A Bit Like Paint-By-Numbers: An Interview with Mara Faye Lethem

MARA FAYE LETHEM is one of the translators of Albert Sánchez Piñol, a Catalan writer whose debut novel Cold Skin, a sparse psychological thriller, caused a sensation in Spain. Lethem also translated Piñol’s second novel, Pandora in the Congo, a fabulist tale that is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and horrifyingly tragic. She is currently at work on Max Besora’s novel The Adventures and Misadventures of the Unknown Yet Remarkable Joan Orpi, forthcoming from Open Letter Books and originally published in Barcelona by Editorial Males Herbes, one of the most cutting-edge publishers in Catalonia.

Originally from Brooklyn, Mara Faye Lethem now lives in the vibrant Raval Nord neighborhood of Barcelona. Dynamic, diverse, and restless, El Raval is home to some of best restaurants and vermouth bars the city has on offer. It is also home to The Catalan National Library, located in a historic building that used to be the Hospital de la Santa Creu de Barcelona. Unfortunately for me, Mara Faye and I conducted our exchange over email, not in a café, over a glass of chilled vermouth.

Mara Faye Lethem and I discussed how our childhood experiences led us to literature, the ongoing repercussions of the oppressive politics of the Franco dictatorship, and the complex relationship between the Spanish transition to democracy and the Catalan Independence Referendum in 2017, which landed so many politicians and civilian political activists in jail or in exile.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: How did you come to literary translation?

MARA FAYE LETHEM: In some ways I stumbled into it, by virtue of where my life led me and the contacts that I had. And yet, once I did, there were elements that seemed to connect the dots with many other preparatory moments: my grandmother was an amateur linguist and autodidact whose example both challenged and embarrassed me in different ways; I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where knowing a few key words of Spanish saved me from a couple of black eyes; I was drawn to study Latin, and spent a year of college in Madrid; et cetera.

I feel that certain aspects of my desire to both escape and fit in, my co-dependence and my Zelig impulses, all came together in translation. That said, it was quite a few years before I could make a living at it.

When did you first travel to Catalonia? When did you become aware of it as a region with a distinct cultural identity?

I visited Barcelona briefly right before the Olympics were held here in 1992, between a short stint staying at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and my junior year in Cuatro Caminos, Madrid. I think I went to the beach.

In Madrid, I recall someone warning me that if I were bleeding in the street in Barcelona but couldn’t ask for a band-aid in Catalan, I’d be out of luck. That offhand comment was the first small seed of my interest in the powerful link between Catalan language and identity.

Did you ever feel resistance to the idea that Catalan language and identity have been historically repressed in the Iberian Peninsula?

No; if anything, I was shocked by how explicit the linguistic politics in early Francoism were (although Catalan language also suffered periods of repression prior to Franco). As a New Yorker, I was very familiar with the implicit hegemony of English; very few of us spoke the language of our grandparents, and our educational system continues to quite effectively foster monolingualism. The decline of smaller languages as a general trend wasn’t a new idea to me, yet banning public use and publication overtly, policemen insisting someone “Speak Christian!” … that was different.

Of course, current linguistic politics in Catalonia are still responding to those bans. A shift in my understanding came when I read a quote from a Catalan Minister of Linguistic Politics, who said, and I’m paraphrasing: Every state has linguistic policies, some have them encoded into law. This intersection between politics and culture, the political intrusion into and buttressing of something as personal as language, continues to fascinate me in its complexity.

Many of the Catalan books you’ve translated deal with themes of loss, family, violence, alienation, and finding refuge in art. How do these themes speak to you personally? What parts of your own memories and lived experiences do they bring to life?

Every translation requires research, and spending months with a book makes it a part of my life, though of course some books are closer to my experiences than others, and I learn something from all of them. It’s a bit like paint-by-numbers.

What is the most enjoyable part of translating Albert Sánchez Piñol, and what is the most challenging?

The most enjoyable parts are also the most challenging. It’s the humor. Sánchez Piñol is a fabulous storyteller, and very funny. He fixes his anthropologist’s gaze on history and human nature, which is his great strength, but my mind doesn’t have that long-view vision. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.

Do you follow Catalan politics, and how do you read the current political crisis? How has the current exile and imprisonment of Catalonia’s political leaders influenced your translation practice?

