Monthly Archives: July 2018

“An elegant surpassing of the truth”: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2015)

I’m delighted to welcome another guest contributor to the blog today: Katie Brown has been a great supporter of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project since its launch (and was the one who urged me to read Umami!), so you can imagine my joy when she recently accepted a job in the Modern Languages department here at Exeter. Today she’s writing about a fascinating author-translator collaboration that offers new perspectives on the creativity of translation acts and which is, I hope, the first of many collaborations with Katie. You can find out more about her on the Guest Contributor page, and on her blog.

*NB: there will be a 3-week break from the blog after this post, as I am taking my summer holiday. We’ll be back mid-August!*

How do the stories we tell influence the value of objects? Are authors’ and artists’ names any more valuable than other people’s? These are just some of the questions addressed by Valeria Luiselli’s third book, The Story of my Teeth, both through its content and its collaborative creation.

The Story of my Teeth is a genre-defying book. Critics have referred to it variously as a novel, an essay, autofiction and biofiction, or a mixture of them all. The book begins as the relatively straight-forward life story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway”, a picaresque old man whose talents include impersonating Janis Joplin and interpreting fortune cookies. In the first of seven chapters, titled The Story (Beginning, Middle and End), Highway recounts his life from childhood, his work at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City, his failed relationships, how he became an auctioneer, and his quest to replace his malformed teeth. Then through a series of chapters referred to as hyperbolics, parabolics, and allegorics, we see Highway firstly purport to sell the teeth of famous essayists throughout history and later auction a collection of objects stolen from an art gallery through tangentially related stories. The Elliptics then retells Highway’s story from an outsider’s point of view, making us view the first story in a new, much more poignant light.

An unusual protagonist, Highway brings charm and heart to questions about art and literature which might otherwise risk being seen as “too clever.” He explains his “hyperbolic” auctioneering model in this way:

“As the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.”

Luiselli implies that the methods of cheeky auctioneer – inspired in part by Luiselli’s uncle who worked in the giant street market in Mexico City – are not that different from those of international art dealers, only Highway is more honest about it. The Story of my Teeth began life when Luiselli was approached by Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, curators of the exhibition “El cazador y la fábrica” (The Hunter and the Factory) at the Jumex Gallery, to write a story for their exhibition catalogue. The gallery houses the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America and is funded by the profits of the juice factory. The curators reportedly planned the exhibition as a response to questions about urban isolation and the separation of the gallery from its surrounding area, although the exhibition itself gave few clues to this. Luiselli agreed to write a piece for the exhibition catalogue on the agreement that the workers of the juice factory could be involved in its creation. A group of workers met regularly in the factory to read chapters sent to them by Luiselli, discuss them and give feedback based on their own experiences, which was recorded and sent back to Luiselli in New York, who would then incorporate this into new drafts. Luiselli insists that the story is as much theirs as it is hers, in what Aaron Brady in the LA Review of Books calls “an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius.”

The idea of the artistic genius is questioned throughout The Story of my Teeth, as we see everyday characters given the names of Latin American writers, such as newspaper seller Rubén Darío or policeman Yuri Herrera. Luiselli even makes an appearance herself as a mediocre high school student whose parents send her to elocution classes. At the same time, Luiselli makes canonical thinkers part of Highway’s family, such as Miguel Sánchez Foucault or Marcelo Sánchez Proust. This caused uproar among literary critics in Mexico, who claimed that writers’ names are somehow sacred. I find this use of names as “readymades” in the style of avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp quite ambiguous: on the one hand, it breaks down class barriers, asking readers why a writer would deserve any more respect than a factory worker; but on the other hand, it only really appeals to those who keep up-to-date with the Latin American literary scene, as this is necessary to get the joke. While I really enjoyed spotting names of writers whose work I love, when I teach the book to my undergrads, it went over their heads.

“The story behind The Story of my Teeth encourages us to question terms like ‘original’ and ‘fidelity,’ and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation.”

So, more than for its thought-provoking subject material, I love to teach The Story of my Teeth as an example of the collaboration between the author and the translator. Valeria Luiselli speaks fluent English, but prefers to work closely with a translator, not to translate, but to rewrite the text with help from fresh eyes. Luiselli and Christina MacSweeney spent time together in New York working on the new text, and while MacSweeney was translating, she even listened to the same music Luiselli had been listening to as she wrote. The Story of my Teeth was the very deserving winner of the prestigious Valle Inclán Prize for translations from Spanish in 2016, whose judges, as well as many reviewers, were particularly impressed by how MacSweeney challenges the traditional invisibility of the translator. Most notably, she has added a new chapter, called “The Chronologics,” to the end of the book, a timeline which places Highway’s life within Mexican and Latin American history and makes it clear to English readers that the names which appear through the text are those of contemporary Latin American authors. MacSweeney told me that she didn’t want “dry as dust translator’s notes”, so instead set out to provide information which could help orient foreign readers in a creative way.

