Q&A: The vapor between languages: Idra Novey on writing and translation

“For translation to be an art, you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions an artist makes.” The words are spoken to the translator-protagonist of Idra Novey’s debut novel, though after our recent conversation, they also feel like an imperative from the author herself.

Novey — poet, translator, and now novelist — has created something special with the brisk, beautiful “Ways to Disappear” (Little, Brown: 258 pp, $25), a book that blooms in the spaces between languages, between continents, between selves past and present. A kind of South American noir, the story concerns Beatriz Yogada, a famously eccentric Brazilian novelist whose disappearance (and staggering gambling debts) leaves her English translator and her two children entangled with the criminal underworld, the ravenous media and each other. In brief, lyrical chapters, arch dictionary excerpts, desperate emails and Radio Globo news bulletins, Novey explores the ways in which the act of translation exceeds the boundaries of text to become a necessary interpretive tool for the messiness of modern life.

Novey teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University. She has written two books of poetry and the translator of four books from Spanish and Portuguese, most recently Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector’s “The Passion of G.H.” Novey spoke to me by phone.

You already have two books of poetry and multiple translations to your name. What has the experience of publishing a debut novel been like?


I’ve been thrilled by the reception the novel has had, but it’s certainly a new kind of experience. I’m used to operating on the margins. Translators, unless they’re translating religious texts and get killed for heresy, tend to disappear from the public record. And most poets, unless they have a tragic death or kill themselves, tend to disappear from the record too — especially women. But there’s also a freedom that comes from knowing nobody is paying attention to you. It’s easier to dismiss the rules, to dismiss the idea of genre and any other conventions that don’t fit with the kind of work you are most moved to create.

Your novel is sensitive to the revelations and evasions of being multilingual, what you call “the vapor between languages.” How did your work as a translator inform this approach to the novel?

Much of my life takes place in that vapor between languages. I speak Spanish at home with my family and write in English and translate from Portuguese. Constantly moving between languages keeps a person mentally adventurous. I think it made me a more adventurous writer and not just at the sentence level but also in the sort of high-stakes story I ended up creating in the novel.

Translators are regularly marginalized in the literary world. Do you see your book, in which the protagonist is a translator, as a kind of rectification or inversion of this situation?

I set out to invert many things in this novel, but yes, the way we depict translators was certainly one of them. I wrote the novel I couldn’t find. I’d come across several works of fiction about translators but the portrayals didn’t quite ring true. The risk-taking, the reckless joys of translation, the generous spirit that drives many people to become translators, something was always missing. Once I came up with the online poker part, I thought why not? Why not write the novel I was longing to read?

While this novel celebrates language, it also seems to assert the unreliability of words, their ambiguities, their inadequacies. Is your relationship to language contentious?

I would say my relationship to language is more rapturous than contentious. I live for the rapture of focusing so intently on the words in a scene that I forget what country I’m in. Although maybe the deepest pleasure working with language is figuring out what to leave unsaid. In the alley scene in the novel, one of the characters brings a gun. I went back and forth about whether to have the presence of the gun discussed or have the fact revealed some other way, without words. After a gun goes off in a scene, what was left unsaid — beforehand — creates its own kind of rapture.

Elements of magical realism are present, particularly the descriptions of Beatriz Yagoda’s novels offered by your characters. What is your relationship to the genre? Was engaging with that tradition important to you?

I’m resistant to aligning myself with that term because it refers to a very specific time in Latin American literature. I see myself writing more in the American tradition of writers like Denis Johnson or George Saunders or Karen Russell who experiment with a kind of slippery realism. In Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son,” one story begins in a hospital that feels familiar enough until a character yanks a large object out of a patient’s eye and it works out. The patient lives. Johnson moves in and out of realism in such a slippery, unpredictable way in that book. It’s exhilarating to read.

Is there any work in translation you’ve read recently that deserves mention here?

The French writer Marie NDiaye’s “Self Portrait in Green” is phenomenal. Talk about a master of slippery realism. I’m really looking forward to her new novel coming out this spring.

Do you have another novel in the works or will you return to poetry? Translation?

I hope to continue moving between genres and languages for the rest of my life. I recently published a story about a headless chicken that first occurred to me 15 years ago when I was living in Chile. I go back to Chile every year with my family and something about that headless chicken, the menace of it, would not leave me until I finally wrote it down. The woman climbing into the almond tree at the beginning of “Ways to Disappear” was like that. Once I saw her with her suitcase and her cigar, climbing onto the lowest branch, vanishing as so many women writers before her have, I knew I had to find out why.

Illingworth is the managing editor of The Scofield magazine and a staff writer for LitHub. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.