Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < About C.M. Mayo < Interviews <

An Interview with C.M. Mayo
By Lily Liu (ATA Chronicle)

"…Literary translation is an art, and it matters very much how well it is done…"
A talk with the founding editor of Tameme, the annual bilingual journal of new writing from North America, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

From the ATA Chronicle, 2002. Posted by permission of the American Translators Association and Lily Liu.

Lily Liu has translated the essays of contemporary Chinese women writers of the Republic of China. She works as a writer/editor in Washington, DC. Contact: lilyliu99@aol.com.

In 1999, C.M. Mayo founded Tameme, the annual bilingual journal of new writing from North America, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. One of the journal’s goals, she explains, is to serve as a way to make people aware of the art of English to Spanish literary translation, "of the painstaking effort to get every word just right, of finding the elegance, the rhythm, and the charm, if you will, of the original." In bringing artists of the Americas together under one cover, Mayo hopes readers and writers alike will use Tameme as a cultural, as well as literary, forum. The following outlines her efforts to make this vision a reality.

When and whydid you first get the idea to publish a bilingual literary magazine of translations?

It was after the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) had been passed, when I was living in Mexico City and beginning to look around at what was being translated, both from English-into-Spanish and Spanish-into-English. I knew there was a lot of amazing work out there, and I was quite surprised to find how little of it was being translated. I was also surprised by the conservatism of many translators - picking the tried-and-true over newer, and perhaps riskier, writers. For example, I was seeing translations of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty, but none of, say, A. Manette Ansay or Sherman Alexie, two of the writers I think are among the best of their generation. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. After all, a wonderful writer is wonderful to translate, whether they’ve been dead for 500 years or whether they happen to be living and breathing next door. Nonetheless, I wanted to encourage more translations of the many superb but relatively less-known contemporary English- and Spanish-language writers.

What are your goals for Tameme?

One goal for Tameme is to bring out literary translations and to let the magazine serve as a forum for the art of translation. Thus, Tameme includes biographies of the translators and extensive translators’ notes. There is a space reserved at the back where translators may write about whatever they want, from the specific technical issues that came up in the translation, to their general philosophy of translation, or even just anecdotes about how they happened to begin translating.

Championing quality translation is so important. There is such an ocean of ignorance. I’ve had many people tell me, "Oh, why don’t you save money and instead of hiring a translator, just run the story through a computer program?" It curls my toes!

Another goal is to put the writers and readers of North America together. By "North America," I mean anyone who is from and/or lives in Canada, the U.S., or Mexico. Whatever one may think of NAFTA, the fact is that economic and financial ties among Canada, the U.S., and Mexico are becoming stronger. It’s a wonderful thing to get to know more about each other’s cultures and languages. I like to think of, say, a Canadian reader coming across Margaret Atwood in the same issue of Tameme as Alberto Blanco, a Mexican poet he might not have heard of before. Or, similarly, perhaps a Mexican reader might find Edwidge Danticat or Charles Simic next to a favorite, such as Juan Villoro or Coral Bracho.

How did you choose the name, Tameme, and what is its significance?

Tameme (pronounced "ta-meh-meh") is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning "messenger" or "porter."

Who is your target audience?

Anyone who enjoys reading literature, and also English to Spanish and Spanish to English translators. Translators have been the biggest supporters of Tameme, both as contributors and as readers. Nonetheless, because Tameme publishes the translations side-by-side with the originals, it can be read by someone who only reads Spanish as well as by someone who only reads English.

How did you go about turning a dream into reality (recruiting contributors, advertisers, etc.)? Do you have some good anecdotes?

Roger Mansell, my dad, who has more than 25 years of experience in the printing and graphics business, was a big help from the beginning. He gave Tameme space in his office in Los Altos, California, and also helped set up Tameme, Inc. as a California-based nonprofit, which was a very sticky wicket of paperwork!

