Category Archives: Guest post

The Susanna Roth Competition, Czech–English Translation and Bianca Bellová’s ‘The Lake’

I’m delighted to welcome a new guest contributor to the blog: Julia Sutton-Mattocks won the 2017 Susanna Roth Translation Competition for her translation of Bianca Bellová’s The Lake, and is writing today about her experience.

Find out more about Julia on our Guest Contributors page.

One of my translation students recently told me that she always saved her translation homework for the end of the week. It would be a treat, she said; something to look forward to when all of the other tasks were done. It amused me, because it was what I had always done too. What’s odd is that, as an undergrad, I never really considered translation except as a language exercise. I’m a grammar geek type of linguist and translation presented a gloriously creative form of grammar puzzle. I loved it, but for some reason it never crossed my mind to take it further.

Fast-forward several years to January 2017, when a Twitter post from Czech Centre London caught my eye. They were inviting submissions for the Czech–English round of their annual Susanna Roth Translation Competition, which they run jointly with the Czech Literary Centre in a number of different countries. The competition aims to encourage a new generation of translators to enter the world of Czech literary translation and is named in honour of the Swiss translator Susanna Roth (1950–1997), who translated the work of some of Czech literature’s best-known names into German. The announcement reached me at an auspicious moment; I was part-way through the second year of my PhD and had recently made a New Year’s resolution to make the most of my PhD years by not focusing exclusively on my thesis (apologies to my supervisors, should they be reading). I decided to give it a shot.

The competition’s focus is on contemporary Czech prose, even the leading lights of which often have to fight quite hard to get translated into other languages. 2017’s chosen text was the opening of Bianca Bellová’s Jezero (The Lake) (Host, 2016). Bellová (b.1970), a Prague-born writer with Bulgarian roots, is a big name in contemporary Czech prose. The Lake, her fourth novel, won the Czech Republic’s prestigious Magnesia Litera Book of the Year award in 2017 and was also one of the 2017 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature. It is a Bildungsroman and was inspired by the drying up of the Aral Sea, but its setting is completely fictional. Certain of the details identify the location as Central Asian, the presence of Russian soldiers indicates a Soviet context, and the sense of change and rupture that permeates the novel suggests that it is set in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Yet there’s nothing to enable the reader to define a precise geographical or historical setting, which makes it a novel of unknowns, disorientating and yet universal.

The novel opens in the tiny fishing village of Boros on the shores of a rapidly disappearing lake. There a little boy called Nami goes to school, builds treehouses, fears the Spirit of the Lake, pretends to shoot down planes and wonders who his parents are. He has a vague memory of his mother, but has grown up with his grandparents, who avoid all of his questions. Nami later escapes Boros for the city on the other side of the lake, where he meets a cast of beautifully drawn characters: a rough diamond construction worker, Gleb Nikitich; a money-crazed drug dealer, Johnny; the Old Lady (an aristocratic former lover of the deposed autocratic Statesman); and a grumpy escaped monkey named Majmun. Over the course of the novel, Nami’s path is set with tasks to overcome and relationships to build. Only once he has built up his physical and moral strength, and learnt to cope with both love and loss, can he complete his journey to self-discovery.

The extract was a joy to translate; full of colloquial language, juicy grammar problems, odd changes of tense and a lot of different types of food. Tense was a sticking point I encountered early on. Czech tends to use the historic present much more commonly than English, and this extract was no exception. Since I often struggle with the feel of the historic present in English, I initially started by putting everything into the past. Yet the immediacy of Bellová’s prose seemed to be lost as a result. I switched backwards and forwards several times before settling on retaining the present tense narration. Even then, there are short passages of past tense narration in the original, which I eventually came to read as cinematic flashbacks within the main narrative, but which initially seemed specially placed just to throw me.

The various foodstuffs hurled a whole new translation issue into the mix. They provide a snapshot of the decisions I found myself needing to make. The characters in The Lake spend a lot of time eating, making or thinking about food; and they eat, make and think about food from a wide variety of different cuisines. How these were rendered in English would have an effect on the reader’s interpretation of the novel’s setting. The Czech ‘lívanec’ is a thick pancake, somewhat like a scotch pancake, an American pancake or a drop scone. The English ‘pancake’ to me is something more akin to a crêpe, so I didn’t feel I could leave it unqualified. Using the word ‘scone’ for a UK audience conjures up incongruous images of jam and cream; and using either ‘American’ or ‘scotch’ wouldn’t have worked for obvious reasons. In the end, I went with ‘bliny’ since, in English, we tend to think of ‘bliny’ as thick pancakes; and I justified the change on the basis that Russian influences already existed elsewhere in the text and that some would be lost in the translation process for other reasons (the immediate Soviet connotations of the Czech word ‘gazík’, for instance, are lost in my English ‘army jeep’).

