tape. From his flask, he drank water, but he did not sit down. In a moment, he and his fabulous pole had disappeared down the hill.

We found the dry stone corral tucked against the mountain, blanketed in shade. It was filled with rubble and brush. Beyond a waist-high forest of creosote, the arrow quarry would have been easy to miss. It was not a hole in the ground, but a cliff of flaky-looking dark rock. Broken arrowheads lay all about: bone white, pink, orange, some tinged lavender. Before I put it back, I held one in my hand. Who knew how old it was, a hundred, five hundred years? 

I tried to conjure an image of the hands that had chipped, so expertly, until this triangle, a form at once unfathomably ancient, life-giving, and deadly, emerged. It was probably a man, probably older than most in his tribe— let's say he had an arthritic knee. A claw strung onto his necklace.

# # #

> Listen in to "Over Burro Mesa" (plus "The Kickapoo Ambassadors") in Marfa Mondays #14

> Watch my mini-clip video of Apache Canyon:

> Big Bend National Park: This Video Could Save Your Life!

> Listen in to (or read the transcript of) my interview with founding editor of Cenizo Journal, Dallas Baxter: "This Precious Place." 

> Listen in to (or read the transcript of) my interview with the immensely talented and daredevil photographer Paul V. Chaplo, author of Marfa Flights, "On Finding Composition in the Landscape"

> Listen in to the whole enchilada! Nineteen podcasts so far.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Just posted in Literal Magazine

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
By Sam Quinones

Reviewed by C.M. Mayo

This is a grenade of a book. Based on extensive investigative reporting on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Sam Quinones’ Dreamland tells the deeply unsettling story of the production, smuggling, and marketing of semi-processed opium base— or “black tar heroin”— originating in and around Xalisco, a farm town in the state of Nayarit, and in tandem, the story of the aggressive marketing of pain pills in the U.S.— in particular, of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin—and the resulting conflagration of addiction and death.
Unlike previous drug epidemics—heroin in the 70s, crack in the 90s— this one involved more deaths and more users, and not so many in urban slums but “in communities where the driveways were clean, the cars were new, and the shopping centers attracted congregations of Starbucks, Home Depot, CVS, and Applebee’s.”
Mexican black tar heroin trafficking isn’t anything like what you’ve seen on TV or in the movies or, for that matter, most books about narcotrafficking. It’s a small-time and customer-centric business: smugglers carry small high-quality batches over the border, and then drivers, using codes received on their cell phones, deliver tiny balloons filled with heroin directly to individual customers. The smugglers and drivers, “Xalisco Boys,” for the most part— friends, neighbors, brothers, third cousins— are not ready-for-prime-time “narcos” but otherwise ordinary young men from an otherwise ordinary farm town.
Nor are these Mexicans crossing the border because they are drawn by the light of “a better life” in the U.S. Their goal is a short period of hard work—and if that work happens to be delivering balloons filled with some drug to gringo addicts, so be it—and then to return home with the cash to peel off for a house, a wedding banquet with a live band, a stack of Levi’s jeans for the clan.
The number of English language reporters who could have written such a book can be counted on one hand— if that. Quinones draws on two decades of covering remote corners of Mexico and Mexican immigrants to the U.S. His two previous books, both superb, are True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx and Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration. In Dreamland, Quinones writes about the “Xalisco Boys” with unusual insight and compassion [CONTINUE READING]

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Writing and (or?) Digital Fun

I may be an old-school literary writer and die-hard fan of paper books, but ever since I started my webpage in 1999, I have been enchanted by the empowering and creative possibilities of digital media. 

BLOGGING: I started this blog, Madam Mayo, in 2006, and have kept at it steadily ever since, although the why of it has undergone significant evolution.

[Writers Blogs (And My Blog): Eight Conclusions After 8 Years of Blogging]

PODCASTING: In 2009, I started making podcasts with Apple's GarageBand-- and now host two series, Marfa Mondays and Conversations with Other Writers.

[Listen in to my podcast about how I started podcasting.]

DIGITAL PUBLISHING (KINDLES): Shortly thereafter I wrangled my way through an open-source program called Sigil and made some Kindles

[Here is everything I can tell you about that particular odyssey.]

VIDEO: And I took up making videos with iMovie. Apart from a few book trailers and whatnots, I mainly think of my videos as a souped-up GIFs, that is, visual appetizers, meant to enhance a text. 

My two latest videos are Scenes from the West of the Pecos Rodeo (3 minutes) and of Calera, Texas (1 minute 20 seconds), a Trans-Pecos ghost town that, surprisingly, has a nicely kept nondenominational chapel. Both videos are apropos of my book in-progress about Far West Texas.

IN SUM: HUH? Yes, making these pages, posts, podcasts and videos is more fun than playing with Play-Do. Yes, my blog, podcasts and videos bring me a larger audience and more visibility for my books. And yes, these endeavors steal time from writing. 

Instead of making two videos the other evening, I could have worked on my book. But just when I am about to feel crummy about that, I remind myself: if you're going to use GarageBand and iMovie, it really helps to do small projects on a frequent basis, or else you'll get rusty and lose the ability to do any at all. 

Or is that just a pretzel of an excuse?

On the other hand, I really do believe it's crucial for me as a writer to be able to handle digital media. (I've had it on my to do list for over year to make a proper trailer for my latest book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution and its Spanish edition,  Odisea metafísica hacia la Revolución Mexicana. And I really should put my Marfa Mondays podcasts onto YouTube as well. Oh, and... suffice it to say that it's a long to-do list that's just getting longer there in my fat little FiloFax...)

In sum, after more than two decades at this "business" of being writer, I'm still figuring it out. 

OH, AND SOCIAL MEDIA: At least I got off FaceBook. (It's been a few weeks since I deactivated my account and whew, that is still a palpable relief.) 

I still haven't made my mind up about Twitter. Most of it strikes me as drivel. But I don't find it as addictive as FaceBook and once, maybe twice a week something blink-worthy does happen in there.* (Follow me @cmmayo1.)

*For instance, I tweeted that I loved the cover of Cluff Hudder's book, so he sent me a copy! Here are my writing assistants with Pretty Enough for You. (Yep, I tweeted that.)

> Your comments are always welcome.