Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, author of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

I recently reviewed Guadalupe Nettel’s new collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, Seven Stories Press, 2020), and this week am delighted to bring you an interview with Guadalupe herself, offering insights into the themes and inspirations for Bezoar.

All of the stories in Bezoar deal with obsessions – from seemingly innocuous ones to those that can take over a life and set it on a different course. Did you deliberately write with this common theme, or is it a coincidence that there are echoes between the various stories?

Bezoar is a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. I’ve always felt drawn to uncommon people. For me, monsters are the absolute incarnation of beauty in its most authentic and most unpredictable form: brave and fragile beings who – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – oppose conventional models. But I didn’t choose characters that are completely out of the ordinary. Rather, I wanted to shine a light on compulsions and obsessions, the perverse tics and characteristics of ordinary people, the people we come across every day, ourselves even. We all have some aspect of our personality that we’d like to hide at any cost. As William Shakespeare said: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” However, I’m convinced that this thing that we try so hard to keep hidden is the source of our true beauty. I’d like it if in reading these stories, people – especially those who find themselves physically or psychologically repulsive and who are constantly comparing themselves to images of beauty and perfection in the media – started to see themselves differently; I’d like it if these stories made them want to embrace the characteristics that make them unique.

Photo credit: Mely Avila

Many of your narrators and protagonists are outsiders, whose life and experience is characterised by solitude – desired or enforced – and who exist in some way outside of conventional relationships, experience an estrangement from their own bodies, or inhabit their bodies in uncomfortable ways. What made you want to offer these perspectives in particular?

By the age of twenty I knew that I wanted to write about outsiders; about people who stand out from the crowd because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that is always looming over me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum.

Solitude is a theme that has marked my life. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. I feel deep empathy for people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. At the same time, reading is a powerful way to cope with solitude. Sometimes, when we read the right author for us at the right moment of our lives, even if it’s a Japanese writer from the 12th Century, we can feel identified and understood in a way that even our best friend can’t understand us. Fiction opens our minds, it makes us learn about other societies and cultures, imagine places where we haven’t been and like people that we never imagined we would understand. Not to mention past times or the different futures that humanity could face.

Some of the characters are also voyeurs, though not always in a conventional sense, and their voyeurism is very much connected to the cities they inhabit. Were there real people and/ or places that inspired these characters?

All these characters are inspired by friends, people I know, siblings or even myself. The second story, where a girl is spying on her handsome neighbour from the window while he is trying to get in bed with another girl, was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. At the beginning I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: Do you see that vertical line?” He asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Of course the origin of these stories was influenced by the cities in which they were written. Some of them were written in the north-east of Paris. The story that opens the book is set near Place Gambetta. It’s about a photographer who specialises in taking pictures of people’s eyelids. A lot of people have asked me how I managed to come up with such an absurd premise, and my answer is always that this person exists or existed in real life.

“Bezoar”, the title story, was written in Barcelona, where I lived for some years, but I didn’t want the place to be too recognisable and so I mixed it up with memories from a recent trip to Portugal. It was inspired by a particularly obsessive period of my childhood when I used to compulsively pull out my hair.

My three stand-out stories from the collection were “Petals”, “Ptosis” and “Bezoar”, all of which feature men who become obsessed with fragile women they want to save, but who they ultimately fail. Was this a deliberate theme that you wanted to explore?

I think that when I wrote these stories I was coming to terms with something which at that point was fundamental and painful for me: no-one can save another person if that person doesn’t want to be saved, and doesn’t give themselves over to being saved, no matter how much love we give them, no matter how much attention, interest or affection we bestow on them. Everyone has their own way of living, and no-one else can interfere with that. On the other hand, often what we consider to be the “right path” might not be the right path for others. In “Ptosis”, the photographer wants the girl to keep conforming to his ideal of beauty, but all she wants is to be like everyone else. Trying to impose a model of beauty or behaviour on someone is an extremely violent act.

The title story is taken from a myth about a healing gemstone that is also a ball of hair. Why did you choose this image/ legend around which to construct a story, or a collection of stories?

It’s a myth that human beings believed in for centuries, and now we find it completely absurd. There are bezoars in the Met Museum in New York, and I imagine in other museums across the world as well. The fact that a ball of hair can be seen as a precious jewel shows that it’s our own imagination that gives objects their value. But what interests me most about this object is what people want from it: an end to their suffering. What does it matter if it’s only a ball of hair, if this stone can bring peace and heal our illnesses or pains? That’s what we’re all ultimately searching for, and I find that very moving.

“Unsettling” is a superb word to describe these stories – I was expecting something possibly supernatural, but they are unsettling precisely because they are only a hair’s breadth away from common realities. Where do you draw inspiration for these stories, and why is it important for you as a writer to “unsettle” or disturb?

As I said earlier, literature opens our minds, but this doesn’t always happen in a gentle and painless way. When we move away from what’s familiar to us, it’s normal to feel some discomfort. I think that if this book is unsettling, it’s because when we talk about how other people are strange, it’s almost impossible not to think about how we are too. Even readers who thought they were completely “normal” realise that they too, or their loved ones, might be a little monstrous and have been trying to hide it their whole life.

