Tag Archives: Carolina Orloff

Building Bridges: Translating Women interview series 2019

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

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

On source cultures

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

SOPHIE LEWIS: “Women do struggle to get published outside the Anglophone world; they have so many things against them. They struggle to get published, and to get published well – in big enough numbers and with a big enough marketing campaign behind them – to make an impact. So they then don’t win prizes. Everything is against them.”

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

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

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

On the importance of translated literature

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “I feel that if we understand another culture, if we read its books, watch its films and so on, then we find out that we’re all very much the same. And to me that’s  important, it’s something we need in today’s world.”

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

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

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “All of the Charco books so far stem from an impact in the societies of origin that I hope will translate into the English-speaking society. They bring philosophical questions, universal questions that are important for all of us, whatever the language or the society. And the translators have to understand, have to have a relationship with the story, the book, the universe that they’re going to translate, that is beyond the semantics of the language.”

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

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

On barriers

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

ANTONIA LLOYD-JONES: “One reason why the translator’s name should be visible is that we’re still having – in translation into English in particular – to change the imbalance in attitude to books that are published in English and books published in translation. People have a kind of allergy to things foreign. And look what’s happening to our world: there are all sorts of barriers going up, but I feel I’m a barrier remover, I want people to feel they can read anything from everywhere, and not have a mindset that says ‘Oh, that’s foreign, so it’s not for me’ or ‘That’s translated, so it can’t be any good.’ Unfortunately that attitude does exist, a lot of people think like that without even being aware of it. So the more you normalise translated literature by having the translator’s name mentioned alongside the author’s, the more it simply becomes an accepted part of all literature. And that should be the normal state of affairs.”

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

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

On the publishing industry

SOPHIE LEWIS: “I think publishers need to go a little bit further in the work that they do, or in the tentacles that they reach out, assuming that they do, in order to hunt down the women that they want to publish, to give them a better chance of making it over into another language.”

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

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

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

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

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

On readers and booksellers

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

CAROLINA ORLOFF: “We’ve had a lot of support from small independent bookshops, but there needs to be a bigger movement from bigger companies, where they give more prominence to other regions or small publishers, because if you don’t see a book then you might not buy it. If Waterstones, for example, give prominence to a particular publisher, it can have a real impact. So we can only hope. We need to provide a more diverse array of fiction and worlds and voices for people to read – or not read, but our commitment is that they should be there.”

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

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

On activism

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

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

CHARLOTTE COOMBE: “The more we talk about books by women or translated by women, the more mainstream this thinking becomes. And more normalised, less ‘niche’. Women are not niche. But women’s writing is perceived as such.”

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

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

To be continued…

With thanks to:

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

5 women writers to discover in translation

Women in Translation month is in full swing, and following on from the individual book recommendations I gave in an earlier post, today I want to focus on authors. I love it when publishing houses champion an author rather than a single book, and when translators get to work on several books by the same author, forming a relationship and bringing a whole body of work into translation – especially when this oeuvre is constantly growing. So here are my suggestions of five contemporary women writers whose work it’s worth diving into.

(Please note that I refer here to UK editions of these books, though many are also published by US publishing houses)

Hiromi Kawakami, Portobello/ Granta Books and Pushkin Press

Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami is known for her offbeat love stories, writing relationships that are unusual, unexpected, and in many cases delightfully awkward. Published by Portobello Books, Kawakami’s portfolio was taken on by parent company Granta Books when they shuttered the Portobello imprint in January 2019. Her current translator is Allison Markin Powell, who communicates Kawakami’s whimsy perfectly.

Strange Weather in Tokyo was Kawakami’s first work to be published in Markin Powell’s translation, and has received widespread critical acclaim. It recounts the will-they-won’t-they relationship of a thirty-something woman and her much older former teacher: it’s a great unconventional romance story, though I didn’t connect with it as deeply as most people seemed to until the final page, in which the relevance of the US title (The Briefcase) becomes apparent in a way that knocked me for six.

Call me contrary, but though Strange Weather in Tokyo is worth reading, I preferred Kawakami’s  follow-up, The Nakano Thrift Shop. This follows the lives and entangled relationships of four people who work in a Tokyo thrift shop; the contemporary star-crossed young lovers, the fallibility of Mr Nakano himself, and the eccentricity of his sister are sublimely awkward.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is Kawakami’s latest and much anticipated release, and offers connected short stories of ten women who have all loved the same man at different stages of his life. Through their reflections, a portrait of Mr Nishino emerges that is always shifting and never complete, and this innovative way of understanding a central character is as accomplished as I’d come to expect from the Kawakami-Markin Powell collaboration.

