Monthly Archives: October 2019

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

bty

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.

Review: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Wild Woman

Translated from Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorič (Istros Books, 2019).

Wild Woman is set in 1970s Yugoslavia, and we meet the narrator on the third day after the end of her marriage. She is holed up in her apartment, mess and disorder turning to filth and despair around her as she contemplates the three days that have passed since this cataclysmic event, and ponders her ability to leave the apartment and begin living again. Two stories unfold at once: the real-time story of a woman “falling apart at the age of twenty-six” and the story of her past self, the one who brought her to this place of abjection and whose life clings to her “like an amputated limb that still hurts.” The narrator is brittle, defensive and angry – and this makes for an explosive narrative that pulls no punches either in its exploration of human grief or in its indictment of a social system that leaves women without agency or autonomy. She falls in love and marries young – against her mother’s advice – but soon finds that the charming, attentive and soulful man she fell in love with was something of a con. Before long he is disappearing for long stretches of time with no explanation, and she is imprisoned in a marital role of acceptance and silence. When he falls ill, she discovers that a secret has been hidden from her, but by now she is shackled to a him, “a prisoner of this relationship,” forced to care for him and provide for him – she writes articles under his name – even though their relationship was built on deception.

Our wild woman is introspective enough to be self-deprecating: she wanted to make a man fall in love with her by the sweep of her skirt and the intensity of her expression – but simultaneously wanted this to be a true meeting of minds, a relationship that (as any self-respecting young existentialist in the 1970s would wish) emulates Sartre and de Beauvoir. Lofty ambitions, and she is not above poking fun at herself for having had them: “But like all stupid twenty-year-olds I had decided to get my way, because you’re indescribably stupid when you’re barely twenty and haven’t yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours…” With the perspective of her newly single state, she is able to see every point at which she was naïve, oblivious or overly forgiving – but this is not a story of self-flagellation, for her greatest disdain is rightly reserved for her “beloved”, her “one and only” – a man never named, but only called by various terms of endearment which, with the benefit of hindsight, are dripping with irony and contempt.

The first thing that struck me about both the story and the translation was the length of the sentences: there is a breathlessness here – not a vapid one, but rather one that conveys the narrator’s need to vent her anger after a lifetime of censorship, an outpouring which mostly happens in multiple clauses that crash urgently towards a conclusion. This must have been quite a challenge to translate: the information structure as well as the syntax may shift between languages, and content-wise there was a lot to keep on top of within each sentence. Christina Pribichevich-Zorič has pulled it off superbly, though, keeping the narrative voice consistent in both cadence and tone and revelling in a variety and depth of vocabulary that was a joy to read.

Another strength of this novel is the cast of unremittingly loathsome supporting characters. From the widowed mother – beleaguered by poverty under communism and the loss of her deceased husband’s meagre pension – who can summon up compassion for almost anyone but her own daughter (“Poor man, my mother whispers in my ear, my mother for whom everybody is always poor except me”) to the excruciatingly awkward best friend hopelessly in love with the narrator and the feckless, self-absorbed man she chooses to marry, there is a humanity to every character (though mostly showcasing the less pleasant side of humanity, it must be said). Even the memory of the narrator’s dead father is no comfort: he beat her throughout her life, and after his death she promptly moved her husband into the family home “as if I couldn’t live without being hit.” But don’t feel exasperated with her if a negative cycle is perpetuated, for in her world “women don’t choose.” Trapped into silence by an older generation that thinks she must simply keep quiet and endure, she maintains the façade of a happy marriage and a fulfilled life even though her internal monologue reminds us that this is far from a truthful representation. She even goes as far as to call herself a madwoman – though to any discerning reader, it is clear where the real madness lies. Šur Puhlovski is not afraid to point this out, and has a penchant for doing it in a flash of lucidity at the end of a lengthy tirade: “My sense of direction is so bad that I wouldn’t know where I was even if somebody dropped me down in the middle of Republic Square, I’ve been known to say. People answer by saying that most women are like that, they have no sense of space. Interesting, because that means something, except, I wonder, why don’t women have a sense of space, or of time, because time is space, so maybe it’s because they have a sense of eternity.”