How do you cope writing such unsettling stories in the first person? I’m thinking of what it would take to produce creepy phrases such as “I chose to discover women in the only place where they don’t feel observed: bathroom stalls” – is there a single approach that you take, or does it differ between stories?

It comes naturally. All my characters are outsiders in one way or another. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal” – I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye – and as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to other people. So I identify with the figure of the outsider. I don’t think I could bring a character to life if he or she wasn’t in some way a freak.

Were you involved in the translation process? More generally, how does it feel for your work to travel between languages and cultures?

When I can speak and understand it, it always gives me a bit of a shock to read myself in another language, but I find it amazing. To be translated into other languages and to be read by readers from different countries is an immense privilege.

Translation is an extremely delicate process. If it’s bad or careless it can be very damaging. It’s not like a badly subtitled film where you have not only the words but also the mise-en-scène and the acting, and so you can immediately identify incongruities in the translation. In literature, language is everything! Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going.  If the translation is into a language I understand, like English, I try at least to read the translation and collaborate as much as possible with the translator: answer their questions, deal with any doubts they have, make suggestions and correct potential errors. But I also try to respect their own style and interpretation.

Translation of those sections originally written in Spanish: Helen Vassallo, 2020

 

 

Interview with Helena Buffery, translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Last week I reviewed María-Mercè Marçal’s The Passion According to Renée Vivien; I’m delighted to bring you today some intimate insights into the translation of this novel from Helena Buffery, who co-translated it with Kathleen McNerney.

How did you discover this novel, and what made you want to translate it?

Helena Buffery: The novel was one of the earliest contemporary Catalan texts I read when it first came out in the 1990s and really impressed me at the time for the audacity of the writing: this is a novel that takes on the Republic of Letters and explores it from the margins, creating a rich, polyphonic, and spatially and temporally diverse world from the fragments and traces of a (meticulously researched) life. It reads beautifully; culminating with the breathtaking final chapter, which I could not quite believe was constructed entirely from fragments of Vivien’s poetry (but I can now promise you that this is the case). Back then, when I had the time to travel quite regularly to Paris and Barcelona, I was fascinated by the different perspectives the novel offered on quite familiar spaces.  I remember being transported into a richly nuanced, complex and believable world.

I returned to the novel more recently as someone with a great deal of interest in the way minority literatures (and particularly Catalan literature) travel, and having written on these issues from the perspective of cultural (in)visibility and (un)translatability. Given the recent increase in translations of Catalan literature and also of Iberian and Latin American women’s writing, I was very interested in exploring why a figure as important María-Mercè Marçal – a supremely charismatic and openly lesbian poet, translator, feminist thinker, essayist and activist to whom numerous Iberian writers profess their debt – had such a limited presence in English (beyond poetry magazines and anthologies).

Why do you think such an important and recognised piece of work hasn’t been published in English before now?

I think a significant factor is the subject matter, the fact that it is by a Catalan author but not explicitly about Catalan culture (no Barcelona, no Civil War, little reference to any Catalan landscapes). Another factor, I believe, is that it is written against English (understood, as in the sense of Vivien’s own process of self-translation, as a form of resistance and rebellion against the normative, the hegemonic, the neo-colonial). Having looked more closely at the German, Italian and Spanish translations, I began to consider the possibility of translating elements of the novel (as I think many of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, in the manner of sketches or even short stories), and it was then that I bumped into Kathleen McNerney at a conference on Marçal in Cambridge and learned that she had begun translating the novel many years before, but had been unable to find a publisher. Kathleen is widely recognised as a pioneer translator of Spanish and Catalan women’s writing – she began translating Marçal back in the 1980s (selected poems from Bruixa de dol/Witch in morning appeared in the Catalan Review in 1986), and collaborated with her in events on feminist writing in Barcelona. We corresponded for a while before agreeing to co-translate; Kathleen was in touch with the Maria-Mercè Marçal Foundation to enquire about rights and permissions, and then was able to secure a series of writing retreats to work on the novel.

Once you had made the decision to embark on this project, how did you and Kathleen McNerney approach the co-translation?

We agreed to split translation – with one of us (me in the end) focusing initially on Sara T.’s narrative and the other (Kathleen) translating the other voices. We then swapped and revised each other’s work, as well as meeting together in Barcelona and Cork to discuss overarching issues (how to translate certain key terms, what to do about the intertextual references, the translations of the poems, and so on). Once all the pieces were together, I took responsibility for editing and correcting the whole text and ensuring cohesion. This was very much helped by the fact that I am very familiar with the Maria-Mercè Marçal archive in Barcelona, so I have read all of the notes, readings and drafts that are preserved as traces of her creative process, and I also undertook further research on the different voices included in the novel. In some cases, such as the prologue and first chapter, for instance, this led to quite extensive adjustment, in order to bring out the subtle irony that pervades the Catalan original (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was the key inspiration here). In other cases, such as the exquisite Kerimée chapter, the writing is pretty much entirely Kathleen’s.

