Greatest Women in Translation: Lucinda Byatt

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to the Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Lucinda Byatt, non-fiction translator from Italian into English, nominated by Marilyn Booth.

Lucinda Byatt

Created with Canva

1. You were a speaker at this year’s ITI Conference. I was there too! Too bad I missed a chance of meeting you! The topic of your presentation was “What’s involved in translating non-fiction? Rewards and Challenges.” Could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m sorry we didn’t catch up there, too! But thanks so much, both to you and above all Marilyn, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog. The theme of this year’s ITI Conference in Sheffield, UK, was “Beyond the Core: Forging the Future of the Profession” and this was the context of my talk on non-fiction translation. In fact, this is a huge field, ranging from academic works in every discipline to the popular non-fiction markets. Broadly speaking, I focused on three topics: Building up expertise and finding opportunities; Tackling the translation (skills, research); Looking at collaborative translation and working with editors.

I’m very conscious that I can only speak from my own experience – every translator follows a different path and accumulates different skills, of course! But in general, a non-fiction translator tends to be a specialist – at least, that certainly helps, even in a broad field, like my own, which is history, history of art and architectural history. So the somewhat obvious advice in the first part was to follow your interests and to find areas that you are passionate about, and maybe also qualified in – since this is an added incentive to develop your knowledge and gradually build a network of contacts.

The second part of my presentation tried to give some answers to the broad question of what, if any, are the special skills of the non-fiction translator? I think there may be an assumption that translating non-fiction is harder and more complicated than translating fiction. For example, do you need to invest more time in research and fact checking? Or in finding and checking quotations, and deciding whether to use a published translation if one already exists?

I suggested that translating non-fiction need not be harder, and indeed – in some respects – it might actually be easier than translating fiction. For example, a non-fiction author is less likely to be as experimental in style as a novelist, because she or he is focused above all on the argument and the factual content of the book.

Most of the skills required for non-fiction translation are the same as for fiction. There may be no dialogue to deal with in non-fiction, and there’s unlikely to be much colloquial language. But rhythm, word choice and the construction of sentences and paragraphs are just as important in non-fiction writing – particularly in the growing ‘umbrella genre’ of literary non-fiction – as they are in novels. A non-fiction book certainly has a flow, a carefully constructed sequence of chapters, and it often features evocative settings and vivid characterisation.

2. You are one of the very few interviewees in this series who does not work with fiction. You translate books, but primarily focused on history, architecture, art history, and humanities in general. I confess I’m quite happy to feature a non-fiction translator for a change, since, in my humble opinion, we, “technical” translators, do not get as recognized as fiction translators do. Do you feel the same way?

There’s no doubt that compared to fiction, translated nonfiction doesn’t get much of the limelight, and certainly fewer prizes. Yet translated non-fiction will never not be relevant and its benefits are even more trenchant today. English-language publishers have certainly discovered there’s a market for engaging, even challenging, non-fiction books emerging from Europe and beyond. I know I’m not alone in being more aware than ever of how important it is to bolster an open society, and one way of doing that is to offer readers books that deepen their understanding of other cultures and enable them to join in the debates that excite, or aggravate, us all.

And it’s not only published non-fiction that we should consider. Journalism and blogs are also important – non-fiction writing comes in many forms.

I’m intrigued that you use the term “technical” translator. We are all technicians in some respect. As I said before, a non-fiction translation needs the same feel for register, rhythm, tone, voice, flow, etc. as for fiction. These skills form the crux of our ‘techne’, but perhaps the difference is that in non-fiction the approach is usually more subject-specific.

3. Talking about history, you also teach non-translation courses at the University of Edinburgh, such as Italian Renaissance. What came first: the translator or the teacher? And how did you venture into translation?

That’s an interesting question. I did languages all the way through formal education – and had an inspirational French teacher who worked on translation with us in secondary school. Then at university, I did French and German for two years, before eventually focusing on medieval and modern history. Even the next step – a doctorate at the European University Institute – was effectively a blend of languages and history as all my primary sources were in Italian. Learning Italian from scratch was quite a steep learning curve! During the four years I spent in Italy for my doctorate, I worked on various small translation projects and enjoyed them. Moreover, as a Ph.D. student you are also asked to give presentations. So I think I can honestly say that translation and teaching have developed side by side.

However, there have been times when translation has certainly been uppermost. While I was living in Turin – in the Nineties – and for the first six or so years back in Edinburgh – in the Noughties – I was solely a translator. My first published translation was for Polity, and the next few books were for a Swiss publisher, Birkhäuser, and for Cambridge University Press. Sometimes these opportunities arose because I met the editors at book events in Turin and perhaps editing work then led to translation; or occasionally they were the result of a direct approach.

I also worked extensively as a commercial translator during the years we lived in Turin, translating what I think could be called “general” documents for companies and institutions. This general practice allowed me to hone my skills, also in terms of business practice. One of my earliest contacts in Turin was Alan Nixon, whose company Dialogue International is still flourishing. Much of the work he gave me was for Fiat which was then still a big presence in Turin. The technical automotive stuff was beyond me, but I worked on corporate documents and the occasional presentation for the top management. While I was in Turin, I also embarked on a broad range of translation projects for cultural institutions in the city and elsewhere. I loved the variety and again it was valuable experience as I worked for museums and tourist organisations, on cultural policy documents and (from Edinburgh!) even on the 2006 Winter Olympics. In the 1990s technology was in its infancy: I had a pc and email, but no broadband. Work had to be delivered electronically over a modem connection (who remembers its distinctive buzz?) or in hard copy by “Pony Express” (bike couriers). I still work with a few of my Turin clients – one private company holds the record, with a relationship that dates back nearly thirty years!

4. Although you mainly translate non-fiction, your latest book, Murder in Venice, by Maria Luisa Minarelli, is a fiction one. And you also said it’s quite different from the previous two (academic books). How was your experience in translating this fiction book for a change?

I really enjoyed it. The publisher is AmazonCrossing and the offer came out of the blue, but the contract was straightforward and the terms were good. I have to add here that I have always found it very hard to retain copyright for my non-fiction translations. In this case, AmazonCrossing were immediately clear that this was not an issue, although of course it is licensed back to them. Moreover, the contract includes royalties, including on free promotional copies, something that has never been the case in my non-fiction contracts for other publishers. All of my contracts are vetted by the UK Society of Authors, which is a real bonus of membership, and immensely reassuring. However, even with their support, securing copyright and royalties for my translations can still be an uphill struggle.

