Tag Archives: Sophie Hughes

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

Changing the status quo: the 2019 Man Booker International prize

Tonight the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize will be announced, and it’s something of a landmark year for women in translation. I want to talk about how 2018’s Year of Publishing Women, though it seemed to have a relatively small reach at the time, has had a significant impact on this prize: it’s possible that we’re witnessing a coincidence on a grand scale, but perhaps the fact that the shortlist features a higher proportion of women than is usual for literary prizes is a direct consequence of the Year of Publishing Women – partly owing to what was published last year, but also because of an increased awareness of the importance of striving for greater balance. The gender ratio on this year’s shortlist has made headlines everywhere, but even in neutral reports an unconscious bias is evident; in The Guardian it was described as being “dominated” by women, a phrasing quite rightly questioned by women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski. Her point was that no shortlist with the opposite ratio would be described as being “dominated” by men – that would just be normal, right?

Image from themanbookerprize.com

Right. Except it’s so wrong that this attitude of male “domination” being normal is still prevalent. I’ve encountered several people in the past year who have said they’re unsure about whether there should be such a thing as a year of publishing only women, and so I’m just going to nail my colours to the mast and say that at this point in history YES, THERE SHOULD: women are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and this is compounded in translated literature as women face a double marginalisation. By not challenging this, we allow it to continue. Saying that we’re not gender-biased but still having catalogues or bookshelves that are heavily weighted towards male authors is, I think, quite dangerous: there may not be conscious bias, but the bias that exists at all the stages a book goes through on its journey to translation, publication and reception is allowed to continue – is even normalised – if we ignore it by believing that not being deliberately biased against women in translation is enough to tilt the balance.

So the Year of Publishing Women was brave and necessary, and opened a dialogue about the books that get published and those that don’t. In an interview last year, publicist Nicky Smalley told me that And Other Stories (the only publishing house to commit fully to the Year of Publishing Women) had to actively seek out books by women writers to fill the 2018 catalogue; one of those books, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, is now on the Man Booker International shortlist. The Remainder is a spirited dual narrative in which three young people shackled to the historical memory of the Chilean dictatorship drive a hearse through the mountains from Chile to Argentina in search of a corpse lost in transit, and was beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories. Its well-deserved place on the shortlist represents activism at its best, and it is not the only success of the Year of Publishing Women: the more women are published, the more they will be discussed, reviewed and entered for prizes, and the more these lists might see a more lasting shift where people are no longer surprised to see the scales tipped towards a preponderance of women writers. Where this is no longer “unprecedented”, no longer a surprising “domination”, but something perfectly normal – just as it will continue be perfectly normal for the ratio to favour men on other occasions. Neither scenario should be surprising, and yet one of them is.

The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist also smashes tired stereotypes of what women write about: women’s writing is too often pigeonholed as “romance”, “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”, and it is assumed and accepted that women write for women (an attitude brilliantly challenged by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) – these kinds of facile assumptions are exactly what perpetuate the invisible bias that women writers have to confront every time they sit down to write. And yet the women-authored books on the Man Booker International shortlist are extremely diverse: as well as Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, there is the second English-language publication of last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk: the magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a witty and poignant pseudo-noir murder mystery flawlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The difference in genre and voice from Flights (Tokarczuk’s 2018 prizewinner, translated by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions), along with the sheer scope of her work, shows that we cannot pigeonhole Tokarczuk (and, with her, Polish literature or women’s writing). And the excellent, ambitious books are not limited to The Remainder and Drive Your Plow (though they are my two unequivocal favourites on the shortlist): in Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi tells the history of Oman through the women of one fictional family, translated by Marilyn Booth for Sandstone Press; Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a “collective autobiography” of twentieth-century French cultural history, translated by Alison L. Strayer for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, an excoriating account of one man’s self-indulgent journey of enlightenment, finds new audiences in Jen Calleja’s sardonic translation for Serpent’s Tail.

