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Interviews

Birthing a Translation: The Author as Midwife

An Interview with Translator Mara Faye Lethem

In 2019, translator Mara Faye Lethem met Catalan author Marta Orriols for the first time over coffee in Barcelona before flying to the Ledig House Translation Lab for a joint author/translator residency. Together, they edited Lethem’s English translation of Orriols’s Catalan-language novel Learning to Talk to Plants. In this conversation with WWB’s Samantha Schnee, Lethem reflects on the experience of working so closely with one of her authors and how it has changed her as a translator.
Mara Faye Lethem alongside the Catalan and English covers of Learning to Talk to Plants

Samantha Schnee (SS): How did you discover Marta’s work? How did you meet her and what inspired you to apply to the Ledig House Translation Lab?

Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): My introduction to Marta’s work was translating a few short stories from her first book, a collection titled Anatomy of Short Distances, commissioned as a sample for selling foreign rights by her Catalan publisher Periscopi.

Not long after that, I attended an event in New York at which Christina MacSweeney spoke about her experience at Art OMI, and I was taken by the format of doing a residency with an author you’re translating. It seemed to have the potential to be amazing (or a total nightmare). I filed it away in some part of my mind as something I would be lucky to get to do at some future point. There are a number of residencies that include translators in the “writers” category, but I was struck by Art OMI’s taking it a step further and really engaging with and fostering the translation process.

Learning to Talk to Plants was a big hit in Catalonia, and I first read it for a catalogue I write each year, New Catalan Fiction, for the Institut Ramon Llull, the agency that promotes Catalan culture abroad. I can’t recall if I was hired to do a sample for Periscopi, but I probably was, and then an editor based in London (at Pushkin, for whom I’d translated Marc Pastor years earlier) asked my opinion about the book. . . . Increasingly, I have this aggregate experience where a book keeps popping up throughout my wide network (of Catalan, American, and British editors and agents, and the Institut Ramon Llull), and that will lead to a translation. For the last few years, I’ve also been on the jury of a literary award called the Finestres Prize, and the reading I do for that, and the conversations with the other jurors—I’m the only foreigner—mean I usually have several books on my translation wish list, as well as a lot of food for thought about how the Catalan- and English-language publishing markets vary.

I try to make time to apply for opportunities like residencies and grants, when I can; I’m stimulated by low-stakes deadlines, and I always love a chance to be out in the world instead of just in front of my computer. I chose to apply to the Translation Lab with Marta partly on a hunch—Learning to Talk to Plants is about grief and deals with it in a bracingly honest way that appealed to me—and partly based on my feeling that to make the most of such a residency, I would have to arrive with a translation that was already very far along. I was able to bring a completed manuscript that even had comments from the editor. Marta and I didn’t meet in person until after we’d been accepted.

 

SS: Do you think the fact that Marta had previously translated her own novel from Catalan into Spanish helped or impacted your relationship as author and translator in any way?

MFL: I think it’s easy for translators to forget how difficult it is to do our job well, and some authors are more sensitive to the work involved than others. Marta’s appreciation was a gift. Often my stumbling blocks into English were different from the ones a Spanish translator from the same Catalan text would have, but I noticed Marta was mostly struck by how the voice of her narrator came across in English, almost on a visceral level. She felt real recognition that my Paula was her Paula. Honestly, I can think of no greater compliment.

 

SS: Are there any memorable moments from your two weeks together in Hudson—things that were particularly illuminating or amusing? 

MFL: It was November 2019, so the experience was encapsulated in a very strange way when the world shut down, but even before that, there was an incredible sense of being very fortunate to be given that time and space and support. We were an all-female Translation Lab, hailing from South Korea, Iceland, Bulgaria, and Catalonia (which sort of sounds like the set-up to a joke), and would come together for wonderful dinners at the end of each day. It was an exceptional blend of work and community. I guess translating can be lonely.

Marta and I shared walks in the sculpture garden, and time working both together and apart. I haven’t had the time to go back and look at those versions again, of course, but the manuscript that emerged from that experience was drastically different from the one that went in. We even changed a character’s name. As translators, we are always trying to strike the right balance between sticking close to a source text and departing from it; my time at Art OMI expanded and complicated my relationship to the English version of the book, with the luxury of having the author there as a midwife.

 

SS: You mentioned that the experience of working with Marta changed the way you approach translation with all your authors. Can you elaborate?

MFL: When I first started working professionally as a translator, I got the impression that asking questions of the author was sort of like cheating, as well as potentially very annoying for them and embarrassing for me. Over the years, I’ve come to have all sorts of interactions with authors (from ignored queries to valued friendships, errors amended on both sides, accessing shades of nuance that no one else could possibly solve, coming up against the questions they cannot answer for myriad reasons, and, of course, fine-tuning my privilege to STET, STET, STET) and now consider it an important part of the alchemy/necromancy of my process of seeing the forest AND the trees. My time at the Translation Lab was certainly a watershed moment in that journey. I am not the same translator I was when I entered Ledig House. Ironically, that doesn’t mean I necessarily have vastly increased communication with an author. It means I am more comfortable with that communication, and at the same time I am more comfortable with the liberties I take. I’ve always felt that my commitment is to the text, not the author, but it is wonderful to be able to ask for and receive permission; translating is constant decision-making, and that can be exhausting. The Translation Lab filled my cup.


