C.M. Mayo is an award-winning writer, translator, and editor who focuses on bringing Mexican literature to English-speaking audiences. As an American living in Mexico, she saw how little of the literature was available in English (and vice versa) and founded the nonprofit Tameme, Inc. to promote translations of writing from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. From 1999 until 2003, she edited the bilingual Spanish/English journal Tameme. Today, Tameme Chapbooks/Cuadernos publishes short pieces of Mexican literature side by side with an English translation; the next release, in early 2008, will be poet Jorge Fernandez Granados’s “Los fantasmas del palacio de los azulejos” translated by John Oliver Simon as “Ghosts of the Palace of Blue Tiles.” Mayo is also the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a collection of contemporary Mexican fiction and the author of a number of books.
Elizabeth Wadell: In the introduction to Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion you write, “Mexican literature—a vast banquet—is one of the greatest achievements of the Americas. And yet we who read in English go hungry, for so astonishingly little of it has been translated. This is more astonishing still when one considers that the United States shares a two-thousand-mile-long border with Mexico.”
What—other than exposure to great writing—do you think that readers in the U.S. can gain from reading more Mexican works?
C.M. Mayo: I love the quote at the beginning of each of the Traveler’s Literary Companion books, the one by Alistair Reed: “Coming newly into Spanish, I lacked two essentials—a childhood in the language, which I could never acquire, and a sense of its literature, which I could.” In reading more works from Mexico, one can gain a far richer sense of our neighbors—how diverse and surprising they are. There are worlds more in Mexico than the stereotypes we churn out on U.S. television and movies and, alas, in many of even the most beautiful literary works written in English. Just to give an example of Mexican diversity, Ines Arrendondo’s story “The Silent Words” [from the collection] is about a Chinese poetry-quoting farmer in Sinaloa. Juan Villoro’s is about some Mexico City “niños bien” who go punk, with both ironic and disastrous consequences. When one reads these, one’s mind opens, not only about Mexico but the world itself.
EW: As someone working in both the United States and Mexico, what differences and similarities do you find within the literary cultures of the two countries?
CMM: With the political changes since 2000 and the development of information technologies such as blogging, Mexico is changing—and this is important news—but the literary scene in Mexico is still overwhelmngly concentrated in Mexico City. Culturally, demographically, economically, intellectually, and politically, Mexico City has no equivalent in the United States. You might think of it as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City rolled into one. Most anthologies of Mexican literary writing tend toward a Mexico City-dominated who’s who—as does mine, if to a much lesser degree—for, indisputably, much of the best writing is being produced in the capital. In the U.S., a large part of the literary scene is coming to be dominated by universities, where many of our best writers and poets are on the faculty of an English department’s creating writing program. So you can find, say, Robert Olen Butler in Tallahassee, Vikram Chandra in Berkeley, E. Ethelbert Miller in Washington, D.C., and Ann Patchett in Nashville. So, though New York remains the publishing capital, the literary scene itself is spread out, sometimes quite thin, and ever-changing as people move around. The great similarity is that, as with artists everywhere, a very few become stars while most struggle for recognition and a living. The artist’s can be a bitter path. But it can also be a path of great joy. I think that Mexican writer Agustin Cadena’s advice applies to young writers from any country: “They should study economics, law, or engineering, or open a grocery store. The important thing is to be able to make a living from something other than literature. This way they don’t have to sell out, become camp-followers of some bureaucrat, or beg for grants, or compete against their colleagues tooth-and-nail for some privilege.”
EW: Since you started Tameme, Inc. eight years ago, have you noticed an increased interest in Mexican literature in the United States?
CMM: Yes, and in fact in the just past couple of years an increasing number of anthologies have come out—just to mention a few, Monica de la Torre and Michael Wiegers’s Reversible Monuments and Jef Hofer’s Sin Puertas Visibles / No Visible Doors; most recently, translator Margaret Sayers Peden edited the magnificent collection of literary essays, Mexican Writers on Writing. But there is still, even among quite sophisticated readers, little knowledge of Mexican writing beyond the work of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. I think this will change, and dramatically, as more English-speaking people visit and even come to settle in Mexico. Right now there is a great flow of Americans and Canadians coming into San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic, Cuernavaca, Mérida, Mexico City, and, above all, Baja California. Many are avid readers. So I am optimistic.