As is clear from the title, Murder in Venice, Maria Luisa Minarelli’s book is a historical mystery. It’s set in eighteenth-century Venice, so that itself appealed to me. I know Venice well and teach a ten-week course on medieval and early modern Venice. The author’s historical research is excellent and the characters and setting are convincingly portrayed. There were some lovely coincidences too. Just last year, I translated a life of Leonardo da Vinci by Antonio Forcellino, and here – as a key part of Minarelli’s plot – I came across the canal dredger designed by Leonardo, probably while he was living in Milan. Another particularly enjoyable aspect of my foray in fiction was the sense of freedom in the translation process (no footnotes!). Above all, translating the different voices in dialogue was a treat. I’m secretly hoping to do more!

5. These previous academic books you translated were about suicide and lordship in medieval Southern Italy – and then a fiction book. How do you manage to work with such diverse topics? Do you have any established work process?

The non-fiction books I have translated often have varying degrees of connection with my specialized academic field. But the variety is enormously stimulating. It means discovering and researching new topics. Regular contact with the author is an enormous benefit, and given the immediacy of communication now, I think all translators would agree that this is a crucial part of the translation process. For me, it’s often a starting point. If I can talk to the author, by phone or Skype, I find I have a better understanding of the register and pace of the “non-fiction voice” on paper. I also rely on the authors for their specialised knowledge.

My work on Marzio Barbagli’s book, Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide, offered different challenges. It is a masterpiece of sociological and historical analysis. I won’t go into the arguments here – also because it’s certainly not my place to do so! – but I will say that the subject-matter was gruelling at times. In practical terms, a major problem that arose during the translation was the referencing. Many of the reference works had been translated, perhaps from German or French originals into Italian and obviously the footnotes gave pages numbers from the Italian editions. Instead, I had to trace the English translations, where they existed, and then play the “page number” game (different language editions often don’t have the same pagination) as I searched through the books for the correct passages. I’m sure others will know what I’m talking about. It can be a frustratingly slow process, but in the end it’s worthwhile.

The translation of Sandro Carocci’s book on lordship in medieval Southern Italy was a great example of collaboration. Probably the most useful result of working closely with an author is that you can fine tune the message. And, above all for a work of non-fiction, the message is key. Of course, language matters too: and in this case, Sandro’s advice regarding the correct feudal terminology was invaluable.

A similar project was the co-translation with Michael Bury of a sixteenth-century art history treatise by Giovanni Andrea Gilio, “Dialogue on the Errors and Abuses of Painters”. Working together with Carol Richardson, this was in every sense a team project. I was the only “professional” translator, but Michael Bury’s thorough understanding of the text meant that his contribution to the translation was fundamental. Some of the challenges of tackling a historical text, like Gilio’s, are outlined in my chapter on the translation process, which is included in the volume (Getty Publications, 2018).

On that note, I’ve recently also worked on a variety of other historical texts in the context of major exhibitions. These have included extracts from the letters between Emma Hamilton and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily, and also a few letters written by Artemisia Gentileschi. Decisions about language need to be made and my preference is to steer a middle course that tries to avoid unnecessarily archaic vocabulary but also glaring anachronisms. Clarity for the modern reader seems to me to be paramount.

6. You are currently translating a short book for Antonio Foscari, Living with Palladio. What can you tell us about it?

I’ve worked with Antonio Foscari on three previous projects, two of which have also focused on Villa Foscari, an elegant building on the mainland close to Venice, which was designed by the great sixteenth-century architect Antonio Palladio. This is a shorter book and will appeal to a broader audience since the author goes through the villa’s rooms and describes how they would have been used in the late sixteenth century. There are fascinating details about the layout of the villa and the upstairs/downstairs division. For example, the top floor of the villa was used to store grain and other produce because it was dry and also well guarded. Thieves were rare, even the four-legged variety: the smooth bands of plaster applied to the walls made it easier to trap any pesky rodents by preventing them from scrambling up the walls and into the roof space. I really look forward to seeing it in print.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

It’s a real pleasure to nominate Ros Schwartz. Ros is a hugely talented and award-winning translator and an inspiring mentor. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Kings College London and also a director of Warwick Translates Summer School. When I contacted her about this blog she was on her way back from Cameroon where she’d been to lead a literary translation workshop.

Greatest Women in Translation: Marilyn Booth

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Marilyn Booth, nominated by Kari Dickson.

Marilyn Booth

Created with Canva

1. First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize as Best International Novel of 2019 with Jokha Alharthi, author of Celestial Bodies, which you translated into English! Jokha was the first Arabic language writer to win the prize and the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, thanks to you! How does it feel co-winning such a prestigious prize with a woman author of firsts?

It feels great for many reasons. Women have been strong contributors to Arabic narrative and poetry forever, from pre-Islamic and early Islamic poets, and on to medieval Andalusian poets. When something recognizable as ‘the Arabic novel’ emerged in the nineteenth century, women were prominent among their authors (and translators), and they’ve been on the scene ever since, as fictionalists, memoirists and essayists, as well as poets. As Kim Ghattas wrote recently in an essay in The Atlantic, this prize is also yet another little puncture in the appallingly resilient Euro/American stereotypes about Arab women and Muslim women. I’m delighted that commentators have recognised how this novel really challenges stereotypes. It’s also great given the history of literary production in Oman. Long before Oman was a modern nation, it produced strong poets. But modern fiction in Arabic is a relative latecomer to Oman and the other Gulf countries, since the educational and printing infrastructure that was so important to forming writers and readers of fiction was established much earlier in  the national Arabophone communities that emerged from the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt and the rest of northern Africa as well as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine. So Oman hasn’t been at the centre of Arabic literary fiction, though there are many good writers there and I hope the prize encourages even more activity. So it is great to have Omani writers recognised. I also appreciated that this year’s short list was mostly women – all the translators and all but one of the writers (and I do have great respect for the one man writer on the list!).

But the most important thing is that I just felt this was a novel that had to be translated. I did it long before we had a publisher. Sometimes you just have to do things. So it is fantastic that it has gotten such recognition. But I’m afraid I also need to say: before we were shortlisted, the novel wasn’t being reviewed, or featured in bookstores, or anything. So I am a little cynical about the effect of prizes. Great – but what about all the other fantastic fiction in translation out there? The fiction that doesn’t get much notice? In the US, our novel is now being called a ‘must-read’ for autumn 2019, but if we hadn’t got the prize, would any of these enthusiastic commentators and readers have found it? It is great to laud the indie presses that are doing so much to get translated literature out there, but that’s only part of the story.

A book has to find its way to readers, and unfortunately this is not a ‘natural’ process most of the time.

2. Your latest translation, Night Post, by Hoda Barakat, is forthcoming in 2020. Could you tell us a bit about it and its translation process?

