Author Archives: Helen Vassallo

Building Bridges interview series: Jen Calleja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga

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

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

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

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

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

No. No. No.

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

Review: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Wild Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Wild Woman provided by Istros Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Bridges interview series: Ros Schwartz

Ros Schwartz is an award-winning translator from French; she has translated over 60 titles, and in 2009 she was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to literature. Her latest work, a translation of Selfies by Sylvie Weil, was published by Les Fugitives earlier this year.

Your recommendations for how to pitch works will have been seen by many emerging translators; how do you find new works to translate, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

It’s not something I do very often these days. That’s how I got started, and all my pitching recommendations come out of my own mistakes! Now I only pitch when I find a book that I’m completely passionate about because it’s incredibly time-consuming writing to publishers, translating the sample, and so on. I think with Translation as Transhumance [by Mireille Gansel] I probably spent more time pitching it than I did actually translating it. You can only do that for one book every ten years, when a book really grabs you and you’re just so passionate about it that you feel as though the book was written for you to translate. Then you can put in all that effort.

You found a home for Translation as Transhumance with Les Fugitives. What made you choose to place it there?

The whole story of this book – and I’ve written about it in my Afterword – is one of extraordinary serendipity, where you know that something is just meant to happen. The book was sent to me by a Nick Jacobs, who is a retired publisher and a friend of [author] Mireille Gansel. He wanted to get the book translated, someone gave him my name, and he sent me the book. I read it, completely fell in love with it and said to myself “I have to find a publisher for this.” So I started writing to publishers, and they all said the same thing: that on a personal level they loved it, but it wasn’t commercially viable. This went on for about a year, and I had written to every publisher I could think of at that point. In the meantime Les Fugitives had just started out, and a friend of mine who knew them sent me their first book Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. And when I read it I thought “this is my publisher.” So I wrote to Cécile Menon, director of Les Fugitives and sent her my sample translation. She had exactly the same reaction as me. I applied for a French Voices grant which helped me find a US publisher, and my translation was published there by the Feminist Press. It has really struck a chord with readers. A lot of publishers said it was too niche, but I have emails from artists, visual artists, all sorts of people who are not translators and who are moved by the book in some way. It’s got so many wonderful aphorisms about translation but it’s not just about translation or about language; a lot of people have responded to it. And in these current times of insularity and xenophobia, it’s a real antidote. Gansel talks about translation as hospitality, and that’s a really key concept.

Yes, in particular her words “In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge” are very timely, aren’t they?

Absolutely. I think that’s probably why a lot of people are very moved by it because it really says everything that needs to be said.

The next book that you published with Les Fugitives also focuses on the imbrication of personal experience and wider histories. What drew you to Sylvie Weil’s Selfies?

Cécile offered it to me. She acquired it and she sent it to me in 2016, just before Christmas, and I fell in love with it. And that’s something I have to say about women writers: it hasn’t happened to with any male authors but with both Mireille and Sylvie I actually fell in love with the person. I read Sylvie’s book over Christmas and I was so excited by it; she’s got a dry, ironic sense of humour and we connected on the humour level. I think empathy is essential for a translator. And with both Mireille and Sylvie I felt that empathy.

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?

Is there more gender bias in translated literature than in literature in general? Who are the gatekeepers? Who decides? Who chooses? Who are the funding bodies? There are gatekeepers at every stage. And interestingly, there are a lot of women editorial directors in publishing. So I don’t know that translation is doing any worse than women’s writing in general. What we can do about it as translators is to seek out powerful books by women writers and take them to publishers. It’s as simple as that. Publishers are busy people: they get bombarded the whole time from every foreign publisher on the planet sending them books for consideration. And the only way we can change things is by actually unearthing brilliant books and bringing them to the attention of publishers. This does happen, it is happening.

