Building Bridges interview series: Charlotte Coombe

Charlotte Coombe has been translating for over twelve years: having started out translating creative texts in gastronomy, the arts, travel and tourism, lifestyle, fashion and advertising, her love of literature drew her to literary translation, with a particular interest in women’s writing. Her translation of Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (Charco Press, 2018) is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Society of Authors Premio Valle Inclán 2019, and she was recently awarded a  PEN Translates award for her forthcoming translation of García Robayo’s novel Holiday Heart (Charco Press, 2020). She has also translated poetry and short stories by authors such as Rosa María Roffiel, Edgardo Nuñez Caballero and Santiago Roncagliolo, published online by Palabras Errantes.

How do you find new works to translate, and how do you choose publishers to work with? In particular, what drew you to the work of Margarita García Robayo?

It was Charco Press who came to me with Margarita García Robayo’s work. They discovered her writing and bought the rights, then came to me because they felt I might be interested in translating her, and as soon as I read ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, mine was an emphatic ‘YES PLEASE’.  This just goes to show the important role that small independent presses play in finding new voices, often never translated before into English.

I hear about new works to translate mostly on the internet, via my various networks, or by authors contacting me (which is happening increasingly now). I cannot emphasise enough how useful social media can be when it comes to finding new books, new authors, finding out what publishers publish and are looking for, connecting with editors, writers, poets, and of course translators. If you are connected to a network of authors in all your languages, you hear about their new books and you hear about the authors that they like. I recently heard about Marvel Moreno because Margarita García Robayo posted about her on Instagram. Moreno was an author who in her lifetime was something of a literary legend in her native Colombia, and was published in French and Italian, but despite all that, she was never translated into English and never really received the recognition she deserved. I saw Margarita’s Instagram post, and this led to a series of events where I tried to find more of Moreno’s work online and in print, and found it lacking. I chased this up and now have permission from her daughters, the rights-holders, to translate her work. I’m working with my colleague Isabel Adey to bring her writing into English, and that all came from an Instagram post: I would never have come across her otherwise. And I always say that for me, Twitter (as well as being a huge source of procrastination – it’s an absolute time sponge, I swear) is like opening a door to a room of translator colleagues and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ Or ‘What does this Spanish word mean?’ and getting instant replies. Social media is very important, I personally think, in combatting freelance isolation and in keeping in the loop.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

Translated literature already faces one hurdle, its perceived ‘foreign-ness’ which some (not all) publishers and booksellers see as a barrier to sales, and then if you throw ‘women’s’ into the mix, the hurdle doubles in height. This is changing gradually. But the way the publishing industry is set up is obviously biased towards men – gender bias is entrenched into every aspect of life, as any good feminist will know – and anything that is not written by a white, heterosexual, anglophone male immediately falls into a separate ‘category’. I feel like this gender bias stretches into translated literature as well. However, there are a lot of women and men out there championing great new authors who deserve to be translated.

What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

There are plenty of things that we as readers, and as translators can do: find books by amazing bad-ass women in whatever language and seek out amazing bad-ass publishers who are keen to overcome the bias in translation/publishing. There are a growing number of them (Feminist Press, Tilted Axis, to name a couple). Submit pieces by these authors to online journals and get people talking about them. If all else fails, start your own indie press. I feel like there is definitely space for this in today’s industry – presses like Charco Press started doing what they are doing because nobody else was doing it. This is one of the joys of the world we live in. If it’s done right, any ‘niche’ will become less ‘niche’. I think pledges by certain presses to only publish women for a year, and that kind of thing, is helpful. It gets more books by women out there, and raises awareness about the inequality. There is also Women in Translation month, which of course you know about, started by Meytal Radzinski – where people pledge to read women writers in translation for just the month of August. Although these are kind of activist measures, they do gradually help to turn the tide. The more we talk about books by women or translated by women, the more mainstream this thinking becomes. And more normalised, less ‘niche’. Women are not niche. But women’s writing is perceived as such. I think the way we talk about fiction is important – saying ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘translated fiction’ immediately pigeonholes a book, and immediately creates a wall. There is no such thing as ‘men’s fiction’, so why should fiction by women be labelled ‘women’s fiction’? There is only one criterion for fiction really, and that is, is it any good? We need everyone to stop talking about fiction like this, but it seems to be the natural inclination still, within the book industry.

You won your second English PEN award for your translation of Margarita García Robayo’s next novel: what is the significance of this in helping to promote your work as a translator, and to what extent would you consider the work of organisations such as English PEN as activist?

It’s good to feel that the book you’re working on is believed in by someone already. The exposure from receiving a grant like this helps to get my name out there, plus it means that the publisher receives the funding to do the books they want to do, and pay their translators the TA recommended rates, so it is really positive. English PEN list you on their World Bookshelf, so that’s some more exposure there, and all of that helps to promote my work as a translator. Aside from helping to fund the publishing of different, sometimes controversial perspectives, English PEN also campaign in so many ways for freedom of expression, so their work is fundamentally important for supporting writers around the world and for standing up against injustice.

Do you think that Spanish-language women writers are well represented in translated literature? What/ who would you like to see gain greater recognition?

I think that they are fairly well represented, in terms of the number being published, although there is always scope for different forms of representation within this language group. There has been a real wave of new female voices from Latin America in particular, who have been translated in recent years and received critical acclaim. I am thinking of course of Lina Meruane, Samanta Schweblin, Ariana Harwicz, Mariana Enríquez, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Carmen Maria Machado, Brenda Lozano, and of course Margarita García Robayo, to name but a few. Being a translator from Spanish, rather than say, a Baltic language for example, you have a lot of other translators ‘chasing’ the same amazing books and authors, so it can be slightly more competitive in that regard. But it is also good because you can ride the wave of popularity of Latin American authors, and throw new authors into the mix, who people might not have heard of yet. There is always room for more amazing writers. I mentioned Marvel Moreno earlier; Isabel Adey and I have been translating her short stories and recently published one of them,  entitled ‘Self-criticism’, online with Project Plume. We have also just been granted a three-week residency at the prestigious Jan Michalski Foundation in Switzerland, so Bella and I will be spending most of June working on that, in tree house cabins near Lake Geneva!
I am currently working on a couple of translation samples for Spanish authors, and pitching a co-translation of a Haitian French author with another colleague of mine. I also recently translated a sample of Lucia Baskaran’s book Cuerpos Malditos (Cursed Bodies) – wow, what a book, I loved it so much. She is a very bold writer, dealing with sexuality, family ties and identity, with a fast-paced kind of prose: this book is a real page turner. Plenty of twists and turns in that book. I’d love a publisher to pick that one up – she deserves to be read in English and has wide appeal, I think.

Can you tell me a little about the new Margarita García Robayo book you’ve just finished translating (coming from Charco Press in 2020)?

It’s a novel this time, entitled Tiempo Muerto (Dead Time/ Wasted Time), which will be published in English as  Holiday Heart. It’s a book about the breakdown of a marriage, essentially, but it also deals with themes of migration and integration, and touches on issues of racism and racial stereotyping of, and by, Latin Americans. The novel has a lot of Margarita’s characteristic style, her biting wit, her insights into the human condition, and has  been pretty challenging to translate. Her prose is deceptively simple. I’d read a sentence and think: OK, I’ve got this. But when I set about translating it, breaking it down, and building it again, I realised she’s chosen her words so very purposefully and precisely, to conjure up a particular image or convey a particular feeling. Her writing is never just about one thing; it has so many layers. I am fully inside her universe now, having translated Fish Soup, and now Holiday Heart, so that helps to find the voice.