I am in the process! So I am in that horrible stage where I feel like I am incompetent at both Arabic and English. (Do other translators out there feel this? I know that some do.) This is an edgy and sad and beauitfully crafted work about statelessness, displacement, and intersections of political and personal conflict. I’ve translated Hoda before; her work is deep, inventive, bold, and ever-changing. The tone of this novel differs to earlier ones, I think, in its intensity, an urgent sense of anger and desperation – and an attempt to hold onto hope in spite of this – that the characters convey. It’s told by a series of narrators who are in limbo, politically, geographically, emotionally. Recently, Night Post was a controversial choice for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, sometimes called ‘the Arabic Booker’). I haven’t followed all the narrative on that, but what I celebrate is that this can be a controversial choice precisely because there is so much fantastic writing in Arabic that is being published. Not enough of it appears in translation, of course.

And one thing I feel passionate about is trying to find a way to translate and publish a lot of fantastic works in Arabic published throughout the twentieth century. There were some amazing 1950s novels for instance… (as there have been in every decade). Sometimes publishers seem to only want the latest thing – a little more on that below – and I think that is unfortunate.

I can’t really say any more about the process, because I’m inside of it. I’m in there, and moving around, and pondering voice. This novel is very different to Hoda’s earlier novels and, for instance, to Celestial Bodies. Of course, every work demands its own voice and its own set of strategies. That’s one of the creative joys of literary translation, isn’t it? Another is that, in the end, it’s about good writing.

3. In our email exchange, you mentioned you were treated in a “scandalous way” in translating Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea. Could you briefly tell us what happened?

Well, you asked about that – and indeed, it was a very upsetting experience. I cannot comment on the author’s perspective, because she never told me. She just wanted the translation to be other than the one I submitted. The ‘scandalous’ aspect was that Penguin, after accepting my translation (and apparently really liking it, to judge by the emails I got from the editor at the time), allowed the author to change it in any way she wanted. I don’t think the result was successful, but what is ‘scandalous’ is that they had no interest in my literary choices as a translator and I had no status as the author of the English-language text. I have used the term ‘scandalous’ because a reviewer used that for the translation – and I totally agreed with that reviewer, and I wrote in to say, yes, ‘scandalous’ but not for the reasons you think!

I really thought that this novel was fantastic in its innovative and out-there use of a blog structure, of colloquial Arabics, of a truly and literarily canny narrative about a globalized culture of privileged people. The Arabic text, in its structure, deploys a kind of voyeurism that actually exposes authoritarian patriarchal practices for what they are, and links local patriarchies to global consumer commodity fetishism as well as to attempted censorship practices which the novel defeats through its very existence. One of the ironies of the way I was treated in this translation situation was that unlike quite a few other academic specialists in Arabic literature, I really appreciated this novel. Not for the plot(s), the stories of the young women in themselves but rather for the politics of language and patriarchal culture that it so imaginatively inscribed (which are also about young women, of course, and young men). I’m still sad that the author apparently disliked my work so much that she wasn’t even willing to negotiate or work together on it, though I expressed to the editor a willingness to do so. (I knew I was perhaps being too edgy in my translation choices in that novel, and would have let go of some of that if we’d had a chance to work together on it.) I think it is a shame. In English, it emerged as a straightforward story about four Saudi young women, in a rather cliched style. I wanted to translate it because I thought it was much more than that.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole incident raises difficult questions about the distribution of power in the literary translation business, in a hyped-up commercial scene where celebrity authorship may not be a positive factor in producing the best possible translations. One ‘small’ – but I think very significant and disturbing – sign of that power imbalance is the fact that most presses still do not put translators’ names on book covers. Of course, that has to do with the prevailing sense that readers are scared off by translations. I hope (and believe) that this is changing, and the Man Booker International helps in that. But we translators have to keep on fighting for the rights we ought to have.

4. On the later article you wrote to the Translation Studies journal, Translator v. author (2008), you discuss this incident in light of domestication and “the strong bias toward ‘transparent’ translation that privileges sociological content over literary texture and the thickness of locale.” Do you think this is a problem faced mainly by translated Arabic literature in Anglophone literary marketplaces? Why do you think so?

I do think it is a problem, though I think the pressures are truly complicated. In this case, perhaps it was partly that the original author wanted her novel to appeal to a certain audience, and she thought she knew best how to do that. But that is part of a broader pressure, right? I can’t say whether this is more true for Arabic works than for other traditions. I expect most literary translators have been faced with situations where they are urged to provide more ‘clarity’ at the expense of following the rhythms and perspectives of the work they are translating. Of course, we all read partly in order to learn about other worlds, whether temporal or geographical or spiritual. But that’s also about appreciating types of complexity or ambiguity (or seeming ambiguity), including the different ways of being and seeing that different languages and histories offer. A novel set in Iraq, or in Oman, or in the US civil war, may teach readers a lot about ‘Iraqi history’ or ‘Omani history’ or ‘the history of the civil war’ but not necessarily in an easily understood fashion. Sometimes I have the feeling that publishers (and readers?) are more willing to accept complexity in a literary work centred in their own world of experience than they are if it is from elsewhere. I have wondered whether this is especially the case for works from Arabophone countries, or from Muslim-majority countries, given the intensive and sensitive political relations that partly govern attitudes amongst Europeans and North Americans towards those societies, and the very real desires that readers have to ‘understand’ them. But the worst thing is to me a novel for political information. Linked to this is a kind of ‘presentist’ bias in publishers’ choices: they seem most interested in the latest thing, and I think that is at least partly due to the intensity of the political scene in Arabophone countries. I’d like to hear from translators of other languages whether they feel a similar political pressure, though. At the same time, we are in a difficult political moment: so many people seem to be turning inward. Hoda’s Night Post is important, then, not only as a strong artistic presence but as a political intervention itself in a world where the displaced represent a radical ‘difference’ that is too often unwelcome. In this moment – no doubt in any moment – as a translator I feel that bringing such works into English is the most important political act I can offer.

Understanding of course is a much more complex operation, and I do trust readers to grapple with that necessary difficulty. As a translator, one way I try to bring the reader inside of a complex world that might be new to her is by preserving Arabic usages in the translation, and figuring out how to make them meaningful. I usually find that sticking very close to the language of the original yields the richest and most powerful translation. But that isn’t always the way others feel!

5. Among one of your current and envisioned research projects, you mention “research on contemporary practices of Arabic literary translation, especially first-author/second-author [translator] interactions and the politics of publishing and marketing.” Does it have anything to do with the incident above? Could you kindly elaborate a bit more about it?