Isn’t there a double marginalisation for women writers in translation, because the men are the ones who are going to rise to the top of the pile in their own country, and so they’re the ones that going to come to the attention of foreign agents? What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

Independent publishers are essential, because they can make decisions based on their own instincts; there’s no finance department telling them what they can and can’t publish. And booksellers are essential as well. For example, the Women in Translation month Facebook campaign has been hugely successful: based on Meytal Radzinski’s research, we collectively decided to have August as “Women in Translation” month. The hive mind came up with a list of amazing books by women that existed in translation and we all just went to our bookshops and said “Hey did you know it’s Women in Translation Month?” and they said “no, what do you mean?” so we gave them a list of books and a logo. They already had many of the books on their shelves and they made special displays, which brought customers through the door. We went back to those bookshops and asked them how the promotion had worked for them, and they said they’d sold lots of books, it brought people through the door and started a conversation. So there are a lot of things that we can all do, little things, to raise consciousness about the issue.

You are involved in a number of networks; what activities do they undertake beyond (and behind) translation, and how do they help translated works towards publication? To what extent would you consider their work as activist?

The PEN Translates programme is absolutely crucial. It’s the main funding programme in this country and the money comes from the Arts Council. PEN is responsible for selecting the books that receive grants. Literary quality is the number-one criterion, but we also consider the book’s contribution to diversity. When the committee meets to discuss which books are going to receive a PEN award, we take into account reports by experts who have read the book in the original language and know the culture of the country, but we make sure that the funding allocation is gender- balanced as far as possible and that it supports writers from countries that aren’t often translated. All other things being equal, we try to privilege those books that need more exposure. So that programme has been instrumental in bringing writers into translation that might not otherwise have made it.

And the latest awards have had a really healthy representation of women writers; was that a conscious choice?

Yes, because when we narrow the books down for the longlist, we’ll then look at the language balance and the gender balance, and we try to make it as diverse as possible. I feel quite optimistic about where literary translation is at the moment compared to it was even a decade ago. Translators have created networks and are very supportive of one another; we’re not working on our own. There’s a lot going on and we’re all on the same page. Translated literature has outsold English literature for the first time, and despite the gloom and doom and all the rest of it, I feel quite optimistic about translating literature and about women writers as well.

 

 

 

Shards of memory: Colette Fellous, This Tilting World

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The latest release from Les Fugitives is a work by French-Tunisian author Colette Fellous, offered in an elegant and articulate translation by Sophie Lewis. In This Tilting World, Fellous explores different dimensions of grief and loss: the sudden death of a friend, the terror attack on the beach at Sousse in 2015, and the exile from a home(land) that both is and is not hers. This is an intimate farewell to parts of Fellous’ life that she loved and can never fully possess or experience again: the recent loss prompts her to reflect on her relationship with her deceased father, and to write a fragmentary novel, a “nocturne” that pays tribute to people she loved, people she never knew, a country that she can never truly leave behind, and a figurative home in literature.

In This Tilting World Fellous draws together her father’s life during the twentieth century, the Tunisia of her childhood, and the changed world of the twenty-first century with its institutionalisation of terror and fear, describing the project within its own pages as an attempt to “tell the story of a father born and dead in the twentieth century, and the story of this world now, this Tunisian village I shall have to leave behind, in this year 2015, a terrifying year, remorseless, in its new, 21st-century colours.” The fragments of text move between past and present, but also beyond rigid notions of time as Fellous blends events and memories from different periods into one narrative experience. She layers terror attacks so that their impact is felt simultaneously, imagines her father as both a deceased adult who has left her adrift and a newborn child who she must protect, and unites her personal experience with a collective or universal one: “my novel is damaged, the world is damaged, I too am deeply wounded.” If her homeland is ravaged so too is she, as her country and her generation witness the birth of “a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even in our own bodies.”

The embodiment of terror – encompassing both fear and exile – is echoed in several of the fragments. Fellous describes the terrorist at Sousse as having killed people “on my beach, our beach, on every beach”, showing a universality of experience (“every beach”) and a collective suffering (“our beach”) alongside her personal grief and loss (“my beach”). Though Fellous recognises that she is privileged to be able to give voice to this experience, she also expresses a desire for individuality (“I don’t want to join any group, I want to see life with my own eyes, I want to be free”) and a yearning for selfhood alongside her reflections on writing, on creativity, and on the ways in which pain can inspire art. This longed-for freedom from prescribed views or distinct communities also represents a freedom from past silence: Fellous attempts to understand her father, and in particular to understand the silence that he transmitted to his children. She acknowledges that with this silence he had hoped to protect them from knowledge of his own suffering, rooted in its historical time of “betrayal, brutality … the camps”, but ultimately the father’s silence imprisons his children in a false innocence, a not-knowing that Fellous seeks to redress through her writing. Her father’s fractured, multi-cultural past is intertwined with historical experiences of colonisation and exile, which represent “the rupture that he’d tried to minimise”: this rupture is woven into the substance of her prose, which is itself always fragmented. Indeed the original title, Pièces détachées, indicates this fragmentation with the rupture between generations, cultures and languages reflected in the ruptures between each shard of text.

