February 01, 2016

Idra Novey

The magic and mystery of translation
Interview by
Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear is a clever literary mystery involving the disappearance of a Brazilian novelist and the American translator who travels to South America to find her. Novey is a prize-winning poet and translator, who has also taught writing to men and women in prison.
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Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear is a clever literary mystery involving the disappearance of a Brazilian novelist and the American translator who travels to South America to find her. Novey is a prize-winning poet and translator, who has also taught writing to men and women in prison.

Your debut is full of the most vivid images: the author disappearing into an almond tree, a mutilated ear in the plastic sandwich bag. Is there a scene you began with, something that started the whole novel off?
Absolutely. I’d had the idea for some time of writing a novel about a translator in search of her author. But once the idea came to me of Beatriz disappearing into the almond tree with her book and cigar, everything else came much more quickly.

This book is really about the power of novels—writing them, reading them, translating them. Were you an avid reader as a child?
I read constantly as a child and also randomly. I’d pick up the medical magazines off my father’s desk and read those and also old newspapers in the garage. I read Anne of Green Gables and Flowers in the Attic and everything my friends in the neighborhood talked about, but I also loved reading odd things no one knew or ever asked me about. I didn’t understand most of the sentences in the medical magazines, but I liked trying to decipher them. I guess even then I was drawn to the mysteries of translation.

The story is part literary mystery, part romance but with a comic, almost surreal streak. How did you work to balance these different sensibilities in one novel?
I tried to just trust my instincts about what tone to use to get closest to the emotional truth of any given scene. I find moving between sensibilities as a writer is like moving between languages. Once you feel comfortable with that kind of movement, it feels natural. I speak mostly Spanish at home with my family, but sometimes what’s funny about something we’re discussing only makes sense in English and instinctively we all switch over. That often happens when I speak with the various Brazilian writers I’ve translated from Portuguese as well. Moving between sensibilities keeps things interesting.

How did you start working as a translator?
I was a Comparative Literature major in college and translated a poem for a class my sophomore year. The professor told me he thought the translation was good enough to send out to a literary journal, so I did and they took it. After that, I started publishing my own poems in journals, too. First in campus publications, and then elsewhere. The more I translated the more I changed and grew as a writer, which led me to seek out other writers to translate, and on it went.

There is an intimacy that develops between a writer and translator and we certainly see that in Emma’s response to the novelist’s disappearance. How does translating another person’s work change your experience of that writer?
That is such an insightful question and gets at one of the most fascinating aspects of being a translator. Every book I’ve translated has changed the way I think about writing, both my own and that of the authors I translate, but also about life in general. After a few hours translating Clarice Lispector, I asked myself more spiritual questions. After translating the Argentine writer Vizconde Lascano Tegui, who is very funny and absurd, I noticed more of the humor and absurdity of wherever I happened to go next.

You are a poet, a translator, an essayist and now a novelist. Do you see ways in which the different forms of writing intersect?
As with the back and forth between writing and translating, a similar syncretism happens when working in more than one genre. You end up bringing some poetry into your fiction. Or some narrative suspense into an essay. Or the reflective tone of an essay into a poem. It’s exciting to move between genres and see how they feed into each other.

How has being a translator specifically influenced your work as a poet?
What sounds beautiful to a reader’s ear is different in every language. What makes a sentence lyrical in English wouldn’t necessarily make for a beautiful sentence in Portuguese, for example. In translation you have to invent an equivalent music and inventing music is always good for a poet’s ear.

Who are some new South American writers that we should be looking for?
I’d recommend The Obscene Madame D by the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. It was only recently published in English for the first time so it’s new to readers here though Hilst died in 2004. Like the American writer Lucia Berlin, many celebrated women writers in Brazil like Hilst and Clarice Lispector didn’t get to see their work reach the international audience it’s finally reaching now.

Your book Exit, Civilian, as well as your work with Bard College’s Prison Initiative and with the PEN Prison Writing Committee, has focused on the incarcerated. What drew you to working with this population?
I’ve always sought out opportunities to teach outside academia. When I lived in Chile, I volunteered at a domestic violence center and organized an informal writing group there and I’ve taught poetry in various public schools in New York City. Nicole Wallack, who directs the University Writing Program at Columbia University, where I taught at one point, recommended me for the Bard Prison Initiative because she knew that kind of teaching was important to me.

You have lived in both North and South America. Describe your perfect writing day in any of the places where you’ve lived.
An ideal writing day would begin at dawn on Boipeba or some other Brazilian island that takes multiple boats to reach. Late in the day, after lunch by the ocean, I’d step out into Buenos Aires and roam through its glorious used bookstores or see a play and then magically transport myself to Brooklyn to meet a friend for Bikram yoga and dinner. But an early dinner, so I could get back in time to Boipeba to read in bed with the sound of the ocean outside.


Author photo by Donata Zannotti.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of How to Disappear.

Get the Book

Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316298490

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