In addition to the three novels above, Kawakami’s novella Record of a Night Too Brief was translated by Lucy North and published by Pushkin Press in 2017, and her novel Manazaru was translated by Michael Emmerich and published by Counterpoint Books in 2017.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Portobello/ Granta Books

Jenny Erpenbeck writes in German, and won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2015 for her sweeping novel The End of Days. Her work is deeply embedded in German history, from the ravages of the twentieth century to the modern-day refugee crisis; Susan Bernofsky translates Erpenbeck with great sensitivity and depth.

The End of Days is Erpenbeck’s best-known work, and is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died) in the twentieth century. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions of the difference one life can make, and the impact one choice in one moment has on not just on an individual life, but on history. A protagonist who is unnamed for much of the novel lives through fixed historical events and more arbitrary personal ones, that may or may not all be leading to the same fate in a different way.

The progression of German history through the twentieth century echoes Erpenbeck’s earlier work Visitation, which was the only one of her novels I struggled to appreciate. Whereas in The End of Days history is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the twentieth century.

My admiration for Erpenbeck and Bernofsky returned full throttle with Go Went Gone, a moving account of the refugee crisis in Berlin. Retired university professor Richard observes a makeshift camp in Oranienplatz, and strikes up an unexpected relationship with the refugees as he attempts to understand their plight. The relationship between a relatively privileged European and a group of displaced people is sensitively developed, but even more interesting are the reflections on nation and nationalism; the questions Erpenbeck raises about borders make their way into English at a particularly apposite time, confirming her status as an important writer of our times.

Erpenbeck has also published The Old Child and The Book of Words, both translated by Bernofsky and published by Portobello/Granta.

Ariana Harwicz, Charco Press

Ariana Harwicz was one of the five Argentine authors that Charco Press launched with in 2017. She writes frenzied and disturbing accounts of women’s experience on the edge of reason, and is an explosive and innovative writer. Charco co-director Carolina Orloff has been involved in the translation of all of Harwicz’s books, working with Sarah Moses on Die, My Love and with Annie McDermott on Feebleminded and the forthcoming Precocious.

The women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love): Die, My Love was longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2018, and is an extraordinary debut in which a woman living in the French countryside struggles with maternity and with a man who can never be all she wants him to be. On its initial release in Spanish, critics rushed to categorise Die, My Love as a narrative of post-natal depression, but it is so much more than this: it is a challenge to society, a voice that refuses to be silenced, and a turbulent account of an outsider’s experience with no neat solutions.

Feebleminded returns to many of the themes of Die, My Love, and if possible is even more intense. The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, constantly at loggerheads with one another but unable to exist apart. The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation. Contrasts abound in Feebleminded: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it? Harwicz’s prose is electrifying and addictive, and we can look forward to her third translated novel, Precocious, coming from Charco in 2020.

*Ariana Harwicz will be in conversation with Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott at the Translating Women conference in London on 1 November 2019; visit the conference webpage for details and booking links!*

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Pushkin Press

Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes page-turning narratives that offer a painfully acute observation of human fallibility and experience. Translator Sondra Silverston is perfectly matched to Gundar-Goshen’s wry whimsy, and all of these books are a treat to read. If you’re after a good story, you’re in safe hands here: Gundar-Goshen’s storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Silverston’s translation.

Gundar-Goshen’s debut One Night, Markovitch is a modern-day fable that follows the lives of two friends, the “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg. Thanks to Zeev’s sexual exploits with the butcher’s wife, the two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel and make marriages of convenience in Europe. Once back in Israel the new couples are to divorce, but Markovitch falls in love with his new wife and refuses to let her go – a decision that sets in motion a chain of events unfolding over decades and weaving together the destiny of all the characters. The narrative develops in unexpected ways, with retribution never quite falling where you think it will.

Gundar-Goshen followed One Night, Markovitch with Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement. Dr Eitan Green is a good man who did a bad thing: speeding along a deserted moonlit road, he hit and killed a man. His life is then torn between two women: his wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police with a keen sense of what is right, and Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living. Sirkit is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Fast-paced and full of suspense, this novel is not to be missed.

Liar was Gundar-Goshen’s latest release in translation, and is a piercing look at how one unfortunate decision or instinct can ruin lives. 17-year-old Nofar is desperate to escape the anonymity of being unexceptional, and when a washed-up reality TV star insults her outside the ice cream parlour where she works, she lets out all her rage in a scream that will change her life: from this moment on, Nofar is caught up in a web of deceit from which no-one will emerge unscathed. Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos in all her works, and is a writer I highly recommend.