Sophie Lewis translates with sensitivity and a depth of understanding of the intricacies of Fellous’ writing: literary references abound but are never heavy-handed; the family experience is understood through references ranging from 19th-century novelist Flaubert to Alain Renais’ holocaust film Night and Fog and many others in between; nouns and adjectives are coupled carefully to convey the wistful heart of the narrative (such as “entwined bodies” or even the title, “this tilting world”, echoed in the text) and the syntax is deliberately poetic (“the wrinkles were become a kind of writing”, “always I stumble at this love”). This book is worth reading for the translation alone: there is a richness and range to Lewis’s vocabulary; the breadth of lexis is stunning, and shows an alertness to the possibilities of language (for example, choosing “I guarded Alain’s smile inside me” over the more obvious equivalent “I kept Alain’s smile inside me”). Above all, Lewis conveys the intimacy of a work that Fellous confesses is at the limits of what she can bear. Fellous claims to be writing so as not to forget her father, to offer him something long promised, and to give him a fitting farewell. Yet it is also a farewell to the country that she means to leave and yet to which she knows she will “always be returning”: she is perpetually drawn back to Tunisia “to see, to reassess, in order more easily to disengage”. This Tilting World is an evocative, candid and deeply moving account of a life lived between histories, worlds and languages, of times gone by, of present horrors and of fears for the future, but above all it is a monument to memory in all its forms: recollection, recognition, and remembrance.

Colette Fellous and Sophie Lewis will be in conversation with Michèle Roberts to launch This Tilting World at Daunt Books Hampstead (London, UK) on Wednesday 18 September; tickets available here.

Review copy of This Tilting World provided by Les Fugitives

Women in Translation month 2019: 8 books reviewed

As many of you probably know, August is Women in Translation month, an initiative started and championed by Meytal Radzinski. In honour of this year’s Women in Translation month, here are my thoughts on the eight books I read in August.

Ece Temelkuran, Women Who Blow on Knots, translated from Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Parthian Books)

In Women Who Blow on Knots, four women escape and find their shifting fate(s) on a madcap road trip across the Middle East as the Arab Spring breaks. It’s full of action, cliffhangers and social comment, and maintains a lightheartedness while dealing with weighty issues regarding women’s roles and representations in the Middle East. The title is from a sura from the Qur’an that refers to witchcraft, and there is indeed something mystical about this story. There is something of the cinematic too: several of the implausible feats pulled off by the larger-than-life Madam Lilla felt like a film in the sense that the hows and whys of breathtaking turns of events are edited out in favour of the more watchable final result. The characterisation is what stood out for me the most: though the three younger women could easily have fallen into stereotypes or tropes of femininity, Temelkuran invested each of them with heart, fallibility, and a destiny that each must fulfil in her own way.

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, The Yogini, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press)

The latest release from Tilted Axis Press is an absolute gem: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s third novel The Yogini is a tale of fate, illusion and self-destruction, offered in a sumptuous translation by Arunava Sinha. Homi is a young woman who, on the face of it, has everything she could wish for: a high-powered and exciting job, a full life, and a passionate marriage. However, a chance encounter one day with a silent man with matted locks imperils everything she holds dear, as fate “sinks its claws into her” and prompts her to reflect on contingency, on choice, and on inevitability. Fate is the driving force of the narrative, stalking Homi and gathering in her heart “like unshed tears.” Merciless and inexorable, fate – or is it  her own will? – guides and pulls Homi through increasingly self-destructive situations, until she risks exiling herself from happiness and losing everything that ever meant anything to her. Powerful, explosive, and utterly compelling.

Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak, translated from Arabic (Palestine) by Perween Richards (Comma Press)

Regular readers will already know how much this book moved me, from my review last month. Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian author writing about life – and particularly women’s lives – unfolding on the Gaza strip. Expect a violence that has become commonplace, but also a universal experience that is utterly irresistible: Qarmout writes with warmth and compassion, never instructing but always teaching. The translation by Perween Richards revels in the richness of language to convey all of the atrocity and humanity with which Qarmout’s writing swells: these are stories of the everyday violence, restriction and terror of living in Gaza, but above all they are stories of everyday humanity. This one is not to be missed, and is one of my top recommendations of 2019.

Ursula Kovalyk, The Equestrienne, translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Parthian Books)

Set in 1984, The Equestrienne is a coming-of-age story about two misfit girls, “dangerous bitches, disruptive females who disregarded all the rules.” The girls forge their future in a riding school in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and the narrative combines the personal story of identity and survival with comments on socialism vs capitalism (“we swapped our barbed wire cage for one made of gold.”) I was a little surprised by this novella, as it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (though that’s not a bad thing): I thought it would focus on the elderly character looking back on a life narrated in flashback, but on reflection it works better as a coming-of-age story. I also very much enjoyed the collaborative translation by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood; every word is perfectly placed.

Tea Tulić, Hair Everywhere, translated from Croatian by Coral Petkovich (Istros Books)

This book was longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2018, and I’ve been meaning to read it since then. I came to it after having enjoyed a recent release by Istros Books (Singer in the Night, reviewed here), and Hair Everywhere is harrowing and challenging, but well worth the read. Tulić offers a fragmented narrative about one family coming to terms with cancer, following their daily life after the mother is diagnosed with an aggressive tumour that will ultimately kill her. By turns delicate and brutal, it’s also a story of female legacy: “While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.” As well as a reflection on loss, this is also a lyrical hymn to love and a painful testament to our failure to love enough before it’s too late.

Fleur Jaeggy, Proleterka, translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen (And Other Stories)

This is the third of Fleur Jaeggy’s novels to be published by women in translation champions And Other Stories, and in it a teenage daughter dissects her emotionless relationship with a father she barely knows. The girl and her father embark on a cruise to Greece, aboard a ship called the Proleterka: this is their “last and first chance to be together,” during which the girl experiences a violent sexual awakening and an increasing neglect of her father (some children, she reminds us, “have the gift of detachment.”) Jaeggy’s examination of relationships strikes a skilful balance between perspicacity and silence: every word seems to have been weighed before being offered, and McEwen ably renders this in the transation. An unsettling narrative that cuts like a razor.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, The Adventures of China Iron, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre (Charco Press)

I was able to get an advance copy of this forthcoming title from Charco Press at Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I can only urge you to read it as soon as it is available. This is an epic and subversive dialogue with Argentine history and literary canon: told from the perspective of China, the abandoned wife of José Hernández’s eponymous gaucho poet Martín Fierro, The Adventures of China Iron reinscribes female experience in a male-dominated context. With a luscious and rhythmic prose, Cabezón Cámara subverts and queers one of Argentina’s great literary texts in an unforgettable journey across the pampas, but also offers profound reflections on industrial progress, women’s experience, colonialism, and sexuality. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre truly entered Cabezón Cámara’s universe, and have translated the cadence and atmosphere of the text beautifully.

Tomoka Shibasaki, Spring Garden, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton (Pushkin Press)

This Japanese novella is an unhurried tale of quiet obsessions and missed opportunities that nonetheless manages to maintain suspense: divorcé Taro lives in a condemned block of flats, and meets his neighbour Nishi, who is obsessed with the sky-blue house across from their block. Little by little this obsession starts to take over Taro’s life too, as the story edges towards a conclusion overshadowed by the threat of demolition. Will Taro and Nishi uncover the secrets of the house before they have to move away? Will they allow themselves to fall in love before they are separated? An excellent translation by Polly Barton manages to convey the wistful yet tense heart of the story.