Read the Translating Women review of Fish Soup here.

Building Bridges interview series: Sophie Lewis

Sophie Lewis is a translator from French and Portuguese. She has pursued a career in publishing alongside translation, running the UK office at Dalkey Archive Press, then working as Senior Editor at And Other Stories, and currently as fiction editor at the Folio Society. She is also a workshop leader for Shadow Heroes, organising creative translation workshops for secondary school and university students.

How do you find new works to translate? What is the balance between pitches and commissions, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

Most of the time I respond to enquiries from publishers: they come to me and request a sample or a book report. If they’re enthused by my sample or my report they ask me to do the translation – this is a very short version of what happens – and if I’ve loved it and reported on it positively, I say yes. It’s rare that I come to a publisher and say out of the blue that I have this book and want to persuade them how good it is, but there’s a growing instance of a hybrid of these two things. Increasingly I want to champion the other works of writers I have already translated; I don’t want to hop around and do one book from one writer and one from another, I’d like to build up an œuvre.

Is that championing of authors partly connected to the fact that you’re an editor as well as a translator?

Yes, perhaps, especially if I’ve translated one book for a publisher and they’re not interested in publishing the rest of that author’s work. Often you have a relationship with the author, so you don’t abandon them after one book; in most cases there’s more to be done, and that’s a translator’s job and not just a publisher’s. I’ve always been an editor as much as I’ve been a translator, and I think that translators are often hamstrung by not knowing how publishing works, not knowing what happens to books once they’ve sent in a complete translation, not knowing what the constraints are on publishers. I’ve also given workshops [for the Society of Authors] on how to be edited, how to be a translator and how to cope with the process of editing. It can feel very invasive, a tussle as opposed to something constructive: it’s underdiscussed and not understood, and it can put publishers off translations because it’s not just double the cost of the book, it’s also double the hassle.

You were instrumental in setting up And Other Stories. To what extent has their work – and your continued involvement with them – changed how translated literature (particularly women’s writing) is published in the UK?

It was Stefan (Tobler)’s idea, and I was privileged to be able to join him. Stefan asked me early on if I would be involved, and I attended some of the early discussion groups. It was always a community initiative; he brought lots of people together to decide how this publishing house should work. And he asked me to join as a partner when I was just about to move to Brazil, so I did it from Brazil for a while, which was a crazy idea but it was really valuable, not only because I was able to do the job and be there at the beginning, but also because we were able to do what we said we would do, which was keep it light on its feet – no office, barely any staff – we used technology instead of shelves and bricks and mortar, and it was great to do that because otherwise I think we’d have gone more traditional by default.

So do you think that And Other Stories has been a trailblazer in UK independent publishing?

The subscription model has really grown in interest after And Other Stories took it on and committed to it. And Other Stories was prescient in seeing that this was a way to do many things: to keep the publisher funded in a way that would not require capital, but also to create a community at the same time, and that’s what people are trying to do ever more around us. It keeps on growing, and I keep on meeting subscribers, so it has been pioneering. The language or country-specific reading groups were also pioneering: there’s a lot of unpaid work and stress behind the scenes, but people have talked about how to get over the hurdle of trying to get publishers to read the books they might be most interested in, so this bringing together of a group of readers within a specific time frame to look at a certain small number of books and to comment on them and discuss them is a really interesting model. They don’t always publish the books, but it does build up a community of people who understand And Other Stories. And it has attracted funding at times, so it’s obviously a model that can chime with the interests of the ministries of culture in different countries. So that is a pioneering thing to do, and it goes on.

It was your idea to commit to the Year of Publishing Women; how did that come about, and do you feel that it was successful?

After Kamila Shamsie published her ‘provocation’, Stefan and Tara (Tobler) asked whether we should do something for it. I think they meant we might write something in response; my first thought was “yes, we should”, and my second thought was “we should actually do what she’s suggested”. But the only way to do it was with a lot of planning and shared objectives and data gathering to follow what happened, to interrogate all the means by which we received books, and to talk to publishers and agents about what they were sending to us and what they could send for the Year of Publishing Women. It was always going to be a mixture of publishing women we’d already published and publishing new authors. The other reason I thought it was important is that And Other Stories is a press that publishes mostly translations – 60-70% of what they publish is in translation – and so it was more relevant for us than for publishers who don’t publish many translations, because women do struggle to get published outside the Anglophone world, they have so many things against them. They struggle to get published, and to get published well – in big enough numbers and with a big enough marketing campaign behind them – to make an impact. So they then don’t win prizes. Everything is against them. And then by the point that someone has to pitch the translation of that book to an Anglophone publisher, the hurdles are enormous. So I thought that was where the interest lay, that we should follow up the process and look at all the elements of that chain, and how we reached the decisions that we should publish these new books from these very different places.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and what might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

I think publishers need to go a little bit further in the work that they do, or in the tentacles that they reach out, assuming that they do, in order to hunt down the women that they want to publish, to give them a better chance of making it over into another language. And I think that the way to do that involves networking creatively, bringing scouts in – they have a wealth of knowledge, and they usually work for a single publisher in a single country, but I think that they can be tapped into a little bit more to see what comes out of a region or a country. Agents are also so much more on the ground than publishers are – agents from overseas are the ones to be talking to, and also translators who live within the countries where they translate from. They’re isolated in one sense, but on the other hand they are finger-on-the-pulse people. For example, the translator Jethro Soutar brought the first Equatorial Guinean writer into English. Jethro introduced not only his novel but the author himself to And Other Stories, from which point Stefan was able to negotiate a contract with the author, who owned his own rights, to represent him, and that meant that And Other Stories was able to sell that on into other languages, and thereby champion the author even further in a way that the original publisher was unable to do. It’s a productive relationship, and a model for how people who struggle to get published and then get published in small ways can make it on a bigger scale.

Do you think that Francophone and Lusophone women writers are well represented in translated literature?

French is moderately well represented, but Lusophone writers are not well represented. I don’t see many Portuguese books coming out, and the territories are big: maybe not as big as the Francophone world, but big nonetheless. But this goes back into cultural history: Portugal is a poor sister to Europe, is pretty much ignored on the world stage, and Portuguese language within Latin America is often overlooked. So we get into questions of cultural supremacy, and how the world has configured itself, playing out in publishing. So there I have a bigger job of advocacy to do.

Review: Ahlam Bsharat, Trees for the Absentees

Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Trees for the Absentees is the second of Ahlam Bsharat’s works published in translation by Neem Tree Press: Bsharat is an award-winning Palestinian author and activist, and Ashjaar lil-Naas al-Ghaa’ibeen (the original version of Trees for the Absentees) was a runner-up for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013. I hadn’t noticed this “children’s literature” categorisation before my first reading of Trees for the Absentees; when I realised, the simplicity of the prose and of the approach to significant socio-cultural issues suddenly made a lot of sense.

