Author Archives: Helen Vassallo

Review: Loop, Brenda Lozano

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2019)

This debut novel by Brenda Lozano is a clever, innovative book, an erudite observation of the everyday, a genre-smashing static journey. It’s fair to say that I admired it rather than enjoyed it exactly; mostly, I suspect, because of the point at which I read it. Loop is a series of connected fragments, and I probably jumped into it at the wrong moment: I read it on my train journey to and from the Translating Women conference, when my mind was pitching from one thing to the next, not staying anywhere for long, and returning to the same things repeatedly. This fitfulness was exacerbated by reading a book that was doing much the same thing, and so my reaction was affected by the circumstances of my reading. Nonetheless, objectively I can see all of the things that make Loop brilliant, and those are the features I’ll focus on here.

The unnamed narrator of Loop is waiting. Her boyfriend Jonás has travelled to Spain after his mother’s death; the narrator awaits his return, journeying in her mind while sitting in her armchair waiting for Jonás. As she waits she vocalises their usual routine, alternating between longing for his return and resenting his absence. She is also waiting in an airport for a delayed flight: this is the ambiguity of the literary form, as the narrator reminds us that it doesn’t matter how long passes between her notebook entries, because it will be read as if no time has passed between them: “Part of the magic of the ideal notebook is that hours, days and weeks can go by from one paragraph to the next, but because the paragraphs live side by side like neighbours, it’s as if only a few minutes have passed. Amazing – something that takes years to write could be read by someone else in a couple of hours.” Time is suspended, just as the narrator herself is suspended in her vigil, awaiting the return of Jonás. In this sense, she says, “my notebook is my waiting room” – the notebook becomes the loop, the contracted space where time expands.

The (mildly but endearingly obsessive) narrator has had some kind of accident in the recent past, though we are not given details beyond her waking up on a hospital gurney with a Shakira song playing in the background (thus alerting her to the fact that she is not, after all, now inhabiting the afterlife). This patchy detail is consistent with the “diary” narrative – in a diary, why would you painstakingly write out details of something you already know? Rather, this is an exploration of the narrator’s inner world and thoughts. Many references recur repeatedly: the Shakira song is an intermittent soundtrack, as is David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” (this one features as a choice on the narrator’s part, rather than as an intrusion), and a Shakespeare quote spotted on a fridge magnet becomes the narrator’s refrain to describe herself: “Welcome. A hundred thousand welcomes! I could weep, and I could laugh; I am light, and heavy. Welcome!” This becomes an invitation to us to enter her world of weeping, laughter, lightness and weight, all encapsulated within the pages of her “ideal notebook”. In this notebook she performs a kind of taxonomy of the everyday, chronicling experiences and observing objects, but she also identifies herself as a modern-day Penelope: “I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again. Will the day ever come when the waiting stops? Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” “I wish. I weave. I unravel.”

It is not just The Odyssey that features as a literary reference – these are broad-ranging, from Fernando Pessoa to Marcel Proust via Oscar Wilde, and many more besides (there is a handy index of references at the back of the book). These can’t have been easy to spot and incorporate into the translation, but Lozano is in safe hands with Annie McDermott: there was not a single word, reference or turn of phrase that jarred in my reading of Loop. I had already admired McDermott’s work as editor on Ariana Harwciz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) and as co-translator with Orloff on Harwicz’s Feebleminded, and am very excited for her forthcoming translation of Selva Almada’s next book with Charco Press later this year. Her choice of title for Loop is intelligent and sensitive: it is more ambiguous than the original title, Cuaderno ideal (“ideal notebook”), which would mean very little in English. It’s a play on words in Mexican Spanish: not only is this the ideal form, but also a reference to the near-obsolete brand of notebook that the narrator uses to write down her thoughts. Lozano’s narrator describes her text as “an infinite queue”, and this is reflected in the English title: a loop has no defined beginning and end, it goes over on itself, turns around on itself, repeats itself – the refrains that punctate the narrative are played as if on a loop; the fragments of narrative loop back and return to where they started; by reading the narrator’s intimate thoughts we are in the loop, and her verbal acrobatics – energetically but unobtrusively rendered by McDermott – loop the loop.