Building Bridges: Translating Women interview series 2019

In the springtime this year, I published a remarkable interview with translator Sophie Hughes. Shortly after Sophie’s interview I received a small grant to travel across the UK and turn this into a series, interviewing translators, publishers and publicists to explore the barriers facing women in translation, and the ways in which these might be broken down. Later this year I’ll be publishing the rest of the interviews here, but what strikes me most as I transcribe them is how many ideas recur – explicitly or implicitly – across the many and varied responses to my questions. So I am offering this “prelude” by setting extracts from each interview in dialogue with one another: I hope you find this as fascinating as I do, and I look forward to sharing the full interviews with you in due course.

I am very grateful to all these dynamic and talented interview participants. Their goodwill, good humour and wisdom are inspiring: every single person I approached agreed to meet with me, and gave freely of their time and their thoughts; my appreciation is matched only by their generosity.

On source cultures

SOPHIE HUGHES: “whenever [women writers] sit at their desks to write, the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins”

SOPHIE LEWIS: “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.”

BECCA PARKINSON & ZOË TURNER:  “With our Reading the City anthologies, we try to find a 50-50 split of men and women with the authors and the translators if it’s possible. It’s not always possible. There are some countries or cities where we go and we simply can’t find the women writers, sometimes because they’ve been so suppressed, or because they’re scared.”

NICKY HARMAN: “There are very many women authors in China. I don’t know whether there are more males than females. But I know who gets the prizes: it’s men who get the prizes.”

JEN CALLEJA: “There are issues in the whole infrastructure, and then in the publishing industry there still isn’t parity for women being published in English, let alone in translation. And then in reviewing culture, we know that women aren’t reviewed as much as men. So the problem is from the top to the bottom. There are obviously other issues, such as class, so for example if you translated a woman, because of the class structures in other countries you’re translating women who are predominantly upper or middle class: they get translated, but what about all the working-class authors?”

On the importance of translated literature

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “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.”

JEN CALLEJA: “We push for translation into English because we need it. I mean that in an existential, soul sense; we’re starving for outside voices.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are really keen to find out about what’s going on around the world.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “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, whatever the language or the society. 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.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “People will automatically go for something that they think they will relate to. And if we’re not being shown that we can relate to these works from other cultures across the world, if they’re being ‘othered’ in our narratives, then without even thinking about it people won’t pick them up.”

CÉCILE MENON: “I’m publishing books that I think will have a connection with the previous books that I’ve published. And yes, which I think are relevant to a British readership.”

On barriers

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “Translated literature already faces one hurdle, its perceived ‘foreign-ness’ which some (not all) publishers and booksellers see as a barrier to sales. Then if you throw ‘women’s’ into the mix, the hurdle doubles in height.”

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having – in translation into English in particular – to change the imbalance in attitude to 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 all literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “That duality – on one hand we’re keen to give prominence to our translators, they’re always on the cover of our books, as well as our copy editors, who are always on our back cover, but then on the other hand, we want to overcome this block from so many readers in relation to translated fiction, that they would immediately understand translated fiction as something that’s niche, difficult, too complex, and we just want to prove that that’s not the case. So it’s a balancing act, that we try to do with every book.”

NICKY HARMAN: “I think Chinese women writers all acknowledge the fact that they have less visibility … there’s certainly a dominance of men amongst writers and publishers.”

On the publishing industry

SOPHIE LEWIS: “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.”

NICCI PRAÇA: “Small independent publishers who publish women in translation are activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “Independent publishers working with translations have an opportunity to change that balance, to re-balance as it were, and make that balance right, to bring women’s voices to be at the same level as their male counterparts.”

NICKY SMALLEY: With translation specifically, there’s a real issue of women in other countries not necessarily getting the acclaim that brings them to our attention. This is definitely not an excuse, but if those women writers in other countries are not getting the acclaim for their writing that they deserve, then they’re not going to find agents who will take them into English. So that’s a key issue. And it’s a push and pull thing, because if English-language publishers are looking for more writing by women, then you create an awareness in other countries that this is something that’s desirable.”

CÉCILE MENON: “Generally, the books that I take on are by authors who haven’t been translated into English before, have been overlooked. They were considered as too niche or not commercially viable. A prime example of that was Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz, which turned out to be one of our two best-selling titles and was selected for events at Jewish Book Week and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “Independent publishers are essential, because they can make those decisions and there’s no finance department telling them they can’t do it. And booksellers are essential as well.”