The trials going on now for the political prisoners are very hard to watch. The fact that the media is not allowed to use the term “political prisoners” or “exile” is also hard to live with. That these people have been imprisoned for more than a year is unconscionable. Elections were approaching, and we had candidates in prison? Two of them were not even politicians, just members of civil society who were working to organize a vote. That the constitution doesn’t allow for such a vote — well, first of all the Spanish constitution is younger than I am, I mean, if more than a million citizens take to the streets in a peaceful call for a referendum, certainly we have cause to consider amending the constitution to address these concerns? The Spanish transition to democracy involved sweeping far too many things under the rug, and as a society this has become harder and harder to ignore. We don’t have the answers in part because we continue to be denied the possibility of posing certain questions, and that has stifled the growth of ideas on both sides, and currently left us stuck in a sort of tragic farce. I am actually reading a novel now that deals with the events since 2017, written by Marc Pastor, a member of the Catalan autonomous police force by day, that poses an alternate history in which the Fifth Catalan Republic is declared; there’s a lot of material there.

How would you describe the attitude American publishers have toward Catalan literature? What could we be doing better to support Catalan literature and culture? 

In general, I think American literature is enriched by translations, and those translations are enriched when they are contextualized within a greater understanding of the culture and history whence they emerge.

How did your relationship with Two Lines Press, And Other Stories, and Open Letter Books begin, and how has it evolved over time?

I began translating in Barcelona, so I have a lot of relationships with editors and agents there, so usually it begins with a sample I’ve done, or a recommendation. With Open Letter, I knew Chad Post for a while because of his Three Percent blog, before we started doing a book together.

Do you receive funding from Catalan institutions such as Ramon Llull, and if so how do those conversations steer your options as a translator?

Translators don’t receive funding directly from the Institut Ramon Llull, but they support most everything I translate from Catalan. I feel very lucky in that way. I just happened to fall in love with a language that is sort of like a membership in a very sophisticated club. Més que un club! The IRL has great taste and has expanded my reading considerably; I write their annual New Catalan Fiction catalog. They don’t support texts within Catalonia; that’s a different part of the Generalitat.

What is your favorite region in Catalonia?

Raval Nord forever! That’s my neighborhood.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of Catalonia? Catalonia is a very complex region and people have differing opinions with regard to autonomy, independence, and sovereignty, as well as the way the referendum was executed. Is this tension palpable to you in your everyday life?

At this point in time, I feel more optimistic about the future of Catalonia than I do about the future of many parts of our divided world. I’ve been moved by the power of peaceful mass demonstrations over recent years that clearly show there is a need to reassess some aspects of the relationship between autonomous regions and the central government.

Spain has not risen to the occasion, to put it mildly. Whether there is to be a “divorce” — I’m borrowing a metaphor from Antonio Baños — or a reconciliation — à la the “Better Together” campaign seen in the UK (which I love because it sounds like an Al Green song) when the Scots held their referendum on statehood, there will have to be dialogue and respectful negotiation. A negotiation between Catalonia and Spain — but also a negotiation, a coming to terms, within Catalonia as a society, a way of bringing together varying images of our political future. None of that is as simple as, “No, the constitution doesn’t allow that” or, “We’re fed up, goodbye,” or even, “I feel Spanish and Catalan.” I pray for an increasingly more nuanced debate, on all sides. The Catalonia I love is plural — we are a port in the Mediterranean! — and is capable of a very high level of political debate. I have to hope that this palpable tension is growing pains for our young democracy.

How has Catalan literature and the Catalan language acquired or internalized the violence of historical and contemporary events that have shaped the Iberian Peninsula? In what ways has the language — which has its own history as a linguistic event — evolved, changed, responded to interruptions over time?

The Catalan language is inextricable from the history of its suppression, for both good and bad. It is a language that is highly representative of a culture, and there is much pride that comes out of that resistance to go gentle into the night. Catalan is a world reference for linguistic recovery, and I love that Spain has four official languages; when you compare that to France, or Italy’s treatment of their linguistic diversity, it’s very special.

On the other hand, I feel that Catalan language has sometimes had to bear too much weight as a cultural signifier, and all the “normalization” can actually take away from the normality of communication, if there’s a feeling that the grammar police are listening. Although that has improved considerably now that Catalan is the language of instruction in schools; that has been a fantastic tool for inclusion and cohesion, and something I feel is very important to protect.


Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Call Me Zebra, winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in GRANTA, Guernica, the Paris Review, BOMB Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


Banner image: “Biblioteca de Catalunya – Nau de tramuntana” by Josep Renalias is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.