The Catalan Paradox, Part II: Conversation with Translator Mary Ann Newman

The Catalan Paradox, Part II: Conversation with Translator Mary Ann Newman
MARY ANN NEWMAN STILL LIVES in the same apartment she was born and raised in. That apartment happens to be in Chelsea in New York City, and it also happens to be part of the reason she fell in love with Catalan and Spanish literature.

The neighborhood she grew up in wasn’t the glamorous, prohibitive destination it has become, but rather a working-class neighborhood where she heard and saw Spanish on the streets as often as English. She later became enamored of Spanish literature and went on to discover Catalan culture and history. She has since devoted her life to being an ambassador of Catalan literature and has been justly rewarded for it. A celebrated translator, editor, and cultural critic, she is the director of the Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the US.

I first encountered Mary Ann Newman’s work when I read her translation of Quim Monzó’s novel Gasoline (Monzó is the previous interlocutor in this series of conversations on Catalan literature). My husband, Leonardo Francalanci, a Catalan scholar, had just taught her translation of Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, an epic chronicle of life in Barcelona before the Spanish Civil War. She has also translated a short story collection by Quim Monzó, essays by Xavier Rubert de Ventós, and a collection of poems by Josep Carner. In this interview, we talk about translation as an embodied practice, her journey from New York City to Barcelona, the contemporary Catalan crisis, and the evolution of her love affair with Catalan literature over the years.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: When did you first travel to Catalonia and become aware of it as a region with a cultural identity that is distinct from the rest of Spain?

MARY ANN NEWMAN: I went to Spain in 1972, at 20, for a junior semester abroad. I knew there was such a thing as Catalonia, and Galicia, and the Basque Country. There had been Galician children in my grammar school in New York in the ’50s. West 14th Street was still known then as Little Spain, and I lived on West 16th Street. One day in high school, as other students were being drilled in conjugations, I started leafing through the Spanish culture text we never cracked, and read that there were four languages in Spain — Spanish, Catalan, Basque, and Galician. I remember perfectly the hand-drawn map of the Iberian Peninsula with the regions outlined.

These little bits of information — the Galician classmates, the map — are like iron filings: when you finally encounter the magnet of the culture, they jump into shape and become meaningful. They allow you to be attentive to difference.

During my semester in Madrid, I took a train to Barcelona. It was love at first sight, with the landscape, with the architecture, with the quality of the light and the sky. And with the sound of the language. I felt the difference right away. It was easy to make the leap from there to the distinct cultural identity.

I tend to think of acquiring a second or third language as entering into a love affair: the process is enigmatic, visceral, and powerful enough to shift our sense of identity. Can you describe your love affair with Catalan? When did you start learning Catalan, and why? How is it different from your relationship to Spanish?

I think it’s contiguous with my relationship to Spanish. One’s reaction to cultures, cities, landscapes, and languages is, or can be, as intense and visceral as it is to people and lovers.

My love affair began with Spanish. I love the Spanish language, its immense variety, all the cultures that fall under the rubric of “Hispanic,” even the conflicted history of its relationship with the languages it has suppressed. I grew up in a very bilingual environment — at the grammar school I mentioned before, St. Francis Xavier, a large proportion of the children were of Latino origin, mostly Puerto Rican. My neighborhood was full of stores with “Spanish” products — “Spanish” covered everything in those days. My first childhood encounter with a foreign country was Cuba, where I learned my first words in Spanish, tasted my first rice and beans, and absorbed some sort of deep-seated familiarity, a sort of subcutaneous recognition, with Hispanic culture. Later, as an adult, Spanish allowed me to take a distance from monolingual American culture, to see the United States from another, often disapproving or denunciatory perspective. I moved from this general love of Hispanic culture to the specific enchantment with Catalan culture, which, in turn, gave me perspective on Spanish. They are not entirely at odds. For most Americans, Spanish (in the broad sense my neighborhood applied) is the gateway to Catalan.

This was very organic and informal. I started learning Catalan in 1976, in Madrid. I was completely smitten with the culture. I had developed wonderful Catalan friendships in New York, with people who loved to talk about their hometowns (Barcelona, but also Valls, Tarragona…). I attended two classes in Madrid, the only two classes I ever took, at the Círculo Catalán. My classmates were all young madrileños, political progressives who loved Lluís Llach or Raimon, who expressed their solidarity with the Catalan people by learning the language.