I was expecting the narrative to unfold in a slightly different way than it ultimately did: the hints at “going wild” had made me anticipate some sort of feral twist or return to nature via a rejection of “civilisation”, but in fact this is not what the “wildness” represents (and the story is better for that). The narrator is constrained in the society of her time, but must “shed the self-image they slipped on me like an invisible dress,” and  Wild Woman is the start of that transformation: it is a whirlwind ride inside the mind of a woman let down by society and by her own role within it – a ride with an uncertain destination, for she does not know if she will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her past life, or simply turn to dust and disappear – but it’s well worth accompanying her for the stage of the journey she invites us to share.

Review copy of Wild Woman provided by Istros Books

Building Bridges interview series: Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner, Comma Press

Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner work at Manchester-based publishing house Comma Press, where Becca is Engagement Manager and Zoë is Publicity and Outreach Officer. Comma Press is dedicated to publishing books that transcend cultural boundaries, and is known for an activist commitment to commissioning short story anthologies and literature in translation.

The translation imprint of Comma Press was set up in 2007. How has it evolved over the last decade?

Becca Parkinson: We started off with regional anthologies, which looked at predominantly European cities and had different themes. More recently, we’ve developed the Reading the City Series and we have a commissioning arm for projects such as the + 100 series which is Arabic science fiction. We’ve done Iraq + 100, a collection of short stories imagining Iraq 100 years after the American and British-led invasion, and Palestine + 100, stories set 100 years after the Nakba. The idea of these anthologies is to find authors, and in most cases these anthologies have led to us publishing single authors: for example, with Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East we found Hassan Blasim who is now one of our most successful authors; he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 (for The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright). With The Book of Khartoum, we worked with Raph Cormack, an editor and translator who we knew was deeply embedded in modern Arabic literature and who helped put together the project. We got PEN funding for The Book of Khartoum, which is very important, and we found (author) Rania Mamoun. This year we’ve published her single-author collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette); we might not have found her if it hadn’t been for that anthology. Our translations are what we’re known for and recognised for with other publishers, the press and the public. As a small independent publisher we can work around one-off events and we can commission in response to modern societal problems – as we did with Banthology, which was commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban – in a way that a lot of larger corporate publishers perhaps can’t.

Do you have a specific quota of translated work in your catalogue? And are there specific areas or writers that you prioritise?

Zoë Turner: There isn’t a specific quota, but it’s just so ingrained now. Annually we publish about 50% translated works. And we prioritise languages that aren’t often translated; we haven’t done The Book of Paris, just because there are so many translations from French. And even if literature translated from Arabic might be fairly common, Sudanese literature isn’t.

Becca Parkinson: We do survey our readers annually, which is part of our Art Council remit, and gives us a chance to ask our readers what they want to see. We also have to go with our own instincts: for example I worked on The Book of Tbilisi, and bringing ten authors from Georgia into English is a fascinating process. I’d never read any Georgian literature before that project, or any Latvian literature before I worked on The Book of Riga. It just shows that there’s a gap there; there’s a wealth of literature from these countries that could be brought into English. And short stories are inherently portable and fairly easy to translate. It doesn’t require vast amounts of context either to establish a story or for the reader to understand it culturally, nor vast amounts of backstory or history, and as such it travels light. Historically, the short story has moved across geographical boundaries and been very transnational in its influence. The short story is, as our editor Ra Page says, the most “smugglable” form of literature, the most transportable form of literature. And it means that we get a diversity of voices in terms of age, gender, and outlook on life. It also means that we can have established authors alongside emerging authors in our anthologies.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature or in the publishing industry more generally, and how might we overcome these?

