Mara Faye Lethem (her brother is the novelist Jonathan Lethem) will publish two translations, Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sanchez Piñol and Wonderful World by Lethem's husband, Javier Calvo.
Was there a big focus on literature in your family growing up, or did you and your brother come to your respective careers separately?
I wouldn't say there was a particular focus on literature. Our father is a painter, so there was creativity around. There was never, let's say, the pressure to become a lawyer.
As a translator, do you tend to favor a more literal interpretation of the author's words, or focus more on preserving the author's intent?
You have to find something that works in English. Sometimes it can be a mental puzzle that can be very satisfying once you solve it, and sometimes it's a compromise that there's no perfect answer to. I try to maintain a balance. In terms of trying to convey the author's style, I try to stick very close to the text. But on the other hand, if you're too strict about it, it can lead to very stilted prose. I think of it sometimes as a balance between humility and self-confidence. You have to not feel that you are the author, that you are a tool, and that's where the humility comes in. But then the self-confidence comes in when you have to make an executive decision for the good of the reader and the author, and you have to know that that's okay, that's part of your job.
In the beginning—and I'm 50 pages into a 500 page novel just now, so I'm feeling this awkwardness of the start of a translation to get into it. But then after a while, it sort of has its own momentum and you kind of get into the writer's skin and speak with their voice.
On Pandora and Wonderful World, they're very different in style and story, but do you think they share a certain sensibility?
I don't really see them as thematically linked. I think Sanchez Piñol is more kind of story driven, whereas Wonderful World has more obvious stylistic elements that come into play in the prose. The one thing that's similar about the books is that they're both funny, and it's great fun to translate and convey that humor. But I do think that they're both very imaginative books.
Were there ever times you and Javier disagreed about how a phrase or passage in Wonderful World should be translated?
There were some moments of that, and I think again that that's an example of the self-confidence. For Javi, English is his third language, and he speaks [it] very well. However, I had to be the final authority. So it was interesting because when you say no, the author isn't the final say on the translation, the translator is.