In 1977, I moved to Barcelona and started speaking Catalan with everyone who would put up with me. Back in New York, in 1978, I bought Alan Yates’s Teach Yourself Catalan — I still highly recommend it — and did just that. I got a group of friends together, I would study up a chapter and teach it to them. It worked. I learned the grammar. But the passion for the language was already deep, and everything I had learned by living in Catalonia only reinforced it: the markets, the architecture, the politics — 1977 was the year of legalizations, the year of the Anarchist Days, the first LGBT demonstration, the first mega-demonstration in favor of the Statute of Autonomy and the release of Catalan political prisoners. It was the perfect year for a young American progressive to be initiated into Catalonia. Above all, I started reading: Salvador Espriu, Mercè Rodoreda, Biel Mesquida. If you know another Romance language well, you can read before you can talk, and when you start talking, all that reading — the words, the sentence structures — is at your disposal.

What was the first book you read in translation? And the first book you translated?

It was probably Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I loved them and read them over and over. I remember loving Babar the Elephant. My first grown-up reading was an immense collection of stories by Guy de Maupassant. Of course, this is all in retrospect. I had no idea I was reading translations — they were just books I loved. In high school, I discovered The Stranger and The Trial (which I loved) and Steppenwolf (which I hated), and all the books that thrill an inquiring teenager. And in freshman year of college, One Hundred Years of Solitude (I borrowed it from a lending library in a tobacconist on 8th Street for 25 cents) was what convinced me to major in Latin American literature. It was a lightning bolt.

The first book I translated was O’Clock, by Quim Monzó. 

What do you think the art of translation has in common with the art of listening? Do you consider the process of conducting a translation to be an embodied experience?

It is for me. But so is reading itself. And translation is the most radical form of reading, the most deep-rooted.

When you read, you can sort of slide by things that are opaque. When you translate, you can’t slip by, you have to dig down to understand them, and it involves all the senses: What is this character seeing, smelling, feeling (both touch and emotion), hearing? What were people wearing?

This is the empiricism of translation: it entails a trial and error, a continuous editing and rereading. All of which is very physical; it cycles back and forth between rationality and instinct. Many language devices are unconscious or even pre-conscious; unremembered things, words, concepts rise to the surface when they are called up by the translation. It has a psychoanalytic quality.

How does your relationship to the translation change depending on whether you are working with a living or dead author?

I think it doesn’t. My relationship is with the text, and with the author insofar as he or she inhabits the text. It’s wonderful to be able to consult with the author, and my two living authors, Quim Monzó and Xavier Rubert de Ventós, were always very helpful, but in the end, it’s my job, and my book. You can only hope the author approves. 

How did you happen to start translating Quim Monzó?

I was living in Barcelona in 1980 on a Fulbright, and reading everything I could. Quim’s books were breaking all the molds in Catalan literature, and in world literature. I met Monzó there, but, even more fortunately, it turned out that he was going to spend the following year in New York. In New York, I proposed a translation, he agreed, I put together a dossier with three stories, bio, et cetera, sent them to an agent, who loved them, who sent them to a publisher, who loved them … It was deceptively simple.

What is the most enjoyable part of translating Monzó, and what is the most challenging?

As often happens, the most enjoyable and the most challenging come together. Quim’s writing is very approachable, very readable, so the quality of his art can be imperceptible. Through translation, it becomes evident. His writing is spare and dense. His sentences are reduced to the absolute minimum, but packed with meaning. There is no extraneous matter. To render this in English should seem like a no-brainer, but English is dense and spare in a different way from Catalan, and they don’t always overlap. It’s a challenge, but it’s also great fun to crack the code.

How was translating Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life different from your other translations? Did you have to do historical research?

It’s useful to compare it to Monzó. Sagarra is the grand pre–Civil War chronicler of Barcelona. He set out intentionally to write the great Catalan novel, to hold Stendhal’s mirror up to the life of the city. And he wrote this broad, florid, marvelous tapestry, with billowing sentences and a plethora of adjectives and adverbs. It was a blast to translate.

I had some knowledge of the period, so the research was more of a deep dig: sometimes it seemed as if he were using a photograph to evoke a scene, and in a number of cases I actually found the photograph in question. There were a few mystifying passages and references that I was able to track down and, in one case, flesh out — a bit of creative editing that might be considered controversial. It was interesting: after my first draft, I read the Spanish translation. I was sure it would resolve my doubts. But the apparent closeness of Spanish to Catalan allowed Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and José Agustín Goytisolo to translate obscure passages literally, which I couldn’t do in English. Still, the detective work was a lot of fun. So, the interesting thing about going from Monzó to Sagarra, is that Sagarra is splendidly sweeping and baroque, and Monzó is perfectly minimalist and spare, but they share a sensibility, a willingness not to prettify the subjects they portray. It feels like a Catalan sensibility, certainly a Barcelonan sensibility.

How has your work as a cultural administrator and translator changed since the Catalan referendum?

It hasn’t affected me, professionally, but it has affected the people I deal with.