Another foodstuff, the Czech ‘cibulový koláč’, I rendered as ‘onion pie’. I felt that retaining ‘koláč’ (or, perhaps, ‘kolach’) would have emphasised the text’s Czechness unnecessarily. However, as I discovered when I discussed The Lake at a translation festival in September 2017, this was certainly an imperfect solution, since everyone in the room had a different idea of what a pie looked like. Then there was ‘burek’. Nami’s grandmother and her neighbour spend a lot of time making burek and I spent an inordinate amount of time reading recipes for it so that I could understand how to translate the scene in question (one day, perhaps, I’ll put this knowledge to culinary use.) Burek (or börek) is a savoury pastry made across parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, so its presence in the text served to emphasise the novel’s Central Asian setting. While I consequently left ‘burek’ in the English, I translated ‘těsto’ (‘pastry’) as ‘filo pastry’ so that readers who didn’t know what burek was had a bit of a clue.

Like my student, I used the task as a treat: if I could do a really good day’s concentrated PhD work, I got an hour or so at the end of the day to translate. It was surprisingly motivating and I was more than a little sad when it was done and dusted. The email conveying the news that I’d won arrived in my inbox on a blisteringly hot May day in Seville. I’d just arrived for a three-day choir tour (welcome to my other life) and was absent-mindedly checking my email while waiting for the keys to my hostel room. The sense of euphoria was extraordinary. It only became more so when I found myself whisked off on the prizewinners’ trip to the Czech Republic in July, courtesy of the organisers, for a week-long whirlwind of seminars, presentations, sight-seeing trips (including to the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site of Český Krumlov) and a lot of hearty Czech food. The other eight winners (all women) came from Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan and South Korea, and it was fascinating to talk about the very different experiences we had all had in translating the same text into our own languages and to share our stories about learning Czech.

If, as I hope, I’ve intrigued you, you can download my English translation of the opening of The Lake here. If you want to read on, for the moment you’ll need to turn to the original Czech or to one of the five translations into other European languages that have been published in 2018 (see bottom of page for details). For more of a Bellová fix, or just to read more Czech literature in English translation in general, the latest issue of the quarterly online journal Apofenie is a good place to turn. Four times a year, Apofenie’s all-female editorial team curates a selection of contemporary artwork, poetry and prose from around the world in original English translations. Their latest issue, which focuses on Czech literature, includes my translation of Bellová’s short science fiction story ‘Závrať’ (‘Vertigo’, 2014), as well as translations of works by other leading lights of contemporary Czech prose, including the women authors Alena Mornštajnová, Jana Šrámková and Lucie Faulerová. For the really keen, even more information in English about contemporary Czech literature can be found at Czech Literature Online, a project financed by the Czech Ministry of Culture and managed by the Czech Literary Centre. Happy reading!

 

The Lake is now available in the following European languages (all 2018 publications):

Dutch: Het Meer, De Geus, trans. by Kees Mercks

French: Nami, Mirobole éditions, trans. by Christine Laferrière

German: Am See, Kein & Aber, trans. by Mirko Kraetsch

Italian: Il Lago, Miraggi, trans. by Laura Angeloni

Polish: Jezioro, Afera, trans. by Anna Radwan-Żbikowska

 

The 2019 round of the Susanna Roth Award is now open for submissions. To find out how to enter, visit this page.

From Sangria to Bloodletting: translating Brazilian feminisms

I’m delighted to welcome to the blog feminist translator Beatriz Regina Guimarães Barboza. You can find out more about Beatriz and her work on the guest contributor page; today she’s sharing a compelling in-depth discussion of her translation of Luiza Romão’s ‘book of rage’, Sangria, in a post that is particularly timely given the presidential election in Brazil next week.