This is a translation from Catalan, but about a French context. How did the multi-lingual features influence your translation?

We agreed to deliberately interventionist translations in parts. On the one hand, we opted to preserve fragments which appeared in other languages (including fragments of Dante). On the other hand, we compensated for the disappearance of Catalan in translation by augmenting the plurilingualism of the text in parts. The decision to source the French originals for certain fragments and quotations in the Sara T. narrative, for instance, was a decision taken jointly in order to make it clear that Sara T. is translating, and often reflecting consciously on the process of translating, from French – hence, for instance, the indecision between “sorrowful” and “painful” to render “douloureux”, when in Catalan that hesitation is simply expressed using a comma the first time it appears. In some ways, the inclusion of fragments in French that Sara T. is trying to translate allows us to remind everyone that she is not French herself, but Catalan. This was important to us, given the impossibility of keeping Marçal’s exquisitely creative translations of Vivien’s poems – it would have added too much to the length of our version. Even so, it would be great to be able to publish all of the different versions in parallel one day! You’ll also have noticed that there are numerous places where we have gone for words with Old French etymology in order to keep the sense of a process of writing against English I mentioned before. Words like blame, regret, verse, vanquished, damsel, coquetries, insouciance etc… and even the more unusual “badinage” which I use in the prologue to translate the Catalan “asteisme” (asteism). I decided that “asteisme” was sufficiently marked in Catalan to warrant an equally marked choice in English.

Another significant intervention was my introduction of recurrent references to trial and error with each use of the word choose (“triar” in the original Catalan). These are intended to prepare for the word-play on “triar”-“trair” (“to choose” versus “to betray” – or as I have it, “trial” and “betrayal”) in Sara T.’s meditations on the nature and (im)possibility of desire. But they also fit in with the constant reference to trials and betrayals in Vivien’s hagiography of martyred queens, and with meta-reflection on the (im)possibility of translation and representation: traduttore, traditore, the translator as traitor. I also quietly corrected incorrect references to dates (such as Barney’s birthday), place-names and so on, where I thought the error was just a slip. In some cases, the errors aren’t so much errors as a reflection of the sources available on Vivien in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Francis Boutle Publishers focus on books from minority or minoritized languages; was this why it was important to you to publish The Passion According to Renée Vivien with them?

We approached Clive Boutle primarily for the really obvious reason that he is the first publisher to have brought out a book by Marçal in English – her posthumous The Body’s Reason. I also really liked the edition of Josafat that he did with Peter Bush, a text which I don’t think many publishers would have taken the risk to publish. It felt right to take the novel to him, even though in many ways Marçal deserves to be included alongside other great twentieth-century feminist authors. I myself sourced the image for the cover, in the Smithsonian archives, inspired by the exploration of the limits and possibilities of visual representations that threads through the novel. It was painted – more properly sketched in pastels – by Natalie Clifford Barney’s mother. Clive Boutle is responsible for the rest of the design and formatting, and for helping me to be brave enough to re-paragraph the novel in order to introduce more breaths when reading. Incidentally, we were very conscious of the poetry all the way through; this is a novel that can and deserves to be read aloud. I was very attentive to breaths and cadences; partly, I suppose, because I generally work on theatre and performance. There is a strongly performative, carnivalesque side to this novel too: ultimately, it is all about bringing words to life, about putting flesh on Vivien’s words. We hope that The Passion of Renée Vivien will travel to the many different readers it deserves.

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

In the final instalment of my mini-series of interviews about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small, I talk to translators Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paula Gordon about the importance of translating this book, its challenges and its joys.

Catch up on my interviews with author Olja Knežević and publisher Susan Curtis, and order Catherine the Great and the Small directly from Istros Books here.

How did you come to this book, and why is it significant that it will now reach an English-language audience?

Ellen Elias-Bursać: I was approached by Diana Matulić of the Corto Agency, asking if I would consider translating the novel, which had won the VBZ novel of the year award. As soon as I read the first few chapters, I saw that the novel had promise and would be wonderful to work on, but I was overwhelmed with other commitments at the time. I proposed collaborating with Paula Gordon: she is an excellent translator and has had experience translating Montenegrin writers in the past, which I have not had. The thought of collaborating with Paula made it possible for me to take on the project.

Paula Gordon: This might well be the first novel by a contemporary woman author from Montenegro to be translated and published in English. I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does. And not only the individuality of the heroine, but of every woman and girl who crosses the page and at every age and stage of life. It acknowledges our fantasies and even fulfils them in its pages, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences of getting what we wish for.

Where do you perceive your responsibilities to lie when you translate? Do you prioritise the “foreign-ness” of the original text or aim to bring the text closer to English-language readers in your translation choices?

EE-B: My responsibilities when I translate lie first with the author/text. Of course the reader is always part of my reading, because I’m a reader. In this case there were two of us reading together. My first step is to understand the nuances in the novel, the voices, the emotional intensity, the humour, the tragedy, and find ways to feel them clearly enough to articulate them.