Guiding us through this turbulent world of segregation, incarceration and historical violence is Philistia, a young woman of university age, who works in a hammam. Philistia spends her days scrubbing and buffing the naked bodies of women who come to her seeking something: whether they are escaping their grief or hiding their fears, women come to Philistia to start a new chapter in their lives. This parallels the jobs Philistia’s grandmother held in her lifetime: Grandma Zahia was both a midwife and a corpse washer, accompanying people on their journeys into and out of the world. Grandma Zahia is a guiding presence throughout Philistia’s story, and her role influences much of Philistia’s thought. Her first wisdom sets up and frames the narrative, and leads us towards an understanding of Philistia:

“Our heads are cupboards full of secrets, and our senses are the key. Everything that your eyes see becomes yours to keep safe … When someone entrusts their body to you, they open the door to reveal their secrets. That’s the time to close the door to your own cupboard of secrets.”

So I had learned to close the doors and drawers of the cupboard in my head. I could open my senses and yet keep them slightly ajar.

It was Grandma Zahia who first introduced Philistia to the imaginary world, when she taught her how to wash the bodies of the dead. The affinity that Philistia feels with her grandmother is key to the narrative: Zahia is both the greatest influence on her thinking and personality, and her means of communicating with other worlds. For Philistia’s imaginary world is as real to her as the physical world she inhabits (“reality was my imagination and my imagination was reality”), and when the boundaries between those worlds begin to collapse, life as she knows it is forever changed. The fault lines between the real and imaginary worlds start to open up, and allow us to see two periods of history at the same time. But Philistia is in danger of being swallowed up in the cracks between the worlds, and it is this almost mystical aura that lends the text its melancholy suspense.

Along with the deceased Grandma Zahia, Philistia’s father is another “absentee”, incarcerated in an Israeli prison. This is first revealed in passing (“And Mum? It seemed to me she was motivated by the desire to resist my auntie’s meddling in her life, especially since Dad was sent to prison”), but later becomes more important to the narrative as Philistia dreams of his release, talks about their relationship, and writes him letters. The relationships – especially this epistolary one – engage with universal themes of separation and loss, as well as being instructive about the specific cultural context. Light and dark are recurrent metaphors throughout Trees for the Absentees, with the dark representing uncertainty and death, and light representing the fight for life. This is a simple enough notion to fit in with the children and young adult audience, but one which is expressed in a way that I found deeply moving: we are all visitors on this earth, carrying our light through life. Sometimes we need help to carry our light. Sometimes things can happen to make the light go out. Each body’s soul has a message, and in each heart a tree grows. As you can imagine from the title, trees are an important metaphor in this novella: trees are being uprooted all around Philistia, and so she seeks a place where she can plant trees for her loved ones, creating this space inside herself.

Trees for the Absentees is very much focused on women’s experience: the female genealogy is crucial to our understanding of Philistia, though we also learn how she craves independence from her family. Similarly, Philistia wishes to be free from the expectation that she ought to be like all female university students, and wants the opportunity to forge her own path in life. What sets her apart is not only that her path is entwined with the history of one of the most volatile regions on earth, but also that her path winds through both the real world and an imaginary one, in which she meets and falls in love with the ghostly presence of Bayrakdar: “Did our souls meet first? Was it because we worked in the same place, at different times in history? Was it the similarity of our lives that brought us together: my dad, imprisoned by the Israeli occupation, and his father, who was imprisoned during the British Mandate?” Philistia’s other-worldly relationship with a shadow from the past allows two stories and two historical periods to overlap. Her imaginary world falls somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and is “mine and mine alone” – something she can call her own in a life where so much is determined for her by politics, culture and tradition, and where girls are forced to grow up too soon “because we started to make sense of things early. I mean we learned about a lot of things that don’t make any sense.”

The collaborative translation between Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland is admirable: in particular, the dialogue reads very well – there were times when I could visualise the characters’ interchange so clearly, it read almost like a playscript. There are some evident challenges, most notably with play on words in the original Arabic. I am not a fan of cultural adaptation, and was pleased that for the most part Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland allowed the cultural specificity of the text to remain. For example, there is reference to “the idiomatic reply, ‘from my eye’”; several proverbs feature, most of which have been left as they are rather than attempting to find an “equivalent”; the similarity of Philistia and Bayrakdar’s names to the words for bean and plum is not altered to use English words that are close to the proper nouns. I appreciate this, because I don’t want to imagine Philistia in an English-speaking world. I want to imagine her in her own world, and I believe that readers of translations should be invited to make a little effort to bridge that gap. Trees for the Absentees is a small and simple book, but its story has greater complexities if we wish to find them, and is a thought-provoking read for adults and children alike.

Review copy of Trees for the Absentees provided by Neem Tree Press

Building Bridges interview series: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a prizewinning translator from Polish, and recipient of the Transatlantyk award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad (awarded in 2018). She is a long-term translator of Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk, and her translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018) is currently shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Other recent published translations include Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window (Maclehose Press, 2018), and Mrs Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa (pseudonym of authorial duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski, Oneworld Books, 2019). She also works as a mentor for emerging translators, and has served as co-chair of the Translators Association.

You are a prolific translator from Polish, and ambassador for Polish literature. How do you go about finding new works to translate?

I translate mostly contemporary literature, so I try to keep up with new works released in Poland. I read certain journals, I listen to radio interview programmes, I go to literary festivals in Poland, and I’m in touch with a lot of publishers and authors. I try to select things that will sell, and to think from a publisher’s point of view. Of course quality is their top priority, but they also have to consider who will read a book, who will buy it, and so if I want to persuade a publisher to take on a book that they can’t read themselves, I’ve got to think in those terms.

What is the balance between pitches and commissions, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

Commissions are rare, because Polish gets consigned to a ghetto of “minority languages” (a phrase I dislike); it’s seen as difficult, remote, and not quite part of “our” Europe. So inevitably the translator who has dedicated him or herself to learning this particular language has to act as an agent if he or she wants a book to come out in English. This is partly because Polish literature doesn’t have a strong agenting system as some literatures do; mostly it’s foreign rights representatives at publishing houses who are selling rights, and sometimes authors themselves. I prepare material for my pitches very carefully; I put together a book report, information about the author, and an assessment of who is going to read this and why I think it should be published, to persuade the publishers that it is worth considering. I include a 20-page sample translation, and choose the target publisher by researching what they’re doing. I pitch carefully, even to individual editors, because they have individual tastes. Inevitably I’m geared towards the small independents because they’re the ones who are geared towards publishing translated literature.

One of your recent translations (Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize. How has being part of this major prize helped to promote your work as a translator, and do you feel that the importance of translators is represented in media coverage of the prize?

This particular prize is focussed on equality for the translator and the author, and so the organisers put a magnificent amount of work into promoting the translator as well as the author. That’s very unusual, and they’ve done a great job; they’ve given us a chance to speak, and included us in press coverage very well. This is what ought to be happening, because there’s a big issue about translators’ visibility. Of course you want to see your name on the reviews; I think of myself not as a co-author of the book but as co-author of the translation. I don’t mind not being on the cover, but my name should be on the title page and it should be mentioned in press coverage. You take a responsibility in translation, seeing what the author has done and then reflecting that, and so you should take some of the credit too. One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having to change the imbalance in attitude towards books that are published in English and books published in translation. People have a kind of allergy to things foreign. And look what’s happening to our world: there are all sorts of barriers going up, but I feel I’m a barrier remover, I want people to feel they can read anything from everywhere, and not have a mindset that says ‘Oh, that’s foreign, so it’s not for me’ or ‘That’s translated, so it can’t be any good.’ Unfortunately that attitude does exist, a lot of people think like that without even being aware of it. So the more you normalise translated literature by having the translator’s name mentioned alongside the author’s, the more it simply becomes an accepted part of literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs. I feel that if we understand another culture, if we read its books, watch its films and so on, then we find out that we’re all very much the same. And to me that’s important, it’s something we need in today’s world. It does feel like chipping away at a mountain with a teaspoon when you see what’s happening politically, but that’s what I feel my life is about.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

I imagine that it’s partly to do with the balance of publishing in the original language, and that’s where the bias is. It may not necessarily be to do with what translators are picking or what publishers are picking; it may have a lot to do with the balance of publishing in other countries. Publishing as a profession doesn’t have a significant gender imbalance, which is also relevant because it’s part of a chain, but there is bias against women in all sorts of ways culturally. This is certainly the case in Poland, where there’s retrogression because of a very conservative, very traditional and church-influenced government that has set things back for women. So they’re contending with some unhelpful and very traditional attitudes. But within literature there are a lot of women being published, and across a very wide range of writing.