When I first heard about Luiza Romão’s Sangria (doburro, 2017), it seemed to me exactly the sort of book I was looking for in contemporary Brazilian poetry: inventive, outrageous and felt with deep consciousness of sound and rhythm. So vivid that you could imagine it coming out of the page, inscribed in and for the body (for Luiza is a slammer and actress, too). It is a book of rage against the cruel History of Brazil, a past of colonization by the Portuguese and later the imperialistic forces of the USA (until today), with a gendered perspective of several forms of oppression that emerged from this process.

Front cover of SANGRIA by Luiza Romão

The book is composed of 28 poems, mirroring the days of a period cycle, and several monochrome pictures of Luiza’s own body, covered with red threads weaving different shapes that denounce violence. In the preface, Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda, a notorious intellectual and writer in Brazil, says that “the chosen path was of activating a process of continuous weaving (à la mode of female embroiderers and weavers) between the menstrual cycle, that is, parting from the female organism’s reproductive potential and the revision of oppressive episodes of Brazilian History”. Brazil’s History was (and still is) marked by domination, just as women are, because State violence is not separated from gender and sexual hierarchies (with huge influence of the Catholic Church since the colonization, and, recently, the Neo-charismatic movement), with capitalist inequalities that reflect racial segregation. Luiza Romão exposes all this and shows that women can fight, from within, and not only for their material struggles, but also for their hearts and souls, these issues brought together in a political claim of a feminist writer in Brazil.

The violence that Latin American countries suffered, with the slaughter of indigenous societies and years of slavery of people captured in Africa because of colonization, mostly came from Portugal and Spain, so we share this burden with our Spanish-speaking neighbors. Maybe because of that and to reach wider audiences, Luiza chose to publish a bilingual book: Sangria has the original Brazilian Portuguese on one side of each page, and a Spanish translation by Martina Altalef on the other.

As a feminist translator, I felt truly glad to have the opportunity to translate her book into English, but also knew the heavy responsibility of doing such a thing. Luiza came to me because she was looking for women translators from English and a mutual colleague, Isabela Rossi, introduced us to each other. People knew I was a MA student of Translation Studies at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, working with the translation of Anne Sexton’s poems to Brazilian Portuguese with a feminist approach. However, it was quite a challenge to work the other way around: from Brazilian Portuguese to English. And just a brief note: just as there is not a “standard English” that fully represents the several uses of the language around the globe, there is not a “Brazilian Portuguese” that is the same within the whole country, but this debate demands more than I have scope to discuss here. I will limit myself to making the point that I translated Sangria, published in São Paulo, one of our major cultural poles, to the type of English I could learn in Brazil, highly influenced by the USA. It was the first time I would do this, so I asked Luiza to read the translations and see if they sounded good to her. I also asked if it was possible to pay for a reviser of English, because I had the skills of poetry translation, but several uses of the language were not known by me, as I am not used to writing in English). Fortunately, Luiza knew Lâmia Brito, an excellent reviser who changed several details of my translation, questioning choices that were actually big mistakes of mine, and reassured me regarding most of what I had done. And there was one more aspect that had impact: my knowledge of Feminist Translation Studies, which helped me understand the ideological dimension of translating a book from outside the “main world literary system” (as Brazilian writers are still very little read outside Latin America), and that some things should not be rendered easy to be read in English but retain their Brazilian identity. Even more important than that, this made me aware of dealing with particular features of a language with a gendered grammatical system, like Portuguese, and how to maintain Luiza’s feminist issues still visible in English (which erases gender marks in verbs, adjectives and nouns).

At the very beginning of the book, in the poem “Day 1. Full Name”, as Luiza recounts Brazil’s History, some references are not known for people outside Brazil, for example, “dops”, the initials of the Departamento de Ordem Política e Social, that was a government agency of censorship and repression. That’s why the book already contains some footnotes for the Spanish translation by Martina Altalef, which I translated into English, and that was enough to deal with the needs in question, as I could manage to maintain the rhymes in the stanza.

Following in the same poem, the poet uses words with conceptual dimensions: palavra-mercadoria is not only a compound noun to refer to words as products, but uses mercadoria, a word very common in Brazilian translations of Marx’s idea of commodity fetichism. In Brazilian Portuguese, fetichismo da mercadoria. That’s why I translated it as commodity-word, although in Brazil commodities are generally associated with primary goods that are negotiated in stock exchanges, and mercadoria is seldom translated as good or merchandise. I wanted to keep the reference to a Marxist concept as it is known in Brazil and Luiza really approved of this, for she wanted to keep this genealogy of terms.