PG: I don’t have a hard and fast rule on fealty, it depends on what I’m working on. In the case of Catherine the Great and the Small, my loyalty changed over the translation process. When I started, I was focused on the text – on bringing out the meaning, what’s happening in the story. Once we had a draft, attention shifted to making sure our understanding of the text matched the intention of the author. Finally, no matter how attached one is to a turn of phrase or thinks it expresses the meaning of the original text in just the right way, if readers don’t get it, then we have to adjust. So when editing the translation, we kept the reader in mind. Not only in terms of meaning, but also how the text flows – we don’t want to bring the story to a halt because of our insistence on a description of, for instance, the smell of a wild plum that grows nowhere else but in a specific village on the Montenegrin coast.

What were the greatest challenges of translating Catherine the Great and the Small? Did the translation of context – specifically the glimpses into the troubled recent past of the Balkans – have an impact on you, or pose any particular challenges?

EE-B: We decided to leave references to politicians and historical events in the translation and then see how to communicate them. In some cases we added a word or two to clarify the reference, such as referring to the name Podgorica as the city’s ‘new old name’. We also decided readers might find an afterword handy in which we could provide an explanation in greater depth of some of the more arcane references. Hence, in the afterword, we explain the change of name of Montenegro’s capital city from Titograd, in the first part of the novel, to Podgorica in the second part. But in general, my approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance. I see it as my job to translate the cultural references that are in the novel with either internal glosses or explanations in the afterword (I don’t like footnotes in translations of fiction), and it’s the editor’s job, once he or she has the translation before them, to decide whether some of the cultural references are, perhaps, too local to be of interest to a reader of the translation.

PG: The most challenging parts of the book for me to translate were the descriptive passages that referred to times gone by and the “party scene” in the hair salon, where everyone has an attitude and a motive, not always voiced. The descriptive passages are full of nostalgia and emotion, but they are also very specific. The author could use just a few words, mention certain specific ubiquitous items from the time period to evoke a feeling in her readers. But for readers who never experienced a town square farmers’ market in 1980s Yugoslavia, we have to strike a balance between wanting the reader to have a clear picture of the scene but also wanting to retain that hazy veil of nostalgia.

I found the context of Montenegro and Serbia on the brink of war fascinating. This book sheds light on what that time looked like from a woman about my age, someone not involved or interested in politics. The most affecting parts of the book for me were not war-related. They were scenes in which I put myself in Katarina’s shoes in order to understand and express in English her physical experience and emotional state.

What are the challenges of translating a text so rooted in a culture that may be unfamiliar to many English-language readers?

EE-B: As this novel moves back and forth between England and Montenegro, and part of it is about bringing Katarina’s children for the first time to see the country where their parents are from, the narrative includes many explanations of cultural differences. Indeed, the protagonist’s position in between these two worlds means that she has a heightened awareness of these differences and is constantly negotiating her way back and forth among them. This made the need to explain these points less of a challenge than it might be in some novels. As far as syntactical differences go, a great deal is implicit in inflected languages like Montenegrin. The relationships of the parts of the sentence are made clear through the grammatical endings, while these same relationships need to be made explicit in English where we organize our syntactic material through word order. In Montenegrin, for instance, you can have a sentence in which you have the actions of two women or two men described—one the subject and the other the object of the sentence—and, using only pronouns, you’ll be able to tell which of the women or men is the doer of the action and which is the recipient of the action, because the case each pronoun is in will tell you who is doing what to whom. In English one of these women or men will have to be referred to by name or you’ll be lost.

PG: This book depicts a time of transition from a closed culture to a more open one. The characters themselves, right at this time – late 1970s into the 1990s – are living through changes in their culture brought about by more interaction with the West and by the West seeping into their everyday life: television, music, film, travel, books. But I think that all readers are capable of making the leap into the world of a novel, whether it is based on true events or is science-fiction fantasy. In a book like this, I think our job is to keep the reader engaged and in that world, with only as much explanation as is absolutely necessary.

Did you have any contact with Olja Knežević while you were translating, and how did you approach the co-translation?

EE-B: Olja was an enthusiastic participant in the process, but Paula and I worked to resolve absolutely everything we could on our own before we went to Olja for clarification. Paula translated the rough draft, and then I went through and edited her translation. Then we went through the whole book, reading it to each other for three hours a day for a week, and discussing every twist and turn of the narrative. Paula has the sharpest editorial eye I have ever witnessed in action and I’m humbled and grateful at the quantity of issues she spotted which I didn’t notice.

PG: Regarding our approach to co-translation, Ellen suggested that I produce the initial draft and that she would edit. This worked with our schedules early in the process. We knew that we would send the drafts back and forth and that in the end we would read the translation aloud (an idea Ellen credits to translator Daniel Hahn). And we did just that. I sent her a translated section, and I continued translating while she reviewed my work. When she sent her edits back to me, I was able to spot patterns in her changes and I kept those in mind as I moved forward in the initial draft. In hindsight, I felt much freer to put my stamp on the translation than I would have with the roles reversed. Given the chasm between Ellen’s level of experience and my own, I believe I would have followed Ellen’s lead and interpretation had she originated the text, and I don’t know that I would have been as creative with my editing input as I felt empowered to be in the translation.