What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

There have been some excellent initiatives. I admire Meytal Radzinski and Katy Derbyshire, who have put a lot of work into investigating the relevant statistics. It shouldn’t be necessary to engage in positive discrimination, but there are cases where it is necessary: it makes people – especially those who have unconscious biases – think about it. So the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, and initiatives such as And Other Stories having a Year of Publishing Women – all of these things wake people up. And even people like me need to be woken up, and focus on seeking out good books by women to translate. My pitching of Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window to Maclehose was part of that waking up: it was good to get another woman writer out there, but I didn’t set out consciously to find a female author. I was looking, I found that book, and it has been successful, but we could all make more conscious choices.

You are involved in a number of networks and mentoring programmes; to what extent would you consider their work as activist?

Ultimately our work is about getting people to know each other and to understand each other’s cultures, and in doing so to make the world a better and more interesting place. When I started out thirty years ago translators were much less visible, so I’m very happy that I’ve been able to be part of a shift in that respect. I made this my full-time career twenty years ago, and I found that there were some amazing people I could join forces with. I think it’s very important that as translators we understand our rights, that we are an empowered community, because we all have the same ultimate goal. It’s important for us to share advice, and to help each other with the practicalities of being a professional literary translator. Danny (Hahn) always defines it very well: he says that translation is a different thing from being a translator. Being a translator means being an active part of that community, and helping emerging translators. It’s a constant learning process, but I think it’s very important that those of us who have some experience can pass on our knowledge to younger translators.

You work tirelessly to promote Polish literature and culture. Do you think that Polish women writers are well represented in translated literature, or that there is an increased openness towards Polish literature? What or who would you like to see gain greater recognition?

We had a boost with the London Book Fair having Poland as the guest country in 2017, and then Olga (Tokarczuk) won the Man Booker International prize in 2018 [note: since the time of this interview, Tokarczuk also received the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature], so we had a bit of a crest of a wave. I’m slightly nervous that the wave might be coming down again now, but having Poland as the guest country at London Book Fair was great because publishers came to look at what Polish literature had to offer and it did wake people up. That took years to be put in place, with a dedicated team of people putting a great deal of effort into it. And the British Council has also done an amazing job for us. There are not very many contemporary Polish women writers being translated; there are quite a lot of female poets who have been translated, but there is still a lot to do. There is not nearly enough, and some of those who have been translated should be much better known. Children’s and Young Adult books should be translated too: Danny (Hahn) has been a pioneer in this respect, but there’s a wealth of undiscovered works. Children should be growing up seeing how big the world is.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Review of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

Building Bridges interview series: Carolina Orloff, Charco Press

Charco Press is an award-winning young independent publishing house based in Edinburgh. Run by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, Charco publishes the most exciting new fiction from Latin American in translation. I spoke with Carolina about the translator’s visibility, smashing preconceptions of translated literature as being “niche”, the triple marginalisation of Latin American women writers in translation, the activist work of Charco Press, and their commitment to redressing the balance.

You set up your publishing house in 2016, with your first titles published in 2017. Charco Press is growing in exciting ways: how have you perceived this evolution since your beginnings, and what are your plans and hopes for Charco’s future?

At the time we started Charco we sensed there was a slow turning point in the appreciation of translated fiction; there had certainly been a progressive change for the better that’s still happening. We feel that because of that change in the reception and the perception of translated literature, Charco has gained attention quite quickly. And we hope that this change will continue to grow: I think it’s to do with that openness in readers’ minds in understanding translated fiction not as translated fiction per se, but just as fiction. And that’s one of our aims: not exactly to change perceptions, but to encourage the reader to understand that what we’re trying to do is not raise awareness of translated fiction, but to publish fiction because it’s good fiction.

And that separation, that subcategory, is one of the greatest barriers, isn’t it?

Yes exactly, because on one hand we’re always keen to give prominence to our translators by naming them on the cover of our books, but on the other hand we want to overcome this block from so many readers in relation to translated fiction, that they would immediately understand it as something that’s niche, difficult, too complex, and we want to prove that that’s not the case. So it’s a balancing act with every book.

Your mission statement is “learning to read again”. Could you talk more about what this means to you and to Charco?

That comes back to this idea of debunking certain preconceptions of translated fiction in general, and Latin American literature in particular, so that we learn to read again – it might be ambitious, but those are core elements for us. In 2017 we launched with five books rather than one or three, against the advice of a lot of people in the industry. It was very important to us to make that statement, to put out there five authors not just from the same region but from the same country in Latin America – from Argentina, in this case – and from the same generation, and show how different they are. So the mission statement of learning to read again is to go against the misconception of translated literature as being niche or difficult, and also against a very stereotypical idea that Latin American writers are still doing magical realism, or telling stories about big families and so on. We wanted to break against those two very ingrained ideas and propose something different and very immediate.

As well as actively seeking out debut authors and emerging translators, you also actively seek out work by writers from less represented countries or cultures within Latin America. Can you tell me more about the importance of this commitment to diversity?

Yes, that should be our next mission statement! Latin America is a huge, incredibly diverse region. That’s why it’s frustrating when it all gets put together into the same bag and transported to the English-speaking world. Someone from Guatemala telling their story or their reality is completely different from someone from the south of Chile, for example. And I think our commitment to diversity has to do with that, trying to bring into the English-speaking world that almost irreconcilable diversity that exists in Latin America. But at the same time we don’t want to make too much of a big deal out of that geographical focus, because again we want to concentrate on the literature itself. We want the books and the stories to speak for themselves. So we’re trying to find a balance of portraying our best selling point, which is that we publish books from Latin America, but at the same time underlining the fact that these are amazing stories universally speaking.

How do you identify authors to publish, and translators to work on them?

There is a lot of instinct involved. I don’t have a formula; we focus on authors – including debut authors – who have something to say that has had an impact in terms of debates in society, something that goes beyond the book or the literature that they’re producing. All of the Charco books so far stem from an impact in the societies of origin that I hope will translate into the English-speaking society. They bring philosophical questions, universal questions that are important for all of us. And the translators have to understand, have to have a relationship with the story, the book, the universe that they’re going to translate, that is beyond the semantics of the language, that they’re interested in and passionate about, because that’s what makes a good translation.

You’ve also published a good number of women writers. What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature?