On readers and booksellers

SOPHIE HUGHES: “A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance […] every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.”

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “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.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “We need to get people over the idea that if it’s translated it’s going to be difficult. Maybe bookshops and libraries need to give us a bit of a hand in the marketing. You need a bookseller or a librarian or a reviewer to pick a book up and say ‘this is special’ and add their voice to yours. But especially as an indie, you’re going up against much bigger dogs in the industry, and then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got a lot of people fighting against you. You’re not getting your books on the Waterstones front tables, you’re not on the Amazon homepage, so how do people find you? But the audience is there, and it’s growing.”

NICKY SMALLEY: “Publishers are obviously gatekeepers to an extent, but different publishers have different degrees of power in their gatekeeping, as do booksellers. So a chain like Waterstones has the power to make or break a writer.”

On activism

JEN CALLEJA: “People are still challenging the idea that there is gender bias in literature, and so firstly there has to be an acceptance that it exists. You have people who are consciously opting into publishing women, making those kind of changes, but it has to be a long-term thing. So it might be that for the next year or two people make a big thing of publishing women to push it forward. But people are so reactionary against that kind of positive discrimination without really acknowledging what comes before it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a historical context. So it’s about making some real choices about women in translation, making an effort to work with women translators, using that as a consultancy basis to find more women.”

BECCA PARKINSON AND ZOË TURNER: “If more festivals invited over authors who aren’t from the UK and fought those visa battles, there wouldn’t be a news story about visas getting turned down. That shouldn’t be news, it shouldn’t be happening in the UK, but this insular atmosphere at the moment is focusing on British authors. It’s just so wrong and the opposite of what we should be doing.”

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “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.”

SOPHIE HUGHES: “Gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women”

ROS SCHWARTZ: “What we can do about it is that as translators, we need to seek out those books and take them to publishers. It’s as simple as that. Publishers are busy people, they get bombarded the whole time from every foreign publisher on the planet sending them books for consideration. And the only way we can change things is by actually seeking out really brilliant books and taking them to publishers. And that does happen, and it is happening.”

To be continued…

With thanks to:

Jen Calleja, translator from German
Charlotte Coombe, translator from Spanish
Nicky Harman, translator from Chinese
Sophie Hughes, translator from Spanish
Sophie Lewis, translator from French and Portuguese; co-founder of Shadow Heroes
Antonia Lloyd-Jones, translator from Polish
Cécile Menon, director of Les Fugitives
Carolina Orloff, co-director of Charco Press
Becca Parkinson, engagement manager at Comma Press and Zoë Turner, publicity and outreach officer at Comma Press
Nicci Praça, formerly publicist for Fitzcarraldo Editions; manager of Amnesty Kentish Town bookstore
Ros Schwartz, translator from French
Nicky Smalley, publicist for And Other Stories

Humanity in the face of atrocity: Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak

Translated from Arabic by Perween Richards (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s fair to say that The Sea Cloak is one of my most anticipated books… ever. Comma Press first started advertising it last Spring: author Nayrouz Qarmout was to appear at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2018, but her visa application was turned down twice by the Home Office. She just made it in time after the festival intervened on her behalf, and was then invited back this year to take part in a panel on migration and refugees – so publication was postponed in order to launch The Sea Cloak during Qarmout’s visit to the UK. So I’ve been looking forward to this book for over a year, and I can tell you that it was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% worth the wait.