In “Day 2. Date of Birth”, she uses the word mestiça, used in Brazilian Portuguese to refer to women with interracial origins, hat has a whole past (and present) of gendered and racial stereotypes that suffered (and suffer) oppression. Brazil is known as a country of miscegenation, but this process was very marked by exploitation, violence, rape and prejudice, with different specificities from the process that happened in the USA, for example. So, it couldn’t be the same to translate this term into English. However, it wouldn’t sound so strange for the anglophone readership, for Gloria Anzaldúa’s use of the word mestiza (in Spanish) for Mexican women in the USA it is very know my some writers and scholars, as it is seen in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). I talked to Luiza about that, and she agreed that we would keep the word without translating, in Brazilian Portuguese (mestiça) to mark the difference from the Spanish word (mestiza), and retain the cultural specificity of Luiza’s work.

In the same poem, one decision involved all three of us: poet, translator and reviser. Luiza played with the word minas, which is the first name of one of the first states to be explored in the race for gold, Minas Gerais, and is also a slang for “chicks” as young women, in the following excerpt

tempos idos

minas não mais

When I first translated the text, I wrote to Luiza that I could not keep the double meaning of minas, for she was talking about our country’s birth by force, the gold exploration of Brazil by the Portuguese, and also the lives of women. So, she said she preferred to keep the reference to Minas Gerais and lose the slang, because it was more important to situate this, and her whole poem was discussing gender matters linked with History. Then, the first translation was:

gone times

mines never more

In the source text, there is strong trochaic rhythm in the first verse of the excerpt and one more distended in the second. Also, the alliterative sound of [m] and the assonance of [i] between idos and minas. Fortunately, I could keep the rhythm and the sound, so important to the poetry of a slammer such as Luiza. However, Lâmia, the reviser, found the sound was too heavy at the end, “more”, and the original has the most open vowel of Portuguese in mais, the [a]. There was a partial rhyme between idos and mais, because of the plural, the trochaic rhythm and the sound of [i]. That’s why she suggested inverting the verse, and we all thought it was better:

gone times

never more mines

Just one more example, to show how questions of grammar affected her gender debate: In the poem “Day 3. Register Number”, Luiza reverses the gender of nouns and adjectives to criticize sexism, showing that “not only grammar/ suffers from gender agreement”. I could not keep that trace in English, for there was no grammatical gender I could reverse and I would have to interfere in all words to make that visible. So I chose to write a footnote, which Luiza agreed would be the better option. This kind of procedure had to happen more times, and so I suggested Luiza that it would be better if the English version had a preface talking about this topic, to explain to anglophone audiences how to notice in the source text which words are written in the feminine and which are in the masculine.

As you can see, in the very first three poems of Sangria/Bloodletting, I’ve chosen some aspects to show the deepness of reflection that the translation had to go through, and from the perspectives of three women with different relationships to the text. Questions of sound, rhythm, imagery, History, gender and class struggle all mattered. Many choices depended on the perspective of Luiza Romão and the knowledge of Lâmia Brito, and my own reflection derived from the readings of Olga Castro, Luise von Flotow, Mona Baker, to name just a few. Although indirectly, this range of readings that affected my reflections were supported and developed by our group at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, the GEFLIT (Group of Feminist Studies on Literature and Translation), with Naylane Matos and Sheila Santos, for this makes part of our own research projects and, as you can see here, impacts on my work as a translator. So, let’s keep reading, studying and translating women, together.

And, in the spirit of solidarity and inclusivity, please look at the hashtag #EleNão, and support the movement if you feel it appropriate.

 

 

 

“Can a man write a feminist book?”: Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).

Image from lesfugitives.com

Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.

The “spider woman”

I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:

“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”

Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.

Review copy of Now, Now, Louison provided by Les Fugitives.

Alternatives to Patriarchy: Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Waitress in Fall (Carcanet and Partus Press)

I’m delighted to welcome Laurie Garrison to the blog today, with a review of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Waitress in Fall. Laurie is the dynamic organizer of the Women Writers Network, and you can find her full bio here.