There were some observations that made me laugh out loud, such as this from the very first page: “As a girl I thought that the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life.” But Loop is also shot through with pain (the narrator knows intimately “those depths where only pain can take you”), and some profound observations seem almost carelessly tossed in (except in Lozano, as I came to realise, nothing is careless). As well as the repeated refrain “Change. Unknowing yourself is more important than knowing yourself,” she makes delicate proclamations such as “we make the world to the measure of our hands” and “the way we relate to everything, especially when it comes to love, changes after we hit rock bottom,” as well as a list resembling a modern-day secular Beatitudes, in which she observes that “those who talk too much reject themselves; those who listen carefully accept themselves.”

When I went back to my notes to write this review, I felt far more drawn into Loop than when I actually read it, which makes me think that I should revisit it to experience it at a less stressful moment. But for now I’ll leave you with this meditative remark, which epitomises our mordantly observant narrator and her writing project: “I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words.”

Review copy of Loop provided by Charco Press

20 books to watch out for in 2020

2020 looks set to be an exciting year for women in translation: if, like me, you’re thinking about what your reading year will hold in terms of new releases, here are 20 books to look forward to this year by women from around the world. From dystopian alternate realities and speculative fiction to a feminist retelling of ghost stories and wickedly wry reflections on modern life, this is an eclectic and exhilarating mix of personal and political literature that includes novels, short stories, fiction, memoir, autofiction and speculative fiction. Dive in and enjoy!

I have a renewed gift subscription to Tilted Axis Press this year, and so I was excited to see that 2020 looks set to be a bumper year for the press, with five of their six titles (their biggest annual catalogue to date) being by women in translation. I can’t wait for the first release, Matsuda Aoka’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, “a contemporary feminist retelling of traditional ghost stories by one of Japan’s most exciting writers” translated by Polly Barton, and am also impatient for the new Yan Ge novel, Strange Beasts of China, translated by Jeremy Tiang (I loved The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press and reviewed here), as well as the UK publication of Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. You can read publisher Deborah Smith’s take on all of the 2020 Tilted Axis titles here.

And Other Stories continue to fly the flag for women in translation this year: first off, later this month we can look forward to Rita Indiana’s second novel, Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. I’m champing at the bit for this; Indiana’s first novel Tentacle, translated by Achy Obejas, was my surprise hit of 2018, and Made in Saturn is described as “a hangover from a riotous funeral, a rapid-fire elegy for the revolutionary spirit, and a glimpse of hope for all who feel eclipsed by those who came before them” – it promises to be as electrifying as Tentacle. Later in the year we can expect the next Lina Wolff, Many People Die Like You, a “wicked, discomfiting, delightful and wry” collection of short stories (translated again by Saskia Vogel, who did a magnificent job with Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers last year), and a new-to-me Salvadoran writer, Claudia Hernández, whose novel Slash and Burn, “a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma,” is in the very capable hands of Julia Sanches.

Fans of Margarita García Robayo and Selva Almada are in for a treat, as Charco Press are bringing us their next novels! There probably isn’t a corner of the internet where I haven’t professed my love for García Robayo’s Fish Soup (2018); the follow-up is Holiday Heart, a novel about a disintegrating marriage, translated again by the very talented Charlotte Coombe. As for Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (tr. Chris Andrews) was an excellent debut (and won best first book of the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2019); Almada’s second offering Dead Girls is a journalistic novel about femicide, and the cherry on the cake is that it will be translated by Annie McDermott, whose previous work for Charco is top-notch. Charco will also be publishing the debut novel of Chilean author Andrea Jeftanovic, Theatre of War (tr. Frances Riddle), which marks Jeftanovic’s first appearance in English and Charco’s continued championing of women authors from across Latin America.