This is a tricky and important question. From our perspective, we come in at a point where there has already been a lot of gender bias. Generally speaking, what gets published in Peru, for example, has come through a completely biased and male-dominated process. So when a female author makes it and gets published, there are already dozens who were left behind. Independent publishers like Charco working with translations have an opportunity to change that balance, to re-balance as it were, to bring women’s voices to be at the same level as their male counterparts. I don’t even think about it to an extent, for me it’s about the stories and the literature, and if one year we have more female authors than another year that’s okay, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

Is there anything else that you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

This is a great question, although I don’t have the answer! One of our ambitions is to work towards publishing books for children written by Latin American writers in translation. Coming from Argentina, I grew up reading books in translation without even realising they were books in translation, and that meant that from an early age I was reading different voices of the world that were being put into my universe and expanding my universe from very early on. And I think that’s a great and very simple way to foster the idea not only of gender equality but also of a more diverse world. Independent publishers working with translation are doing a great deal in the sense of trying to give a voice to women writers from different areas of the world outside of Europe, that not only need to be heard in English, but also because English is a gateway to so many other languages, to create an opportunity for those books, those voices, to go beyond their country of origin and to go beyond English to get to other parts of the world.

Do you perceive an increase in the number of translated works making their way into English?

It’s a good time for translated literature. It’s growing; I think there’s a shift for the better, even though reality is shifting the other way. There’s a demand from readers, a counter-reaction to the closing of boundaries; it’s a good time to be translating and to be reading translated fiction. And if I’m going to be ambitious, it’s also a good time to think about not just the bookshelves, the publishers and the readers, but about education. There needs to be a different understanding of the importance of languages in the education system in the UK; it’s very easy to be an English speaker, but learning a language is opening a door to another universe. I think the fear of languages is linked to the fear of translated fiction.

There are beginnings of a move away from eurocentrism in translated literature, which you are a significant part of – how have you perceived this over time, and how do you think we can foster it?

More supply! But the key question also is how to generate the demand. In the UK there are slowly but surely more prizes, and they can make such a difference to a book or a region. We’ve had a lot of support from small independent bookshops, but there needs to be a bigger movement from bigger companies, where they give more prominence to other regions or small publishers, because if you don’t see a book then you might not buy it. If Waterstones, for example, give prominence to a particular publisher it can have a real impact. So we can only hope. We need to provide a more diverse array of fiction and worlds and voices for people to read – or not read, but our commitment is that they should be there.

 

Building Bridges interview series: Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman is a translator from Chinese. She is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), and closely involved with Paper Republic, an online publication initiative promoting Chinese writing in English translation. She taught on the MSc in Translation at Imperial College until 2011 and now translates full-time. On 31 October Nicky gave a fascinating talk at the Translating Women conference, in which she discussed an interview series she had carried out with Chinese women writers, focusing on the barriers they face within a literary system that disadvantages women and makes assumptions about what they must write about – you can see comments on this and other conference sessions on Twitter, under the hashtag #TWConf19.

How do you find new works in Chinese, and do you work more with pitches or commissions?

I wish I could say that I looked at all new work coming out very systematically, but I really only touch the tip of the iceberg. China is such a big country that I’ll probably get to the end of my professional life never having read things that I still want to read. As a professional translator, I like it when publishers come to me, when they’ve already chosen a book and have bought the rights. That’s been the case with the majority of the work I translate. The other way is networking: word of mouth, people recommending books… recently when I was in China I was asking women which women writers they liked. Having said that, pitching to publishers is quite difficult and time consuming. With Chinese there are a couple of different problems. One is that a lot of publishers don’t know much about Chinese writers so they don’t know what they’re looking at or for, and when they find it, they may not like it.

What in particular drew you to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, by Yan Ge?

I loved the voice from the start. It was so natural and funny and rude and disrespectful, but also utterly unassuming and unpretentious. Yan Ge allowed the voice of this really bad man to just come through completely naturally. And I loved it: it was so accessible, so readable. I didn’t realise quite how interesting the language was until I started translating it; the dialect caused me some problems. Yan Ge and I started communicating after I finished the translation, but before the publisher had been found, and she pointed out that in a lot of areas in my translation of the dialect I either hadn’t got really into the meaning of that particular fruity expression or I’d misunderstood it. In one case, she said there were too many “fucks”, so I went through, and I counted that there were exactly the same number of fucks in the English plus two which were verbs because the verb “to fuck” in Chinese is different from the noun! But I took her point, and so we went through and started adding more colourful expressions. I really had to be creative, because English doesn’t have the same number of colourful expressions and obscenities.

Are there particular writers or genres in Chinese that are favoured by the regime?

That’s a really interesting question. The genre that has really worked from Chinese is sci fi. Second to that the Wu Xia, the martial arts fiction. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they’re favoured though, because the atmosphere is so constrained and constricted in China. And that goes for the intellectual world, the literary world, the artistic world: the clamps have really come down. Xi Jinping has made China a very repressive place, and there’s also a fair amount of discussion about whether science fiction can be a route for writers to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. Martial arts fiction is unlikely to get on the wrong side of the regime. But there have been various sci fi works which have gone a little bit close to the edge; in particular, Hao Jingfang’s novella Folding Beijing is all about how Beijing turns into a collapsible three tier city, where by night and by day different layers come out. And by night it’s the migrant workers, cleaners, garbage collectors and so on who come out, and are not allowed to mix with the more well-to-do people who only come out during the day. So the very fact that she’s pointing out the class difference and the underworld in Beijing could be considered a bit risky.

There are beginnings of a move away from eurocentrism in translated literature – how have you perceived this over time, and how do you think we can foster this?

Looking at a list of the last 6-7 years, the main publishers who published from Chinese were either university presses, or one-man or one-woman bands. This is not necessarily a good thing; the tiny publishers can be great but also a bit precarious. I hope that mainstream independent publishers will take up books from Chinese. Some do, and then half your promotion is done because the readers will have heard of the publisher and so they’re more likely to go for the book. It’s all part of this strong feeling I have that literature translated from Chinese has got to become mainstream. It’s got to be something that readers pick up and read for enjoyment, otherwise we’ll be stuck with good books that have no readers, which is a tragedy. What’s the point of translating them if people don’t get to read them? I’m still learning, and I’ve reinvented myself as a part-time promoter of the books I’ve translated, but also with the work I do on Paper Republic, which is now registered as a charity in this country promoting Chinese literature in translation generally; there are about five of us all working together and we’re all translators in different parts of the world. But regular book reviews, it seems to me, are like hen’s teeth.

You’ve mentioned that there is a marked gender bias in Chinese literature; how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

There are many women authors in China. I don’t know whether there are more men than women, but I know who gets the prizes: it’s men who get the prizes. I looked at the Mao Dun Prize (a prize for novels in Chinese sponsored by the China Writers Association) over the last ten years, and found that a very small minority of the winners were female writers. And when we do our end-of-year statistics on Chinese writers translated into English, a great majority will be male writers translated into English and a small minority female writers. I think it’s much the same all over the world. I’m very wary about making generalizations about China because it’s such a big place, but I think women writers all acknowledge the fact that they have less visibility. There’s certainly a dominance of men amongst writers and publishers in China. And the publishers are the ones who will package someone’s book and try to sell the rights to western publishers for translation.

You work with a number of networks; can you tell us more about Paper Republic in particular, and the activities you undertake beyond (and behind) translation?