Women represent half of history, half of the world, half of life – let them fill half your bookshelf, and then we won’t need a Year of Publishing Women or see women’s success framed in terms of anomalous “domination”. I’ve mentioned the scales tipping, the balance shifting, the ratios changing: the theme for International Women’s Day this year was “Balance for Better”, and I believe that the Year of Publishing Women has done exactly that. Shamsie noted that the real point of interest would be what happened in 2019:

“Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?”

2018 may not quite have been the “radically transformed publishing landscape” that Shamsie had hoped for, but the Year of Publishing Women did shake up expectations, complacencies, and resignation about the “unchangeability” of gender bias. The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist is testament to that, and as both gatekeepers and readers we need to carry on balancing for better so that the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women is not limited to one year, but carries on challenging the status quo until the status quo itself is changed.

On The Remainder, equality, and throwing out the rulebook: an interview with Sophie Hughes

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Sophie Hughes. Sophie is the translator of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, which was published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. Sophie has also translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and six English PEN translate awards, and is a translator I greatly admire: the MBI shortlisting is testament not only to an excellent novel by Alia Trabucco Zerán and to the positive changes that And Other Stories have set in motion with their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, but also to Sophie’s great passion for and investment in her translations, and to the immense skill with which she carries them out.

Sophie Hughes, Man Booker International shortlisted translator of The Remainder (Alia Trabucco Zerán, And Other Stories 2018)

Helen Vassallo: How did you first come across The Remainder? Did you pitch for it, or was it offered to you?

Sophie Hughes: The writer and my friend Carlos Fonseca wrote to me saying he thought I’d like his friend’s debut novel. He knew I was translating a cult Mexican novella called El apando (The Hole, by José Revueltas, published by New Directions and co-translated with Amanda Hopkinson), which has a strangely hypnotic but relentless prose style. The first page of that novella unfolds in a single sentence; one half of The Remainder is written as a single sentence… Carlos clearly thought I hadn’t set myself enough of a challenge! So I was just lucky enough to read the book early. I then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and got it, and that paid for me to work on translating the whole novel. In the meantime, Alia got a world-class agent, and I think Stefan at And Other Stories read a sample on PEN’s dedicated webpage for the PEN/Heim grant. He was bowled over by Alia, as I had been, and asked me to do the translation. I actually pushed back my maternity leave to finish it, which is mad, of course, but love is mad, and I loved the book.

HV: What was it about The Remainder that you found particularly engaging, and that you think readers and the MBI judging panel have enjoyed in it?

SH: It’s impossible to say why the judges or other readers enjoyed it – I’m just pleased they did. I fell for Felipe, one of the novel’s three young characters living in the shadow of the Chilean dictatorship and who take a madcap road trip in a hearse to retrieve the body of one of their ex-militant mothers. Felipe is a rambler, a serial overthinker, an accidental virtuoso spewing his past and present out in one long sentence – it’s not always easy to read, actually, and can feel quite exhausting with all the constant digressions, but it was fun to translate! It meant I could throw out the grammar rulebook and just listen and try to improvise consonant cadences in the English (we look for close approximations all the time as literary translators, but more obviously so with semantics: jokes and sayings, etc.). More so than with other books I’ve translated, this was an exercise in close listening: translation as an infinite canon. One annoying detail when translating the book was the Spanish noun “el muerto” – “the dead man/person” – which comes up all the time. In the plural it’s easy – if inescapably Joycean – “the dead”, but “the dead man” is a clunky old phrase that didn’t work in lots of instances. I had to come up with some snappy alternatives and use them sparingly. ‘Stiff’ is a good word, but you can have too much of a good thing.

HV: You obviously have a very special connection with Alia. Do you work closely with all your authors?