Personally, and professionally, it is distressing to perceive the normalization of a kind of pessimism. Life goes on, everyone does his job, Catalonia prospers, but there is a cloud hanging over people’s heads, and a subtle brake on thinking long-term. Having political prisoners, living in a state of antagonism with a government that is supposed to serve you — in the case of Catalonia, the Spanish government — creates a kind of suspension, an unreal quality. It is not unlike living in Trump’s America. It will take a while to have the distance to understand this moment.

How would you describe the attitude American publishers have toward Catalan literature?

Truth be told, publishers are receptive to Catalan literature. They know it is of great quality, they are even more interested now that Catalonia is a trending topic, and they know there is funding, which is an extraordinary help, especially for small publishers. Some publishers have made a real commitment to Catalan literature — Open Letter, Archipelago, Dalkey Archive, for example — and I know others are looking for the next great thing.

What could we be doing better to support Catalan literature and culture?

I think there is a problem with the haphazardness of translations, in what gets translated when, and who connects the dots for the readers.

For example, there is a considerable body of 20th-century Catalan works available now, but as there isn’t an apparatus to relate one book to another, the corpus is invisible. New books appear in isolation, and reviewers, even publishers, often don’t have the information to establish links among the Catalan books or, even more distressingly, between the Catalan books and comparable texts from other literary traditions.

What can we do? Perhaps consider writing articles that would connect those dots and define the canon. By the way, I don’t think this problem is limited to Catalan literature: any less familiar literary tradition faces a similar challenge.

Is there a Catalan writer whose works you would like to translate but don’t because of a perceived lack of interest from publishers?

There are numerous writers whose work I would like to translate. I have a certain confidence, which I hope is not misplaced, that if I presented a project, particularly with the financial backing of the Institut Ramon Llull — which underlies a great deal of the success in bringing Catalan literature to English — it would find a good home. The problem is less with the publishers than with the time I dispose of.

What is your process when conducting a translation?

It really depends on the book, but I tend to do a quick and dirty first draft, making lots of notes and setting down options, and writing queries, and then going back and editing it to death. Four or five readings, and constant revision. It is a luxurious method, in the sense of the luxury of time; as you know, my translations are few and far between.

Do you think of literary translations as a form of self-translation? Do you think of it as a journey? How does translation change or influence your relationship to time and space?

I don’t, really. It is an extraordinary creative process, and I think I have referred to the psychoanalytic quality, the reflective quality, but it also has an artisanal aspect that keeps it real.

It is definitely a form of writing, and a creative vehicle, but it is not like writing from scratch, and there is always the source text between you and yourself.

Who are some of your favorite Catalan authors, and why?

Mercè Rodoreda, beyond any doubt. One of the great 20th-century world writers.

Like Sagarra and Monzó, she is merciless in her portrayals, and yet you also see, with empathy (yours, not hers), how her characters are buffeted by their circumstances and by the trends of history. I love her combination of real, surreal, and hyperreal. J. V. Foix, the poet, is the epitome of surrealism anchored in everyday reality, on a parallel in poetry with Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí in the visual. I love Ausiàs March, the Valencian Renaissance poet, and Tirant lo Blanc, by Joanot Martorell, still gorgeous and eminently readable in David Rosenthal’s translation. And Joan Maragall, the marvelous turn-of-the-century poet who could be a historian, a romantic, or a mystic, by turns.

And, oh my God, do I love Eugeni d’Ors, the “household philosopher” who educated a whole generation of readers (1906–1920-ish) from his daily newspaper column. Joan Fuster, the Valencian essayist, is a dazzling skeptic. I recently learned about Cèlia Suñol i Pla, an elegant midcentury novelist who had been lost and is being relaunched. I would love to translate her. And Marta Rojals, a brilliant chronicler of Generation X. And, finally, in the most chaotic order (I am not following my mandate of making the canon visible), I love love love Francesc Trabal. I encourage people to read his novel, Waltz, translated by Martha Tennent. Oh, wait, and Pere Calders, a mordant and deadpan short story writer (Mara Faye Lethem is working on him, and I look forward to that!). I have to stop.

What are your duties as the chair of the Pen American Translation Committee?

The PEN America Translation Committee advocates for translators within the scope of PEN, in every way PEN advocates for writers. We are concerned with every aspect of translators as writers: their legal and financial status — we are working on establishing contract guidelines with both the Authors’ Guild and a pro bono legal team, their status in publishing and in the hierarchy of writing. We bring to the fore the fact that literary and cultural transmission depends to a great extent on translators and translations, and we press for this to be recognized both in prestige and, concomitantly, in remuneration.

Are you currently working on a translation?

I am recreationally translating Oceanography of Tedium by Eugeni d’Ors. Since it is a little allegorical jewel, whose structure is dictated by its origin as daily newspaper articles, I can go about it in between other things. I haven’t tried to sell it or place it; I’m just doing it for the pleasure of it.


Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Call Me Zebra.

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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