I started interviewing other translators about this; I was motivated by that experience and by one other situation of miscommunication with an author I had translated. But also I wanted to pursue it because I have not seen much work in academic translation studies on how ‘first’ and ‘second’ authors get along. It’s a fascinating topic. For me, most of the authors I’ve translated have become wonderful friends. We work together. Translation is an intimate process of discovery for both authors, and I am enormously grateful for the friendships that have been at least partly the outcome of this process.

But as I suggested above, I think that in the present moment literary translation is particularly fraught, subject to all sorts of cultural and commercial and political pressures on everyone involved. (I am more sympathetic than I may sound to the pressures publishers deal with.) As you know from reading my articles, one thing that really animated and upset me about the Girls of Riyadh situation was that the academic literature on literary translation would suggest that I ‘had the power’, as a North American white woman, to produce the work. And yet, in that case, I clearly didn’t. So what is the politics here? I have to confess that I haven’t followed up on that research I did – I think it is important but I’m more interested in my nineteenth-century research.

6. One of your main topics of research and about which you have written books, book chapters, articles, and essays is gender, history, and politics in the Arabic literature. What is the connection among them?

And translation! This is an enormous topic. As in so many parts of the world (including most of Europe), in the nineteenth century, Arabophone intellectuals and activists of all persuasions were subjecting themselves and their societies to rigorous questioning about the sources of societal strength: nationalist movements emerged, partly (but not entirely) in response to European imperial power. A central aspect of this self-questioning concerned gender roles and how they were implicated in social transformation as well as in the international politics of reputation. I study the emergence of feminism and of other kinds of gender activism in Egypt and across the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, and particularly its discursive aspects: who was writing, about what, how, and who did writers seek to reach? I mentioned the novel earlier – and the nineteenth-century Arabic novel was a site for exploring such issues, especially through the theme of chosen romantic love versus arranged or coerced marriages, and how this intersected with national politics and economic well-being. Translation was hugely important: works from European languages as well as from Turkish were translated and adapted, and I study that range of practices. For instance, I recently published a study of how Fénelon’s 1689 French text on girls’ education was translated in radically different ways, and argued over, 1901-9, in Egypt.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Lucy Byatt, whom I’ve known among a group of wonderful women in Edinburgh. Lucy is a translator of academic and creative nonfiction, especially works of history and art history, from Italian, and also writes in collaboration with others. She has produced some gorgeous books. Lucy also teaches at the University of Edinburgh.

Greatest Women in Translation: Kari Dickson

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Image created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to my beloved Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

The interviewee featured this month is Kari Dickson, nominated by Sophie Hughes.

Kari Dickson

Created with Canva

1. You have taken an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Surrey. What a pleasant coincidence! I have also taken an MA in Translation Studies (with Intercultural Communication) there, in 2009/2010. So how about you start telling us a bit about it?

Back in the day, the MA at Surrey was the only one where you could specialize in Scandinavian languages. I thought it was an excellent programme; it combined theory with practice, and we also had classes in technology, international law and economics, as well as weekly talks by professionals. Translation theory is perhaps not everyone’s bag, and is an academic discipline in its own right. Personally, I enjoyed learning about different schools of thought on what the translation process is, and it supported my practice, but did not necessarily make me a better translator. In my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher, I have come to see it as a shortcut – it kick-starts the brain into thinking like a translator. However, I have also learnt over the years that it’s not necessary to have an MA in order to become an excellent translator, it’s the practice that really matters. I know many people who have come to translation via other routes. These days, however, more and more agencies are asking for higher qualifications and experience with CAT tools. And I’m showing my age by saying that when I did the MA, we discussed the CAT tools that were being introduced to the market, but they were still not a requirement to get work! I am also showing my age when I tell you that it was here that I learned to use a word processor; it was age of WordPerfect for DOS and daisywheel printers, but gave me an invaluable tool to start my career. My guess is that anyone thinking of being a translator today will know how to use a computer, so won’t need to do an MA for that!

The MA was geared towards commercial and technical translation, but the head of department knew that I wanted eventually to translate literature and encouraged me to pursue this. She was the one who put me in touch with NORLA, an organization that promotes Norwegian literature abroad and provides translation subsidies, as well as invaluable support for translators at all stages of the profession. And I am forever indebted to her for that. That meeting with NORLA was the greatest springboard to my development as a literary translator – the second being the BCLT summer school and what is now the National Centre for Writing.

I think that in terms of literary translation, these organizations and opportunities are of more importance than the MA, to be honest, as they have provide contact network of colleagues and publishers that support my life as a translator.

2. You worked for four years as staff translator at a Norwegian bank. How was this experience? What did you learn that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

The job at the central bank of Norway was my first job after doing the MA in Translation, and they definitely employed me because I had an MA. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work inhouse at the outset – I felt like a newly hatched chick, and was able to develop in a stable and secure environment, certainly in terms of finances and confidence. I worked as part of a team of three; the two other translators had been working there for many years and basically mentored me. One of the first things they suggested I do was learn to touch type, as it would increase my productivity. I had no background in economics, so obviously, I learned an enormous amount about economics in general, but also the national economy of Norway, as it was the central bank. But I also learned that I wasn’t necessarily suited to an office job. When I then set up as a freelancer, my experience from the central bank gave a kind of stamp of quality that helped to build my portfolio of clients.

This, in turn, provided me with a relatively good financial base from which to take the plunge into literary translation, through my contact with NORLA.

3. You have an impressively long list of translation works. Which of them did you like translating the most and why? And which of them was the most challenging and why?

Ohohoh, that is so hard to answer. Each book has its merits and challenges. But I do particularly like translating short stories, and at the moment am thoroughly enjoying working with Gunnhild Øyehaug. I first translated one of her short stories (Two by Two) in 2005, and have championed her ever since. Her first collection of short stories and first novel were then picked up by Farrar Strauss & Giroux in 2016, so I’ve been able to indulge in my love of her writing, and in the past few months I have translated a further five-six pieces by her. She is at once realistic and wildly fantastic, with a lot of humour, and she works on several levels, as she likes to use a meta-device or two. Her style involves a lot of comma splices, run-on sentences, and innovative use of compound nouns, etc., so there are plenty of challenges when rendering it in English. Interestingly, I seem to get away more with the US editors than I would with UK editors (having said that, I have never worked with a UK editor on Gunnhild’s work). We also have a very good working relationship – Gunnhild is one of the authors I have had most contact with. An obvious advantage of short stories is that they are fast to read, so we can have a couple of edits together and discuss them fully, whereas with longer works (some of the books I have done have been 600 pages plus) that is a lot harder, unless both author and translator take the time to sit together for a week or two!