Beyond this most visible change, comparison with the Spanish reveals a whole series of edits to the book, which substantially alter its interpretation. The Spanish epigraphs, for example, are an anonymous quote about death and teeth and a line from Johnny Cash, whereas the English has a series of epigraphs from semioticians placed before each chapter, making it clear to readers that this book is about meaning making and the significance of words. Similarly, the English version makes the link between Highway’s auction of random objects (a stuffed toy, a false leg) and the art gallery much more explicit. New scenes are added in which Highway and his accomplice steal these objects from the gallery, and whereas the Spanish simply gives the stories inspired by the objects, the English gives the artists’ names – slightly altered of course (Doug Sánchez Aitken, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson) – as well as an exorbitant listing price for each, which is mocked when Highway sells the whole lot to a junkyard for 100 pesos.

Such changes have already been included in translations into other languages, and are expected to be included in the second Spanish edition of the book. The story behind The Story of my Teeth – from its collaborative inception to its continuing evolution in translation – encourages us to question terms like ”original” and ”fidelity,” and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation. Like Highway’s stories, each new version is an “elegant surpassing” of the former.

 

“Where are the women?” Voicing contemporary Russian womanhood in Before I Croak

I’m delighted to kick off a guest writing series on the blog today, and welcome my brilliant colleague Muireann Maguire to discuss her experience of translating Anna Babyashkina’s Before I Croak (Glas, 2013). You can find out more about Muireann in the Guest Contributors section and read more of her work on her blog, Russian Dinosaur.

“Finally, at the ripe old age of sixty, I’m writing my first book. All my life I’ve dreamed of this and never managed to make it happen. And now, before I croak, I’ve finally found the time to turn my Lifelong Dream into reality – to commit to paper sixty thousand words of coherent text in my own voice. I can write about what I’ve always really wanted, not whatever the editor-in-chief or the advertisers want to read […]. So now, before I croak, I, as a woman in full command of her faculties, born in the year 1979, still able to recall what life was like before mobile phones, the Internet, Putin and electric cars, sit down at my computer and, with a glow of profound satisfaction, open a new Word file […].”

It’s strange for me to read over the opening paragraphs of Russian author Anna Babyashkina’s novel Before I Croak (in the Russian original, Prezhde chem sdokhnut’), five years after writing them. After all, the words are mine; the narrator was born in the same year as me (and Anna); it’s as if the voice is my own. Yet, after a gap of half a decade, it feels as if someone else wrote this book. Which is no more than the truth, because she did.

Such are the paradoxes of a translator’s life: the words are your own, and not your own; you can’t take any credit for the book’s success, but you can be blamed if it tanks; some translators aren’t even mentioned in book reviews, or worse still, not named on the title page. (There is a limited print run of Before I Croak with the translator named as Arch Tait rather than me; hopefully, one day these copies will trade for millions, like the 1918 run of US ‘Inverted Jenny’ postage stamps printed with an upside-down aeroplane…). On the bright side, translating an author can make them your lifetime friend (as I hope will be true for Anna and me), and it connects you to something bigger than the book which you are (hopefully) getting paid to work on. When I was asked to translate Before I Croak for the Glas New Russian Writing Series, I completed a three-woman team: a female editor-publisher (Natasha Perova), and a female author (Anna).

Image taken from inpressbooks.co.uk

Before I Croak is in many ways a very female book. It explores contemporary Russian womanhood from the unusual perspective of Sonya, a rebellious sextuagenarian. Newly resident in a shabby nursing home outside Moscow (her pension fund failed!), Sonya is determined to write a Great Novel that will transform her from a retired journalist to a superstar. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed by colourful personalities and lurid secrets. Eventually she learns to re-evaluate her past life choices – especially her failures as a daughter, wife, and mother. Most of the narrative concerns love and sex, and many metaphors draw on female physical experiences, especially birth. Sonya eventually realizes she’s lived an unfulfilled life, like most of her generation, dodging catastrophes which were never going to happen: “We didn’t vote, we didn’t write declamations, we didn’t invent utopias, we made no demands, we didn’t build barricades, we invented nothing, we boycotted no-one, we had no heroes. […] We were much too afraid”. Ironically, just as she pledges to live out her life sincerely and without fear, she realizes she is about to die: from throat cancer (hence the title). I translated the book during a happy but fraught period in my life: my first son was an infant, and I often balanced my laptop beside the feeding baby as I typed; my temporary job was due to finish soon after my maternity leave, and I had no certain prospect of another. So I worked as fast as I could, emailing Anna (who reads English) for comments and clarifications, entering into and empathizing with the often febrile story worlds of her characters. Despite its future setting, the novel has nothing in common with the Russian trend for near-future dystopian sci-fi; the retrospective narrative ensures that all its scenarios are familiar to women of Natasha’s and my generation.