In March, Comma Press will be releasing a landmark collection in collaboration with Wom@rts and Hay Festival: Europa28 brings together 28 acclaimed women writers, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs writing about the future of Europe in a “powerful and timely anthology [that] looks at an ever-changing Europe from a variety of different perspectives and offers hope and insight into how we might begin to rebuild.” Sophie Hughes edits with Comma’s Sarah Cleave, and Europa28 features a stellar cast of writers and translators.

And speaking of Sophie Hughes, her translation of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for Fitzcarraldo Editions will be released imminently! Hurricane Season is “a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons” that, I believe, opens with the line “The Witch is dead.” Hurricane Season is one of my most anticipated books of 2020 – this time last year I mistakenly thought it was coming out in 2019, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a looooong time and I CAN’T WAIT. (*update*: I just received my copy, and the first line is not “The Witch is dead”, but it’s even better – if a book can be judged on its first page alone then I can say right now that this is AMAZING). Then in April Fitzcarraldo will be bringing us the next Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Place (translated by Alison L. Strayer, who also translated The Years) – and will be releasing it on my birthday, no less! Champagne all round.

Elsewhere, we can look forward to the next Samanta Schweblin from Oneworld: Little Eyes, translated by Megan McDowell, is “a chilling portrait of our compulsively interconnected society”, and looks set to be as spine-tingling as Schweblin’s previous work. Earthlings, Sayaka Murata’s second book, is coming in October from Granta Books: Earthlings continues with the theme of outsiders, presenting characters who believe they are not human, and is translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, who did an excellent job on Murata’s best-selling Convenience Store Woman in 2018. Les Fugitives have kicked off the year with a new novel by award-winning Mauritian author Ananda Devi, The Living Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), in which white supremacy, desperation and class conflict collide on the streets of London. My 2020 pick from Pushkin Press is Tender is the Flesh by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica: translated by Sarah Moses, this chilling-sounding dystopian novel is set in an alternative reality in which it is legal to eat human meat. Sounds horrifying, but I do love dystopian fiction so I’m going to steel myself and dive in…

In less gruesome news, here are three very different French-language books to look out for in translation this year:

Europa Editions UK will be bringing us Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers, translated by Hildegarde Serle: the daily life of a cemetery caretaker is disrupted by a clandestine tribute in the “funny, moving, intimately told story of a woman who believes obstinately in happiness,” while Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, which I enjoyed reading in French last year, is coming from Daunt Books in a translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: in this closed-down tourist town on the border between North and South Korea, a young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a dilapidated guesthouse, and is drawn into a tacit relationship with an unexpected and mysterious guest. Finally, Harvill Secker are offering a new international series of eight books in 2020, kicking it off with All About Sarah, the debut novel by Pauline Delabroy-Allard (translated by Adriana Hunter): this was a literary sensation in France last year, and is described as “an intoxicating and evocative novel about the all-consuming love affair between two women and the ruin it leaves in its wake.”

Fans of German literature will be pleased to know that V&Q Books recently founded an English-language imprint, headed by women in translation champion Katy Derbyshire, and we can expect their first three releases in September. Two of the three are by women: Lucy Fricke’s Daughters (translated by Sinead Crowe) tells the story of “two women, pushing forty, on a road trip across Europe, each of them dealing with difficult fathers along the way”; Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (translated by Derbyshire herself) is an autofictional account of “the writer’s relationship to her grandmother, a devout Swabian Catholic who refused to reveal who fathered her child in 1946.”

So that’s 20 books for 2020, with doubtless many more exciting releases to come in the course of the year. I’m already wondering whether any of these will make it onto my end-of-year top books of 2020 – in the meantime, happy reading!

Translating Women conference: reflections on activism in action

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!)

Read Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture in full here; it’s a wise and compassionate reflection on crossing borders, resisting categorisation, and connecting the individual with the universe, and is translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft.

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.

 

Building Bridges interview series: Charlotte Coombe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the Translating Women review of Fish Soup here.

Building Bridges interview series: Sophie Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ahlam Bsharat, Trees for the Absentees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Bridges interview series: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Review of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

Building Bridges interview series: Carolina Orloff, Charco Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building Bridges interview series: Nicky Harman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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