I’ve been involved with Paper Republic for the past ten years. It started off as a blog where translators could post their questions and write funny posts, and it has expanded to have a big database to link to other articles and to provide a resource not just for translators but also for readers and for anyone wanting to dip a toe into Chinese fiction and translation. We regard ourselves now as almost all outward facing; we’re looking outwards to the readers, doing promotional work of various kinds, educational work, and we’ve got big plans. It would be lovely if we could get money. But in the meantime, we’ve actually done an awful lot without any money at all, both by working as volunteers and by drawing on the goodwill of the translation community. A surprising number of translators from Chinese have a short story squirreled away that they’ve never had published or that they’d like to see published again, and so we’ve done a whole series of nearly 70 short stories which we’ve put out under the rubric “Read Paper Republic” over the last three years; that’s an ongoing project.

Do you think that China is under-represented in translated literature? And as far as you know is this common across European literatures, or is it an Anglo-American issue?

It’s a complicated question. There is a certain resistance in the English-language publishing industry. But is there something particular for Chinese which makes it hard to sell the rights of a Chinese novel into English? Chinese writing is very different, and one of the things I like about Yan Ge is that she isn’t that different, whereas a lot of Chinese writers do write very differently, which is to do with the history of literature. It’s partly that genres are different: novels can be very long, and in the last century there were a lot of very didactic novels (and that actually predates the Communist Party and the 1949 revolution). Then after that, Chairman Mao insisted that writers had to present a good picture to the world. When you translate a lot of Chinese novels you constantly come across things which refer to cultural or political phenomena. For example, if there’s a casual reference to the Cultural Revolution, you have to think about whether you’re going to gloss it, or just mention it and hope that the reader will understand. There are cultural things lurking under the surface. So there’s a whole cultural and political burden of information and the translator can deal with it, but it just makes more for the casual reader to take on board.

Review: The Jeweller, Caryl Lewis

Translated from Welsh by Gwen Davies, Honno Press (2019)

When I received The Jeweller, I was shocked to realise it’s the first book I’ve ever read translated from Welsh. I’ve read books by Welsh authors written in English (most recently, the wonderful Pigeon by Alys Conran, published by Parthian Books), but never anything originally written in Welsh. So this was a first for me – but what a first. If, like me, you’ve never read a book translated from Welsh before, I can only urge you to start with this one. Published by Welsh women’s press Honno, this is a haunting story of death, bonds, the objects we carry with us and those we leave behind. It features a cast of believable, perfectly observed characters, a dexterous plotline with multiple sub-plots and several twists, and is written in a gorgeous near-Gothic prose.

“That was the horror of love: your sweetheart could stick a knife into your eyeball and sharpen it a notch every chance they got.”

Mari is the jeweller of the title: she has a stall in the market of a small coastal town where she sells second-hand jewellery, pieces bought at auction or finding their way to her by other means, and which “after years of being longed for, loved and flaunted by other owners, … shared Mari’s company for a while before finding a new home.” The jewels are not just cast-off trinkets, but have a life of their own as they pass from one owner to the next; similarly, Mari is not simply an eccentric hawker, but has a secret hidden away in “the shroud of a sheet that kept it clear of cold and dust”: little by little, in the privacy of her home, Mari is working on an uncut emerald, “a chip of grave-cloth green” with which she feels an intimate connection, and which offers a superb subtext. At the heart of the emerald is a unique feature that could be the key to its brilliance, but the work needed to bring it to the surface must be carried out delicately and expertly: one false move and it could shatter and be irreparably ruined. This is a subtle metaphor for Mari’s own life, which is revealed to us little by little in the course of the narrative, layers of brittle carapace slowly chipped away until the aching heart is exposed. It could, however, also stand as a metaphor for the book itself, which manages to be both tense and languorous, its sudden bursts of raw beauty mirroring Mari’s intermittent urges to work furiously on the emerald, and its drawing back at the moments of greatest drama echoing the way in which Mari wraps up the emerald and hides it away, leaving it to throb gently just at the edges of her awareness. The writing in the translation is superb: like Mari’s handling of the emerald, aware that “nothing should obscure the light’s journey through the gemstone”, Davies allows nothing to obscure the opalescent beauty of Lewis’s prose:

“But we shouldn’t be afraid of beauty, should we?
Since possessing the stone, Mari had struggled to admire it without wanting to cut it. To open in it just the smallest window. But yes, of course such gorgeous gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.”

Mari is a private, taciturn character, and it is a feat of both Lewis’s storytelling and Davies’s translation that we are allowed such intimacy with her. We learn of the strained relationship with her father, the local reverend, full of divine love for others but brutal to Mari: “He had been her life. He’d tried diverting her ardour to loftier heroes. But an ordinary father’s love would have been enough. He’d been kind to so many people, impatient with others, even cruel to a few. He was only a man, after all.” The confidence and compassion to which we are invited is aided by the excellent supporting cast, whose relationship to Mari crystallises slowly as the story progresses. We meet her fellow market workers, and follow their routines and relationships as this small community faces the closure of the market, their slow life overtaken by industrialisation. As well as the human characters, we also encounter Mari’s pet monkey, Nanw, who lives in a cage in Mari’s bedroom but whose backstory is unclear. The only part of the narrative that I was strangely unmoved by, though, was a key moment between Mari and Nanw in the roiling sea that had been lapping at the edges of the story throughout; I struggled to get beyond a fairly basic interpretation of Nanw as a surrogate family member, and would be interested to know how others have read this relationship.

As well as her stall at the market, Mari intermittently earns money helping her friend Mo to clear out the houses of people who have died with no next of kin to take care of their belongings. From each house Mari rescues a photograph which she frames and displays on her mantelpiece, rescuing from loneliness and obscurity people she never encountered in life, and surrounding herself with the lives of the dead. This is no quirky macabre obsession: Mari is searching for something, and when the revelation of what this was came, I was completely blindsided: it was a stroke of brilliance, and of wonderful storytelling. Often the phrase “it took my breath away” is an overstatement, but not in this case. You’ll know by now that I don’t do spoilers, so no more on that – but I highly recommend that you read and experience it for yourself.

Review copy of The Jeweller provided by Honno Press

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Building Bridges interview series: Nicky Smalley, And Other Stories

Nicky Smalley is publicist at the pioneering independent publishing house And Other Stories, who champion translated literature and who publicly took up Kamila Shamsie’s “provocation” to the publishing industry to make 2018 a Year of Publishing Women.

Do you perceive an increase in the number of translated works making their way into English?

Yes, there was research released by Nielsen that had been commissioned by the Booker foundation, showing that the percentage of books translated into English had grown to around 5%, and that in terms of literary fiction, translated literary fiction was selling better than non-translated literary fiction. And that is really noticeable in terms of the way that bookshops are responding: independent bookshops in particular are looking for interesting things in translation to sell. 5% is still a very small number, but it’s progress in the right direction.

So do you see booksellers as major gatekeepers then? I always assumed that publishers were the main gatekeepers…

Publishers are obviously gatekeepers to an extent, but different publishers have different degrees of power in their gatekeeping, as do booksellers. A chain like Waterstones has the power to make or break a writer. And although Foyles is no longer an independent bookshop, they played a major role in putting books like Convenience Store Woman and The Vegetarian into people’s hands. If something shows signs of selling well, booksellers will run with it. Independent bookshops can have significant influence: a key part of their role is to develop a relationship with their community, and if they are prioritising a certain kind of book, they’re doing that because they know that the community around them is interested in that. There are certain booksellers that we work with as much as possible because we know that they understand our books, and that their buyers understand our books and understand why they’re being sold in that bookshop: one of the most important things about bookshops is that they provide a context.