Becca Parkinson: Women are underrepresented in every way, whether it’s in publishing, reviews, translation… There are initiatives like the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the Women’s Prize for Fiction which are trying to rebalance that, but it still exists. As you know, translated literature only makes up 3.5% of the market, which isn’t a huge proportion, but it’s growing, and in an ideal world women writing in translation would have an equal footing with men. It’s something we’re very conscious of when we’re commissioning. With our Reading the City anthologies, we try to find a 50-50 split of men and women with the authors and the translators if it’s possible. It’s not always possible: there are some countries or cities where we go and we simply can’t find the women writers, sometimes because they’ve been so suppressed, or because they’re scared.

Zoë Turner: The bias isn’t to do with women translators, that’s quite healthy; it’s more the authors who are being translated. Much of what makes its way into English translation does so by connecting with something in the news, so it’s something that the target market understands, but that’s a very media-generated appetite and feeds into the fact that men dominate the news and the media. So people end up seeing a country through a male gaze in terms of politics, and then end up looking for men writing about that.

Becca Parkinson: We’re seeking to redress that bias in any way we can. We’re working on a new project with Hay Festival and Wom@rts: it’s called Europa 28 and it’s the biggest anthology we’ve worked on; it’s scheduled for publication in March 2020, and launching at the Hay Festival. It’s being edited by our colleague Sarah Cleave and translator Sophie Hughes, and it’s an anthology by 28 women writers from Europe, writing about their vision of the future of Europe. We’ve never done an all-female anthology before so we’re very excited.

As a team, we’ve discussed ways of overcoming bias, and we think that if literature festivals are leading the charge as well as publishers, they can do the most to help address it. We know this from working with Hay Festival and working with Edinburgh International Book Festival for the last few years. In the UK many book festivals aren’t international, because festival organisers can see all the difficulties of bringing over authors from other countries. But Nick Barley at the Edinburgh Festival has helped us enormously with getting authors into the UK. We’ve had visa applications rejected time and time again; for example last year we applied for a visa twice for (Palestinian author) Nayrouz Qarmout. It was rejected by the Home Office, so the festival brought in a big group of politicians and journalists; the visa was granted, and Nayrouz made the festival and had an amazing event with Kamila Shamsie. Edinburgh was leading that; they got more than twenty visa rejections overturned. And if more festivals invited over authors who aren’t from the UK and fought those visa battles, there wouldn’t be a news story about visas getting turned down. That shouldn’t be news, it shouldn’t be happening in the UK, but this insular atmosphere at the moment is focusing on British authors. It’s wrong, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing. So Edinburgh and Hay help us by having a diverse programme, inviting authors who have been translated into English – or even if they haven’t yet been translated, inviting them over to the UK so they can have that platform. We fear it may become increasingly more difficult to bring authors over, which will discourage publishers from publishing work from those countries. So there are things that festivals and publishers can be doing with authors that could help redress those biases by having women in translation events in the UK. But we need the infrastructure to support that.

Zoë Turner: And we need to publish these works, to shake people out of their comfort zone, because otherwise they’ll never seek out these books. Two of our recent books, The Book of Khartoum and Thirteen Months of Sunrise, just made The Guardian’s list of top ten books about Sudan. That’s great, but why can’t they be on a “normal” list of top ten books? It’s the same with separating women writers – why put women’s writing in a separate category? People will automatically go for something that they think they will relate to. And if we’re not being shown that we can relate to these works from other cultures across the world, if they’re being “othered” in our narratives, then without even thinking about it people won’t pick them up.

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

Becca Parkinson: Yes. I’m quite optimistic. I think people are being more exploratory. We need to get people over the idea that if a book is translated it’s going to be difficult. Bookshops and libraries could give us a bit of a hand in the marketing: you need a bookseller or a librarian or a reviewer to pick a book up and say ‘this is special’ and add their voice to yours. But especially as an indie, you’re going up against much bigger dogs in the industry, and then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got a lot of people fighting against you. You’re not getting your books on the Waterstones front tables, you’re not on the Amazon homepage, so how do people find you? But the audience is there, and it’s growing.