The other book that I would like to mention is Beyond the Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjørnsen (aka Elling). This was a co-translation with Don Bartlett, and was my first published translation. I love working collaboratively. It has its challenges, especially in terms of ego, when the word you are so pleased with, is dropped – but I was constantly learning and honing my skills, and I do believe it makes for a better product (and possibly a better person too, as you’re having to work with and accommodate other people’s ideas and language). It was a great experience, as we played to each other strengths, and I would definitely like to do more co-translations.

4. In the 2017 edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you were part of a panel for Daniel Hahn: The Power of Translation. I’m not asking you to tell us about it because if you are like me, chances are you don’t remember it at all. So my question is: What is the power of translation, in your opinion?

Well, the way things stand today, certainly here in the UK, I think the power of translation is abundantly clear. I have spent much time over the past months and years thinking about what I can do personally to fight against the tide of xenophobia that has been unleashed since the Brexit referendum, and the answer is always translate, translate, translate. Miguel Unamuno famously said: Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by travelling. And translated literature allows us to do both, even from our armchair – it expands our understanding of other cultures and places, helps us to see our own situation in a new light, makes us curious, and broadens our capacity to embrace the unknown. Just a couple of days ago, I did a very Edinburgh Fringe thing for the first time in years: I took a punt on the one show that wasn’t sold out in the venue I was called Before the Revolution by the Temple Independent Theatre Company from Egypt and was in Arabic with surtitles. The two actors, dressed in white, stood facing us without moving, on a bed of nails for the entire forty minutes or so. At first I expected something more to happen, to be entertained more in some way, and then I thought “these people must really want to tell me their story” and I listened more carefully and learned so much. I left with a grain of understanding of what people in Egypt had been through, which I would never have had, had they hadn’t bothered to have their play translated and come to the Edinburgh Fringe.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things to be said about the power of translation, but for me, at the moment, this is the most important.

5. In ten years of experience giving seminars and talks, you have talked about different topics, such as translating (crime) fiction, translating cultural peculiarities, translation theory and practice, the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor, etc. What do you like talking about the most and why?

I always feel terrified when I’m asked to do something like this, but have learned to say yes, no matter. I tend to think of myself as quite an organic translator; I grew up bilingually, more or less, and even though I’ve studied translation theory and the like, I rarely think in any detail about what I’m doing or my strategy while I’m working. So being forced to sit down and think more clearly about the translation process from whichever angle is a good thing. I think it’s not so much what I’m talking about, but rather who I’m talking with that makes it fun. And I never tire of talking with other translators (I think generally, translators never tire of talking translation) – there are very few others who find the minutiae of what we do interesting for more than a short while, so it’s always a treat to be allowed to indulge. The last panel that I chaired on the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor was a great one as the topic is a rich vein to plow: the direct relationship between translator and editor, the translator as copy editor/proofer, the translator as editor of an anthology, for example. Everyone on the panels works with and wears both hats, so it was a very insightful, engaging and lively discussion.

6. What book translated from Norwegian into English do you highly recommend us?

Again, such a hard question to answer, I could recommend so many, for so many different reasons. But given what I said above about the power of translation, and given the swing to the right in so many countries today, I’m going to say The Seed by Tarjei Vesaas, published in English by Peter Owen in 1966. And since the terrorist attack in Norway by a far right extremist in 2011, I have been bending people’s ear about this book, and trying to get the publisher to retranslate it. I think perhaps I just need to do it, if nothing else to ease my own itch. Vesaas wrote the book in 1939-40. It is a highly symbolic story about how violence comes to an idyllic island with the arrival of a disturbed young man who had experienced a fatal explosion in the factory where he worked. It is about mob mentality, violence, blame, guilt and atonement, and the message could not be clearer: violence must not be tolerated.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

There are so many great women in translation I would love to nominate, though you have interviewed a number of them already. I am going to nominate Marilyn Booth, who translates from Arabic, and her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Beings recently won the Booker International. I know her as a former colleague from Edinburgh University, a neighbour, a fellow translator, and most essentially of all, good company!

Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Hughes

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

It’s August, Women in Translation (WiT) month! Let’s start celebrating it in great style by welcoming our next interviewee, Sophie Hughes, nominated by Juana Adcock. And stay tuned, because this month’s monthly post will also be WiT-related.

Welcome, Sophie!

Sophie Hughes

Created with Canva

1. Back in 2017 you contributed to a Literary Hub series calling for more women authors to be translated, suggesting books in Spanish by Latin American women writers that you would love to see in English. Since it has already been two years, has any of them been translated meanwhile since then? Would you add any other to the list now?

To my knowledge, these are the three that are either forthcoming or now published, which in itself isn’t a bad number, but it’s also possible that there are more in the pipeline (perhaps a translator beavering away somewhere to make it happen by producing an irresistible sample).

Humiliation by Paulina Flores (forthcoming Catapult; Oneworld Publications, tr. Megan McDowell)

Nona Fernanda’s Space Invaders (forthcoming Graywolf, tr. Natasha Wimmer) and hopefully The Twilight Zone will follow now that she has “broken into English”, a horrible phrase.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (And Other Stories; Coffee House Press, tr. Sophie Hughes) and for which I’m proud and even more delighted to say we were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019.

I think that if I don’t keep adding to these lists in my head, I’m not doing my job properly, because we have to keep reading to be able to find out about new writers and to promote them and pitch them to keep feeding into the system. I see my brief as a literary translator as very wide (this is part of its appeal!). I understand myself as being part of the publishing biosphere where each organism works in delicate balance with those around them. So as a translator I support authors by reading them; I support agents by producing paid samples or simply writing to say how much you liked x book before they go off pitching it; I might support a literary scout by reading for them and doing paid reports; literary journals by writing articles for them; publishers by translating and promoting for them; real booksellers by buying from them, etc.. I suppose there’s also a fear of falling behind in my reading. I live in the UK now, and only visit Latin America once a year if I’m lucky. I’d feel a real fraud if I didn’t try my hardest to keep up to date with what is being read and published and how it is being received there.

WiT month is nearly upon us, so perhaps there will be a repeat or an update of the series. I’ll look into it! 

2. This 2016 article you wrote on the then Man Book International Prize winner is really touching! Could you elaborate a bit more on what exactly you mean when you say “perhaps authors never have quite such an attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”?

That is a great question, and I’m very happy to return to my comment and think about it again, three years on. They are two very different kinds of attachments. Since writing that article, which talks about the translator as a kind of surrogate parent to the text, I’ve actually had a child myself. And I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I feel the same way; I think the metaphor still stands. It’s about responsibility, different levels and senses of responsibility. As a parent (as the author of the text), after the initial feeling of “Shit, I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this newborn thing that needs me for everything” (the outset of writing a book), these children (or brainchildren) start to look after themselves a bit more: you grow into your child or text and relax into rearing or writing them because you know them so, so intimately; they are a part of you because they were born of you and bred in your home. By the end, you know them better than anyone.