SH: I’ve said it before, but it is true that to know Alia is to love her – she is humble and has a healthy irreverence for the literary world, yet is also incredibly gracious, generous of spirit, and infectiously passionate about reading and literature. She thinks and cares deeply about humankind, about histories and stories (historias – it’s the same word in Spanish), about what is right and good, and why we behave in ways that are neither right nor good. She’s funny but never flippant, and this comes across in La resta (and I hope in The Remainder). I love it when there is understanding between me and the authors I’m translating. I am from the school of: an author’s input can improve a translation. It’s not detrimental to the translation if you can’t rely on it, of course, but I always suss this out early and if they want to be involved in the translation process, I welcome it. In truth, I suppose I feel like some of the responsibility becomes shared. There is always some guesswork involved in translation because good literature necessarily contains ambiguities. When you read a novel, you read it with all of your history weighing on your interpretation, but this doesn’t really matter. When you translate, it does matter, because you will share that interpretation with others. Actors put on accents and so must we. To spend time talking with the author is one way I shed my accent and get closer to theirs. All this being said, some authors really just want to leave it to you (this will sound terrible, but I definitely would if I were an author), and in such cases I merely send a list of questions and never bother them again. So I’m lucky that I now count Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún and Alia among my best friends. Close reading is as beautiful a basis for a friendship as I can imagine.

HV: It seems that women’s voices from Latin America are being heard much more in English than before. Do you think there are specific reasons for this?

SH: Women’s voices in many fields and in many languages and places are being heard louder. This probably explains the phenomenon you describe. But let’s not beat around the bush: it is thanks to the concerted efforts of women that women are being heard. And the problem has not gone away, of course. Many have pointed out the blatant gender-ghettoization in the literary world, and I don’t have the answer for how to create gender parity without playing the numbers game, without employing positive discrimination: separate women writer lists, prizes, panels, blogs and projects and so on. But I do think that, in some cases, somewhere along the way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own” has been taken detrimentally literally.

Looking back, the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced some magnificent authors to the world, but its gender imbalance was scandalous. A scandal symptomatic of the times, yes, but scandalous nonetheless: women writers in Latin America were – and to some degree still are – the collateral damage of the deafening acclaim received by its entirely male cast. What is the opposite of boom? I can’t think what that might be. Does such a concept exist? If not, that might tell us what we need to know about how women writers from Latin America have been received, internally and internationally. Today, it’s unlikely that an analogous movement wouldn’t include women writers. But 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.

A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance: tomorrow you could go to the library and search out, or chance upon, your favourite new author from Latin America. She might be a she. Many of us rely too heavily on the internet when public libraries represent such wonderfully democratic (cookie-free) search engines. What I mean is that 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.

There’s one last point I’d like to make with regards to the deep-seated misogyny and the physical and emotional abuses committed by too many men in the Latin American literary industry. The problem is endemic (although by no means unique to Latin America) and it has a deep impact on who gets published, publicised and read, but also on what women write, and which women write. When I lived in Latin America I was unlucky enough to see a GIF going around of an adult film star being penetrated from behind by a man, and an accompanying line referring to a contemporary woman writer and an editor, insinuating, of course, that she owed her publishing successes to offering sexual favours to influential men. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. I was sorry I had to see it. But now I’m not. A reader created that GIF for a very niche audience. Not some bored teenager trolling the girl he fancies at school. A reader of “high literature”. I use the grim GIF tale to remind me what women face whenever they 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. Perhaps it is our duty to do those writers the service of reading them. Relatedly, my colleagues and I have experienced unwanted and uninvited advances from male writers who seem to have trouble distinguishing our job as translators (to read them closer than anyone else) with another kind of intimacy. This rather makes you not want to be good at your job. To shrink into yourself. To evaporate on the page. To fall silent. There you go: the opposite of ‘boom’.

HV: And finally, the nature of publishing is that what we’re reading now is something that you worked on some time ago. What are you currently working on, or excited about?

SH: I’m currently translating a novel by Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, Fitzcarraldo, UK| New Directions, US, 2020). It’s a masterpiece. I have night sweats from the responsibility of translating this novel.

And I’m co-translating, with Juana Adcock, Giuseppe Caputo’s debut novel Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World, Charco Press, UK) which manages to be many things as once: a love letter between a father and son, a seething yet humourous portrait of lives lived in poverty, and a refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) honest reflection on the body as a space of pleasure and violence.

Read ‘A Bitter Pill’, Sophie’s translation of a short story by Alia Trabucco Zerán, in the April 2019 issue of Words Without Borders.

