Julia Sanches is a literary translator working from Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan. Recent translations include Boulder by Eva Baltasar, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Born in Brazil, she currently resides in the United States.
Mara Faye Lethem is a writer, researcher and literary translator. Winner of the inaugural 2022 Spain-USA Foundation Translation Award for Max Besora’s The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, she was also recently awarded the 2022 Joan Baptiste Cendrós International Prize for her contributions to Catalan literature. Her translation of Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance was a finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize and the 2023 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize.
They wrote to one another in spring 2023, discussing Catalan origin stories and the experience of inhabiting various worlds at once.
The other day I was having lunch with some of the residents and employees of the Jan Michalski Foundation in Switzerland, when someone asked me: Why Catalan? It’s funny how often I get that question; how often I imagine all of us get that question – as if we needed a reason. My gut reaction is always to reply: Why not Catalan? But instead I start citing figures about the number of people who speak Catalan (many more than Estonian, for example) and explaining its rich literary history, which spans hundreds of years. And yet, now I think of it, maybe a good place to start our conversation would be with a reformulation of this very question: How Catalan or rather All languages being equal, how did you come to this one? Your Catalan translator origin story, if you will.
Another question I field fairly often and that I don’t have a good answer for is whether I have different approaches for the different languages I translate from. Usually, I would say it depends less on the language than the book, the author and how they use the language in question, but maybe that’s a bit simplistic, or maybe I haven’t given the matter enough thought. Sometimes it’s hard to think about the thing you’re doing when you’re busy doing it.
Mara Faye Lethem:
I was mulling your email over as I washed the dishes – wishing I was at the Jan Michalski Foundation and didn’t have to. Until recently all the Catalan translators I knew were married to Catalans and your questions bring up a lot of things for me. I’ve lived in Barcelona for the better part of two decades – giving birth in Catalan felt like a turning point – so people are less likely to ask me Why Catalan? But to really attempt to answer your question would mean trying to turn myself inside out. Our relationships to our languages, evolving, deeply visceral, sometimes defensive, are so complex. When I was a tween, I spoke an invented language with my best friend, we called it Doublespeak, and Catalan used to feel a bit like that. I still use it that way on the New York subway, as a secret way of communicating.
Years ago, at an ALTA conference, I heard Deborah Smith speak about choosing Korean partially because of the funding available. My jaw dropped. Although of course it does also make sense. It reminds me of when I observed to a friend, the writer and translator Danny Hahn, that there are more full-time literary translators at work in the UK than there are in the US and Danny replied, ‘Mara, we have the NHS.’
I can’t imagine ‘all languages being equal’ because I feel it’s important to remember how they aren’t. Definitely a part of my Why Catalan story would be answering the call to linguistic heroism posed by Catalan, being moved by the Catalan survival story, on an emotional level.
I wondered too, do you think you have different personalities in your different languages? And, particularly at the moment, how do you have time to think about anything but the International Booker?
The Booker! What a whirlwind. Suffice to say I’m relieved to have my life back, to be done with interviews and photographs and feeling self-conscious – I am always self-conscious, but it’s a more immediate feeling when you have a dozen cameras trained at you – and to get to sit and translate, wading between languages in the company of Eva’s steely women. These days I’ve been racing to finish a first draft of Eva Baltasar’s latest, the third in the triptych: a book called Mamut, which features nary a mammoth and where the same smell of manure that filters through my cabin window in Switzerland seems to permeate everything in the main character’s Catalan masia.
My mom likes to say I have different personalities in my different languages and when she says this she sounds slighted, as if these differences made her lose her bearings. I do find that some of the cultural traits of each language make me a little bit more one thing than the other in each of them. For example, I find that I can be more cynical in English because I lived in the UK, a country that loves a good banter, and because I have consumed a lot of British comedy. Also it’s hard not to be cynical when you live in the United States. I’m more loving in Spanish because emotion seems to come more easily, at least on the surface: one email exchange and people are already signing off with hugs and kisses. I get the sense I am a bit of a brat in Portuguese because I mostly speak it with my parents and brother, but then I am also a bit more jocular because teasing was a large part of my upbringing; I used to cry to my mother because I thought my cousins were bullying me, and she would tell me that it was their way of demonstrating love – the jury’s still out on that one. In Catalan, I feel like a child because it’s the only language I learned as an adult and it seems less firmly rooted in my mind than the others, which I’ve spoken virtually all my life.
What about you? What do you speak at home, to your kids, your partner? Or is it a bit of a language salad? In which do you feel most at home? Does it matter?
You’re right, by the way, to say that all languages are not equal, and the ones I translate from feel inextricable from me and all the twists and turns my life has taken. I certainly don’t feel like I chose them. It’s more that I said yes when presented with the opportunity – because, when given the chance, why would anyone not want the richness that comes from learning a new form of communication, with all the culture it entails?