Enter stage the literary translator! I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations. The anxiety produced from working on a brilliant piece of writing and knowing that it has to be brilliant in English is sometimes overwhelming. Speaking, as that article did, of tears, I cried many times translating my latest novel, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, and not only because the novel is heartrending. To someone who does not translate, it is hard to express how deeply you have to tap into both the author’s and their characters’ minds, into the world described, into the fabric of both the source and target language, and how exquisite but also acutely discombobulating and visceral and draining that can sometimes be. Read this piece in Words without Borders by Julia Sanches on translating the Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’s O sol na cabeça (The Sun On My Head) and then read her translations of the stories. That is extreme attachment. That, in my opinion, is assuming her translator’s responsibility wholeheartedly (heart being the operative morpheme). And it’s why she’s one of the best.

As a final note, I’d add that if I could amend that article, I might now clarify: “perhaps authors never have quite the same attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”. After all, it’s not a competition! 

3. In this article, you say “In my personal utopia, our English evolves thanks to translation.” Do you still think so? If so, could you elaborate more on this idea?

Oh, absolutely! I think it at a most basic logical level in that if literature helps language evolve, and translated literature falls under ‘literature’, then English evolves thanks to translation. To give a practical example, I like the idea that translators carry across source language punctuation traits. The punctuation system in English as we know it (including words like comma and semi-colons) was still only coming into existence at the end of the 16th century. It isn’t really very old at all. We tend to think that it has sort of settled down, and publishers and editors and writers adhere to norms without really thinking (for practical reasons), but translators have to think about it differently, creatively. I like the idea that translation can create unruly (and often very sensible and correct-feeling) instances of punctuation. It frees up English in this sense. We marvel when, every now and then, ‘revolutionary’ or even ‘genius’ English-language writers do the same thing (the first contemporary writer that comes to mind is Eimear McBride). I marvel every time I notice a translator has stuck closely to the source language punctuation at the expense of English ‘correctness’. Not revolutionary maybe, but certainly evolutionary!

4. You are a member of various associations, West Midlands Literary Translators Network, Society of Authors’ Translators Association, and Emerging Translators’ Network. In your opinion, as a (literary) translator, what are the advantages of becoming a member of professional associations?

The benefits of being a member of each of these associations differ depending on what they offer, of course, but essentially it all boils down to company, solidarity and support in a profession that is filled with lovely people, but is also something of a minefield (from complex clauses in contracts to the dubious ethics or even sometimes safety threat of translating a certain text). I highly recommend translators join local and national professional associations where they can.

5. Are you working on any translation now? If so, tell us a bit more about it. If not, tell us about your last translation. Or talk about both, if you like. 

I’m working on a sample of Rodrigo Hasbún’s next novel, which is wonderful. Very different to his first novel to be translated into English (by me in 2017), Affections. I’ve missed translating his careful, quiet prose. I’ve just delivered two novel translations: a co-translation for Charco Press with Juana Adcock of the marvelous Colombian writer Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (a more poignant portrait of a father-son relationship would be hard to come by), and a translation of Mexican author Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for New Directions and Fitzcarraldo Press (one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read). Next up: a new writer to me (and to English readers), another Mexican, Brenda Navarro, for Daunt Books. It’s a book about motherhood and disappearances of various kinds.

6. What translated book into English by a woman writer and/or woman translator do you recommend us?

That’s impossible because I don’t know you! To anyone reading this who has just had their heart broken (or ever, I suppose –it always smarts), read ‘Poem of the End’ by Marina Tsvetaeva in Elaine Feinstein’s translation. Read it and weep. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Translator from the Norwegian, Kari Dickson, who I was lucky enough to get to know on a blissful residency in Cove Park in Scotland. To meet her is to be reminded that literary translation is never a solitary act if you embrace the profession and the brilliant, life-hungry people in it.

 

Sophie, thanks a lot for such an interesting interview filled with great tips of books to read and how to support writers, translators, publishers, etc. It was a pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you a bit better. Congratulations on the amazing job you do!

Greatest Women in Translation: Juana Adcock

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Juana Adcock, poet and translator working in English and Spanish, nominated by Robin Myers.

Juana Adcock

Created with Canva

1. Juana is your pen name. Your real name is Jennifer. Why did you decide to change it?

I changed my name to Jane when I was 13, which is also the year I started writing poetry. I loved the freedom of being able to build my own voice and identity as a writer, rather than being constrained by other people’s very narrow definitions of normality. I grew up in a very conservative, religious and misogynistic environment in northern Mexico, and literature and writing was the only space where I could be truly free. My earliest feminist publications online brought with them some frightening episodes of online harassment (I’m not sure we even had a term for it back then) and I not only felt it was much safer to publish under a fake name, I also assumed it was the done thing, particularly for women writers. In my early twenties I also started playing in bands, which led to a whole subset of monickers – some people still call me Jennivora, the name I used for a solo music project which never quite took off. I used to be really worried about being seen as a Jack of all trades and one way to try and be taken seriously was to keep all my identities separate: as a writer, a musician and a translator. I also wanted to protect my professional reputation and make sure I would still be able to write and publish whatever I wanted and still be able to get a job. Would prospective employers want to hire someone who had published feminist erotic stories or overtly political poems? Or who played in loud punk bands? My fear that they wouldn’t was well-founded. In those days in Mexico many employers refused to hire people with tattoos, for example, and I once filled out a job application which asked me at the very start what religion I was, whether I was married, and how many times I’d been pregnant. (And still now it’s common practice in Mexico for women to have to take pregnancy tests before they get hired, which must be just the tip of the iceberg for other illegal, discriminatory practices.) At the time I never thought I could make a living as a freelance literary translator, or that my writing or music might one day actually help rather than hinder my professional career. The name Juana came as a derivation of Jane while I was still in Mexico but was pretty handy for marketing purposes when I first moved to the UK and I began to offer Spanish tuition as a way to earn some cash while I was doing my masters in creative writing. This led to some confusion as some people thought that Juana was my real name and I was changing it to Jennifer to make myself seem more English, like I was that eager to integrate. In fact it was the opposite: a complete refusal to integrate. Increasingly, I felt that living as Jennifer would erase all of my Mexicanness, and the cost felt too high. It’s only until very recently that I understood any of this, or how ingrained these false beliefs were, and how, perhaps, I never really needed to change my name in the first place. Some might say I just needed to be braver. But I like that these different names hark back to different stages in my development, and I am comfortable with the idea that figuring out how to integrate all the different aspects or myself is a never-ending process. All of this makes me think of a line by Rilke that says (depending on whose translation you look at) something along the lines of: “and we leave behind even our names, the way a child abandons a broken toy”.