In Iceland, Kristín Ómarsdóttir is about as famous as poets can be: she has been nominated for or won a long list of awards, including the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize; she is a successful dramatist; and one of her novels has been translated into English. Until now, however, none of her poetry has been available in English. It is therefore exciting that a selection of poems written across her entire career has now been translated as Waitress in Fall by fellow Icelandic poet Vala Thorodds, founder of Partus Press. These poems take the reader into another world, one that is rebellious, unexpected, humorous and that (I think) has more in common with French surrealism than most of the poetry being written in English at the present moment.

Image from partus.press

Take the poem “Lemon Breast”, for example. The mundane genre of cooking instructions is transformed into an erotic absurdity:

Slice the lemon into two equal halves
on the kitchen table but take
one half into your room
and squeeze a little of the liquid
over the brown
soft
half-asleep
nipple.
Lick the drops that trickle down the breast
before the lips are moved
to the top.

Lick first then suck.

When the taste fades
repeat.

Slightly cringeworthy, slightly humorous, reading Ómarsdóttir’s poetry takes me right back to my undergraduate days of studying French surrealism, especially the surrealist theatre where the odd and the unnerving were also comical and entertaining.

As I worked my way through the collection, I decided to remind myself of some of the authors and titles of surrealist theatre that Ómarsdóttir seemed to have so much in common with. So I consulted my prized collection of French books, which I knew to be basically intact despite a transatlantic move and a post-academic career purge. As I looked through the titles, I remembered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Roger Vitrac’s Victor, ou les Enfants au Pouvoir, and Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve surprisingly vividly. Ómarsdóttir’s poems do indeed have much in common with their style of writing: the characters’ absurdity, the seemingly subconscious associations and swift shifts of attention. But…where were the women writers? I started scanning to see if there was a single woman writer on my French shelf, let alone a surrealist. Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour was the only text by a woman on my shelf.

I don’t know if undergraduates are taught a more diverse curriculum in French literature classrooms these days, but we are certainly facing a similar problem in the world of translation. If we consider just how few texts become well-known enough or popular enough to be translated into English and then that women have only authored one quarter of translated texts, there is a glaring woman-shaped hole in the translation-publishing industry. This is precisely why we need a translation of poetry like Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s in the English language. She has taken a historically male-dominated form and made it very female. Her explorations of female identity do not so much challenge the status quo as annihilate it in order to rethink everything about the structure of the world.

Ómarsdóttir has virtually said as much herself in an interview with The Rumpus. In reminiscing about the types of things children read at school, where people behave as expected in a highly constructed, conservative reality, she asserts that her work as a whole is written in opposition to this: “I’m against the reality, the designed reality. I am against the structure of our world, which seems to be raised by violence”. In so many of Ómarsdóttir’s poems, violence either lurks in the background or we see clear evidence of it. In the eerie poem, “Three Poetesses”, for example, partially clothed women sitting around a table are joined by a man in a “pirate sweater”. We do not see literal violence but there is a confident possessiveness about the arrival of a man who joins them without a word.

He touches one of them and we are told that they are all dead, “though they await his kisses”. The waiting and the expectation of affection suggest a commentary on patriarchy: they are bound by the awkward relationships created by this structure. They are dead because their roles under patriarchy are prescribed and unrealistic. The man ominously carries the “touched one” off: a simple touch establishes enough dominion that he can do what he wants with her body, her mind being conveniently elsewhere. The oddity of the scene forces the artificiality of the underlying patriarchal structures to the surface: violence is not openly visible, but its consequences are clear. Significantly, the women are “poetesses” now silenced in death, their bodies at the mercy of a man.

In other poems, such as “headless morning” there is much more overt evidence of violence:

early one morning you receive in the post
the head of a man
damp with blood
on the doorstep

Being an English-language reader of these poems, I cannot help but make the connection with the sagas, where beheadings, revenge killings and other forms of violence are simply part of the fictional landscape. The poem is written in the second person, pushing the reader to consider themselves to be in the place of the receiver of the head: “who wishes me ill?/ you think at the same time as you/finger your neck”. At the end of the poem it is unclear what fate “you” have met: “the sun and the morning songs of the birds/empty what’s left of the consciousness”. The emptying of consciousness could be permanent or it might not be. In societies that are founded on revenge killings and vigilante justice, it is unclear what the fate of either the transgressors or innocents will be. Let’s bring this into a more recent historical moment, where the “you” of the poem must live since the head is delivered by the post that also brings “morning papers” and “letters in envelopes”. Iceland may be celebrated as a democracy that established the first parliament in Europe, but violence was very close to the surface at that time and remains a part of its history.