Totally a language salad. I was just in Tossa de Mar, on the Girona coast doing some research and I experienced an emotional version of language salad, identity salad if you will, of my American-Catalan identity in this hyper-globalized world. I had been with the town archivists and librarians, discussing the vicissitudes of the twentieth century in Catalan letters. Then my family arrived and we became tourists, and Tossa isn’t Lloret de Mar but one part of it certainly caters to tourists, and everything is in four languages and my kids are talking to each other loudly in English, so I’m approached with fat menus written in four languages and seen as an outsider, which of course I am in a sense but am not in another. Then later, as I watched the strawberry moon rise with a small paper cup of ron cremat in my hand, and havaneres playing in the background, I felt connected to an aspect of Catalanitat that tugged on certain heartstrings that, really, in Barcelona I only experience through books. I felt a similar emotion the next morning, in line for a heaping plate of the freshest sardines ever, over pa amb tomàquet and buried in Figueres onions; the DJ played Supertramp’s ‘The Logical Song’ and suddenly my eyes got damp.
I love how you describe the impulse to say yes when presented with an opportunity; I want to hold on to that. I’ve been trying to learn German and it’s shocking how hard it is to stay open. Although, each book I translate also comes with similar challenges: the challenge to somehow stay open to learning a new form of communication, getting inside a new author’s head. Isn’t it fantastic to be working on the third book by Eva, to know her voice that intimately? I’m finally experiencing that with some of my authors after desiring it for so long. We really are living in such a watershed moment for literary translation into English.
One more thing: my son was saying ‘self-aware’ instead of ‘self-conscious’ the other day, and I didn’t correct him. Funny how these sorts of distinctions don’t exist in every language.
‘Self-awareness’ strikes me as a much more valuable trait than ‘self-consciousness’, so kudos to your son, even if that isn’t exactly what he meant.
Reading your last, I almost felt I was in Tossa de Mar with you. So, thank you for that (unsarcastically). What I would do for a plate of pa amb tomàquet and fresh sardines! I typed ‘The Logical Song’ into YouTube and listened to it for the first time in what feels likes forever and although it didn’t bring back any particular moment or feeling, it did remind me of how the silliest, most innocuous thing will sometimes send me jolting back to Brazil, or Mexico, or Catalonia. For example, there is a particular detergent smell that makes me think of rest-stop and roadside diner bathrooms in the state of São Paulo, particularly on the highways that go from the city to the coast. There are times when I think I came to literary translation just so I could keep my many homes close to hand. Because as long as it remains impossible for me to inhabit several places at once, then at least there is the language-, place-, and time-hopping that comes with so painstakingly inhabiting another literary world.
I remember feeling awfully homesick one year in NYC when I couldn’t get back to Brazil for the holidays and going to the movies to watch this film called Aquarius by Kleber Mendonça Filho, featuring Sônia Braga, and being so shocked at what an emotional response I had to a very domestic scene where these little kids play and run around naked in their grandmother’s apartment. I think I may have been nostalgic for a certain way of being in family that I don’t have access to in the US, not even through film – it seems to me this kind of onscreen portrayal of children’s bodies is verboten in Hollywood. I experienced a similar homesickness in response to the portrayal of childhood in Carla Simón’s Estiu 1993.
What am I getting at? I think you just took me somewhere I wasn’t expecting, all the way from my cabin here in Switzerland where the Alps rest behind a blue haze that changes color but never seems to lift and there is the incessant chirring of insects and birds and so much of that controlled green of lands domesticated by agriculture, to the rocky Mediterranean coast.
I wonder if some of our physical responses to a particular word or scene are conveyed in our translations. If there’s a way to tell what the translator knows viscerally, or if it’s simply part of the job to create the illusion of that close, intimate knowledge and experience, just as it is (I assume) with poets and novelists. You’re a novelist too – tell me, are we doing very similar things in different ways (e.g. mapped and unmapped)?
I think we all inhabit various worlds at once, I think being a translator helps me to navigate those worlds, when they are separated by language. I was recently looking at some writing I did in college and the professor’s red marks removed all of the Brooklyn from my grammar. It took me a long time to trust my decision-making as a translator, to accept how I seep into others’ texts, but in the end I suppose that’s what makes a translation come alive, and eventually come into its own as a new book.
I used to be a documentary photographer, which is sort of the visual art equivalent of being a translator, creating while still managing to avoid the blank page. Translation has been a fantastic writing school for me, taking the mapped and applying the dedication and deadlines to somehow find a way back to what was seemingly inside me all along. . .
One of my favorite things about writing is that burst of a solution that comes when you’ve stopped working for the day, the thing that makes you grab the pencil on your bedside table, and I have that too when I’m translating. I once described it as paint-by-numbers but of course if that were really and truly the case AI would do it better than we could. There are days when I just have to sit in the chair and look up every word in the dictionary until the text starts to take shape, and others where I’m inside it and taking the best of liberties. Sometimes the words and the sentences just open up to me, and then translation feels not only like a gift to me as a writer, but as a reader and as an editor too. Like that quote from Georgia O’Keeffe about how nobody really sees a flower because ‘it is so small’ and ‘we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.’