For the first issue, I asked for work from writers and translators I knew, as well as from members of the editorial advisory board. I also just straight out asked for the work I wanted. That was the case with Margaret Atwood. I found her essay "The Grunge Look" in a PEN Canadian anthology, and wrote to her care of the publisher. She wrote back very kindly granting us permission, and we went ahead and commissioned the translation. That essay is in our first issue.

For the second issue, we cast the net very wide with calls for submissions in Poets & Writers, the Writers Carousel, and all over the Internet. We also sent flyers to around 200 universities. Some of the pieces we received were complete surprises, such as Silvia Tandeciarz’s translations of the poetry of Juana Goergen.

I also attended the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conferences and queried several of the Spanish-language translators. It was at an ALTA conference that I met Cola Franzen, Claire Joysmith, Elizabeth Gamble Miller, and Mark Schafer for the first time. Right there, four amazing translators!

As for advertisers, most of our ads are "exchanges." That is, we provide a free ad to other literary journals and, in turn, they each give Tameme a free ad. It’s an efficient way for a nonprofit "litmag" to get the advertising that our budget would not otherwise permit. I also hope our readers benefit from learning about other journals and translation programs.

When did your first issue come out?

1999. As I mentioned before, this is the one that contained Margaret Atwood’s "The Grunge Look," a hilarious account of her travels in 1960s Europe and how she was always being mistaken for an American. In addition, there was an essay by Mexican Juan Villoro about his eccentric grandmother, and stories by A. Manette Ansay and Edwidge Danticat, and Mexicans Fabio Morabito and Daniel Sada.

What was the reaction to this first issue?

The reaction was, on the one hand, indifference, and on the other, this amazing sort of jump-up-and-down enthusiasm. The indifference mostly came from people who seemed to think that if they don’t read Spanish or have any interest in learning Spanish, it’s not for them. The enthusiasm came from people who love Spanish, have lived in Mexico or Central or South America, and from many people who write in Spanish. They were genuinely excited to see Spanish-language work getting a broader diffusion. Many people wrote us heartfelt letters. I even had a few phone calls from people I didn’t know, just to tell us how much they liked it. So that was really a thrill. We got a very generous review in The Bloomsbury Review and another, for the second issue of Tameme, in the Literary Magazine Review. Several other literary journal editors (including Jack Grapes of ONTHEBUS and Howard Junker of Zyzzyva) sent blurbs. Best of all, the Fund for U.S.-Mexico Culture gave Tameme a generous grant to do the second and third issues.

What was the theme of the second issue?

Issue #2 was entitled "Sun and Moon/Sol y Luna." It featured poems by W.D. Snodgrass, "The Capture of Mr. Sun" and "The Capture of Mr. Moon," together with their illustrations as the cover art, two gorgeous collage-like paintings of the same titles by DeLoss McGraw. The title for the issue, "Sun and Moon," came naturally after the material had been assembled. This issue opens with a very strange and darkly funny essay by Jeff Taylor about working in a meat packing plant. It also includes stories by Lex Williford (winner of the Iowa Prize), Luis Arturo Ramos (one of Mexico’s most outstanding writers), and includes poems by Alberto Blanco, Alvaro Mutis, P.K. Page, Gabriel Zaid, and many others.

As you published additional issues, what were some "lessons learned" from the process?

Getting the text in Spanish to line up with the English side-by-side was much trickier than it looked at first. We had lines jumping and accents that wouldn’t print. Formatting that first issue was a nightmare. With all the snafus, it took us almost six months. Finally, our designer (bless her heart!) got the template down clean. For the second issue, I learned how to use Pagemaker so I could do it myself.

Who helps provide assistance during the editing process?

We have a couple of readers who help with the unsolicted material, and also an editorial advisory board of writers, translators, and readers who often make suggestions and send work. Once the issue has been assembled, I do very little editing; basically copyediting. For the Spanish-language copyediting, I rely on Bertha Ruiz de la Concha, a really splendid Mexican translator and editor.

Tell us about the third issue.

