Found in Translation

Article by mark

Salvador Novo (1904-1974) was a noted Mexican poet, playwright and intellectual known for his place amongst the modernist writers group Los Contemporáneos as well as his brave and unapologetic attitude towards his own homosexuality during an era where machismo was king. Written in 1945, but not published until 2008, Novo’s memoir, PILLAR OF SALT, describes, in unabashed detail, Novo’s coming of age during the brutal years of the Mexican Revolution. PILLAR OF SALT teems with vivid descriptions of Mexico on the verge of industrialization. It is a superb memoir, beautifully honest and brimming with Novo’s unique voice.

The most recent edition of PILLAR OF SALT, translated from the Spanish by Marguerite Feitlowitz, came to us directly with a written recommendation from the University of Texas Press’s Brian Contine. He said, "I know how much you guys love translations. You've never seen anything like this." In addition to the memoir, the book includes a brief but in-depth historical introduction by Carlos Monsiváis and and nineteen erotic sonnets written by Novo. When Brian heard about our enthusiasm for the book, he put us in touch with Marguerite to discuss the work involved in translating Novo.

We conducted this interview with Ms. Feitlowitz via email

BB: Your translation is very lucid and straightforward; was the source of your translation a manuscript of Salvador Novo’s or a Spanish-language edition of his memoir and poems?
MF: Estatua de Sal was originally published in 1945. However, I worked from the 2002 edition, which was prepared with great expertise by the late great Mexican publisher Guillermo Rousset Banda, and issued in 2002, with the Monsiváis introduction, by the Mexican Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes [National Consortium for Culture and the Arts). Rousset Banda had been very close to Novo, who brought him the pages for several of his major books, including the 18 Sonetos (1954) and the Poesia Completa (1955).

BB: Whenever we tell people about the subject matter of PILLAR OF SALT they always say that they know very little about that particular period of history and/or subject. What first drew your attention to Novo and his writings? Has this period of history been of interest to you for a long time?
MF: Actually, I was in the same boat, so I did a fair amount of background reading. I was invited to undertake the translation by Theresa May, who until just recently and for many years brilliantly directed the University of Texas Press. Novo’s writing immediately captivated me; the combination of elegance, humor, role-playing, and brave exposure was just extraordinary. The “feel” of his sentences as I worked was delicious; his prose is beautifully crafted, and yet feels natural.

BB: We imagine translating is a very intimate process, and Novo tells all but in such a way that you feel like you’re only getting a sip of the juiciest secret. What were some of the biggest challenges - if any - in translating Novo’s writing?
MF: Your intuition is absolutely right. Translation is an intimate activity; you need to get inside the text; and it’s as a writer in your own language that you find your way out, toward your readers. Now that I think of it, it’s a lovely combination of the personal and the public. As for challenges with Novo: as you point out, he can sometimes withhold as much as elsewhere he reveals. And yet there is never any murkiness in his writing; everything is limpid, every word feels right. One tries to live up to that! In some of the sonnets, for example, he writes down-and-dirty sex in rigorously formal verse. While I did not transfer his rhyme scheme line for line, I did work to achieve a high level of formality in which to enfold the “scandalous” content.

BB: What is your process for translating a book? How do you negotiate between an author’s intention and the direct, literal translation of their written words? Does this process change between translating his memoir and his poems? Did you try anything different or out of the box for this particular work?
MF: Every book is different. A great deal, at least for me, depends on the genre. I’ve translated many plays, and there the lines need obviously to be spoken, they need to feel right in the mouth, in an actor’s mouth; each line needs to move things forward. With prose works, I usually start by making a fast “sketch” or draft, and then I go back to correct, revise, and refine. You ask if for this book I needed to try out new things: the sonnets—for the reasons I mentioned above—presented a special challenge. Thank the gods for thesauri and rhyming dictionaries! I’ve lately been translating some wonderful stories by the Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela; as I knew these texts would end in unexpected ways, I cast only a glance at the final pages before translating them; I wanted to have the experience of surprise as an integral part of my process.