By translating Before I Croak, I briefly became part of the wonderful initiative which was Glas (an archaic Russian word for “voice”): essentially, a one-woman publishing house that brought Russian writers – including some Soviet names, but primarily contemporary and often young and female writers – to Anglophone audiences abroad. Authors first “launched” in English translation by Glas include Viktor Pelevin, Ludmilla Ulitskaya, and Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I discovered the great and obscure Soviet absurdist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii through Joanne Turnbull’s translations in the anthology Seven Stories (Glas, 2006). Joanne went on to restore Krzhizhanovskii’s reputation by translating his major works for NYRB Classics; I later translated one of his stories myself. My first commissions as a literary translator were for two Glas anthologies of contemporary Russian fiction, Squaring the Circle and Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia. Each of my translatees was young, female, and disconcertingly original; I remember learning the Russian for “boa constrictor” from one short story, and in another draft, coming terrifyingly close to translating the Russian word illuminator (porthole) as “light-switch”. I learned to double-check constantly with my dictionary. Natasha edited my final drafts, catching errors and suggesting smoother formulations. I never re-read Before I Croak in book form; I worked so rapidly on it that I still fear finding typos or mistranslations in the text. (Even today, I’m afraid of scrolling through the corrected draft in case I see orange font, the colour of Natasha’s interventions, everywhere.) In the end, I had one regret; I never liked the title, which was a literal translation of the original (and semantically quite effective, because of the double meaning of “croak” as “to die” and “to speak hoarsely”). I proposed Chain Mail, to reflect both the novel’s subplot of chain letters and the emotional armour that Sonya, the narrator, assembles around her true self. But although Natasha and Anna were receptive to my suggestion, the publicity was already fixed, so we kept Before I Croak.

“I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators” (Natasha Perova)

Glas was wound up in 2014, after almost twenty-five years and 170 authors, because of falling international sales. Natasha is still active as an editor and has, in fact, just published Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature (Dedalus, 2018), an anthology of stories by eleven major Russian female authors. When I reached out to Natasha for this blog post for her views on women translating (and publishing) women, here’s what she said:

“When the subject of women’s writing and women in translation comes up I always recall the start of Glas (1991). I was so proud of the first two issues until in all the reviews I read a remark that startled me: ‘Where are the women?’ I looked at the contents and yes, indeed, there were no women. The thought had never even entered my head. I felt ashamed and started looking for women authors. So the third Glas anthology was devoted exclusively to women’s writing. I discovered for myself very vibrant, emotional, and perceptive literature which was definitely different from men’s writing but in no way inferior. Since then I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s writing and followed its exciting and productive evolution. Among my modest achievements I see the fact that we published a great number of beginning women authors (they were all beginners in the early 1990s) whom nobody wanted to publish at the time, and thus helped them to become known abroad.

I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators. As a long-time editor of translations I’ve repeatedly noticed that when it comes to expressly female issues men often miss the point or misunderstand the context and connotations because they are not really interested enough in the women’s world with its specific problems which many men simply find annoying. This is still a very much man-dominated world, even  to some extent in Europe as well. Many things are still harder for women to attain, and this also refers to being published and translated. They say readers are mostly women, so I assume that women readers are more interested in men’s lives while men are have always been interested in themselves, naturally.

I think women make better translators as a rule because they are more attentive to detail by nature. Women with children in particular need extra support to establish their careers. They really need jobs which would allow them to work from home and stay with their children as much as they can. Writing and translating are among the jobs which provide an excellent opportunity for combining self-realization with career development. Another achievement of Glas is that we gave many budding translators a platform to showcase their first efforts and be noticed by bigger publishers.”

