The Catalan Paradox: Writers, Editors, and Translators on the Literature of a Stateless Language

The Catalan Paradox: Writers, Editors, and Translators on the Literature of a Stateless Language
OVER THE LAST DECADE, publishers like New York Review Books, Open Letter, Archipelago, and Dalkey Archive, long at the forefront of making world literature available in English, have started publishing the work of major Catalan authors to great success. Translators Mary Ann Newman and Peter Roland Bush have brought the literature of Quim Monzó, Josep Pla, Mercè Rodoreda, and Josep Maria de Sagarra to life in English.

As someone whose esteem for Catalan writers often takes me back to Barcelona, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands, I wonder about the hidden stories that have drawn translators and editors in the United States to Catalan language and literature. What are the personal, historical, and cultural contexts that allow translators to make a foreign text come alive in the English language? And has the process of translating these Catalan authors also been an act of self-translation, of reading the self against the grain? Beyond the life of the translator, what intrigues me is the conservationist ethos that informs contemporary Catalan literature and language. In response to the censorship and cultural repression inflicted by the Franco dictatorship, scholars, intellectuals, and writers have preserved and promoted Catalan culture by documenting the history of Catalan language and literary production. How does this ethos of preservation influence Catalan writers, their publishers, translators, and editors in America? How might Europe’s current political and economic tensions influence translation trends in the coming years? And how do translations influence the circulation of ideas across national borders and the canonization of great works of literature in the future? The interviews contained in this series will explore the sociopolitical and personal implications of writing in a stateless language as well as reflect on the complex relationships among language, identity, community, nationalism, and nation formation in Catalonia and the United States.

The following interview with el famoso Quim Monzó kicks off the series. Monzó — a fiction writer, essayist, journalist, literary jokester, and fictional character who makes multiple appearances in my novel Call Me Zebra — has been at the forefront of Catalan literature since the 1970s. Winner of the 2018 Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes, the most prestigious literary award in Catalonia, Monzó uses a visionary surrealism that is always underscored by a brutal humor about our collective entrapment in life and language. Five of his novels — O’Clock (Ballantine Books), The Enormity of the Tragedy (Peter Owen Publishers), Gasoline, Guadalajara, and A Thousand Morons (Open Letter) — have been translated into English by Mary Ann Newman and Peter Roland Bush. I met Quim Monzó in New York City in 2010. That was the first and last time I saw him.

Editor’s note: Monzó’s answers were translated from the Catalan by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Stay tuned for an interview with Mary Ann Newman next.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Quim, you were invited to give the opening speech at the 2007 Frankfurt Book Fair, the year that showcased Catalan Culture and Literature. While your speech follows the same logic as some of your greatest short stories, it reads more as a subversive and subtly political meta-speech than a story. In the course of the speech the author self-consciously references the speech and its author, Quim Monzó, who is perplexed by the task of having to write the speech in the first place. The propulsive energy of the speech is fueled by the anxiety the author experiences as a result of belonging to a stateless nation. “Catalan Literature is,” he says, “a literature without a state.” Given the censorship, disenfranchisement, and the annihilating effects of a centralized Spanish state with a singular language ideology, do you think that the mental acrobatics the author performs in the process of writing the speech is the only logical line that can be pursued in the current political landscape?

QUIM MONZÓ: In general, speeches are a huge pain in the neck, a great bore. The audience tends to fall asleep in their chairs, especially if (as was the case with the Frankfurt Book Fair that year) most of the people in attendance are politicians or folks from the publishing industry who, regardless of how literary they might be, are disinterested in the ritual of opening ceremonies. I have never delivered a political speech or a sermon. I’ve never lectured people about what they should be doing or thinking. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

That’s why I just did what I love to do: tell a story, an anecdote. The story I told featured me as its protagonist: a writer who has been assigned to deliver the opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Generally speaking, writers tend to mask their feelings, to hide them in their fiction. The current political landscape is worlds apart from that of 2007, and yet I would still write a speech with the same story line. If you want to communicate an idea, you have to do something to get the audience’s attention, to get them to listen. An ex cathedra speech will always encourage the audience to dismiss you.

When I finished delivering the speech, I was pleasantly surprised because a woman who worked for the Book Fair came up to me and said: “I wish all of the opening speeches were like yours. Normally we have to listen to an insipid older man who mumbles his speech and who leans lifelessly on the pedestal; we’re always sitting there bored to death, worrying that he might die on us.”