2. You were brought up bilingual (to an English father and a Mexican mother, having spent the first part of your childhood in England and the rest, till the age 25, in Mexico). To which extent do you think this has influenced you into being a translator? Has it helped somehow?

Absolutely. My entire life experience has been marked by an obsession with language and the written world, and very real, embodied experiences of linguistic and cultural translation. My dad is a translator too, and runs a commercial translation agency. He gave me my first job after I graduated from university, and growing up, the conversations at the dinner table more often than not revolved around translation problems. My whole life has been like one never-ending Translation Summer School (for those who have attended such things, you’ll know that’s pretty intense!). I don’t know if any of this has helped me as a person, as it has made me a bit too aware of language, in a way that can be pretty dysfunctional when it comes to off-the-page interpersonal communication (as most of my friends and family will attest!). But it definitely gave me a career path which I love dearly and am deeply grateful for. And the longer I work in this profession, the more I realise that being bilingual will never automatically equip you with the ability to translate. So many more skills and tools are needed than that, and the learning process is infinite. Each new translation project teaches me a lot, and that’s precisely the fun of it.

3. Having been based in Glasgow since 2007, you say you have a fascination with the Scots language(s). It’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve just arrived from a vacation in Europe, when I visited Edinburgh for the first time and was genuinely impressed and fascinated by their English, so I would love to hear what you have to say about it. Can you give us examples of what fascinates you most in the Scots language(s)?

I love the immense variation in accents – a phenomenon that you get throughout the UK but which seems even more marked in Scotland, where words seem closer to their roots and down in the ground instead of coming out of your mouth like rings of smoke and floating above your head the way they do in things like RP. Leaving Gaelic aside (which is a whole other thing I haven’t explored very much yet) in Scotland you have the Doric of the northeast coast, the Dundonian, the sing-songy accent of Fife, and even within Glasgow you get a huge array of different accents: Southside versus the east end Dennistoun versus East Kilbride. Many of these variations intersect with the old trade routes and family histories of migration, as well as social class. Then you have the historic Scots – what Robert Burns wrote in – and modern literary Scots, which may or may not be a mashup of Scots from different regions. The vocabulary comes from Germanic, Old French and Dutch, but the grammar is also different, as is the pace, intonation and pronunciation. Literary Scots also often has to reinvent its own spelling each time it is written, as a way to represent on the page the way people speak. I adore not always being fully able to understand what people are saying and instead just bathing in the music people make with their mouths; just giving in and letting it wash over me like it’s pure poetry. My earliest encounters with Scottish accents were through the film Trainspotting and Mogwai’s first album, Young Team, where one of the songs includes a telephone conversation which I couldn’t understand a word of, despite being a native speaker of what was purportedly the same language. Here’s a few lines of my favourite poem by Alexander Hutchison, who wrote in Doric as well as English (you can read the whole poem here):

                                                                   Deid-loss or Daidalos

                                                                   fit’s it gaan tae be?

 

Pooshin pumpers, coonter-jumpers, cairpet fitters birslin wi a moo-fae

o tacks; tomcats; corncrakes; shilly-shally sharn shifters; couthy bicuspids;

aa the wee glisterin anes; aa them that wid grudge ye one jow o the bell.

 

The neist yett swung, syne mair wis kythit: tethered tups,

draigelt yowes; the slalom loons fae Dandruff Canyon; wheepers

o candy-floss; footerin futtrets; the hee-haw-hookum o hystet hizzies;

foosty fowk lik Finnan haddies; Buckie blaavers wi the full wecht o blaw.

 

As you can imagine, carrying all this into Spanish was no easy feat. My approach was to use a combination of modern northeastern Mexican slang and archaic words and to be as musical as possible to try and replicate what the poem is doing. I don’t know how successful I was, but I definitely want to work with Scots.

I recently wrote a long love poem to the Scots language. As is my habit, the poem moves between different languages, in this case English, Scots, Spanish and Italian. Whilst performing it I become hyper aware of where the words sit in my body: I was already well familiar with the way Spanish booms in my chest while English thins out above my head, but I was amazed by how the Scots goes back down to my chest. I probably need to write a whole other poem about that, too.

4. You have worked in a couple of co-translations (An Orphan World, by Giuseppe Caputo, with Sophie Hughes; Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener, with Lucy Greaves). How is the experience of co-translating different from translating a book entirely by yourself?

It’s basically a lot less lonely, and a lot more fun. It’s being able to engage in a three way collaboration: not just with the author who may or may not want to be very involved in the process personally, but with someone who understands the mechanisms of both languages and every single one of the minute problems you are trying to resolve. You get to make a lot of insider jokes that only you and your co-translator will ever understand. And, personally, I grow to love the work a lot more through the love that emerges in the collaborative process. Even though I’m a writer, I sometimes don’t work particularly well in isolation. I can get bogged down in the details, or stuck for days trying to come up with a solution to something that my co-translator doesn’t even see as a problem: to them the answer is obvious. Then of course comes a whole other conversation, and I think the translation becomes richer because of it. Each translation is a different reading, and a co-translation is merging two different readings into one. It is a wonderful luxury and a very rare one in the world of books: as readers, during the act of reading, we are always alone with the text. We may be able to talk about our reading experience with a fellow reader after the fact, but we really get to do with another person the kind of close reading that translation is. If I could, I would only ever do co-translation for the rest of my days.

5. Besides being a translator, you are a poet and musician, playing in two all-female bands (including writing some of the songs in one of them). Talk about talent in arts! Do they combine somehow and add to each other or help in one another?

Music helps me immensely. It both grounds me and lifts my spirits, and when I’ve been playing music my writing and translating feel freer, more relaxed and spontaneous. The voice I’m looking for takes less time to appear: I can hear it more clearly in my head, and all I have to do is transcribe. I did try and quit music for good at some point: it was the worst mistake of my life. I’ve never been so depressed or creatively blocked. I’ve now promised myself to always play music, even if just to myself in my bedroom, because it makes me a better writer and a better translator.

6. Last November, you presented at the Glasgow Feminist Arts Festival at an event called So It Is Better To Speak, which explored “the fluidity and complexity of women-identifying and non-binary identities through sound, voice and the body,” and emphasized “the importance of shared knowledges and experiences that emerge when we speak up and out.” Sounds really interesting! Could you tell us a bit more about how it was and what exactly you did?