Annie Ernaux, Fitzcarraldo Editions

A literary institution in France, Annie Ernaux has only recently come to publication in the UK thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. Ernaux writes primarily from her own experience, and engages with issues that shaped her life and the lives of many other women throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

The Years was the first of Ernaux’s books to appear in translation (by Alison L. Strayer) from publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, and was released in 2018. This monumental book is described as a “collective autobiography” of French twentieth-century cultural history: filtered through the experience of a woman we see through photographs, and who we know to be Ernaux, The Years represents her imperative to bear witness before “all the images (…) fade”.

Ernaux’s second English-language release was Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie) earlier this year; this short novella reconstructs Ernaux’s experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Through the public articulation of her experience, Ernaux fulfills a sense of moral responsibility to hold a misogynist social system up to justice. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fearless and necessary one: In this time of desensitization and indifference we need books like Happening, and it begs to be experienced, even if not “enjoyed” as such.

I Remain in Darkness is the next of Ernaux’s books that Fitzcarraldo will publish later this year (also translated by Leslie). I read this in French many years ago – it’s another autobiographical piece, but this time focuses on Ernaux’s elderly mother, dying and already written off by the healthcare system. Expect painful insights and more no-holds-barred depictions of human frailty.

 

Desire, disgust, maternity and monstrosity: Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press, 2019)

Ariana Harwicz was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her first novel Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for Charco Press), a ferocious account of a woman rejecting stereotypes of domesticity and maternity. Feebleminded reprises similar themes, depicting non-conformist women who reject traditional relationships, wrestle with the everyday, stagger at the edge of reason, and are hurtling towards a violent climax. Harwicz is an extremely talented writer, and I was fortunate to meet her during her tour to promote Feebleminded, so shall include in my discussion some of the things I learnt there (for a full review of the launch event I attended, you can read Jackie’s write-up).

Image from charcopress.com

Feebleminded is a turbulent voyage that lurches from the banality of everyday country life to the abjection of monstrous and potentially murderous relationships. The blurb of Die, My Love claimed that it is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but when, and how violent a form it will take, this is equally (perhaps even more?) true of Feebleminded. The narrative lunges towards a cliff edge, and pulls back only to run headlong at it again, as Harwicz describes in Hotel magazine: “There is a moment in which you think you are going to be saved, a moment of relief, and immediately after comes the moment of extreme tension where no doubt that bullet, that kiss, that caress, that sexual act, will turn into the bullet that is going to kill you.” Obsession and deliverance are blurred in Feebleminded, as are love and violence (“kissing was a steady advance, knife raised high”), all detonating in my favourite line: “I raised the machete with all my love, with all my dying heart.” Such contrasts abound: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it?

The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, a “women’s den” from which the mother rarely emerges, and the daughter only to go to a mundane job in a clothing store or meet her lover (presumably they also occasionally go out on the kind of debauched carousal that led to the mother conceiving her daughter and the daughter meeting her lover, but the how and why of encounters are dispensed with: Harwicz resolutely omits superfluous detail). The women are constantly at loggerheads with one another but cannot exist apart; whether by choice, fate or circumstance they are bound together.

While there are similarities in subject matter between Die, My Love and Feebleminded, they are nonetheless very distinct stories. The press release description of Feebleminded as the second instalment of an “involuntary trilogy” that began with Die, My Love (and will be concluded with Precocious in 2020 or 2021) led me to spend an inordinate amount of time developing conspiracy theories about how one of the characters in Feebleminded might be an older version of the narrator of Die, My Love – but it turns out I had it all wrong. Harwicz described the trilogy as more like a musical suite, with sonatas that repeat the same refrain but each have their own separate identity, and when she read aloud this musicality became evident. Rather than the characters, the themes they represent are the connecting thread between the stories, and the deliberate absence of any character names locks them in their roles as “wife”, “husband”, “lover”, “mother-in-law” and so on, to better explore those tropes.

Common to the first two instalments of this “involuntary trilogy” are rebellious anti-heroines who represent the antithesis of a maternal instinct, and although this is mostly depicted in violent terms, we are offered sporadic glimpses of the human misery that engenders it. In Feebleminded, the narrator knows that her mother almost tried to abort her, and that she “lowered” rather than raised her, and the narrative depicts a carnal, almost cannibalistic relationship between the two women. In both books, the narrator is obsessed with a married man – one has a child, the other is expecting one – and so both are bound by obligations elsewhere. Love is all-consuming (joy “creeps up through my body like an illness”), desire is animalistic, bodies are abject and responsibility is an encumbrance: the women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love). The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation, such as the mother’s recognition of her failings (“I should have given you a proper education, stopped you from sticking your fingers into your shell and pulling out the slug”) and the daughter’s anticipation of meeting her lover (“Here he comes. He’s getting closer. And it’s like letting go of heavy suitcases after a long journey, watching my fingers throb”).