The speech ends in doubt. The writer wonders if the listeners will have taken notice of his speech and if they will misunderstand it. He wonders if the speech will have any effect at all. Perhaps, he reflects, he could emphasize the fact that some of the first European treatises on medicine, dietetics, philosophy, surgery, or gastronomy were written in Catalan. But, he counters, what purpose will all these facts serve? This reflection made me think of the narrative colonized nations have often relied on to defend their humanity against the logic of empire. Do you think of Catalonia as a colonized nation? How do you think an independent Catalonia would affect the literary landscape?

I don’t enjoy discussing politics, but obviously what you are saying is true. Everything that’s happened in Catalonia over the course of the last few years is a consequence of collective discontent. With each passing day our linguistic and cultural situation mirrors the one in Occitània, where Occitan is nothing but a decorative brush stroke in a larger painting.

There are some who think we are following in Ireland’s footsteps — an Independent Republic where Irish endures — but in order to follow in their footsteps we would first have to become independent. I could lie and improvise an impassioned speech in which I declare that sooner or later we will get there, but I’m a pessimist by nature and see things the way I see them. Sorry.

If you were confined to reading only one book for the rest of your life, what book would it be?

I beg your pardon, but that’s a terrible question. Why should I single out a book when there are hundreds of thousands of interesting books in the world? Especially since every single interesting book leads to another one and so on. What should I say? Samuel Beckett’s Molloy? Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers? Kafka’s The Trial? Which of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s books should I choose? And what about Boris Vian? Or Italo Calvino? Questions like this should be prohibited!

You have supported yourself by translating some great Anglophone writers into Catalan, including Mary Shelley, John Barth, and Arthur Miller. How did you decide what works or which authors to translate?

In the beginning, I would translate books that editors assigned to me. I enjoyed the work and the books I took on. Later on, I chose the authors myself: John Barth, Dorothy Parker, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Donald Barthelme, Roald Dahl, J. D. Salinger, and others.

Have you ever stolen a book? If so, how did it feel?

When I was an adolescent, I stole a lot of books. I never felt guilty. Later, as an adult, when I could afford to buy all the books I wanted, I abandoned the habit of stealing them. Nowadays, teenagers aren’t out there stealing books; they don’t care as much about literature.

Mary Ann Newman and Peter Bush have translated five of your novels into English: A Thousand Morons, O’Clock, Gasoline, The Enormity of the Tragedy, and Guadalajara. How was the process of working with each translator different? Did you collaborate closely? Which book were you most excited to see come out in North America?

I’ve known Mary Ann Newman since the late ’70s. We are good friends and every time she’s translated a book of mine, we’ve talked on the phone and via email about how to solve this or that paragraph. I met Peter Bush decades later, but we’ve always touched base when he’s been at work on a translation.

The worst thing that can happen when your book is being translated is that the translator refuses to consult you. After all, everyone who translates has doubts when it comes to deciphering an author’s intentions in a given sentence! If the author is dead, there’s nothing the translator can do, but if they are alive, I’d say most authors would love for the translation to be a collaborative process.

Do you ever fantasize about waking up one day free from the manic obsession to write?

Not yet!

How do you relate to your books that have been translated into Spanish differently than the books that have been translated in French, German, English, and so on?

I tend to read the ones that have been translated into languages I speak or understand — Spanish, Italian, English, French, Portuguese — and they never fail to surprise me. Sometimes, while reading them, I have the impression I wasn’t the one who wrote the book and that sense of distance offers me a new perspective.

If a book of mine is translated into a language I don’t speak, I just look at it. About four years ago they translated Gasoline into Malayalam and the only thing I could do was admire the characters of the alphabet.

How did it feel to encounter your literary doubles in Call Me Zebra? Did you identify with Quim Monzó the literary critic more than Quim Monzó the writer, or vice versa?

I’ve been featured as a character in various books, but the fact that I had two separate personalities in Call Me Zebra was rather suggestive and allowed me to see that my real life, in which I only possess a single personality, is rather boring.

Do you think translations of Catalan texts into other European languages have helped establish the reality of the Catalan struggle on the continent, or would you hesitate to assign that level of political influence to books?

Every little bit helps, but in my humble opinion, literature’s purpose should not be political and is confined to the limits of the text.


Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Fra Keeler and Call Me Zebra, longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award.

LARB Contributor

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the John Gardner Award, and longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award. She received a 2015 Whiting Writers Award and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” award for her debut novel, Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2012). Her work has been supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship and a Fellowship from ART OMI and has appeared in GRANTA, Guernica, The Paris ReviewBOMB Magazineand the Los Angeles Review of Books among other places. Her novel AREZU is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2021. Fra Keeler has been translated into Italian by Giulio Perrone Editore in 2015. Call Me Zebra was published in the UK by Alma Books and is forthcoming in Turkey, China, Japan, and Romania. She is Iranian-American and has lived in Catalonia, Italy, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.


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