Tag Archives: Deborah Smith

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.

“I will give you white things”: an exquisite exploration of grief. Han Kang, The White Book

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2017)

The White Book is a short meditation on mourning, as Han Kang explores through words a loss that has accompanied her throughout her life: her mother gave birth prematurely to a girl who lived only two hours, and Han has lived with the knowledge that “I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.” Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book is another stunning collaboration between Han and Deborah Smith, though very different from the book with which they previously won the MBI, The Vegetarian. As you may know, it was Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian that kick-started the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and it took me a further seven months and over 40 books before I returned to another collaboration between the two. The White Book had been on my to-read list for some time, but if I’d been putting it off, it was because I suspected it was going to be bruising to read. And though in some ways it was, it is also an incredibly uplifting and beautiful book. Even the cover is stripped bare, and seems vulnerable, fragile, serene, with a raised typeface on the front making it seem like an object to touch and feel as much as to read. And it is certainly like no other book I’ve read this year: it is close to poetry with its sparseness and its short lines, its placement on the pages leaving white spaces that seem to be both a void and a possibility. There is something almost spiritual in the reaching out for a connection with a sister to whom Han acknowledges that “if you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now”. Part invocation, part incantation, The White Book explores a deeply internalised mourning and brings it to some kind of light: the two sisters were never to meet, and still cannot meet on the pages of a book, but yet there is some kind of in-between space, “the gap between darkness and light”, between the blank page and the words on it, where they can each make out the other’s face.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Smith’s translation just took my breath away. I truly believe that she is a very special translator; I do not doubt that this was a difficult text to translate, to grapple with, to absorb and to reflect, but Smith makes it seem effortless. She has that rare talent of making a translation her own without deflecting or vampirising any of the admiration owed to the original. I’m curious to read her translations of other authors, to know whether there’s some special kind of alchemy between her and Han, or whether Smith brings this kind of vulnerable wisdom to all her projects… On almost every page there was a word or a turn of phrase that was so unexpected and yet so absolutely perfect, words layered with meaning, that when placed with the other words next to them turn something simple into something dazzling. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain what I mean: “they would have felt lacerated by happiness. Which would have been life. Which would have been beauty”; “like a clutch of words strewn over white paper”: I would never have thought of being “lacerated” by happiness, yet it shows how the yearning of a soul to live, to find hope, is something close to pain. And what is the mass noun for a collection of words? “Clutch” says so much here: the grouping together of the words, the closeness of the black type on the white page – all of which is aesthetically evident in this book – but also clutching onto something intangible, desperately reaching out with words towards something that slips away… a tale that clutches at your heart.

Growing up “inside this story” of her sister’s death has clearly been a transformative experience for Han, knowing, as she acknowledges to the sister she has never seen, that “my life means yours is impossible”. So what kind of ending can be given to a book this deep, this raw? Han parts from her sister, but draws into herself everything of her sister’s life and death:

“Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.
I open my lips and mutter the words you heard on opening your black eyes, you who were ignorant of language. I press down with all my strength onto the white paper. I believe that no better words of parting can be found. Don’t die. Live.”

This inscription of love and loss onto the white paper, imprinted there with “all my strength”, gives life to the sister; pressing down onto the paper, rather than writing on it, transfers the deep emotions in a near-transcendental way. Within the pages, “within […] all of those white things”, writes Han, “I will breathe in the final breath you released.” And so rather than imprisoning a barely-caught memory of her sister within the pages of a book, Han uses the book – both the writing of it, and the artefact of black on white – to bring her sister into herself, and give her life not by writing for her, but by living with her. No easy “healing through writing” is offered up – though right from the start Han acknowledges that she is writing to transform her pain: “the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” But to say that articulating pain means that it disappears is to simplify human experience in a way that Han resists, as she explains that “learning to love life again is a long and complicated process.”

There is depth and complexity on every page of The White Book; this is a book that aches and meditates, not one that offers answers, unless it is simply that “nothing is eternal”, not even suffering. It is both a journey and an endless circle: neither birth nor life is posited as the opposite of death, but rather they are all exposed with unflinching honesty as part of the same continuum. Just as white and black are not depicted as opposites, nor are life and death. Instead, life is plural, endless, twisting – and so is death. What struck me most of all – whether it is intentionally in the text or just my interpretation of it – is that this book is about love. “I will give you white things” writes Han, and offers to her sister, in writing, the breast milk she never lived to drink, the snowflakes she would never see, silence condensed into a pure white pebble, the candles that are lit to her memory. And in so doing, instead of living with the spectre of a dead girl, she offers her life from within herself, the white cloud of breath escaping on a cold morning. This is not a book to read if you want a story, a plotline, or a formula, but if you want to read something incandescent, then this is for you.