What about the books that you choose at And Other Stories; you publish a lot of translated literature – do you have a set quota of translated works?

We would never not publish something because it didn’t fit in with the statistics of what we publish. Generally each year we publish around 70% translated literature and 30% English-language. That varies from year to year depending on what we like, but it is important to us that we have a mix. It would be unlikely that we’d have a year without publishing some English-language writing. We don’t want to be pigeonholed, and we don’t want translated literature to be pigeonholed as a genre: by publishing both translated and non-translated writing, it means that the translated writers that we publish occupy the same space as the non-translated English-language writers, and that’s important to us.

Let’s talk about The Remainder; can you tell me more about its journey from commission to publication to Man Booker International shortlistee?

The Remainder, as far as I understand it, was sent to us by (author) Alia Trabucco Zerán’s agent Laurence Laluyaux at RCW. Laurence is an amazing agent and she works very hard with her authors; she’s very focused on developing their careers and supporting them through the publishing process, and she regularly sends us things that she thinks might work for us. Then we talked to (translator) Sophie Hughes at the London Book Fair and she had written a sample; the pairing of Alia and Sophie was there from the beginning.

Was it specifically for the Year of Publishing Women that you took on The Remainder, or was it just well-timed?

We would have published it anyway, but when we acquired it we knew it would work well in the Year of Publishing Women because it’s such a strong book. Alia was very enthusiastic about the concept of the Year of Publishing Women, so it was a natural fit.

There are beginnings of a move away from eurocentrism in translated literature, and your catalogue last year had quite a lot of titles from Latin America. Is this a deliberate trend, and something you aim to foster?

We’ve always published a lot of Latin American literature; over the first few years that And Other Stories existed we published a lot of Latin American men, and when we decided to do the Year of Publishing Women, one of the things we set out to do was to find Latin American women writers. We have also focused on trying to diversify the countries within Latin America. There’s Alia from Chile, Mario Levrero from Uruguay, we’ve got a Columbian writer, Cristina Hernandez, coming out next year translated by Julia Sanches, and there’s Rita Indiana who’s Dominican, and we’re always interested in Mexican writers because they have such a rich literary heritage. And we’re constantly looking for writers outside of European languages: a lot of the books we publish might not be from Europe, but they’re from European languages, and so we’ve been keen to look at more Asian and African writers. For the Year of Publishing Women we looked for African women writers in translation from non-European languages, though we didn’t come across anything that worked for us. The move outside of Europe is important, but part of the challenge of it is that a lot of European countries have funding schemes for translated literature, and unless you’re publishing commercial literature it’s very difficult to fund translation, and the funding isn’t that widely available in the UK. There’s the PEN Translates scheme, which is fabulous, and they’re very keen to incorporate diversity in what they fund. Perhaps that has had an impact on the kind of things that people are looking for, because if there’s an awareness that people are looking to fund non-European writing, then publishers might be more likely to seek it out. One of the ways Eurocentrism could be overcome is if there were more sources of funding to fund translation specifically from non-European countries. Hopefully the debates about diversity over the past few years have opened peoples’ eyes to the need to hear other voices and to enable other voices to be heard.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and what do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

With translation specifically, there’s a real issue of women in other countries not necessarily getting the acclaim that brings them to our attention. This is definitely not an excuse, but it’s something that most publishers – maybe us slightly less because we take a lot of submissions from translators and we are in touch with a lot of translators who tell us about things they’re excited about – but for larger publishers who work more on an agent basis, if those women writers in other countries are not getting the acclaim for their writing that they deserve, then they’re not going to find agents who will take them into English. So that’s a key issue. And it’s a push and pull thing, because if English-language publishers are looking for more writing by women, then you create an awareness in other countries that this is something that’s desirable. But there is still a problem with women’s work not being taken seriously enough, and that’s not something that’s going to change in a couple of years. What interests me is that you get these initiatives started, and we’ll talk about it a lot for a couple of years, and then it blows over and everything goes back to normal.

How has the Year of Publishing Women had a lasting impact for And Other Stories and, hopefully, more generally?

I’m not certain what impact the Year of Publishing Women had on our sales; often sales totals are more dependent on a particular title doing well rather than our titles doing well across the board. Certain titles from last year did really well, and may not have done so well if it hadn’t been for the Year of Publishing Women. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, for example, sold almost 4000 copies; a lot of people bought it because it was a very timely exploration of queer identities and environmental issues. I’m pretty sure we would have published that book anyway, but it’s possible it wouldn’t have come to our attention without the Year of Publishing Women: we asked Yuri Herrera if he could recommend any Latin American women, and he told us we had to publish Rita Indiana. And if we hadn’t been doing the Year of Publishing Women, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have asked him. So that’s one way it’s had a positive impact. It would have been great if everyone had rushed out and bought our books all year, but we did see a spike in subscriptions and a lot more direct sales; we did a few things like bundles of Year of Publishing Women books that sold quite well. So I can tentatively say that in terms of sales it had a positive impact. But in more general terms, the proportion of women being published is increasing; people are putting more attention into their acquisitions to try and balance things. And I’m not saying that was necessarily our achievement at And Other Stories, but we raised awareness of it and started a conversation about it.

Building Bridges interview series: Jen Calleja

Jen Calleja is a translator from German to English, and a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. She was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library (2017-2019), and in 2019 was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). 

How do you find new works to translate, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

The majority of translations that I’ve worked on have come from direct commissions, with publishers getting in touch with me and asking me if I’d like to translate that book, or asking me to write a reader report first, then a sample. Pitching is an exhausting, long-game process, because publishers are very busy, and even if you find an amazing book you have to convince a publisher that it fits with their list. And translation is very expensive, so there’s the issue of whether a publisher would opt to do a translation if they weren’t looking to do one. I have pitched in the past, but I’ve been quite unsuccessful, and I think that’s something that quite a lot of even experienced translators share. It’s an arduous process and can be quite disheartening.

And how did you come across the work of Michelle Steinbeck and Marion Poschmann?

I used to work at the Goethe Institute, and I was involved with the New Books in German magazine. One of the editors there recommended Michelle’s book and it was everything I loved – a surreal contemporary fairytale, which is the kind of writing I really adore. I was reading Leonora Carrington at the time and it reminded me of her, and of Angela Carter, and I read it and mentioned to the Swiss Arts Council that I would love to translate that and they told me the rights were available. They had been sold to Darf Publishing, and so I put all my energy into convincing them that I should be the one to do it, so I did a sample and I contacted them with that, and they commissioned me to do it. As for Marion, I’d heard of her when Serpent’s Tail asked me to do a reader’s report, and I read it (The Pine Islands) and recognised that it was very special and unusual and unexpected. Obviously I didn’t realise it would end up shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, but I was very confident that it was amazing.

How has being part of the Man Booker International prize helped to promote your work as a translator, and do you feel that the importance of translators is represented in media coverage of the prize?

