For some time now, I’ve been lucky to work with feminist translation studies scholar Olga Castro on projects close to both our hearts: the most recent of these was organising the inaugural Translating Women conference, which took place on 31 October and 1 November 2019. If you use Twitter you can catch up on events via the #TWConf19 hashtag; in the meantime, here are my reflections on those two memorable and stimulating days.
Translating Women: Breaking Borders and Building Bridges in the English-language Book Industry was an event which, as keynote speaker Margaret Carson noted, enters the chronology of the Women in Translation movement. 70 energetic, engaged academics, translators and activists from four continents came together at the Institute of Modern Languages Research in London, UK, to discuss the barriers facing women in translation in the Anglophone world, and to come up with ways in which we could challenge these.
The defining feature of the conference for us was that this was not a group of people concerned with simply exposing the injustices of the status quo, but rather with challenging them. The conference opened with a rousing keynote from Carson, in which we were called upon to “Snap the gap”: the gap in question is the gender gap in publishing translated literature, and the “snap” is taken from Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, in which “snap” moments are defined as tipping points, part of something bigger, a feminist call to action. The Translating Women conference was a “snap” moment for us collectively: the energy in the room over the two days was moving and inspiring, and brought up some necessary discussions.
Firstly, Carson invited us to be “troublemakers” – not to accept injustices just because they exist, not to be a marketing tool for publishers who do not prioritise “snapping the gap”, and to beware of women in translation “light”. This “troublemaking” was picked up in Rosalind Harvey’s impassioned indictment of the “triple absence” of Latin American women writers in discussions of “great” literature (indeed, as Carson warned us, “great writer” is in itself a gendered term). Harvey pointed out that women are not the default, and so when we make the cut we are troubling; this echoed Nicky Harman’s comments on Chinese women’s writing that “when writers are talked about collectively, what’s meant is ‘male writers’”. If even “writers” is a gendered term, then how much more gendered is “great writers”? It was for this very reason that delegates were sporting #BeMoreOlga badges – the badges stemmed from a response I wrote to the Nobel Prize in Literature awards earlier this year, and specifically in response to the chair of the prize committee justifying the paucity of women laureates across the prize’s history by claiming that “now we have so many female writers who are really great.” To this I argued that they were always there, but not seen; that they had always been great, but not recognised. The prize committee commended Tokarczuk’s work for “representing the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, and so “#BeMoreOlga” is a call to action, a “snap” manifesto to do the same (you can imagine our excitement when Olga Tokarczuk herself was pictured wearing a #BeMoreOlga badge at the Nobel ceremony in December!)
The feminist engagement with crossing borders is particularly important, because many of us are still in relative positions of power. Women of colour – both writers and translators – receive less attention still than white women, as Corine Tachtiris discussed in her presentation on allyship and intersectionality. If Harvey reminded us that “people in positions of power are often blind to others’ powerlessness”, Tachtiris built on this by detailing initiatives that prompt white women translators to be feminist and activist allies by amplifying the voices of women of colour. Discussion elsewhere encompassed a broad geographical spread both across the panels (from the Pacific to Bangladesh, as well as “stateless” languages such as Kurdish) and within individual papers (for example, former Translating Women contributor Muireann Maguire showed how two Russian women writers have crossed immense geographical distances in their personal lives and enable their characters to do the same).
Arching over all of these discussions was a concept presented to us by Aviya Kushner: Expectation bias. Kushner described this as the stance that “I want you to write about what I want you to say”, an attitude that relegates women to a sphere that has already been picked for them, and assumes that these women writers have nothing to add to our experience of the world. This was picked up in Pâmela Berton Costa’s discussion of paratexts in The House of the Spirits, and the expectation that a woman could write about families and love, but not about history. As Kushner noted, expectation bias silences women, does not allow them to express their “wild individuality”, and condemns them to write about only what dominant structures want them to say. Kushner’s concept brought together so many of the talks we heard: Şule Akdogan showed that Turkish women writers are expected to write about a western conception of Turkey, while Aysun Kiran noted that Ece Temelkuran, despite her high profile, is still subjected to marketing exoticised by western concepts of Turkish women, and expected to produce books that fit in with Anglophone publishers’ understanding of her country. Expectation bias also drives what gets published in the first place: author Eva Moreda explained that Galician publishers lead the way in deciding which books get put forward for translation, but despite good numbers of women writing in Galician, very few books by women are put forward for translation into English, and both Harman and Berton Costa detailed the expectations of what women in the cultures they work with are expected to write about, or told they must write about. And, of course, the denunciation of expectation bias is at the heart of Harvey’s comments on how “troubling” women are: we had all been implicitly talking about expectation bias, without a concept that we could cite – Kushner has given us that concept in one of the greatest “snap!” moments of the conference.
The second day of the conference opened with a plenary session on initiatives promoting women in translation: Godela Weiss-Sussex and Heike Bartel presented their “Encounters” seminar series, which promotes dialogue between authors and translators; Margaret Carson showed us the Women in Translation tumblr that she runs with Alta L. Price, and which is a key repository for information about WIT; Chantal Wright talked about the joys and challenges of administering the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation; the inimitable Meytal Radzinski, founder of #WITMonth, explained why she started this work and how it has grown, and Salwa Benaissa talked about why she decided to launch the new online publishing initiative Project Plume, focusing on under-represented women writers in translation. Finally, I was honoured to be able to talk to delegates about the “snap!” moment that led me to create and develop the Translating Women project.
We were also lucky enough to have two dynamic and inspiring author-translator events as part of the conference: on the first evening, Négar Djavadi and Tina Kover, author and translator of the prize-winning Disoriental (Europa Editions, 2018) discussed issues of cultural silencing (of political dissidence, sexual difference, and gender oppression), with an empowered Kover asserting her accreditation as the author of the translation. The following evening, Ariana Harwicz, Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (the latter via video) discussed their collaboration on the translation of Harwicz’s explosive Feebleminded, which Harwicz kicked off with the comment that “I’m completely atheist, but I believe in the translator”. The authors and translators discussed their work equally, highlighting one of the important themes of the conference: the visibility of the translator – not in terms of the text, but in terms of agency.
Key challenges raised by the conference participants included the lack of gender parity in translated literature, the “invisibilisation” of the translator, and the evidence that in overviews and surveys, women are simply overlooked (Carson denounces Tim Parks; Harvey counters Matt Bucher). We should demand better, cite women, channel the fellowship we all experienced in those two days to fight the status quo, to challenge expectation bias, to speak on behalf of those who are silenced, to build bridges by, in the words of Olivia Hellewell, “first understanding the terrain on the other side.” It is not just our right to be “troublemakers”, but also our responsibility. Snap!
You may also like to read:
Margaret Carson reports on the women in translation tumblr: “WiT goes to Senate House”
Salwa Benaissa of literary initiative Project Plume gives a full round-up of all the papers and events.
Barbara Spicer writes the conference report for the Institute of Modern Languages Research blog (Living Languages).
Both author-translator events will be made available as podcasts, so I’ll add the links here when I have them.
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.
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.