Did you deliberately give the characters distinctive voices that meshed vulgarity with a more formal register? Do they speak like this in the original, or was it a choice regarding their characterisation in the translation?

EE-B: The original has a great richness of voice, humour, cadence, intonation, colloquial usage. Some of the characters are cranky elderly people, others are small children, or young adults steeped in the drug scene in pre-war Belgrade, and they all have distinct ways of speaking. We chose to bring a like variety and richness to the English. We translators often say that if a joke, or quirk, or cadence can’t readily be replicated at exactly the same moment in the narrative, the point is to find somewhere else where something along those lines will work. This breathes life into the characters and keep the narrative vital and engaging.

PG: The characters in this novel are fully formed, and the way they speak in Montenegrin or Serbian, or English in the case of the children born in the UK, oozes personality. The decisions in this regard were taken with the goal of bringing the characters to life in English, to be as true to them as possible. Vulgarity and formality are part of everyday expression in the lands of this novel, and the characters’ manner of speaking reflects this. In giving voice to Granny, for instance, it helps that I know a few women of her generation, including a “city grandma,” who used to surprise me with the vehemence of her opinions and the language she used to express them, all the while performing the formal rituals of  hospitality. In the novel, these slips into vulgarity, or intentional provocations, provide glimpses into the inner lives of the characters, and it’s to Olja’s credit that she gives such depth to the characters – they seem to exist in the world of the novel apart from their contributions to the plot.

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small

It’s my great privilege to bring you the second instalment in my three-part interview series about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small. Today author Olja Knežević talks about her book and its journey to publication in English with Istros Books (translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać). Catherine the Great and the Small is published TODAY, and you can find out more, or purchase it, here.

You self-published your previous book (Milena & Other Social Reforms) in English; did this help to circulate your work in the English-language context? How has it been different working with translators and an English-language publisher?  

Olja Knežević: Milena & Other Social Reforms was my first novel, published in 2011, and what an unusual path it had! It was originally written in English, obviously not my native tongue, because I developed it from a 20,000 word dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in London. The dissertation won Overall Prize as the best MA dissertation that year, and I went on, wind in my sails, to write the whole novel in English, from the point of view of Milena, a rebellious young Montenegrin, who had to escape to London to save her life. I was hoping to find a UK publisher. It was taking time, so in 2011 I gave in to the pleas from Montenegro, my home-country, to publish that novel there, but in Montenegrin, of course, so I had it translated into my own native tongue by someone for a modest fee. It was published by the only publisher who was independent from Montenegrin Government, because Milena is a politically engaged novel, inspired by a true story. I knew that the book would have to travel just by word-of-mouth publicity, but it seemed enough at the time. It was sold out in three weeks after its release, and is still selling. Milena has found her place in the world, an underground place, so befitting for the type of character she is. I decided to put the English language version online, and just leave it there, to find its own path.

Catherine the Great and the Small is my fourth book, and the first one to win a big regional prize, be finally noticed and picked up by its UK publisher, Istros Books. It’s a completely different world from the one of self-translating and self-publishing; with editing, proofreading and the details of translation paid close attention to, and seriously discussed between professional team members. I think the English language version of Catherine is phenomenal, and, now, that I see how it looks when a novel is professionally translated and edited, I feel sorry for Milena.

Catherine the Great and the Small is a book about women – their emancipation, their restrictions, their relationships with each other, themselves, their country (and some pretty useless men) – do you consciously view your writing process as a feminist act?          

No, I don’t consciously, deliberately, view my writing as a feminist act. Not long ago, however, I realised that I have lived a feminist life since I was a young girl. First, of course, through my mother, who instilled in me the standpoint that a woman can desire to belong to herself first, to be ambitious, outspoken, a leader and an organiser, a proud owner of her own time to even rest, to even have fun. My mother’s actions and character have shown to me that a woman can venture into men’s territory, and remain authentic there – all this while staying married to a man’s man, who she loved passionately and fought with for equality at home on a daily basis. This has formed me, and then let me travel my own road, to make my own choices and mistakes. My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself. In there, in my consciousness, I’d find strong and interesting women, their relationships with each other, their community, their men. And I’d write down their stories, in order to keep belonging to my true self.

Catherine the Great and the Small is rooted in a particular time and place; how important was it to you to keep Montenegrin culture and recent history – and particularly the loss that came with the wars in the Balkans – at the centre of Katarina’s story?        