Qarmout was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and was “returned” to her home in Gaza in 1992, making her a refugee for a second time, but this time in her own country. The Sea Cloak offers insight into life in Gaza, but without melodrama or exaggeration – for Qarmout, this is simply her home, her life, her political context that she is observing. Her background in journalism shows through in her writing: there is nothing partisan here, nothing that tells her reader to think or react in a particular way. Perhaps this is also an effect of her being an “outsider” even in her own country: rather than instructing, she lays out fragments and stories from her context, and offers them for interpretation. There are aspects that hint at autobiography or personal experience (for example, the female protagonists of both ‘The Long Braid’ and ‘A Samarland Moon’ are journalists, the protagonist of ‘The Sea Cloak’ “retreated into the past, to a sprawling camp buzzing with children playing marbles and forming teams for a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’”, and the bombing of a building in ‘Our Milk’ echoes an experience Qarmout describes as being intimately connected to her writing – she forced herself to write one story for every floor that was rebuilt), but the rich tapestry of everyday people presented in The Sea Cloak defies any narrow interpretation of the text as being the experience of only one person – the rhetorical question in ‘14 June’, “How many times has she jumped out of bed thinking that a bullet has punctured her window?” may very well be Qarmout’s own experience, but it is also doubtless the experience of anyone who lives in a warzone. Fictional characters live through real events, such as in this depiction of a restaurant bombing: “The waiter staggers for a moment, still standing in the rear half of the restaurant that hasn’t collapsed. His face gushes with blood – some invisible piece of shrapnel has sliced his cheek – but he barely notices it. All he can do is stare at the splashes of colour that fringe the rubble: strips of tapestry and flesh, both heavy with history.”

Not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Many of the short stories have women’s experience at the fore: in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl struggles with the transition to womanhood and the restrictions that this forces on her; in ‘The Mirror’ there is the memory of a sexual assault; in ‘The Long Braid’ a schoolgirl is told by her teacher that emancipated women are “sluts”; in ‘Breastfeeding’ a mother and father want something better for their daughter than becoming “entangled in the traditions that they themselves were raised with and could never escape”, only to discover that all options lead to restriction. Life is too often decided for these women, but in many cases other women uphold this patriarchal society. Yet Qarmout’s characters try not to be, or not to remain, victims. These are not stories of misfortune but of life, and the strength of The Sea Cloak comes from not having one definable agenda, but rather a collective one: destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion (read ‘White Lilies’ in particular), showing us that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

As for the language and the translation, both are excellent. Qarmout’s writing has a wisdom and clarity, and a richness of expression that is both exciting and compelling. Perween Richards translated all but the title story of the collection (which was translated by Charis Bredin), and she conveys this richness superbly, bringing the text to a recognisable place without ever being untrue to its origins: the translation is careful and precise, yet not overworked. Richards was one of two winners of the Translate at City translation competition in 2016, and as far as I know this is her first major translation – and what a debut it is. This collaboration is a shining example of the best of connections: between people, places, cultures and contexts. The narratives might be shocking in their everyday candour and the lack of melodrama to describe the atrocities that have become commonplace, but there are nonetheless universal messages such as this one from ‘Breastfeeding’: “We all have to grasp at the chances we can in this life.”

This juxtaposition of extraordinary situations and ordinary lives is one of the most striking features of the collection: as Richards notes of Gazan life, “Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.” If there is everyday violence, there is also everyday experience – there is a new take on forbidden love in ‘The Anklet of Maioumas’, in which a girl and boy from opposite sides of the border hope to be together; in ‘A Samarland Moon’ two young people who have drifted apart – one towards religion, the other towards emancipation – try to remember what they loved about one another, and young boys work to advance in life in ‘Pen and Notebook’. There is no preaching or overly didactic comment – Qarmout’s characters go about their lives, and their lives just happen to unfold in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. I learnt a lot from reading The Sea Cloak, yet I didn’t feel “instructed” – I think this is a necessary book. We need this book in the west. We need to know, we need not to read only books in which we recognise ourselves. One character in ‘Black Grapes’ asks “When are they going to understand?” – this is the challenge laid down gently by Qarmout. Terror, violence and death abound, yet if there is one thing that truly defines this collection, it is humanity, and that is the connection that rises above all others. As Qarmout stated in her recent appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Suffering in revolution is a collective experience. I rebel. Then we exist. I believe creation is a revolution. Palestinian identity needs this revolution.” The Sea Cloak is indeed a quiet revolution, and I urge you to be part of it by reading and sharing these stories.

 

A road trip to remember: Olja Savičević, Singer in the Night

Translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books, 2019)

Singer in the Night is the second novel by Croatian author Olja Savičević; the narrator tells us that it is “a story about life”, and encompassed within this is a story about love and memory, and their attendant joys and losses. Both hilarious and profound, this book is a reflection on the ways we love, the paths we choose, the exhilaration and peril of being open to new experiences and the stagnation and dessication of choosing safety and banality over desire and dreams.