Mara Faye Lethem
is an award-winning translator of contemporary Catalan and Spanish prose, and the author of 
A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small. Her recent translations include books by Patricio Pron, Max Besora, Javier Calvo, Marta Orriols, Toni Sala, Alicia Kopf, and Irene Solà. She is currently translating the collected short stories of Pere Calders as part of her PhD at the University of St. Andrews.


Copyright © 2022 by Samantha Schnee and Mara Faye Lethem.

English

Samantha Schnee (SS): How did you discover Marta’s work? How did you meet her and what inspired you to apply to the Ledig House Translation Lab?

Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): My introduction to Marta’s work was translating a few short stories from her first book, a collection titled Anatomy of Short Distances, commissioned as a sample for selling foreign rights by her Catalan publisher Periscopi.

Not long after that, I attended an event in New York at which Christina MacSweeney spoke about her experience at Art OMI, and I was taken by the format of doing a residency with an author you’re translating. It seemed to have the potential to be amazing (or a total nightmare). I filed it away in some part of my mind as something I would be lucky to get to do at some future point. There are a number of residencies that include translators in the “writers” category, but I was struck by Art OMI’s taking it a step further and really engaging with and fostering the translation process.

Learning to Talk to Plants was a big hit in Catalonia, and I first read it for a catalogue I write each year, New Catalan Fiction, for the Institut Ramon Llull, the agency that promotes Catalan culture abroad. I can’t recall if I was hired to do a sample for Periscopi, but I probably was, and then an editor based in London (at Pushkin, for whom I’d translated Marc Pastor years earlier) asked my opinion about the book. . . . Increasingly, I have this aggregate experience where a book keeps popping up throughout my wide network (of Catalan, American, and British editors and agents, and the Institut Ramon Llull), and that will lead to a translation. For the last few years, I’ve also been on the jury of a literary award called the Finestres Prize, and the reading I do for that, and the conversations with the other jurors—I’m the only foreigner—mean I usually have several books on my translation wish list, as well as a lot of food for thought about how the Catalan- and English-language publishing markets vary.

I try to make time to apply for opportunities like residencies and grants, when I can; I’m stimulated by low-stakes deadlines, and I always love a chance to be out in the world instead of just in front of my computer. I chose to apply to the Translation Lab with Marta partly on a hunch—Learning to Talk to Plants is about grief and deals with it in a bracingly honest way that appealed to me—and partly based on my feeling that to make the most of such a residency, I would have to arrive with a translation that was already very far along. I was able to bring a completed manuscript that even had comments from the editor. Marta and I didn’t meet in person until after we’d been accepted.

 

SS: Do you think the fact that Marta had previously translated her own novel from Catalan into Spanish helped or impacted your relationship as author and translator in any way?

MFL: I think it’s easy for translators to forget how difficult it is to do our job well, and some authors are more sensitive to the work involved than others. Marta’s appreciation was a gift. Often my stumbling blocks into English were different from the ones a Spanish translator from the same Catalan text would have, but I noticed Marta was mostly struck by how the voice of her narrator came across in English, almost on a visceral level. She felt real recognition that my Paula was her Paula. Honestly, I can think of no greater compliment.

 

SS: Are there any memorable moments from your two weeks together in Hudson—things that were particularly illuminating or amusing? 

MFL: It was November 2019, so the experience was encapsulated in a very strange way when the world shut down, but even before that, there was an incredible sense of being very fortunate to be given that time and space and support. We were an all-female Translation Lab, hailing from South Korea, Iceland, Bulgaria, and Catalonia (which sort of sounds like the set-up to a joke), and would come together for wonderful dinners at the end of each day. It was an exceptional blend of work and community. I guess translating can be lonely.

Marta and I shared walks in the sculpture garden, and time working both together and apart. I haven’t had the time to go back and look at those versions again, of course, but the manuscript that emerged from that experience was drastically different from the one that went in. We even changed a character’s name. As translators, we are always trying to strike the right balance between sticking close to a source text and departing from it; my time at Art OMI expanded and complicated my relationship to the English version of the book, with the luxury of having the author there as a midwife.

 

SS: You mentioned that the experience of working with Marta changed the way you approach translation with all your authors. Can you elaborate?

MFL: When I first started working professionally as a translator, I got the impression that asking questions of the author was sort of like cheating, as well as potentially very annoying for them and embarrassing for me. Over the years, I’ve come to have all sorts of interactions with authors (from ignored queries to valued friendships, errors amended on both sides, accessing shades of nuance that no one else could possibly solve, coming up against the questions they cannot answer for myriad reasons, and, of course, fine-tuning my privilege to STET, STET, STET) and now consider it an important part of the alchemy/necromancy of my process of seeing the forest AND the trees. My time at the Translation Lab was certainly a watershed moment in that journey. I am not the same translator I was when I entered Ledig House. Ironically, that doesn’t mean I necessarily have vastly increased communication with an author. It means I am more comfortable with that communication, and at the same time I am more comfortable with the liberties I take. I’ve always felt that my commitment is to the text, not the author, but it is wonderful to be able to ask for and receive permission; translating is constant decision-making, and that can be exhausting. The Translation Lab filled my cup.


Mara Faye Lethem
is an award-winning translator of contemporary Catalan and Spanish prose, and the author of 
A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small. Her recent translations include books by Patricio Pron, Max Besora, Javier Calvo, Marta Orriols, Toni Sala, Alicia Kopf, and Irene Solà. She is currently translating the collected short stories of Pere Calders as part of her PhD at the University of St. Andrews.


Copyright © 2022 by Samantha Schnee and Mara Faye Lethem.

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