The dialogues in Feebleminded are also brilliantly translated: it is not always clear from the punctuation who is talking, and this is a deliberately destabilising technique – but each woman has a distinct voice, and these come across in the translation. In fact the dialogues are very funny, violence and humour colliding in the mother and daughter’s apparent ignorance of how hilarious their interactions are (look out for the mother describing an “unprepossessing” man who just might have had the nefarious intention of raping her, hacking her to bits, and leaving her dismembered body in a bin bag by the roadside, and the daughter questioning the accuracy of the mother’s exaggerated “son of uncountable whores” curse until she modifies it to the rather less excessive “son of a bitch”).

Neither Die, My Love nor Feebleminded is what you’d call an “easy read”; they challenge and subvert, revel in ambiguity, and cannot be easily categorised. But why should we want to categorise them? Writing does not have to be a product of the author’s geographical origins, or fit into neat descriptions of being “about” a particular subject. Even if both texts deal with madness (both narrators are sent away for psychological treatment: the narrator of Die, My Love is sent to a sanitorium by her husband, and in Feebleminded the narrator notes that she has only ever visited cities for medical appointments and electroshocks), they are not about “madwomen”: if these women disrupt reality and society – in their language, their passions, their abjection and their actions – then they are simply breaking through a veneer of “normality” that masks the madness and disruption of reality and society themselves. Both Die, My Love and Feebleminded are subversive, electrifying, and highly original, and the closest I could come to defining these books is that they are a sublime, savage explosion via literature of all that women are not allowed to be in reality.

Review copy of Feebleminded provided by Charco Press.

On borders, encounters, and #WiTWisdom

Borders are on my mind right now. I live on an island, and so the borders of my homeland are physical; more importantly, they are also in the hearts and, recently, on the ballot papers of many of my compatriots. Everything about my identity, my work, and my beliefs rejects borders, crosses them, perhaps even aims to transcend them, and so in a time of great uncertainty, I find comfort in encounters that break down borders: I had two particularly uplifting “Translating Women” encounters recently that I want to share with you today, but I also want to reflect further on connections, crossing borders, and the wise, witty and downright wonderful things we can find in translated women’s writing.

Clockwise from top left: publicity shot for BookSHElf podcast; Fish Soup in Caravansérail; in conversation with Margarita García Robayo

I was thrilled when Carolina Orloff, director and editor at Charco Press, invited me to host an evening in conversation with Margarita García Robayo at the Caravansérail bookshop in London on 31 October. It was part of Margarita’s European book tour to promote Fish Soup, and it was a great honour to meet her in person; re-reading Fish Soup on the train to London, I was struck once again by the profundity of its caustic reflections (as well as finding it mildly surreal to be reading one of my favourite books while en route to meet its author). After spectacularly losing track of time in the excitement of meeting Margarita and Carolina at a tea salon in Brick Lane, we trooped to Caravansérail just in time for the event. It was my first time there, and I fell entirely under its spell: it’s a small premises, with the back area packed floor to ceiling with French books on one side and works in English and translation on the other. In the front area there is an intimate interview and audience space, where we gathered for our conversation.

Interviewing Margarita was a dream. She was so open and generous in her responses, both to me and to the audience. We covered topics ranging from the autobiographical nature of her writing and the need to leave Colombia in order to write about it fully, to Charlotte Coombe’s magnificent translation and the cover art of Fish Soup (beautifully described by one of my Twitter friends, author Rónán Hession, as “like Jaws but with fuzzy felt”). The thing I most want to focus on here came about when discussing the novella ‘Sexual Education’, which was published for the first time as part of Fish Soup, and is based on Margarita’s own experience of Opus Dei sex education classes in 1990s Colombia (the “Teen Aid” course was one she was forced to attend at school). There was in her class, as in the novella, a girl who claimed to be in communication with the Blessed Virgin, and we discovered in conversation with Margarita that the teachers lapped this up, pressing the girl to find out what Mary had communicated to her, so that they could use this to further convince the female students of the merits of abstention. Margarita talked about the deep effect that such indoctrination can have (in particular, the notion that “virginity” means “preserving the hymen” which, as her narrator observes wryly, results in a generation of girls with “hymen intact […] ass in tatters”), and described life thereafter as a process of “unlearning”, a sentiment which seemed to resonate with everyone present.