Anna Babyashkina agrees that women translators almost certainly do a better job of conveying female themes. She writes: “I doubt whether a male translator would have had so much empathy for Before I Croak, a book about motherhood, family, and women’s careers in contemporary Russia. As a woman, Muireann was well-acquainted with many of the ordeals and scenarios depicted in the book. I think this was an important factor in the translation’s success. For example, at one point I wrote (about Caesarian sections) that no woman can give birth naturally after having had one. Muireann looked at this in detail and clarified that a natural birth actually is possible. (At least in theory, although in practice in my country it rarely happens. Evidently they do things differently in Great Britain.) Would a man have paid any attention to this passage?” [my translation, from a personal email]. I remember this point in Anna’s novel, where a character becomes a writer’s muse, helping him to produce three novels. When they are separated, he overdoses on alcohol and pills, unable to write without her help. In summarizing this relationship, Anna twists the familiar, elegant metaphor of the writer’s muse acting as midwife to his novel; she suggests that this muse acted like an egotistical surgeon, forcing herself into the writer’s creative process, and forever “denying him the chance to give birth by himself”, i.e. to finish a book without her intervention. While I liked Anna’s metaphor, I pointed out that it broke down once you stopped assuming that one C-section precludes future natural births. Anna was impressed – but the passage stayed in. I don’t agree with Anna and Natasha that only a woman translator can give women’s themes due attention – surely a talented translator, like a talented author, is characterized by universal empathy – but I would have to agree that at that point in my own life, all aspects of motherhood were at the forefront of my mind. As they remain: my next research monograph will be about how and why male authors write about pregnancy and birth!

I will end this post with some excellent advice from Natasha Perova: “My own example as a woman publisher in post-perestroika Russia is not typical because it was a time of dislocation and constantly changing rules In Russia. It was hard for all those who launched new projects in conditions of wild capitalism, but harder still for women whose business experience was largely limited to managing family affairs. So my advice to all aspiring publishers and translators everywhere is to persevere and keep going forward no matter what, to be inventive and creative, and listen to their own inner voice for guidance”.

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.

 

Feminism is for everyone: Translating Feminisms and finding a voice

Today I’m kicking off a series of more reflective posts about women, translation, and the publishing industry: these will intersperse the review posts from time to time, to offer some context to the issues I’m researching and find interesting. I’ve also got some great guest writers lined up to contribute to this series, so I hope you’ll enjoy new perspectives on “Women Writing Women Translating Women”. I want to start the series by thinking about female voices getting lost in translation, and what we might do about this. A couple of things triggered this reflection, and I’m bringing them together here: the “Immodest Women” Twitter hashtag (and one particular response), the new Translating Feminisms kickstarter from Tilted Axis Press, and the Year of Publishing Women.

Translating Feminisms kickstarter. Image taken from tiltedaxispress.com

If you haven’t heard of the “Immodest Women” hashtag, it’s a rally for female academics to put their title in their Twitter name, because we worked hard for it and it is so often denigrated. I entirely support all those women who have done it, but I haven’t done it myself. Why? Well, you might argue that I am too conditioned to be a “modest woman”, but really I just don’t like using a title – any title. In the same way that I don’t want to be defined by my marital status, I also don’t want to be defined by my PhD. But I understand why so many women feel differently: I think we can all agree that the patriarchy is alive and well (there’s an excellent Guardian ‘long read’ by Charlotte Higgins on “the age of patriarchy” here), and that in most contexts, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, women have to do everything men do, but backwards and in high heels. This is also true of getting published: books by women are priced lower than books written by men; of the much-quoted 3.5% figure (the percentage of UK sales accounted for by translated literature), less than a third is made up of writing by women; then there is the old “I don’t read women” chestnut.

Over the last weeks, I’ve read a lot of tweets from women sharing stories of how they have been belittled despite or because of their academic achievements, and I recognised myself in them all, but the one that really left an impression on me was a thread by feminist author Meena Kandasamy. She writes: “I am feeling extremely conflicted about the #ImmodestWoman hashtag and not because of self-righteousness but because there’s so much to unpack […] For every one of us who has managed to float up and breathe from that cesspool with a doctorate degree above our heads–we must remember our sisters sent home, their dreams crushed, their futures messed up, academia behaving like one petty thug-gang to have the backs of a few men.” Powerful words from a powerful woman, and an important reminder that however belittled we may sometimes (justifiably) feel, we still have that title, we still have a voice, we can still choose to be “immodest women”. So what really stood out for me in Kandasamy’s thread is the mention of people whose voices aren’t heard, the women whose dreams are crushed, and who may never get to be “immodest” because they simply don’t have a voice.

And voice is exactly where this coincides with writing, and translating. We can speak and be heard, even if the reaction is hateful (the “Immodest Women” debate made the top three headlines on the BBC news website in its first week, and there were some pretty unpleasant reactions to it), but many women cannot raise their voice, and if they did, who in the Anglophone world would hear it anyway? As Olga Castro wrote for The Conversation last year, “even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies.” There is an obvious issue here about lack of inclusivity, even with all the positive things that are being done to counteract gender inequality in the publishing industry, and though Castro was writing in 2017, this year’s “Year of Publishing Women” (more on that in a moment!) has not yet made the significant change we might have hoped it would.