Sophie and Alia talk about their Man Booker International shortlisting on the Man Booker website.

The Remainder is published in the UK by And Other Stories, and will be released in the US by Coffee House Press in August 2019.

The Man Booker International 2019 longlist: picks, celebrations, and regrets

The picks

Last week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and with it a remarkable and welcome surge of women in translation: more than half of the thirteen books selected this year are by women writers. The two books I was particularly delighted to see on the longlist were Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a funny, subversive and insightful pseudo-noir murder mystery translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions (full review here), and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a glorious tumult of historical memory, friendship, guilt, families and death, with raining ash and a lot of pisco, translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories (short review here, a more in-depth one to follow). Drive Your Plow and The Remainder are very different narratives, with distinct preoccupations: an elderly woman struggles to be taken seriously in rural Poland in Drive Your Plow, and three young Chileans weighed down by a past they can never experience go on the road trip of a lifetime in The Remainder. But these two books also have plenty in common: they are both brave, distinctive, brilliantly translated, and a window onto the culture they represent.

The celebrations

As you can imagine, I find it immensely heartening to see a clear move away from the some of the biases that have traditionally prevailed in literary prizes: in an article for In Other Words, Daniel Hahn wrote of the 2017 Man Booker International prize that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too).” Hahn goes on to note that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and so this leads me to wonder whether the tipping away from gender bias and eurocentrism on the 2019 longlist might also reflect moves in this direction more generally. Nine languages and twelve countries are represented in the thirteen books, and here’s where they’re coming from:

Europe is not quite as dominant as in previous years, which suggests the beginnings of a shift towards greater diversity and globalisation. As for languages, Spanish is best represented with three of the thirteen books:

All of the books translated from Spanish are from Latin America rather than peninsular Spain, which also partly accounts for the more diverse geographical spread. Arabic and French tie for second place, and of the remaining six, two are Asian and four European.

It’s not only women writers who make up the majority of this list: independent publishers are the big winners, with eleven of the thirteen entries. The year when gendered and eurocentric biases are less evident is the same year that independent publishers dominate the longlist, suggesting a direct correlation between the activism of smaller presses and increased parity in the translated literature market. As MBI judge Maureen Freely noted in an article in The Guardian, “the really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts”, and The Remainder and Drive Your Plow are stellar examples of this: The Remainder is a debut novel published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and Tokarczuk was discovered by Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions because of his determination to seek out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The regrets…

Though there is much to celebrate, I can’t offer a reaction without mentioning the books I wish had been on the longlist. I am fully aware that I have not read all thirteen longlisted books, and that my opinions are necessarily inflected with my own subjectivities, but for what it’s worth, I am baffled that these two did not feature on the longlist:

Disoriental (Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover for Europa Editions): this is not just one of the best books I’ve read for this project, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, Disoriental is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe. It’s ambitious, witty, wrenching, and the translation by Tina Kover is exquisite.

Resistance (Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn for Charco Press): another story of exile and an intensely poetic imbrication of the personal and the historical. Resistance is a haunting account of Fuks’s troubled relationship with his adopted brother, and the consequences of displacement. The writing is taut, subtle, and lyrical, and Hahn’s translation is flawless.

The shortlist?

I fervently hope that both Drive Your Plow and The Remainder will make it onto the shortlist. Last year’s winner and a debut author, two fantastic books and two impeccable translations. I’ll leave you with a favourite quotation from each:

“Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“the heat intensifies and I push it away and the ash is falling and I push it away and the memories come flooding back and I push them away too, and I think that I could just let go, let it all out and then leave, but no, I don’t, cos if I did that I’d get lost and I’ve already got enough missing people on my hands; I’m never going missing, never ever.”
The Remainder

Further reading:

Tony offers the Man Booker International shadow panel’s official response to the longlist

Michael at Translated Lit does a roundup of the longlist

Jess and Will at Books and Bao choose their favourites, with links to reviews of several of the longlisted books

My full reviews of two other longlisted books:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Books, 2019)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.