The protagonist of Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, is a translator of Brazilian literature named Emma, who lives in Pittsburgh with her rather boring boyfriend. When Beatriz Yagoda — the author Emma has spent her career translating — disappears, Emma takes the next flight to Brazil to search for the missing novelist and contend with loan sharks, washed-up literary agents, and the unfinished draft of Beatriz’s latest book. The novel’s vivid images and surreal plots were drawn in part from Novey’s experiences in Brazil — she once was trapped in a hotel there for several days during a monsoon.
Novey, a lecturer in creative writing at Princeton since 2013, is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese and the author of two books of poetry, including Exit, Civilian, which was a National Poetry Series winner. She teaches translation, which she says is “a great way to learn how to write. You don’t have to come up with the plot or the material. You’re thinking about questions of register and tone and rhythm and cadence. All you’re focusing on is style.”
Novey spoke with PAW about the art of translation, loan sharks, and surviving a monsoon.
The novel deals with the art of translating and Emma’s complicated relationship to her author. How much do these relationships draw on your own experience?
I translated a novel by a Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who died long before I translated her, which meant I couldn’t ask her any of the questions I had about her work. As a result, she became a kind of phantom voice in my head.
Emma keeps remembering and retelling Beatriz’s stories, which have these vivid images and surreal plots. Where do those images come from?
Those stories came to me like storm fronts. I never knew when they were going to arrive or how long they would last. I just kept my notebook nearby the way one tucks an umbrella into a bag.
How did you research the novel?
I know Brazil fairly well from having lived there and translated a number of Brazilian authors. I developed the scenes from my own memories — street food I tasted there, alleys I got lost in. In the book, a monsoon leaves two characters trapped for days in their hotel — that happened to me.
You alternate between different characters’ points of view. Which of these was the most fun?
It was the loan shark, Flamenguinho. I pictured him as the kind of ridiculous villain one might come across in a Brazilian movie from the Coen brothers, a villain who is threatening but also entertaining and absurd.
Does your translation work affect your writing?
The translation feeds my writing and my writing is fed by my translation. It’s a kind of creative symbiosis. I tell my translation students that learning to translate will make them more innovative stylists in their own writing. In a translation, you don’t have to come up with the plot or the material. You’re thinking about questions of register and tone and rhythm and cadence. All you’re focusing on is style.