Can you talk about your decision to become a translator? Who inspired you?
It was really more of an accident than a decision. I’d always done translations, for my parents and friends, and poetry translations for myself as an exercise, but I didn’t think of myself as a translator. Back in about 2005, I’d become friends with Johnny Temple of Akashic and we were looking for a project to do together. He began sending me Akashic books, which I loved. There was one I was very excited about — Miami Noir. I was then living in Honolulu and was thrilled to finally get it — I’d really hoped to see a lot of Cuban writers in the book. But to my dismay, the representation was not what I’d hoped. There was some crazy time difference between Honolulu and New York but I called him and bitched. To his great credit, he saw my point and then suggested we do Havana Noir.
At the time, neither of us realized it would involve translations. The noir series has tons of translations now but Havana Noir was the first. Because I know so many Cuban writers who always have an English translation at the ready, I just assumed I’d collect these and that’d be that. Of course, I hadn’t read these and hadn’t realized how horrible most of them were. Plus, I wanted some linguistic cohesion in the book. End of story? I ended up translating thirteen of the eighteen stories, each and every one originally written in Spanish. Even then I wasn’t sure I was a translator. But then I had a long talk with David Unger, the kindest man in the world and the head of the translators division at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and he gave me great encouragement. He also recommended me for the Junot Díaz translation of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.