I was going to write about a woman whose life is parallel with mine, so, yes, it was important. She was not going to be me, but she should be like a close friend, with a similar destiny. In a way, writing about her life, I was writing down the collective memories of the country I have known. That’s why I wasn’t going to experiment with the form, because there are no novels on the subject as simple as a contemporary woman’s life, written down intimately and sincerely, from Montenegro. It has always been so inspirational for me, how we lived in a socialist community where, in what was then the Republic of Montenegro, we had this mixed Balkan and Mediterranean mentality, where everyone knew everyone, we lived outside, and felt free there, on the streets, socialising passionately, loudly, judgmentally, with candid vulnerability. Yet never in history were we institutionally free. Having been somewhat “in the middle”, we knew how things were in the West and in the East, and we liked our kind of “free.” Our women, after WW2, when they had become revered as true heroines, had equal rights, had equal pay for equal work, until the 1990s, when everything fell apart. Now, I’m not saying it was perfect. It was a one-party system, after all, but women could be optimistic that the future was going to bring more and more progressiveness in their social status. It never happened. Instead, enter the 1990s and the war. Women were pushed down the ladder. Always the first victims of war, women, because we don’t want it, but we immediately regress into being seen primarily as reproductive organs that bear and support the real heroes – men. That’s such a difficult and interesting conflict, a personal and political one, which makes for great material.

Katarina is always capable of finding the “ball of light” in the depths of misery – what message does this give for readers of your novel and why was it important to you that she should have this strength?

I’m glad you mentioned that image. That’s Katarina, her main strength. Most people don’t find the “ball of light” when they’re alone with themselves. They try, they dive into themselves, and find darkness there, or a ball of fears, so they hurry back to the surface, back to their ego, which has become a familiar mask with recognisable props and illusions. Katarina, somehow, from various reasons that I hope I managed to show in my novel, never lost the ability to believe there’s goodness at the very bottom of everything, there’s light, the wonder of life. She’ll survive anything, as long as she remembers to dive deep and find her inner strength.

Podgorica features for Katarina as a place where “untold stories” are waiting for her. How important is it to you that these stories from your home city are told – and through fiction – both in Montenegrin and in translation?         

I’m so grateful that writing down those untold stories is my calling. I also know it’s my territory. Many writers from my country, convinced that it’s such a small and unimportant country and language, and that the stories from where we are will probably never have a wider audience, turn to trends or whatever topic they think will be safer and sell better. I’ve always believed that the deeper you go into your own experiences, the more universal your writing becomes.

Katarina notes that “all of us lost our country” and that Montenegrins are encouraged to “live the lie” of strength, solidarity and a bright future – what role does fiction have in stripping bare these lies and this loss?              

It’s all true, the loss, the lie… Montenegro has this magic-like name, it had some stunningly heroic moments in history, and it’s a beautiful country, as if nature wanted to display, in a small space, the samples of all that she can do and say “Voila!” This is enough of pure praise from me. I don’t work for a tourist agency. In my mind’s eye, there is the image of my country chained onto a floating device and left in the rough sea to be saved only by luck. But many societies in the world are still closed, manipulative and patriarchal, and they all prefer tourist guides or pamphlet-like writing to the kind of fiction that is able to make fun of their see-through propaganda, to defy the authorities and refuse to be on their payroll.

Coming next week:

“I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does.”

“My approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance.”

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation

I was delighted to talk about the Translating Women project last week at Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation hosted by Caitlin Van Buren. We talked about how I choose books to read, why it’s important to read in translation no matter how many languages you speak, and the importance of intersectional feminism… all in fifteen minutes! I also got to pick three books to showcase – it was hard to narrow down hundreds to three, so I went with my gut regarding books that have particularly moved me – two that I’ve read this year and can’t stop thinking about, and one that will come as no surprise to regular readers given how much I’ve talked about it on this blog. Choosing only three did, of course, mean that I had to leave off some real favourites (and two of my three are from the same continent, so my geographical spread isn’t as even as it could have been), but check my choices and see if you agree with them – if you don’t, there are plenty more recommendations on my virtual bookshelf, and if you would have made other choices that you can’t see there, let me know!

If you can’t see the embedded video, watch it directly on YouTube here.

Alternatively, you can watch the whole day’s events, including a great interview with Carolina Orloff of Charco Press, or head to Caitlin’s YouTube channel to catch up on the full week’s programme.

Happy viewing and happy weekend!

Translating Women: the Montenegro edit. Interview with Susan Curtis, Istros Books

I’m excited today to bring you the first in a 3-part series of interviews about a new Montegrin book and its journey to publication. Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small is a tale of four Montenegrin women navigating relationships with themselves, each other, their country and some pretty disappointing men as the Balkan wars escalate. Published next week by Istros books in a co-translation by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, you can pre-order it here.

This week I’m talking to Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, about her mission and her decision to publish Catherine the Great and the Small.

Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books

Istros Books focuses on bringing into English books from a particular geographical area, but beyond that, what are your priorities in the books you commission?

Susan Curtis: I have tried to keep the number of male and female writers on our list equal and I have almost succeeded in that aim because there is only a slight male bias, which really reflects the trend in the region (though UK publishing is not immune to this either!) It seems to me that especially in terms of prizes for writing in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Montenegrin, female writers are hardly ever awarded the big national awards – Meša Selimović is a particular example. I remember when Daša Drndić was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and we were joking that she couldn’t win because the prize always went to men. I even bought her a false moustache to wear! A few years later her novel was shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize and it was again given to a male author. Daša died shortly afterwards, and since her death her reputation has grown enormously, but she never won any great literary prizes in her lifetime, either here in the UK or in her home country (Yugoslavia, then Croatia). Croatia is a prime example of a country that extols a number of male writers while neglecting its very best, in my opinion, the female authors Olja Savečević, Slavenka Drakulić, as well as Dubravka Ugrešić and Drndić. Thankfully, I have the ability to bring their works to new audiences.

