Interview with Literary Translator Mark Fried
by Jesse Tomlinson
Mark Fried is a literary translator who lives in Ottawa, Canada. Jesse Tomlinson is an interpreter and translator, originally from Ottawa, who now lives in Mexico.
Jesse Tomlinson: What made you decide to become a literary translator?
Mark Fried: I’ve always been a reader, and after I learned Spanish in university I wanted to share the pleasure I got from Latin American literature with English speakers. Thanks to a fortuitous friendship with a marvelous literary translator, Cedric Belfrage, whom you might call my mentor, I was able to bring that urge to fruition.
JT: What was your first literary translation publication?
MF: My first book was We Say No, a collection of essays by Eduardo Galeano, followed soon by Rebel Radio, a terrific oral history of the radio station run by the Salvadoran guerrillas, by José Ignacio López Vigil. My first fiction was Galeano’s Walking Words.
JT: It’s incredible that your first publication was a book written by Eduardo Galeano. How did this come about?
MF: When I was in my late twenties I was living in Mexico City and doing a master’s degree at the national university. My friend Cedric Belfrage, who lived in nearby Cuernavaca, was translating Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire. Cedric was about 80 and had always typed with his two index fingers. We were both working for the English edition of a leftist magazine staffed mostly by Brazilians and Uruguayans in exile. We all worked on manual typewriters back then, this was before computers. At one point, Cedric had a stroke and lost the use of one arm. I stepped in to type for him and that turned into a mentorship in literary translation that lasted several years and two books. When Cedric passed away a few years (and two more books) later, I was editor of a different left-wing magazine in New York City and had published and corresponded with Galeano. His agent approached me about taking over from Cedric.
JT: What helpful and not-so-helpful work habits have you developed over the years?
I read the original, sometimes several times, until I can hear the voices of the narrator and characters clearly. Then I read my translation out loud to ensure those voices remain.
I have learned to distrust my instincts, and force myself to think afresh at every step.
I think of translating like acting on the stage. And I play all the characters.
JT: Practical considerations are of particular interest to many translators. How do you sustain interest and enthusiasm for a piece when it requires so long to translate?
MF: I only do books that I love. And I love translating.
JT: Do you have one editor that you work with?
MF: No, each book gets sold to a different publisher, and even when it is the same publisher, editors get moved around all the time.
JT: Does your contracting process enable you to decide who the editor is?
MF: Not at all.
JT: When you hand in a translation, how perfect is it? How many mistakes would an editor find?
MF: I go through at least ten versions before I hand a manuscript in. Editors can be very helpful in catching things that don’t sound right in English, but they rarely know the source language. The copyeditor finds spelling mistakes and sometimes other things. For example, in one book that takes place over a week, the author left out Friday. Finally, the proofreader goes through to catch any usage or spelling errors that may have crept in. I review the manuscript at each stage.
JT: Do you own the copyright to your translations?
JT: What do you think are the one or two most common pitfalls that lie in wait for literary translators in regard to contracting? What suggestions do you have for addressing these pitfalls?
MF: You’ve noted one: copyright. If you lose it, you lose control over what is done with your work. Another is recognition: I always ask for my name to be on the front cover, and usually I get it.
JT: Do you use a CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tool?
MF: No. What is that?
JT: How do you accommodate the range of styles among various authors?
MF: I hear their voices and reproduce them. The hardest style to match was that of Cuban author Severo Sarduy. He crams in as many adjectives as he can, and even Spanish-speakers read him with a dictionary. Élmer Mendoza is difficult too. He writes in continual dialogues or monologues, all in the colourful speech of northern Mexico. It’s a lot of fun, but requires a lot of invention as well.
JT: How do you recommend beginning literary translators approach this challenge?
MF: Allow yourself to be creative. You are writing the book, after all.
JT: Do you have a particular literary translation style, or does it change depending on the author?
MF: I reproduce the author’s style, of course.
JT: What impact did working with Eduardo Galeano have on your style as a literary translator?
MF: See above. I reserve my style for my own writing.
JT: What Galeano book did you enjoy translating the most?
MF: I’ve loved them all. Perhaps Soccer in Sun and Shadow was the most fun, since it required learning a new language, that of soccer.
JT: Galeano called you his “twin.” What are the chances of having more twins?
MF: He was a very kind and generous man.
JT: How would you describe your relationship with Galeano?
MF: We understood each other, liked each other. Our relationship allowed for each to challenge the other’s work – and thanks to that we saved each other from more than a few embarrassments.
JT: Now that your time as Galeano’s translator has come to an end, how will new work land on your doorstep?
MF: A couple of publishers have indeed contacted me. I am busy now translating an author whom I sought out, Élmer Mendoza. I found a publisher for him who has committed to three books.
JT: Your latest, Silver Bullets, looks exciting and stimulating. Galeano was Uruguayan. Mendoza is Mexican. You said you lived in Mexico some years ago. How do you stay connected with Mexican culture when you are living in Canada?
MF: I’m afraid I don’t, other than reading and remembering.
JT: Thank you, June Webber, for connecting me with Mark. Thank you, Mark, for taking the time to answer my questions.
How did you get your start in literary translation? Did it have anything to do with a mentor? Does anything else about your experience mirror Mark’s? Let us know in a comment!
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