For me, Ómarsdóttir is at her most feminist when she explores relationships between lovers and between married couples. In “Protein” the speaker obsessively prepares food for her lover in a disturbingly submissive relationship where she “see[s] to it that my man has the guts and the vigour to love me”. Feeding her lover is followed by sex where the protein she has fed him is given back to her in the form of an ejaculation: “I tiptoe along his sated body until I get my portion of the workings of the energy wad/ From morning till night I look forward to the moment when he squirts into me the fluid that I do all I can to co-produce”. No mention is ever made of her role in reproduction or her pleasure in sex other than as the receptacle for his semen. She scoffs at single women: “They never prepare food, they don’t have any boyfriends”. The oddity of these associations—food and reproduction, eating and sex—again brings the artificiality of patriarchal structures to the fore.

One of the most impressive qualities of Ómarsdóttir’s poetry is her ability to envision alternatives to the relationship in “Protein”. In “Mountain Hike on a Summer’s Day”, for example, multiple women share a fiancé:

Female relatives who share a fiancé sit down on the mountain
crest, find dice in their backpacks and throw:
“He is mine, he is mine. He is yours, he is yours…”
But they don’t care who gets him. Chance rules the throw.

The women are in charge here and they subvert gendered behaviours. The relationship between husband and wife is based on chance. Patriarchal and heterosexual structures are undone: women decided the fate of a man and they undermine a presumed possessiveness of monogamous, opposite-sex relationships. There is also the strange conflation of birth and marriage in “ode” when a bridegroom is released from a minke whale:

the armpits of the lads, who on the beach
open the bride with man-sized scissors,
bawl with rage

what I remember as I tore the membrane
off my bridegroom
with long, colourful nails

The bridegroom is born from the whale, which seems to be a bride, but the speaker tears ”the membrane” off her bridegroom. The poem shifts quickly in point of view, disorienting the reader and shocking her with the graphic scenes of birth. This is a sort of group marriage, human and animal, more than two involved, carried out through a gruesome sort of violent act. We are led to ask, is this what marriage is like: a rebirth that is painful, bloody, almost too terrible to contemplate?

We need a female poet like Kristín Ómarsdóttir in the English language. She tears down the usual social structures as if they were nothing, letting us see just how odd they are in the context of other endless possibilities of unfamiliar ways of being, living and relating to other people. I hope the ‘minor’ female surrealists that I’m sure were out there, back when I was an undergraduate studying French, are now taught regularly in university classrooms. And I hope the students are taught to recognize how this form is so effective through its refusal to come to heavy, solid conclusions, preferring instead the playful, unpredictable and occasionally humorous. Indeed, for all her undoing of our comfortable reality, Ómarsdóttir leaves us with laughter in the final words of this collection:

I lie down on the ground
mmm
and laugh with the sky
mmm
laughter

A Transnational Network of Women Translators

Today I’m delighted to welcome to the blog manu escrita,a translator and art historian from Lisbon. You can find out more about manu on our Guest Contributors page, and here she is sharing some inspirational thoughts on creating a transnational network of women translators.

August is here and we are celebrating Women in Translation Month in the year of the centennial of women’s suffrage in the UK. 2018 is the year Kamila Shamsie called to be a Year of Publishing Women: three years ago, at the Hay Festival,  Shamsie challenged publishers to publish only women authors in 2018, both as a form of celebrating the centennial and to highlight the issue of gender imbalance in the industry. Historically, and not unlike in other spheres of life, it has been difficult for women around the world to be taken seriously as writers and even harder to get published. But nowhere in the literary world is gender disparity sharper than in the translation of works, particularly into English, the dominant language of the publishing industry. And yet, it seems to me that it is the English language that could provide the most viable bridge between various other languages and facilitate a flow of translations that could effectively close that gender gap. This being the age of technology, networking and crowdfunding, if we can decrease the gender gap in the number of translated works to English it will then become easier to create women’s routes in publishing and translation that will help close that gap in other languages too. The question is: how do we go about creating our very own transnational network of women translating women with that purpose in mind?