EW: Tameme Chapbooks/Cuadernos presents the original text and translation side by side; it also carefully presents all material—even publication details—in both languages, thus giving neither language primacy. Why did you choose to do this and how do you think it affects the reader’s understanding of the text?
CMM: The whole idea of Tameme is to make the literature accessible to someone who reads only English, and at the same time, accessible to someone who reads only Spanish. So writers are together whom, normally, would not be. For example, the first issue of Tameme featured Margaret Atwood and Jaimes Sabines. These are great names—yet many even very well read Mexicans have never heard of Margaret Atwood, while few English speaking readers have heard of Jaime Sabines. At the same time, having the text side-by-side makes the reading experience that much richer. Many people have told me they read Tameme to help them improve their Spanish. It’s also an exercise for literary translators. Literary translation is an art; five literary translators would translate a given piece in five different ways. So, as a translator, one can engage with the text critically. I find the translator’s notes the most interesting.
EW:As a translator, how do you best preserve the music of the original?
CMM: By being attentive to the sound and rhythm in English. Two books I highly recommend: Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form.
EW:Are some authors easier to translate than others? Why?
CMM: It really varies. Jokes and wordplay are usually difficult if not impossible to translate. Some writers just have a sensibility or style that one translator might find impossible, while for another, a translation flows easily. For example, I found the pieces I translated for Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion fairly straightforward because they all had to do with Mexico City, or familiar subcultures, and not only have I lived in Mexico City for 20 years but I was able to ask my husband, who is from Mexico City, for advice. Some of the authors—Agustin Cadena, Monica Lavin, and Araceli Ardon—are bilingual, and so I was also able to consult them about many details (“Was that what you meant, or was this what you meant?”). One of the pieces I translated, an excerpt from Fernando del Paso’s novel Noticias del imperio that features a scene of the Emperor Maximilian on the terrace of Chapultepec Castle, was actually a bit of breeze. You see, for the past five years I’ve been researching and writing my own novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which, though a very different story, takes place during that same period and has many of the same characters. On the other hand, ask me to translate, say, contemporary Cuban writing, something peppered with slang, and I might be severely challenged.
EW:Do you think that, for the reader, reading a translation is a different experience from reading a work in the original language?
CMM: Yes, because a translation is always, to some degree, imperfect. But that should not stop anyone from reading works in translation! For heavens sake, where would we non-Russian speakers be if we’d never had the chance to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Chekhov?
EW:For the Literary Companion it seems like you worked with a lot of nonprofessional translators. Is that true? What role do you think these small-scale translators can play in bringing contemporary writers to the American reading public?
CMM: I would certainly not describe any of these translators as “small-scale” or “nonprofessional”; on the contrary! Literary translation is a high art. As I wrote in the first issue of Tameme, “Most publications list the translator’s name in small italics at the bottom of his or her work, as if it were barely worthy of mention; we believe, however, that literary translation is a painstaking art which deserves equal billing with that of the original writer—after all, when Beethoven is played at Carnegie Hall, it matters, very much, who the pianist is.” As for the translators in Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, all are accomplished literary translators, and many are stars in the field. Just to mention a few: Geoff Hargreaves, Cynthia Steele, Alfred MacAdam, Mark Shafer, Harry Morales, and Amy Schildhouse Greenberg. You can read their biographical notes here.
Certainly, of the many translators who make a living translating, say, annual reports, legal documents, transcripts, there are many who also happen to be excellent literary translators. But just because someone is makes a living as a translator by no means guarantees that he or she is capable of rendering literary work into English prose of equivalent caliber. In my experience, many of the best literary translators are poets. Many are also professors of Spanish and Hispanic literature. Literary translation is extraordinarily time consuming and difficult, and in many instances poorly or altogether unpaid. It is, generally speaking, a labor of love.
For anyone interested in literary translation, I say, give it a go—don’t be shy! Here are some useful websites: American Literary Translators Association, PEN American Center’s Translation Program, Center for Art in Translation, and the many links for literary translators at Tameme.
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