The third issue, "Reconquest/Reconquista," has been made possible by the grant from the Fund for U.S.-Mexico Culture, and I am really excited about it. The theme of "reconquest" runs throughout the issue, and is widely interpreted. For instance, we will feature a poem by Juana Goergen, "Reconquista," and an elegant and very thoughtful essay by Philip Garrison, "The Reconquista of the Inland Empire." One poem, "Arlington House," by Washington, DC-area poet M.A. Schaffner, is about the mansion of Robert E. Lee that now sits in the middle of Arlington Cemetery surrounded by the graves of Union dead. The issue also includes work by Colette Inez, Alberto Blanco, and Eduardo Gonzalez-Viana, a wonderful novelist and short story writer from Peru who lives in Oregon. He is definitely a writer to watch. We’ve also got a beautiful short story by José Skinner, who, by the way, is an accomplished Spanish translator himself.

Please talk about your own background and writing/translating experience.

I moved to Mexico City in 1986 when I got married. I had never studied Spanish, only French and German, so I went to the Monterey Institute in Monterey, California, for an intensive four-week Spanish immersion course. Once in Mexico City, I took more Spanish classes and began working in an international investment bank. By 1988, I was able to teach finance and economics in Spanish. My academic background is in economics (B.A. and M.A., University of Chicago), but ever since I was small I had always written stories. In 1990, I began taking my literary writing seriously and signed up for some summer writers conferences. By 1992, I was publishing stories and poems and had begun to translate Mexican poetry.

As for my current work, I have a book coming out this fall, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico (University of Utah Press), and a book of short stories, Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. I’ve been publishing in literary journals, most recently essays in Fourth Genre and Southwest Review, stories in Natural Bridge and Turnrow, and poetry in West Branch. Right now, I am working on a novel set in Mexico City.

In recent years, my translating of Mexican poems has taken a back seat to editing Tameme, though I do have some translations of poems by Tedi Lopez Mills in the anthology edited by Monica de la Torre and Michael Wiegers, Reversible Monuments (Copper Canyon, 2002).

What has been the most "fun" aspect of publishing Tameme?

The fun part is finding something I feel really thrilled about bringing to a translator and to new readers. I’ve also enjoyed choosing the cover art. I like to have something kind of strange, powerful, and crazy-bright with colors. The translators’ notes, when they come in, are always a treat to read.

What has been the most challenging aspect?

The challenging parts of editing Tameme are: 1) the paperwork (just crushing at times), and 2) having to say "no" to so many of the submissions we receive. It’s never easy to say "no," but, alas, there are only so many pages we can print. If we had no monetary limitations, we could come out more frequently. As it is, we can manage "once a year-ish."

Do you have any suggestions about how to get literary translations published?

I really encourage anyone who is interested in trying to publish some literary translations to go ahead, try it! I think it’s easier to start with something relatively small, say, a poem you really like. Have a go at it, and then if you don’t have an address for the writer, simply write to him or her care of the publisher. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, writers are thrilled to have a translator take an interest in their work.A literary journal is the best place to send a literary translation. But I think the first thing to have clear is that literary journals, and I mean both the specialized translation journals such as Tameme, Beacons, and Two Lines, and the wide range of U.S. and Canadian literary journals that also consider translations, are open to unsolicited work. That means you don’t have to know the editor. Just check out the submission guidelines and then send in your work.

It is crucial to understand that "litmags" are nonprofit. None of them, however fancy their covers may appear, make a profit. Few have paid staff, and those few that do have very small staffs. In short, for the editors, it’s a labor of love. (That also means that your "payment" will most likely be two copies of the journal. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, literary translation for literary journals is not a way to make money.) Thus, it is important to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply, and to respect the editors’ time by having your permissions all lined up before you start sending translations out. A brief and business-like cover letter is fine. It should include: 1) your name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address; 2) the basic information of what you are offering; 3) a copy of a letter from the poet or writer granting permission to publish the translations; and 4) a brief biographical note about yourself. More than a page of information, I think, is clutter. It also helps to keep in mind that literary journals receive mountains of unsolicited work, so even excellent work can receive a rejection slip. No need to get discouraged. It’s just a question of being persistent and to keep sending, sending, sending. One writer compared sending work out to throwing spaghetti noodles against the wall; you never know which one will stick!

