From the Two Lines Press blog, we're happy to share an interview with Catalan writer Toni Sala and his translator Mara Faye Lethem. They recently spoke with Sarah Coolidge about The Boys, the latest book from Two Lines Press. If you weren’t able to attend our book release earlier this month, you can listen to audio from the event.
Sarah Coolidge: Mara, how did you discover The Boys and the work of Toni Sala? What were your first impressions?
Mara Faye Lethem: I first remember being aware of Toni because of a book he wrote in the early naughts about Floquet de neu [Snowflake], the albino gorilla. I was also working on a photo essay about this somewhat tragic Barcelona figure. Later I was asked to translate some of his work, which you can see here.
The Catalan original of The Boys was the debut title of a new publishing house called L’Altra, run by a very talented, brave editor named Eugènia Broggi; we were at the party for the Herralde Prize when she told me—almost in a whisper—that she was leaving the big publishing group and starting her own house. I remember thinking what a bold move that was in the midst of Spain’s worst recession ever, and what good news for Catalan literature.
Both that book and his previous one, Provisionalitat, were chosen by the Institut Ramon Llull to feature in their New Catalan Fiction catalogue, which I write for them, so now that you ask it seems like I was hearing about Toni’s work from all sides.
What I’ve always found most striking about Toni’s prose is how his often turbid meditations—on situations that most likely don’t coincide with yours—still end up feeling like the voice inside your head.
SC: Toni, The Boys takes place within a very narrow timeframe. How long did it take you to write the book and what was going on during that time?
Toni Sala: The writing of The Boys was strange. I was stuck for about year in the first chapter, which was initially a short story, thinking that it was over. Then, in the summer of 2013, in three months I wrote the three other chapters. It was very intense. I don’t know if I would have endured many more months at that rhythm. I remember thinking about the book while underwater, while I snorkeled and watched the fishes.
SC: What was it like having your novel translated? Have you read the English translation?
TS: I have not read the whole translation because I get nervous, and I don’t know enough English to draw any conclusion. Just know that if the book works, if a competent reader finds it acceptable, it is thanks to the translation of Mara Faye Lethem. When a book is translated, its benefits are both to the author and the translator. I think it’s interesting that a translation can cross the bridge across languages: literature works like a universal language, a language as accessible to the human condition as music or mathematics.
Toni Sala is a leading Catalan author and The Boys won the Premis de la Crítica, the most prestigious award in Catalan writing, after its release in Spain in 2014.
This is the first book of Sala's to appear in English, and we're excited to share with you the book that Kirkus Reviews recently called "altogether brilliant".
The Boys is a profound story of how the deaths of two young men change the lives of four individuals in the small town of Vidreres. With intricate meditations worthy of Javier Marías, Sala masterfully conjures the voices of each of the four characters and entwines their lives and their feelings of guilt, fear, and rage over an unspeakable loss.
We hope you agree that this English-language debut puts him in the company of the best world writers.
On November 3 we hosted Sala and translator Mara Faye Lethem (center and right in the above photo, with Two Lines Press Editorial Director CJ Evans at left) for a dynamic reading and discussion at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco. We've posted audio on the Two Lines Press website.
If you needed more reasons to read the book, here are a few: Powell's Books called Sala a "stirring, unique new voice in English translation", and Publishers Weekly gave The Boys a starred review and wrote "Sala is a master of meditation, and the excitement and intrigue are never sacrificed despite digressive passages on Internet alienation, art, violence, phrases of grief, the Spanish recession, and love."
Buy the book now for just $10--a 30% discount off the $14.95 cover price!
“My negritude is not a stone / nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day,” reads one translation of Martinique poet Aimé Césaire’s famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (or Return to My Native Land). The 7th graders at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in North Philadelphia had already translated an excerpt from the poem when Poetry Inside Out’s Mark Hauber and Marty Rutherford visited their classroom last week. The two were in Philadelphia on a follow-up visit with teachers who were part of a Poetry Inside Out workshop during the Philadelphia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in July.
Hauber and Rutherford scheduled their trip to be able to spend two days visiting area schools where students were being introduced to Poetry Inside Out. Now, on the second day of classroom visits, the Cook-Wissahickon students were reciting their translations to the class. Like most of the schools where Poetry Inside Out teaches, the student body there is diverse: 50% white, 35% African-American, 11% “Other” or multiracial, 3% Latino, and 1 % Asian. Poetry Inside Out’s poems from more than 25 languages reflect and tap into this cultural and linguistic diversity.
Between readings, however, students seemed unsure of the context or significance of the poem—essential for any translator, who owes fidelity not only to the words themselves but also to the poet’s intent. What did this poem mean? Almost everyone in the class had translated the repeated phrase “ma négritude” as “my negritude,” but what was “negritude”?
While the word itself is somewhat obscure in the United States, it speaks to issues that are especially relevant today. Aimé Césaire himself defined negritude as, “The simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture”. Though Césaire grew up on the French-colonized island in the Caribbean and wrote the poem during the 1930s, his ideas have crossed seas and influenced nearly a century of subsequent movements.
The class circled back to the author bio included on the poem page and focused on a single word: “movement.” Most students didn't know that it could refer to a group of people organizing toward a political, social, or artistic end. Armed with that critical piece of information, the students were ready to revisit the poem.
And then it clicked. Digging deeper into the poet’s biography and the meaning of that one word, students began making connections between negritude and the Black Lives Matter Movement, between negritude and the Civil Rights Movement. Suddenly the poem held more weight and was related to their own lives and experiences. As the students continued to read their translations, one girl belted hers out with preacher-like emphasis. Another revised her translation to read “my blackness.” For these 12 and 13-year olds, it was no longer about Césaire’s negritude, blackness, or identity, but their own.
Here's the poem:
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (fragment)
ma négritude n’est pas une pierre, sa surdité ruée
contre la clameur du jour
ma négritude n’est pas une taie d’eau morte sur
l’oeil mort de la terre
ma négritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l’accablement opaque de sa droite
Return to My Native Land (fragment)
My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against
the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth's
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience
(translation by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
In October we welcomed Baboon author and poet Naja Marie Aidt back to the Bay Area for a reading during this year's Litquake literary festival. Aidt discussed her new book Rock, Paper, Scissors, recently translated by K.E. Semmel for Open Letter Books, with Two Lines Press editorial director CJ Evans.
Their conversation delved into the book’s plot, the breakdown suffered by its protagonist, the appearance of a Paul Celan poem in the book, the differences between writing poetry and fiction, and Aidt’s relationships with her three English translators.
On November 18, we presented translator Isabel Fargo Cole, the award-winning German authors Ingo Schulze and Inka Parei, and translator Katy Derbyshire at the Brecht-Haus in Berlin to celebrate author Wolfgang Hilbig.
They talked about Isabel’s translations of Hilbig’s book The Sleep of the Righteous, just published by Two Lines Press, and “I,” published earlier this year by Seagull Books. Hilbig was one of Germany's most important post-war writers, but his books have never appeared in English until now.
The bilingual (English and German) conversation ranged widely over Hilbig’s life, his influence, and his importance as a German writer. It also touched on issues with translating his work, and Isabel’s own interactions with Hilbig before he died of cancer in 2007.
Listen to audio from the Naja Marie Aidt event or the Wolfgang Hilbig event on the Two Lines Press blog.