Tag Archives: Jen Calleja

Building Bridges interview series: Jen Calleja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I sense a future within me”: coming of age as the wall comes down. Kerstin Hensel, Dance by the Canal

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Peirene, 2017)

Dance by the Canal was the third book released by Peirene in their “East and West” series, and narrates an unconventional coming of age at a pivotal moment in German history (Kerstin Hensel’s original text, Tanz am Kanal, was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Yet although Dance by the Canal could be read as a novel about the GDR and its demise, it is much more than this, suggesting what could happen when a woman cannot fit into any of the roles imposed on her. The narrative challenges the framework of German society both before and after reunification, questioning any system presented as ideal, and offering other ways of living – in particular, through writing. That is not to say that Hensel proposes any new utopia in place of the discredited one(s): on the contrary, this is not a story of coming-of-age success, but rather the story of a decline and descent, with an uncertain ending.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Kerstin Hensel is a prolific author, having published over thirty books and won several literary prizes. Jen Calleja recently finished her time as Translator in Residence at the British Library: this was her first translated novel (though she had previously translated non-fiction), and it’s an astonishing debut. Dance by the Canal can’t have been an easy book to translate, as it is imbued not only with the specific history of the GDR, but also with alienating uses of language and an unusual plotline that is meant to destabilise. Indeed, at a recent encounter between Hensel and Calleja, Calleja noted that she had never read anything like it and that, when reading this book, you have to let go of the “typical reading experience”. Perhaps that’s why I needed to read it twice: in my first reading, I enjoyed Dance by the Canal, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting, and I thought I’d missed something obvious because I didn’t understand the ending. When Calleja pointed out that the ending is deliberately destabilising, it was like the clouds parting: there wasn’t necessarily some deeper meaning that I had failed to detect, but rather I had failed to detect the intention of the book itself. It is supposed to be surreal, deliberately leaves questions unanswered, and consciously blurs boundaries between what is “truth” and what is “fiction”.

One of the central thrusts of the novel is the tension between name and identity: the main character, Gabriela von Haßlau, comes from an upper-middle-class family at a time when, under Communism, there were not supposed to be any class differences. Nonetheless, her difference is apparent throughout: she is teased at school for her aristocratic name, but at home she is a “silly little Binka”, never managing to live up to her parents’ expectations of the accomplishments she ought to possess. Gabriela’s father is a vascular surgeon, a patriarch, an abuser of power, and a heavy drinker; her mother is a fickle society hostess. Their aristocratic pretentions are juxtaposed with the chaotic hilarity of a larger-than-life uncle, but farcical family gatherings soon tip into darkness when the words “they’ve shot your Uncle Schorsch” signal the end of the “bad German” in the family. Even this event is shrouded in mystery, and shielded from Gabriela: “Father called Uncle Schorsch a fool, even though he hated the Russians too; they were the reason for his sadness, his fog… I was sent out of the room.” Gabriela is repeatedly dismissed from important conversations, and understands very little of what is happening around her, trapped as she is in other people’s narratives of reality.

“The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real.”

Throughout her story, Gabriela must try to avoid madness (or falling down the “last hole”) and run from an “awakening”. She is abused as a child (an encounter which she mistakes for love), raped as an adult (which is denounced as an episode of self-harm), pressured to become a mole for the secret police (though she is adamant that she knows nothing) – then “saved” by a group of feminist journalists who want to publish her story. Most of the people she meets attempt to exploit her in one way or another, and she never truly fits in anywhere: she is not allowed to be friends with Katka, a working class girl from a squalid home, but yet Katka is the only true friend she has. She is a poet and a writer, but lives variously under a bridge and in the broom cupboard of the tavern where she washes glasses under the watchful eye of the other homeless people of the fictitious East German town of Leibnitz. This eventful, unconventional life is summed up by Gabriela herself: “Anhaltinian nobility. Fffon Haßlau. Poet. Naked in front of a cop. Who’ll believe it?” Gabriela isn’t only a victim, though. She rejects complicity with the way of life imposed on her, leaving school, forming connections with people her family disapprove of, and ultimately choosing the path that her family would most revile: becoming homeless. But even as a homeless person she does not fit in: she is laughed at by her peers, and prizes paper as highly as food, writing her story on whatever scavenged paper she can find.

Two stories unfold at once: the life Gabriela is living, and the life that led up to it. Through the writing of her story, Gabriela takes us back from the present, throughout her past, and leads up to the end, the “once in a century summer” which is actually where the story began. The narrative develops in a way that can only be described as surreal: after leaving school, Gabriela is given a desk job at the cultural centre of an industrial plant, where she was supposed to have been training as a mechanical engineer. She is to be a mole, though this is not clear to her at first (she gets fired, but is encouraged to carry on writing, though she is not entirely sure why). But perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes is when Gabriela attends an arts evening, where she is to read her poetry, her “last chance” (it is unclear exactly what this “last chance” means – the last chance for redemption, yes, but the form this redemption is to take is not explicit). Gabriela sees Samuel (her mother’s lover) and asks him where her mother is. He simply replies “Haven’t you heard?” and is then carried off by the crowd before Gabriela can ascertain what she apparently has not heard (and which is never revealed to us). She then sees Frau Popiol, her childhood violin teacher, who propels her onto the stage where Gabriela reads out her poetry (to rapturous applause), before being whirled off into dancing. Gabriela recognises that she is “sick” and the whole episode is entirely surreal, all the more so when she ends up dancing with someone in a creased black dress, and realises it is her childhood friend Katka, now an artist. Gabriela awakes the next morning naked at home, with the door broken down and the sinister, grotesque secret police officer Queck standing above her.

The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real. She alone knows the distinction between her reality and her fiction, and any over-explanation in the translation would not have done justice to Hensel’s original. Calleja does not interpret for the reader, but rather leaves space for interpretation: if the German is disorientating, then the English should be no less so. Indeed, this is one of the great successes of the translation: if there is any alienation from the text, it is because it is meant to be alienating. This is not a story of communist oppression and capitalist redemption, but a story of a woman who cannot find her place in any regime. Gabriela’s only path is to write, but this is not simply because she is a victim who has no other place in the system. Rather, she writes to carve out a new space for herself, taking control of her story in order to survive: “ I sense a future within me: something could come of my story.” Her story is at times absurd, but this serves to highlight the absurdity of a society beset by amnesia and the re-writing of history. Into this history Gabriela writes her own: a compelling, challenging, messy history, but one that is uniquely hers, and which Calleja deftly re-tells to a new audience.