Stock image: freerangestock.com

In the last few years, we have witnessed an upsurge of interest among women readers, writers and translators to promote women’s literature. Although it was widely acknowledged that women read more and that they read male and female authors equally, something that does not happen with male readers, it was not until 2010 when the association VIDA for women in the literary arts was founded, that an actual count of gender disparity in the publishing industry exposed how far we still have to go to close that gap. In 2013, author and translator Alison Anderson delved farther into the matter and, in an article published in Words Without Borders, asked the poignant question: “Where are the women in translation?” Basing her question on statistics revealed by the Translator Database, founded in 2008 by Three Percent and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester (USA), which calculates that only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations, Anderson estimated that of those 3%, only 26% were by women authors. Like Anderson, I was never sufficiently interested in Math to be good at it, let alone be able to divide 3% by 26%. But it certainly doesn’t take a genius to conclude that whatever that number is, it amounts to practically nothing.

Keeping in mind that the English language is dominant in the publishing industry and that even so, women authors translated into English are only a quarter percentage of 3% of all published books just in the United States, what is the scenario in other countries? As a Portuguese translator working in Brazil at that time, I knew the situation was grave. In an article about Literatura de Mulherzinha, the Brazilian version of Chick Lit, journalist Bruna de Lara refers to a 2005 study by Regina Dalcastagnè from the University of Brasilia, where the researcher found that of the 165 authors published by three major Brazilian publishers between 1990 and 2004, only 27.3% were women. In Portugal, I myself attended less than a year ago, the book launch of the first ever translation to European Portuguese of A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, published in English in 1792 by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. One of the founding texts of feminist thought had to wait over two centuries to be “of interest” in a country where the first doctorate in Gender Studies is about to launch next September. Present at the panel, which also included the editors and translator, was feminist art historian Filipa Lowndes Vicente. Speaking of the state of the intersection of gender/feminist studies and translation in Portugal, she painted a dispiriting picture: search for example “author Mary Wollstonecraft” in the British Library and you’ll retrieve 270 results both by or about the author. Do the same in the Portuguese National Library and you’ll get six entries. Well, seven now that the Vindication has finally been published in Portugal.

This new focus on statistics and gender bias became the fuel for the social movements that followed. Various campaigns and initiatives were launched: in 2014, Meytal Radzinski, an Israeli science graduate student and literature blogger, created Women in Translation Month, dedicated to all women writers in translation, regardless of the gender of the translator. That same year, writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh launched the #readwomen campaign, a step followed this year by InterVarsity Press. As for Kamila Shamsie’s challenge of making 2018 the year of publishing solely women authors – taking into account diversity so that it wouldn’t become the year of publishing only “young, straight, white, middle-class, metropolitan women” – one single publisher only took it on: And Other Stories, an independent publishing house based in Sheffield and London (UK) and created in 2010. And Other Stories was already a committed publisher of literature in translation, and one with an operating model that may very well become an inspiration to a projected transnational network of women translating women.

And Other Stories uses editorial crowdsourcing by allowing both readers and translators to recommend books to translate, creating reading groups and fostering a community to pre-fund their publications by buying multi-book yearly subscriptions. There are aspects of this model that I find useful and expandable to a transnational translator network. Like a spider web, women translators worldwide could weave a worldwide network of localized reading groups, formed by women translators who would collectively recommend translations for other groups to translate and seek local publishers. In many cases, for languages other than English this could prove difficult. I don’t know many women translators of Portuguese who could translate directly from the Hindu, or Korean, or Urdu. But translations via English to third languages could certainly speed up the process of getting more women authors out into the world, since English prevails as the dominant language of the literary industry. True, problems of meaning and interpretation could arise. But being part of a network of translators would permit communication with the source language native translators in order to resolve such issues.

The first step would be to create community: a database of translators and language reading groups networking between themselves to recommend and accept recommendations to translate, actively seeking alliances with local publishers, editors and literary agents. Self-publishing, crowdfunding, and public subscriptions for pre-funding are important and viable alternatives to corporate publishing. Groups can experiment with different models, even create small translation presses, or form local collectives and associations. From the point where we form communities of support, anything is possible. Ideas behind models like those of And Other Stories or Amazon-Crossing can be inspirational and help translator groups to design their own models. After all, it is our passion to read, to translate, to publish women authors. Forming our own communities around the world, using technology to network among ourselves, borrowing and adjusting operative models from publishers as needed may very well finally fast forward gender equality in the publishing industry. So, let’s weave that web and let those awesome women writers loose into the world for all to access in as many languages as we can.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Image taken from inpressbooks.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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