The Bat Segundo Show: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem

Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #289.

Javier Calvo is the author of Wonderful World. Mara Faye Lethem is the translator.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the unseen cantaloupe.

Guests: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem

Subjects Discussed: TK


javiercalvoCorrespondent: I must ask then, Mara Faye, if you had read any other books to get the idiom right in English for this. Because both your translation of this book [Wonderful World] and your translation of Pandora in the Congo strike me as far more specific. It’s almost as if the translation itself can be placed within a neat, genre-specific feel in the prose. And I’m curious if you do it more intuitively or if you actually do, in fact, try and read books surrounding a particular genre or a particular place it might end up. So that it might be more palatable to the English ear.

Lethem: No, I don’t do that. I don’t think that that would be fair to the author. I work with the text. And much more so than the author. Even if he’s in the room next door. Because there are two very separate things. The voice I try to pull from the text itself, not from any other text. Obviously, if the author is working with references — as in Pandora in the Congo, with adventure stories and things like that — it should come through in the original. And so I really try to be as faithful to that as I can. I think a mistake in translation can involve feeling that you know more than the author. It’s like a trap. You think, “Oh, I know what he’s trying to say here.” But you sometimes have to be able to say, “Okay, I can make this choice for him.” Because there’s choices to be made. Definitely. Sometimes, there’s the perfect word. And sometimes there isn’t. You know, there’s no one word that means that in English. But I try to avoid anticipating the author.

Correspondent: But in this case, what did you do to insulate yourself? Because the author here is in the next room. Did you essentially communicate as minimally or as little as possible with Javier? Or what happened here?

Lethem: Oh well, we communicate a lot.

(A noisy siren momentarily interrupts the conversation.)

Lethem: Often about what we’re going to have for lunch. Or who’s going to pick up our daughter from school.

Calvo: I think that the situation where your wife is your translator and you’re living under the same roof — or your husband is the author you’re translating — is a potential nightmare. So it was good that she didn’t really come to me that much or I wasn’t bothering her. And we had some space between us. It’s very easy too to create a professional distance in a question like that. But yeah, it was very good that we didn’t try and work together. And she only came to me when she had an important question or something like that. Because imagine. I think translating your husband’s work might be a pretty good cause for divorce. Potentially.

BSS #289: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

A Bona-Fide Reading Recommendation

Every once in a while, there’s a novel that’s been inexplicably ignored. Ignored in the way that a band or a movie could have been a hit, had it been released five years before or after, but that has the misfortune of being dumped into an uncomprehending crowd like a kewpie doll in a gated community. A book so giddy and nuts that you find yourself slowing down just to savor the madness. A book that causes you to get so lost in its warped world that you laugh loudly on a crowded subway and you are asked by a martinet-faced septuagenarian to “not enjoy yourself so much.” (Yes, this actually happened to me.)

wworld2The book came by accident. But I recognized the translator: Mara Faye Lethem, who also translated Albert Sanchez Pinol’s excellent book, Pandora in the Congo (which I reviewed here). And I thought I’d give it a whirl. Turns out I whirled very right.

The book is Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World. It’s been out for over a month in the States, and only two newspapers have deigned to review it: the Dallas Morning News and The Chicago Sun-Times. Not a peep from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or any of those ostensible organs intended to serve as our tastemakers. And you’ll certainly hear nothing from the Bookforum snobs or The New York Review of Books. This book is beyond them. And I mean that in the best sense.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this book is the real deal. This is an extremely fun book. The kind of novel I find myself jumping up and down over. The kind of book that one would hope all the litblogs would go crazy about. The same way they went crazy over David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y, and numerous others. I mean, I’m enjoying the book that much. This is one of those books for us. How often do you read a book with a Russian thug with dreads who is attempting to cling to his peaceful Rastafarian philosophy as he is about to be tortured by a maniac named Donald Duck? Or a novel constantly obsessed with characters who are “sprawled out” on chairs? Or a mysterious father with a weird fear of windows? Or a completely fabricated Stephen King novel? Or a man wondering why people complain about eating ice cream in the winter as a hooker services him?

If you ask me, the Chicago Sun-Times missed the boat on this. To call this book merely “satirical” or “two-dimensional” is to ignore what a slightly heightened truth can say about the world around us. I should also probably note that Calvo has translated David Foster Wallace. And there are some modest stylistic similarities. But I think the DFW Brigade will be pleasantly surprised by how distinct Calvo is with his odd and wonderfully circumlocutory descriptions (“The way they are consulting the maps and whispering to each other is not so much genuinely conspiratorial. It’s more like the way someone whispers theatrically, giggling and rubbing their hands together, when they want to make abundantly clear to any spectator that they’re conspiring.”)

This is not a book for the stiffs. This is not a book for people who can’t enjoy themselves. And I don’t think I could possibly recommend it to anyone who agrees with James Wood more than 50% of the time. But I can recommend it to anyone who could really use a fun read in this time of shaky economics and swine flu. The kind of punch to the stomach that reminds us that books can, and should, be fun and involving. If only we’d loosen our inhibitions every now and then.