How did you come across Olja Knežević’s work, and Catherine the Great and the Small in particular?

This novel is part of a cooperation between Istros Books and the Croatian publisher VBZ. For three years we received EU funding to translate the winning manuscript from VBZ’s annual ‘best unpublished novel’ award. Last year Olja was the winner, and that’s how Catherine the Great and the Small came to Istros. It was perfect because I have published two previous writers from Montenegro (Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić) and I really wanted to publish a female Montenegrin author.

What drew you to Catherine the Great and the Small, and why do you think it is important to make it accessible to English-language readers?

Catherine the Great and Small is set in Montenegro, as it once was in the Federal Republic, and as it is now, as an independent state. Throughout the novel we not only see the main character grow and change, but we also watch the environment change, witness the rise of free enterprise, the corruption and crazy politics. The energy and bravery of the narrative voice is very addictive and inspiring – and it sheds light on a part of the world that many English-language readers are still unfamiliar with.

Did the book come with translators already assigned, or did you seek them out to commission them?

The Croatian publisher VBZ organised the translation and gave me the opportunity to work with two new translators. I have known Ellen Elias-Bursać for a while, whereas Paula Gordon was a new discovery for me. It’s always an enriching experience to work with different translators and see how they each approach their art in unique and impressive ways.

Part of your mission is to bring into English “books from unfamiliar places”, and Montenegrin literature is certainly scarce in English translation. What do you think Catherine the Great and the Small brings to the Istros catalogue, and could it open up possibilities for more Montegrin literature – particularly by women writers – to make its way into English?

Montenegro is one of Europe’s smaller countries but it does a lot to promote its culture. I have twice been invited to the Podgorica Book fair and love the city and the laid back energy of the people. Women from that part of the world are so often Valkyries and we should know more about their stories and their bravery.

On your website, you state your belief that “good literature can transcend national interests and speak to us with the common voice of human experience.” One thing that struck me in Catherine the Great and the Small was the powerlessness of many of the women, and the ways in which they either overcome or succumb to this. Do you think this is culturally and contextually specific to the text or more universal?

To follow on from my previous answer, despite their intrinsic value and strength of character, so many women from the South East Europe region are marginalised or hidden behind bullish men. The female domain has traditionally been the private one, not the public, so they are only just discovering that they can have a foothold there, too. Did you know that the only poetry allowed to women for hundreds of years were the songs of mourning that they were expected to wail at funerals? I bought a collection of these ‘tużbalice’ last time I was there… I hope to translate a few one day!

Coming next week:

“My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself.”

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small.

Pre-order Catherine the Great and the Small here.

Building Bridges interview series: Nicci Praça

Nicci Praça has had a long and successful career in publishing: she was Head of Publicity for Quercus, where she launched MacLehose Press and did the PR for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Then she moved to freelance work for independent publishing houses, starting with And Other Stories and then helping to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions, where she stayed until the beginning of 2019. During that time she also worked with a number of other independent publishers, including Les Fugitives, Influx Press and Istros Books, as well as helping to establish the Art of Translation events series at the Caravanserail bookshop and promoting the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

Nicci currently balances her freelance PR work with managing the new Amnesty International Book Shop in Kentish Town.

Throughout your career in publishing, have you perceived an increase in the number of translated works that are making their way into English?

Yes. When I first started in 2001 I was working in commercial fiction for a commercial publishing house, and we didn’t publish much translation. Five years later I moved to Quercus, which was then a very young independent publishing house; they had just won The Costa Book Award, and shortly after that Christopher MacLehose was brought in to publish mainly literature in translation. Up until that point, my contact with literature in translation hadn’t been significant; all the books I had read had been classics that had been translated a long time ago. I started working with translated literature in the crime genre, and I found that although publicizing literature in translation to literary editors was quite difficult, publicizing literature in translation to crime reviewers was easy; they were very open to looking at what was happening in other cultures and in other countries. Their openness really helped: by the time Christopher (MacLehose) published The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I worked on, the crime community had already accepted Henning Mankell (author of the Wallander mysteries) and Peter Høeg (author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so when I pitched Stieg Larsson to them they were very open to the idea. But when I pitched Stieg Larsson to the literary editors, I had to turn it into a news story that they would be interested in. By the time the paperback came out, everybody wanted to read it. And a lot of that excitement had come from the initial response from the crime community that had reviewed the hardback and been enthused by it. After working on that trilogy I noticed a distinct rise in the interest in literature in translation from literary editors. And since then I’ve found literary editors more open to discovering new voices from different countries and different languages.

Within the headline figure, the much-quoted 3.5% that represents the proportion of literature in English that is in translation, do you see anything changing?