So can we “unlearn” how we think about borders? I’m currently reading Go Went Gone by the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by Portobello Books. Erpenbeck seems to me to be a truly important writer of our times: in Go Went Gone she tackles the subject of migration, and I was struck by the wisdom of this reflection: “Have people forgotten in Berlin of all places that a border isn’t just measured by an opponent’s stature but in fact creates him?” How terrifying that a book reflecting on one of the great socio-political scissions of the last century is so resonant with how I feel in my country today. Borders close us off, keep people out, and create enemies: by opening a book we open ourselves, allow others in, and create connections. Charco Press are certainly creating such connections: Margarita described their endeavours as “revolutionary”, since in Latin America literary success is often limited to each individual country, with books not crossing borders in their original language, and so translation into English is an important part of literary success and wider distribution of work. At a time when “the inhabitants of this territory […] are defending their borders with articles of law” (Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone), it seems to me that promoting and celebrating work that breaks through these borders and barriers is a revolutionary act in itself. In his essay “Reflections on Exile”, Edward Said wrote that “Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity.” Familiar territory is exactly what we leave behind when we read literature in translation, as we refuse to remain imprisoned in how our particular political or cultural “time” is telling us to define ourselves. Said goes on to claim that “Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience”, and perhaps here we could substitute “exiles” with “writers in translation”: their books not only cross borders but help to break them down, reminding us that we are more connected than we can sometimes realise.

If you read Spanish, you can read Margarita’s full account of her book tour here.

The morning after interviewing Margarita I went to Oxford Circus to meet Sophie Baggott, who earlier this year made a pledge to read a book by a woman writer from every country in the world by 2020. Sophie also hosts BookSHElf, a monthly podcast for Wales Arts Review, in which each month she interviews a guest about a topic related to women in translation: as the November guest, I followed in the illustrious footsteps of Theodora Danek, writers in translation programme manager at English PEN, Jennifer Croft, translator of the Man Booker International prize-winning Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, and the author-translator duo Michelle Steinbeck and Jen Calleja. It was an honour to find myself the guest on a podcast I look forward to each month, and half an hour has rarely passed so quickly: it was a joy to talk about women in translation with someone who shares my passion for it. Aside from talking about the Translating Women project, we talked about books we’ve loved (I shared my four women in translation Books of the Year for 2018 – tune in to see which I chose and why!) and issues such as the difficulties facing women in translation, the importance of the Year of Publishing Women and its legacy, and what we might look forward to in terms of women in translation (as December approaches, my excitement for the soon-to-be-released Translating Feminisms chapbooks from Tilted Axis Press grows).

Sophie and I also discussed the “labels” we use to talk about literature: I don’t want to try to define what books from a given geographical region might be “like”, and I wonder whether, if we want to transcend borders, it’s helpful to categorise books by country or literary tradition (particularly if a writer might break with this, challenge it, defy it, or simply reject the notion of a national “literary tradition”). Or, like Margarita, they might be from one country, live in another, and be published in another – and it is precisely this porosity, this mobility (dare I utter the words “this freedom of movement”?) which make literature in translation so important to the English-speaking world. What do a gathering in a multicultural bookshop and a podcast that can be listened to on the world wide web represent, if not a breaking down of borders? Sophie asked me to identify the best opportunities to have come out of the Translating Women project, and it was easy to answer: the connections. What a privilege it is to form relationships (real or virtual) with authors, translators, publishers, and fellow readers.

English PEN uses the strapline “Literature knows no frontiers”, and if there is anything that the books I’m reading have in common, it is their ability to reach out beyond national stereotypes and physical borders, and create connections. I hope that a day will come when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because we shall simply be talking about “literature” – but the days of such equality are, I think, still some way off. Until then, I shall be celebrating the inspiring, enriching, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes quiet, sometimes exuberant, always fascinating body of work that women in translation represents.

And on that note, I’m bringing together two things I love at the end of 2018: I always find the end of the year to be a time of reflection and resolution, and I also like to share some of my favourite quotations from the books I’m reading. So each weekday from 1 December until Christmas, I shall post on Twitter a meditative or inspiring quotation from a book by a woman writer in translation, using the hashtag #WiTWisdom. Please feel free to share and follow the hashtag, and to join in if you feel moved to do so!

The books I couldn’t resist purchasing at Caravansérail