BB: Some of the passages from PILLAR OF SALT read like an adventure story (the passage where Pancho Villa’s men murder Novo’s uncle is especially harrowing); was there anything that surprised you about Novo, Los Contemporáneos, or Mexican History during the translation?
MF: I am glad you mention that parts of PILLAR OF SALT are harrowing—not out of any perverse desire to attract readers through fear-mongering, but because it attests to Novo’s bravery in the face of brutality. The Revolution was fought, often guerrilla style, from house to house, including that of the Novo family. And, yes, there is, as you say, a great deal of adventure in these pages: his coming-of-age; his outright pluck and inventiveness; his hatred of hypocrisy, which often led to scenes that are as hilarious as they are unsettling.

BB: We loved some of the nicknames that Novo and his compatriots used to describe their friends…
MF: Novo was incredibly social, and as you point out, he had a genius for nicknames. These were sometimes tough, to be honest: the monikers hold several layers of satire, self-satire, and cleverness born of rage.

BB: How does your own imagination and interpretation play into translating a book into English?
MF: Translation is indeed an act of interpretation. That’s why it’s so instructive to read multiple translations of the same text. In my courses on The Art of Literary Translation, we always do this: I particularly like looking at translations, say, of Racine or Góngora, Dante or Cervantes, done over the course of centuries. One can see what each translator emphasized (rhyme? cadence? vocal texture? pacing?), saw or heard in each word and phrase. I couldn’t say exactly how my own imagination plays into my translations, and that’s probably a good thing. Translation is the meeting of two writers, with all the intuitive dynamics that implies; but one’s first allegiance is to the text in question, to its ways and habits of expression.

BB: What was your first literary translation? Your favorite? What is your next project?
MF: I made my first literary translations in college (Colgate University), at the suggestion of a much-admired professor, Joseph P. Slater, who had edited Emerson’s letters. Professor Slater encouraged me to translate T.S. Eliot’s French poems during my time studying in France; I did this (the poems are slight, but the exercise got me hooked). My first published translation was a collection of plays by Liliane Atlan, a French Holocaust playwright, poet, and novelist. There too I was brought in to the project by chance: Elinor Fuchs, the esteemed theatre critic, was compiling the anthology Plays of the Holocaust, and James Leverett, the eminent dramaturg and my then-boss at Theatre Communications Group (TCG) suggested me. One of those plays, Mister Fugue, is found in Elinor’s anthology; and that play together with two others works comprise Theatre Pieces: An Anthology by Liliane Atlan. The late Bettina Knapp, who had written extensively on French literature and theatre, did the Introduction for that volume; and she was an essential support. I’d go to her gorgeous, art-filled apartment on West 86th St, in Manhattan, from my own fleabag a couple of blocks away, early in the morning; she’d feed me breakfast and we’d go over every word. I was very young and she was very learned; it was thrilling!

It is hard to say if I have a favorite project, I have loved them all. But the work I did on Griselda Gambaro, whose writing was banned by the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-83) led me to my first original book, A LEXICON OF TERROR: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Oxford University Press). My encounter with Griselda opened a new world for me as a writer, scholar, and translator. It marked a huge turning point in my life.

Among the translation projects I have in hand are a short novel by Luis Gusmán and short stories by Luisa Valenzuela, both Argentines.

BB: We’ve read that you speak (or understand) Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish. That’s incredible! What inspired you to learn it? What kind of work, if any, have you done with the language?
MF: I fell in love with Ladino many years ago while living in Barcelona around the corner from an antiquarian bookseller who had some amazing volumes. I have not, or let me say, have not yet made any literary translations from Ladino. There are numerous Ladinos—in Spain, Italy, France, Portugal. I am Jewish, with a mother who was Italian, and so languages (English, Italian, French, some Yiddish) were just naturally a part of our family life, and I’ve always been grateful for it. But you asked about Ladino. A particularly beautiful contemporary Ladino work is by the late great Argentine poet Juan Gelman: it’s called Dibaixu, and is printed bilingually, in his Spanish and Ladino. Gelman had been inspired by the French-Bosnian poet Clarisse Nicoïdski, whose poems he’d read in her Ladino. So you see, one language leads to another and to another and before you know it, there’s a new work of literary genius!

Thank you, Mary and Mark, and to all of you who work and shop at Brazos Bookstore for your support of works in translation and for this opportunity to talk about PILLAR OF SALT.

Thank you, Marguerite! We have copies of PILLAR OF SALT in the store for anyone whose interest is piqued!

Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets Cover Image
By Salvador Novo, Marguerite Feitlowitz (Translator), Carlos Monsivais (Introduction by)
$35.00
ISBN: 9780292705418
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: University of Texas Press - April 1st, 2014

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