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