Disturbing, dark, and deeply compelling: Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello, 2015)

This is the novel that kindled a spark that grew into this project. I have a confession to make: despite my love of languages and of translation, I have always gravitated towards reading books written in their original language. This restricts me to anything written in English, French or Spanish, and so it was about time I widened my horizons. My husband bought me this novel as a gift, around the time that I was trying to work out the project I wanted to pursue. I didn’t see the two things as being connected, but as I was reading The Vegetarian it hit me in the gut: French women’s writing is fascinating, and I could easily carry on dedicating my professional life to reading it and writing about it. But WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER BOOKS? Han Kang writes of patriarchy, violence, sexuality, madness, refusal to submit, and one woman’s determination to live as she wishes, not as she is told she ought to wish. I was gripped by Yeong-Hye’s story, and saw in it so many literary themes that are familiar to me, as well as finding a challenge to me not to be complacent about what “women’s writing” is; I realised how little I knew about Korea, and about modern literature beyond my own areas of language proficiency. At first I felt daunted and small, and then uplifted by the swell of inspiration this book offered. Every project has to begin somewhere… and this is where mine began.

Image from http://portobellobooks.com/the-vegetarian-2

“Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it”

Han Kang probably doesn’t need my introduction: the words ‘controversial’ and ‘best-seller’ follow her around in reviews; her latest novel The White Book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year and has been highly publicised; The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The published translation was a debut for Deborah Smith, and she has translated this novel beautifully. There were only rare instances when I was aware I was reading a translation, mostly when describing people and their relationship to one another (I imagine there must be a particular way of doing this in Korean that has no obvious English equivalent). In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Charse Yun argues for Smith’s translation as a ‘new creation’, pointing out that ‘[h]aving copy edited South Korean literary translations for the last dozen years, I’ve striven to make them more readable. Here, finally, was a Korean book that worked spectacularly in English’. He notes some errors in the translation, a change to the style (though Han has approved the translation) and a (lone) negative review by New York Review of Books columnist Tim Parks, but this does not prevent him from lauding Smith’s work in producing a remarkable novel. As for me, I can only be admiring of a talent that produces a translation of this quality as a debut piece. I was very interested to read Smith and Han discussing the process, in an article that (to my mind) counters any negative accusations about the translation being untrue to the original. Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it. I shall probably never be able to read The Vegetarian in Korean, and so I can only comment on the translated text, which I found to be beautifully and compellingly written. I still considered the prose to be sparse and understated, yet packing quite a punch. The reviews mentioned above do make me wonder just how sparse and understated the original must have been, then, if Smith’s translation is judged to be embellished! I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder out loud whether there are languages that are so different from one another that there has to be some ‘new creation’ for a translation to work as a text in its own right? Charse Yun’s comment above might suggest that this is the case. I don’t have an answer to this musing, but put simply, I like good writing. And I believe that Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian is, simply, good writing.

The novel’s central character, Yeong-Hye, has a dream (the details of which are not clear at the beginning), and as a result of this she makes a sudden decision to become vegetarian. This decision is incomprehensible to her rather boorish husband, from whose perspective the first section is recounted, and indeed to everyone around her. It is passed off as a whim, and even lied about in company – Yeong-hye’s husband takes her to a business dinner, and quickly claims that she has digestive problems that are exacerbated by meat, so that he will not be judged for his wife’s unorthodox behaviour. The subversive act of refusing meat reflects, in part, Yeong-hye’s desire to take control of her own body, and of what enters it, and this is violated on two occasions following her conversion to vegetarianism: when her middle-ranking businessman husband forces himself on her sexually, and when her father (a former military official) forces meat into her mouth. We could read into this the way in which the corporate and military bodies exercise control over citizens, but there is no heavy-handed direction for us to interpret it in this way. Rather, if there is a broader message it may lie in the female characters’ complicity with Yeong-hye’s objectification: her mother tries to trick her into eating meat by claiming that it is ‘herbal medicine’, and though her sister realises the men are going too far, she remains silent and is entirely objectified by the narrator, who finds his sister-in-law much more sexually appealing than his wife. This sexual obsession is turned around in the second section, which is told from the point of view of the sister’s husband (who has an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye).

For me the truly fascinating section was the final one, told from the perspective of the sister. Until this point she has been a bystander, an object of lust, or a denouncer of her sister’s ‘madness’, but now Han Kang gives her a voice to guide us through the narrative’s dénouement. In-hye struggles to understand what is happening to Yeong-hye as her sister descends further into madness, and she is forced to look at the ways in which she has been complicit in perpetuating a social system that cannot accommodate her beloved sibling. The tension between the things she wants to believe and those she has to confront was, for me, the most thought-provoking aspect of all. What started out seeming to be one woman’s rejection of customs and traditional roles/ appearances becomes something much bigger than a metaphor for resistance: it is a sacrifice that highlights how women can get lost in what they are ‘supposed’ to be, to the point of forgetting who they are.