It gave me validation as a translator to be nominated for a prize like that, because so many of my heroes have been up for that prize. But it also made me feel very panicky because of coming under such scrutiny; many of us witnessed the level of attention Deborah [Smith] had with The Vegetarian, I was very aware that it brings a lot of focus to your work in both good and bad ways. In terms of the media reception, a big deal was made about the fact that it was “dominated” by women, which made me feel very strange because I thought it was presumptuous and it made me feel uncomfortable. I was approached by the New York Times about a piece on why there were so many women translators on the shortlist, and I said that I thought the whole question was ridiculous, that this isn’t something that women are biologically better at, and if it had been the converse no-one would have bothered discussing it. So that was really reducing something that should have been very celebratory for the books, when so much space was taken up by the fact that we were women. There was that moment as well when The Guardian were reporting on the prize and forgot to mention any of the translators in the print edition and had to correct it online. So that missed the whole point of the prize. And you get people saying “I don’t understand why translators get half the money”. But the winner always gets a huge amount of publicity, which is amazing. And the way the build-up to the prize works is to get as much attention as possible for the books at the longlisting and shortlisting stage.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

Speaking from my own experience, there are a lot of different reasons why it happens. In terms of German-language publishers commissioning sample translations, nine times out of ten the authors they choose will be male. I’ve done about twenty sample translations in the past few years, and nearly all of them have been men. Also English-language publishers are interested to know if an author has already been translated and won awards, and certainly in Germany it’s often commented on that the longlists and shortlists for awards are predominantly male. So there are issues in the whole infrastructure, and then in the publishing industry there’s still not parity for women being published in English, let alone in translation. And in reviewing culture we know that women aren’t reviewed as much as men, so the problem is from the top to the bottom. There are obviously other issues, such as class: other translators have commented that if you translated a woman, because of the class structures in other countries you’re translating women who are predominantly upper or middle class, so they get translated, but what about all the working-class authors? I think about this a lot, because I’m from a working-class background. Michelle is from a working-class background, but usually you’re translating authors from a completely different background to you, one of privilege. But the gender question is one I’m very aware of. I only really see women if I’m trying to seek out something new.

What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

It’s not just in the publishing industry. Sexism and gender bias exist in society as a whole, so until we’ve reached full equality in all realms of life… I mean, people are still challenging the idea that there is gender bias in literature, and there is the VIDA count which is trying to concretise those figures in terms of bias, but people are still against it. So firstly there has to be an acceptance that it exists. There are people consciously opting into publishing women; for example with Marion Poschmann, the publisher specifically wanted to publish more women in translation. So people are making those kind of changes, but it has to be a long-term thing: it might be that for the next year or two people make a big thing of publishing women to push it forward, but people are so reactionary against that kind of positive discrimination without really acknowledging what comes before it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a historical context. So it’s about making some real choices about women in translation, making an effort to work with women translators, using that as a consultancy basis to find more women. Maybe not using awards as a basis for quality all the time. If the problem already exists in the original country and setting in terms of awards, then a lot of women will struggle.

Do you think that German-language women writers are well represented in translated literature? What/ who would you like to see gain greater recognition?

German as a language is very well represented, better than some other languages. Most of the major European languages are doing okay. There are some amazing German-language women authors, for example Jenny Erpenbeck is one of the major stars of the last few years, and there are many authors who I’ve met for example at the Austrian Cultural Forum who I’d love to translate, but like any foreign-language author who hasn’t been translated, so many of them are famous in their own country but have no recognition here. For example, Olga Tokarczuk was renowned in her own culture, but it’s only in the last couple of years through translation that she’s gained recognition over here. People are saying that one day she could win the Nobel Prize, but without translation that wouldn’t happen [note: since the date of this interview, Tokarczuk did indeed win the Nobel Prize in Literature]. And that’s because English has such a dominant hold on literature worldwide, which is wrong. And that’s why we push for translation into English, because we need it. I mean that in an existential, soul sense; we’re starving for outside voices. We’re so insular and becoming more insular, we think that our way of looking at ourselves is enough, but the only way to really know yourself is to ask a stranger or someone who can see us from the outside, but we don’t want that. There’s a kind of arrogance there, and it’s the reputation that we’ve always had and it’s getting worse and worse, and now we’ve started to believe our own myth, and that’s why it’s important to have translation.

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

Yesterday Olga Tokarczuk was announced as the winner of the (delayed) 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m not going to linger on the reasons for awarding the 2018 and 2019 prizes together – or about why I’m only focusing on Tokarczuk and not the 2019 winner – you probably already know them. There are also issues surrounding diversity, with many people criticising the 2018 and 2019 awards for being euro-centric and white (despite Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee, saying in the week before the announcement that “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature and now we are looking all over the world” – as if looking is enough, a gesture towards inclusivity before falling back into old habits). These criticisms are valid points, and it’s important to make them: we can’t champion women in translation without considering how other forms of bias intersect with gender bias. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have liked the 2019 winner to have been… different (in so many ways). And I’ll come back to Olsson later, because he had some pretty inflammatory things to say about women too…

Regular readers will already know my admiration for Tokarczuk’s work – for the incandescent, challenging Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) and for the gloriously fatalistic Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and also longlisted this week for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation). These were both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who form part of a wave of brave, outward-looking independent publishers resisting narratives of nationalism and isolationism, and who we need in these insular times. But though Tokarczuk may have exploded on the Anglophone literary scene with Man Booker International-winning Flights a couple of years ago, this was not an overnight success story. Rather, it was the result of years of work: Croft had been trying to get her translation of Flights published for ten years, and Lloyd-Jones, who translated Tokarczuk’s House of Day and House of Night back in 2002 (published by Granta Books), has championed Tokarczuk’s work (and Polish literature) tirelessly for years.

So yesterday’s win didn’t come out of nowhere. Tokarczuk has been widely read in Poland and in other European countries for decades. We’re the ones who are late to the party: it took fifteen years between the publication of Lloyd-Jones’s translation of House of Day and House of Night and Croft’s translation of Flights, which coincided with Poland being the guest of honour at London Book Fair, and the first time that Tokarczuk was tipped to win the Nobel prize. Then there was the Man Booker International win in 2018, and Fitzcarraldo’s nurturing of Tokarczuk’s œuvre (as well as the 2018 publication of Drive Your Plow, they will publish Croft’s translation of The Books of Jacob in 2021). I’m not suggesting that Tokarczuk won the prize because she was translated into English; that would reinforce the Anglophone dominance of the Nobel. But I do think that, for those of us celebrating the award in the English-speaking world, congratulations should also be extended to her brilliant translators, who have made her accessible to so many people who otherwise would not have been able to read her.

So there is much to celebrate. But there is also much still to do. Back in May, I was interviewed by a journalist who, when I mentioned some of the factors above, insisted that “Olga would have been published in English anyway” because she is a brilliant writer. I agree that she’s a brilliant writer – erudite, quick-witted, philosophical, and shrewd – but that isn’t the only reason her work is available for me to read. Indeed, attributing everything to a writer’s innate “brilliance” plays into the myth of meritocracy that so often excludes women and other marginalised groups from the top table. Chair of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee Anders Olsson also said in the lead-up to the announcement that “Previously it was much more male-oriented. Now we have so many female writers who are really great, so we hope the prize and the whole process of the prize has been intensified and is much broader in its scope.”

Wait, what? Now we have so many female writers who are really great? Ah, so THAT’s why only 14 of the previous 114 laureates were women. There just weren’t many women writers. Or not many great ones.

No. No. No.

They were there, they just weren’t seen. They were great, they just weren’t recognised. If we blindly and glibly accept that the gender disparity is about quality and not about visibility, then we are complicit in a system that privileges white Eurocentric masculinity. I’m delighted that Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 prize, not just because of her brilliance, but also because of the way she resists borders, embraces diversity, and, in the words of the Nobel committee themselves, “represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Note to the academy: Be More Olga.