Tilted Axis Press are one of the pioneers doing something about this inequality: in a kickstarter-funded project challenging supporters to “smash the patriarchy”, they are proposing a series of chapbooks from women writers from Nepal, India and Vietnam. Tilted Axis already had excellent women-in-translation credentials: its founder, Deborah Smith, was the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize (jointly with Han Kang; you can find my review of The Vegetarian here), and more than half of the authors and translators published by Tilted Axis are women. In particular, Tilted Axis focuses on literature originally written in languages that are not currently widely translated into English, and the Translating Feminisms project reinforces this, showcasing “intimate collaborations between some of Asia’s most exciting female writers and emerging-star translators: contemporary poetry of bodies, labour and language, alongside essays exploring questions such as ‘Does feminism translate?’” They situate this within a wider project of decolonisation through/ of translation, showing the importance of intersectionality in activism (here, specifically of feminism, decolonisation, and translation). This kind of project promotes dialogue between women across the world (and I can’t wait to find out how they answer the question “does feminism translate?”)

The Translating Feminisms chapbooks. Images taken from Tilted Axis Kickstarter page (link in text).

Tilted Axis have understood the importance of transnational feminism, and translation has an important role here: it is a powerful means to give voice to women who are doubly silenced – first, because they are women, and second, because they do not speak a dominant world language. Recently on the Vagabond Voices blog, I enjoyed a post about literary prizes and how these affect small independent presses. Part-way through this discussion, which is worth reading in its entirety if you feel so inclined, is this rallying cry: “coming into contact with foreign cultures helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by unfamiliar voices is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity and ensure that we are not closing ourselves off from Europe and the rest of the world. It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep literary translation alive and growing.”

Though these comments are not specifically about translating women, they underline the importance of transnational dialogues. Translation is key to making “unfamiliar voices” heard, and inclusivity is equally crucial for making women’s voices heard; if the “Immodest Women” debate sprang from anything, I think it was lack of true inclusivity. But once we start to think about “inclusivity” we see it is far more wide-reaching than the academic context which was the springboard for the “Immodest Women” movement, and again it is the intersectionality that we need to be thinking about: how these voices raised in protest can join with those who struggle more to be heard. If “unfamiliar voices” can mean those from other parts of the world, it can also mean women’s voices. It’s not a huge step to alter the Vagabond Voices quotation a little and say: “coming into contact with WOMEN’S WRITING helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by WOMEN is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity […] It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep WOMEN IN TRANSLATION alive and growing.”

One publisher attempting to take on the lack of inclusivity and diversity this year is And Other Stories: back in 2015, Kamila Shamsie gave an impassioned speech at the Hay Festival, contending that books by and about women are unlikely to achieve the same kind of attention as those by and/or about men. As And Other Stories explains, “Even more incendiary than her argument […] was her proposed solution. In a provocation to all British publishers, big and small, she urged presses to highlight the problem, instigate discussion, and mark the centenary of female suffrage by publishing only women authors in 2018.” And Other Stories was the only press to take up the gauntlet. But if the recently released Brother in Ice (by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem) and People in the Room (Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle) are anything to go by, it was a gauntlet worth taking up. Kopf challenges the canon with her modern epic, and writes a book that is at once highly intimate and constantly outward-looking, while Whittle writes Lange’s twentieth-century Argentine classic of female lives into English for the first time with a translation that brings the original to life without seeming dated. I’ll soon be doing a full profile on And Other Stories and the Year of Publishing Women, so watch this space for more…

Image taken from andotherstories.org

So what can we as readers do to promote women’s writing, and women in translation? Well, I’m a firm believer that small actions, multiplied, can make a big difference. If you buy books, try to buy them directly from the publishers where possible. If you can support these kickstarter initiatives, that’s a great way to make a difference. If not, don’t underestimate the power of your voice. If you liked a book by a woman author, tell people. As many people as you can. Whether it’s a blog like this or a tweet or a book club or a chat with your friends, spread the word. One of my favourite comments about inclusivity (and the one I’m constantly repeating) is from Erin Dexter, who a couple of years ago said in a BBC news feature that “Feminism is for everybody, because sexism damages everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re either a misogynist or you need to look in a dictionary.” Feminism is about all of us working for change, whether it’s in the books we read, the organisations we support, the voices we promote, or the prejudices we reject. As Kandasamy reminds us, “Individual success is great, but collective change is urgent.” We all need feminism, and we all need to extend our concept of what this is, so that all women’s voices are represented – in literature as well as in society.