I do. I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are keen to find out about what’s going on around the world. The Internet has helped with that, and people’s tastes seem to be broader, which is great. I think that there will be more of a hunger for literature in translation; it’s going to keep growing. People aren’t necessarily finding out about literature in translation through the national media, but they are discovering literature in translation through Instagram, blogs, Booktube, Twitter, and particularly from online literary journals like Asymptote, Guernica, Words Without Borders and so on.

How do the publishing houses that you work with identify translated works for commission?

It works in various ways. They’re approached by agents in some cases, and by translators in others; for example, both Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft have been great champions of Olga Tokarczuk. And when they’re really passionate about somebody they don’t stop, so that’s probably the strongest avenue where publishers find literature in translation. They also find new books from the authors they’ve published in translation, by having conversations with them about what they’re reading and what they recommend.

You mentioned Olga Tokarczuk; could we talk about Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and the journey from pitch to publication and then ultimately prize-winner? [note: this interview took place before Tokarczuk was awarded the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature]. 

Jennifer Croft approached Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions and spoke to him about Flights; she’d been translating it and felt very passionately about it. Granta had published Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones); it had got coverage in the UK, and there was also a chance that Olga might be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. These things make a difference when a publisher is trying to decide whether to publish an author. By the time I came to Fitzcarraldo Editions, Flights had already been purchased and was going to be published in May 2017. Poland was the guest of honour at London Book Fair that year, so Olga had been invited as part of that initiative in April 2017. The London Book Fair managed to get her interviews and meetings with Claire Armistead at The Guardian, who has been a great champion of Olga. Olga also met Rosie Goldsmith, Joanna Walsh, Katherine Taylor; these people are important influencers, not only in publishing but also in literature in translation. She also had a very well-respected translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, championing her work and offering to interpret for her at events. So by the time she came back to launch Flights she already had a groundswell of support. Then early in 2018 she was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, and they have quite a heavy publicity schedule; all of the publicity that had happened from the previous year through to April 2018 was already quite significant by the time she was shortlisted for the MBI. Then she won, and that just catapulted her to a completely different level, one which is quite rare for a writer from another country whose books are published in translation.

There has been a beginning of a move away from Eurocentrism in translated literature. How do you perceive that shift, and do you think it might change with the current political climate?

These shifts happen all the time; marginalised languages become very fashionable during specific periods. For example, two years ago Korean literature really exploded on the publishing scene: it was helped by the publication of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, but also Korea had been a London Book Fair guest of honour. So there are patterns where a certain country is the guest of honour and UK publishers are exposed to publishers within those countries and to translators promoting literature from that country. The challenge is to keep these languages at the forefront and continue to publish them.

Do you perceive there being any challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature? And if so, what do you think might be done to overcome them?

It’s an odd situation because a lot of the translators are women, but the books we’re publishing aren’t necessarily by women writers. The percentages are still very low, which makes small independent publishers who publish women in translation activist publishers. They’re the ones who see 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.

You’ve worked with a number of publishers who have different approaches to translated literature; what activities do they undertake to promote translation and help those works to reach publication?

Obviously publicity around those books and those authors is very important, and every publisher will undertake to make sure that a book gets the right kind of publicity or as much publicity as possible. But the ones who are actively working hard on this are the translators: they do the bulk of the work, talking about writers and pitching them as much as possible to get them in print. A good publisher will take an author and nurture them and continue to publish their work, which is very important, but funding is also very important: if publishers don’t have the funding to pay for a translation a book might not necessarily get published. They work hard at getting the funding for these books, and then submitting them for prizes where possible, but what they can do is fairly limited. The media has more work to do: they have more opportunities, but they are reluctant. Getting a foreign author on the BBC is really difficult. Even if the author has an incredible reputation overseas, it’s still really hard. Part of that is because of language: if they don’t speak English “properly”, there is a reluctance to put them on air, and so writers have to be so extraordinary before someone in the national media will even begin to take a look at them.

That sounds quite stagnant; Christopher MacLehose wrote an article over ten years saying much the same thing: that authors are heavily involved in promoting their own work, and that translators take on a lot of the publicity work. So why do you think it isn’t changing?

Gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of my biggest bugbears. It makes things so difficult, because if you’re not getting the publicity for a book, how do you get the word out there? Most sales teams don’t consider online publications to be strong enough mouthpieces to sell books, but as a publicist I disagree with that. I think that online publications are much stronger than radio and newspapers, particularly now, because I’m not sure how many people really trust what’s coming out of certain media platforms. And that’s where the Internet has really helped us, because we can circumvent the national media to get word out there. The Internet has also really helped independent publishers: if they had no platform to inform people of the books that they’re publishing, nobody would know about them and no-one would buy them because it’s also really hard to get books into bookshops. You’ve got another set of gatekeepers there and they only really get on board when they see everybody else getting on board. So the internet is crucial to the publishing industry, certainly in terms of literature in translation.

Building Bridges interview series: Charlotte Coombe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the Translating Women review of Fish Soup here.

Building Bridges interview series: Sophie Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Bridges interview series: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Review of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The Nobel Prize in Literature: Be More Olga