Singer in the Night is mostly narrated by Clementine, an eccentric soap opera scriptwriter. Clementine is a “blonde orange” with silicon lips and whitened teeth who gave up on art and followed money and popularity, for “people needed a lot of cheap, quick emotion, they needed it in greater quantities than it was possible to produce … Let’s face it, gunk has moved the vast majority of people and filled their thoughts probably more than the best work of art ever could.” Clementine hasn’t seen her ex-husband – the elusive poet Nightingale – in some time, but she is jolted into going in search of him when he disappears after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours in Split. The letters have been written in response to a bout of loud lovemaking in one of the buildings on the street; in this hot summer with all the windows open, the sounds of passion have carried, and inspired Nightingale to write from a variety of perspectives about love. There is no trace of Nightingale in Split; he has not been in contact with his friends and family, and even the yacht that he still co-owns with Clementine has been abandoned. Cue Clementine climbing into her golden convertible car and embarking on an unforgettable journey from Slovenia through Croatia to Bosnia in search of her lost love. Along the way she recounts her memories, which she sees “as though through polished glass”, and which are interspersed with the letters from Nightingale.

Nightingale’s letters delight in the possibilities of language; he is “a ruler over words and colours” who explores the breadth of lyric expression with his shrewd observations about society and human nature. Though they are ostensibly about the lovers keeping the street awake on the hot summer nights, this is really just a pretext to talk about love (“where the heart is not free there cannot be love”), resistance (“Why would a child write if it was well?”), politics (“People constantly sing about freedom, but at the same time with all their limbs, including their tongue, they stay on the border”), and a range of other musings on war, (anti)heroism, contingency, and life in all its chaos.

While Nightingale’s missives are poetically crafted, there are occasionally some unexpected turns of phrase in Clementine’s monologue. Given how distinctive the writing style is and how renowned Celia Hawkesworth is, I rather suspect they may have been there in the original too; I found the extended use of the imperative mood quite marked, but I can’t imagine that “Let mother come home soon” was chosen over, say, “I wish mother would come home soon” or “if only mother would come home soon” without a lot of thought, or that “starkers people” was chosen as a childlike colloquialism for naturists without deliberation over its unusualness. Clementine is a unique character, and so I suppose it follows that she has a unique way of speaking, which Hawkesworth conveys ably in the translation. The repeated use of “my dear” creates intimacy and hints at Clementine’s raconteur personality; it is an affected way of speaking that indicates the milieu in which she operates but also a form of self-address, as she is recording her voice for herself. For Clementine, we discover, is suffering from a progressive memory loss, and does not want to forget the detail of her life –particularly not its joys and its passions – and for this she needs to evoke Nightingale, the lost love of her life.

The final section of the novel is the one in which Nightingale finally speaks as a character, rather than through his letters. We find out why he left and how he perceives Clementine, as well as more detail on his life philosophies. But Clementine’s own story is also full of thought-provoking pathos: Savičević is a socially engaged writer, aware that “it’s the duty of anyone living in a dystopia to create a utopia.” Her narrative calls into question the world that she and her contemporaries inherited, Clementine’s personal tragedy mirroring the historical amnesia that post-war societies slip into, both encompassed in a phrase which could sum up the entire book: “what keeps us going is memory.”

If the narrative is disorientating at times, this is indicative of Clementine’s own confusion, her road trip an apt metaphor for the narrative ride she takes us on. Her outpourings fill the silences of a relationship and a youth that have faded away, and are populated by a cast of eccentric supporting characters, from the fearless, hairless Helanka and her twin daughters Billy Goat and Arrow to Clementine’s platonic “comrade” second husband Bert and her failed movie-mogul-turned producer Kalemengo. Part road trip, part social comment, part metaphor and part love story, above all this is an exploration of memory, with some fittingly memorable twists along the way. It is not Nightingale that Clementine is moving towards on this turbulent journey, but her past, her memories, and herself. This reflection on the fragility of memory – both personal and historical – is a poignant, innovative and politically engaged book that deserves attention.

Olja Savičević will be at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on Sunday 18 August.

Review copy of Singer in the Night provided by Istros Books.