Spotlight on Literary Translators is a new feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator C.M. Mayo

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

CMM: Spanish to English, poetry and prose.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

CMM: I learned Spanish when I came to live in Mexico City, married to a Mexican (now my husband of 26 years). When I started writing poetry and short fiction, and having some success in placing my works in various literary journals and anthologies, I realized I was in the perfect situation to start translating Mexican writers, for not only did I have the confidence to try it, but they surrounded me and very little of their work was being translated. I also felt it was a kind of karma – how incuriously odd, it seems to me, that so many American and English writers live in Mexico and never read, never mind attempt to translate any Mexican literature! I suspected – and now, after many years of experience, I firmly believe – that the best literary translators are poets because they take the trouble to put the microscope on each word, each image, to fuss with the rhythms and precision of sounds. I often tell poets who express a vague and timid interest in translating that one does not need to be bilingual, to speak Spanish like a United Nations simultaneous interpreter and own a wall-full of certificates and diplomas to prove it; what you need is to be able to render the work in your own language at a similar level of quality. And of course it helps to have a native speaker at hand (my husband, and oftentimes the poet or writer via email).

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

CMM: It gives me joy to be able to share a wonderful story or poem. Translating is a playful process, like writing a poem on stilts while wearing a mask! And sometimes, ouch, it just doesn’t work. I have found that I resonate with some writers – Agustín Cadena and Mónica Lavín,  in particular –, while some others, well, I’m just not the right translator for them.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

CMM: It’s not literary, in fact the original writing is rather clunky, but I did the first English translation (the first translation of any kind actually) of Francisco I. Madero’s Spiritist Manual of 1911. Madero was not only a leading Spiritist and a medium, but the leader of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution and Mexico’s democratically elected president from 1911-1913, when he was overthrown in a coup and assassinated. Spiritist Manual, which he published under the name “Bhima,” is a crucial document for understanding his political philosophy and hence, the Mexican Revolution itself. My translation is available in a Kindle edition, and later this year, a second edition with a much expanded and revised introduction will be available in various formats, including Kindle, iBook and paperback. The translation was a little tricky; you can read about that here.

A last word: I warmly encourage anyone with an interest in translating to try it. It will enrich your life and your own writing; and so many writers and poets are very grateful for the opportunity to appear in another language. And don’t overlook all the writers who have long ago passed away and whose works are no longer in copyright. Go to it!

Thank you, Lisa, for this opportunity and for your wonderful blog!

LC: It was a pleasure, C.M.! I’ve long been a reader of your Madam Mayo blog and am so glad to feature you here.

Dear readers: Please leave any questions or comments for C.M. Mayo in a comment!

C.M. Mayo is a travel writer, poet, and novelist, whose most recent work is The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books) an historical novel based on a true story of mid-19th century Mexico and named a best book of 2009 by Library Journal. Mayo’s translations of Mexican contemporary literature have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently, Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic (Small Beer Press) and Best Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive). Her own anthology, of 24 Mexican writers, is Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press). She has been a resident of Mexico City for over 20 years. Read more about her writing and translations at