Interview with Mary Ann Newman

Hometown: New York City

Current town: Current and always, Manhattan. Born and bred in Chelsea. I still live in the apartment I grew up in. My second home is Barcelona. What a lucky woman I am.

Suzanne Dottino: What are you working on now?

Mary Ann Newman: I’m thinking about my next project. A recent review of a book I translated mentioned the dearth of experimental literature in Catalan in the 30’s, and I thought, hmm, it may be time to translate Francesc Trabal, who was breaking all kinds of molds in the 30’s.

SD: Care to share about a moment, a person or a story from your past that made you want to become a writer?

M.N. I remember with great clarity the moment I realized I was a translator. It wasn’t even a realization, exactly; I didn’t think, “Hmm, I’d like to be a translator.” It was more like an irresistible force. The first time I was moved by a poem in Spanish, that is, the first time I understood a poem well enough to have an emotional reaction to it—it was the “Desperate Song” from Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song—my immediate impulse was to translate it, which I did. I was 18, and I rushed into my mother’s room to read the poem to her and my aunt. It was a terrible translation, and they laughed at me, but I was hooked. That passion to share the thrill of reading with another is one of the unaccountable motives behind translation.

SD: If you could change one thing about publishing what would it be?

MN: Well, at this point it’s a cliché, and may even be changing, but it would be the lack of interest in literature in translation. Publishers, reviewers, agents, and readers need to take cognizance of the special insight reading works in translation gives us into language, history, cultural difference. Difference, period. It seems so obvious to us practitioners, but it must be said: we know things through translation that we can’t possibly know from texts in our own language. Their very strangeness is a prize, in and of itself. The things left behind and picked up in passage are parts of a journey we can only make through reading translations.

SD: Who are your literary heroes?

MN: Joseph Heller, Grace Paley, Felisberto Hernández, Quim Monzó, Eugeni d’Ors, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, Mercè Rodoreda, Junichiro Tanizaki, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabriel García Márquez—it was One Hundred Years of Solitude that thrust me into Latin American literature—T. S. Eliot, César Vallejo, Emily Dickinson, Francesc Trabal, Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Bohumil Hrabal. Jorge Luis Borges. Are they heroes? I don’t know if they’re heroes, but they’re all writers whose books changed the way I saw the world, and that’s pretty heroic. Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant… Bernard Malamud. Carson McCullers. Rainer Maria Rilke. E.M. Forster, but the Forster who wrote Maurice. The C.S. Lewis of The Screwtape Letters. The Sword of Honor trilogy by Evelyn Waugh about the unheroicity of war. Wallace Stevens, James Joyce. Pablo Neruda, Xavier Rubert de Ventós, Drieu de la Rochelle, Jean Rhys, Friedrich Nietzsche, Harper Lee, stop me, this is totally addictive. One more, a recent one, John K. Williams. Never would have believed I could be immersed in a buffalo kill.    

SD: What kind of writing excites you?

MN: All of the above. But the main thing is that I see through someone else’s eyes and I live in someone else’s head and body. And that can be done just as well through plot as through character as through style; in each case something changes you. When I read Something Happened by Joseph Heller and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin, I felt as if I had inhabited the bitterness of a middle-aged white man, in the case of Hellman, and the passion of a gay black man in the case of Baldwin. The experiments of Gertrude Stein or Francesc Trabal offer glimpses of things—often literally of things—that are not character-driven or psychological, but are no less exciting and insightful.   

SD: What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

MN: I’m going to talk about craft, because I don’t have any good advice about publishing or breaking into the field. That all seems like a crapshoot to me. Translators just starting out: be a little scientific, empirical, be very, very attentive. Learn to get a feeling for when you might be missing a meaning, even if you know or think you know what the words mean. Ask yourself questions about the text: who are the characters (if there are characters), where are they, what are they seeing, smelling, hearing… Does it make sense for a property owner who lives as a rentier to be clipping coupons? This is an example from my last translation, and it leads me to my other bit of advice: be cruel and ruthless when editing yourself. When I re-read my first draft of Private Life, I found these nouveau riche characters clipping coupons, and it brought me up short. In this section, the author wasn’t making a point about their being stingy, but on the contrary about how a certain previously cautious class of people were suddenly throwing their money around. I looked into it and discovered that some bonds that were traded in monthly for cash had physical coupons attached—the meaning was exactly the opposite of what simple household coupon-clipping would have suggested. So, pay attention to every detail, and pay double attention to your gut when you’re editing. A translator can never go on auto-pilot. And when you’ve been as severe as you can be, then be humble and kind to yourself, because there will always be errors. A translation is never done.