On my website (www.cmmayo.com) I have a workshop page with an essay containing more detail about submitting work to literary journals. It is meant for my writing students, but most of the advice also applies to submitting translations. Publishing in a literary journal can be very encouraging, both for the translator and for the writer or poet. I can’t recommend it enough.

Where can one find journals to submit literary translations?

One place to start is in your local bookstore, though not all carry literary journals, and even the best-stocked stores do not carry all of the many wonderful journals that are out there. Public and university libraries often have excellent collections. And, there are directories of listings of journals with brief descriptions, addresses, and so on in The Writers Market. On the web, a superb source of information is the website of the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses (www.clmp.org), which has links to many of its members. Last June, I attended the New York City Literary Magazine Festival where there were 105 "litmags" represented. There is certainly no shortage of places to send work! In fact, several editors told me they were very eager for more submissions of translations.

You are wearing two different hats simultaneously litmag editor and creative writer. Any advice for others?

Writers are often interested in starting litmags because they want to publish their own writing. I think that’s something to be very cautious about, because when motives are mixed, the quality can get muddy. It’s challenging to remain objective about one’s own writing. How can one be objective about one’s own child? So, for me, Tameme is about translating and editing, and my own writing I send elsewhere. There are, of course, many cases of editors including their own writing in their journal. I am thinking of Harry Smith’s deliciously puckish essays that he published in The Smith. The one rule of the literary life is there are no rules.

You have a home in both the U.S. and Mexico. What insights into the culture of Mexico has the literature of that country given you?

Much of the literature of Mexico comes out of Mexico City, which is not any more representative of the country than, say, Manhattan is of the vast spaces between Seattle and Miami. With that caveat, the literature has shown me a Mexico that is the cliché of cacti and campesinos, but also very cosmopolitan¾ interested in the Rolling Stones and Bach, Madonna, Princess Di, and shopping trips to Houston. At the same time, it is a country with a connection to its past that extends to the remote provinces. So I would have to say a sense of the overwhelming importance of Mexico City. In terms of its cultural, financial and political importance, it’s like a Washington DC, New York City and Los Angeles rolled into one. On the other hand, not all of Mexico’s literature is coming out of Mexico City, nor is it necessarily in Spanish. Monica de la Torre and Michael Wieger’s new anthology of Mexican poetry, Reversible Monuments, includes poems in several indigenous languages— and their style and content were, for me, something entirely new.

But what is the definition of "the literature of the country?" I like to think of it as including the writing of foreigners about Mexico. There is Calderon de la Barca’s unparalleled Life in Mexico, Gooch’s Among the Mexicans, Crosby’s Last of the Californios, Flandreau’s Viva Mexico, and Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. More recently, a whole new Mexico was opened to me through reading the American journalist San Quinones’ True Tales From Another Mexico. And then there is Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist who writes in English for The New Yorker.

Currently, I’m reading Maximilian von Habsburg’s astonishingly vivid and elegant Memories of My Life. He was an Austrian archduke, but also the emperor of Mexico. One of the greatest books ever written was the Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Casillo’s memoir The Conquest of Mexico. In short, narrowing the definition gets complicated.

Do you have a favorite Mexican writer?

There are so many— Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Villoro, Alberto Blanco, Coral Bracho, Fabio Morabito…

What do you wish your legacy will be as editor of Tameme?

I hope Tameme will be remembered as having brought writers to new readers, and having helped bring the message that literary translation is an art, and that it matters very much how well it is done. I would be thrilled if Tameme were remembered as having come along in the footsteps of some of the earlier international literary journals that featured translation, such as Botteghe Oscure, El Corno Emplumado, and Mandorla. I was inspired by their examples and I hope Tameme, in turn, will inspire others to start international literary journals, and especially journals that feature translation.