That was one of the best events I’ve ever had the honour to take part in. The festival was organised and curated by the brilliant film critic and scholar Becca Harrison, and the event included a balancing act from composer Amble Skuse, Scottish folk song with a feminist twist from Burd Ellen, contemporary flute from Diljeet Bhachu; storytelling from Mara Menzies; and a queer sermon by performance maker Nelly Kelly. The performances were followed by a roundtable discussion hosted by Dee Heddon of the University of Glasgow. It’s not often that you get to see music, performance, poetry and storytelling in a single event which also has an intersectional feminist focus. It was a true luxury to see everyone’s work alongside each other and then have the time to talk about our creative processes and how feminism informs our practice, exploring questions we don’t often get to ask ourselves and each other. It surprised me that we all seemed to be working with the archive in one way or anthoer, drawing from it but also resisiting it in different ways, re-inventing or fictionalising it as a way to subvert the heteropatriarchal discourse. And I learned a lot from hearing all of these insanely talented artists talk about their work, as they helped me understand my own practice from a different angle, and even gave me new ideas for how to tackle work in progress that I’d been struggling with. The event was packed out at the CCA in Glasgow, with the only man in the audience being Becca’s boyfriend! But that was somehow even better. I cannot wait for the festival’s next edition, and if I didn’t live in Glasgow I would travel just to come to it. It is as unique and richly informative as it is urgent in our current times. Definitely keep your eyes peeled for it and come to it if you can.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate my beloved co-translator, Sophie Hughes.

Greatest Women in Translation: Robin Myers

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Robin Myers, US-born, Mexico City-based literary translator and poet, nominated by Charlotte Whittle.

Robin Myers

Created with Canva

1. Could you start by telling us about your beginning in translation?

I first became fascinated with translation in my late teens. At the time, it felt like the natural amalgam of several other interests: poetry, the Spanish language, and Mexico. I was born and raised in the US, but part of my father’s family came from Mexico; I visited a couple times as a child and always wanted to spend more time here. So I studied Spanish as the means to this very specific end. I lived in the city of Oaxaca for a few months after high school, then again halfway through college. It was during those early experiences of real immersion—in the language, in a place I loved, in my first Spanish-speaking friendships, in my first forays into reading contemporary Mexican literature—that I started experimenting with translation. There was something very simple and earnest about those initial explorations: I just wanted to share what I was reading (whether in English or Spanish) with people I cared about. As innocent as this may sound to me now—or at least as far removed as it can feel from certain parts of the day-to-day grind—I still believe that the desire to translate springs from the desire to connect, period. Of course we want that! Of course we want to bring disparate words, disparate worlds together.

In any case, it wasn’t too long before my translatorly hopes and expectations came into contact with more technical realities. In college, I spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires and took a workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, a remarkable Argentine poet and translator. Ezequiel’s approach emphasized the metrical building blocks of the Spanish-language poetic tradition, and at first I railed against this focus on syllable-counting and form. But I came around, and I started to genuinely enjoy the search for poetic “solutions” within a set of formal parameters. Ezequiel’s mentorship was very important to me as I started translating in a more professional way, and we’ve both gone on to translate each other’s work over the years, which has been a great gift.

2. Besides being a translator you are also a poet. Does being a poet help as translator and vice-versa? If so, how?

It absolutely helps. Both poetry and translation (and by this I mean the translation of anything, not just poetry) are practices rooted in the materiality of language. If you write poetry or translate anything, you are in the business of dealing with words as stuff, as resources, as concrete elements you shape and combine to form certain structures and spark particular effects in the reader. Of course, in translation, you’re using language in response to—in relation to—language that already exists in the world. You’re writing (because translating is also writing) in the service of and in complicity with that language. In this sense, too, translation demands both that you saturate yourself with the original text and that you distance yourself from it. That doubleness has helped me write my own poetry, I think, at least in the sense that it’s made the experience of writing poetry much more interesting. For one thing, it’s made me more conscious of the artifice of whatever I’m doing (and I mean “artifice” not as an insult but as a fact). For the same reason, it’s also made me feel freer to experiment: to think with more curiosity and more gratitude about language as “tools” and how I might try them out. I do feel that writing poetry affects my translations as well, or my approach to translating. For example, I care a great deal about sound when I write poetry, about what happens to words when we string them together and speak them aloud, and I feel a similar need to “hear” what language does in translating both poetry and prose. That said, I don’t mean to talk about this obsession with sound as if it were strictly the domain of poetry, much less of poets, because that’s not the case at all! I’m just musing about what it feels like for me in going about things as I go about them.

3. Could you please kindly share one of your (short) poems with us?

Here’s an untitled poem (they’re all untitled) from a collection called Having, which was translated into Spanish by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg and published as Tener in Argentina, Mexico, and (soon) Spain:

You can have it.

You can have the mad dash
and the mist,
the burned tongue
and honey-slick,
the cup
intact.

The night rage, the gray dawn
forgiving you.

The train,
the track.

The soft hairs
at the nape of the neck,
the thrilled plunge
and the cast.

You can have the rest of it.

You can rest.

It will drive you mad.

You will scald your way through
the days, trying
to have all of it,

having it.

4. In this interview you gave for the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said “translation is a weird, lovely, mysterious, largely invisible relationship, both for the translator and for the translated.” Why is that?

I mean, it’s so intimate! Even if the author and translator never meet, even if the author can’t read the language she’s been translated into, even if the author’s been dead for hundreds of years. No matter what, the translator gets to—has to—inhabit the text, figure out what makes it run, spend an unholy amount of time studying how the author thinks and what she cares about.

The translator invariably has to make tradeoffs, has to figure out what can or should or under no circumstances ought to be sacrificed. It feels like a serious responsibility!

The translator is entrusted with something. With any luck, if she and the author exist on the same mortal plane and can talk to each other and choose to do so, they’ll both view the translation process as something that links them together. And they’ll both register this as an honor: the translator, honored at the invitation to engage with the text, attend to it, and deliver it somewhere new; the translated, honored to have her work—which she, too, once produced in a solitary act of faith—engaged with, attended to, and delivered in this way. But even if the translator and the author walk the earth at different moments in history, or are never in personal contact, or don’t even personally like each other very much, this relationship still exists. The devotion, the attention, the responsibility, the anxiety, the fact that the translator ultimately creates a second work of art that is both inseparable from and necessarily independent of the first: it’s all there, all the time. I find it so strange! Thrillingly strange, though.

5. Your poems are translated into other languages, including Portuguese, right? How is it like being in both sides, as translator and translated author?

It’s been very joyful and moving. Yes, poems of mine have been translated mostly into Spanish, with shorter selections into Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese. Many of these translations have emerged from long-term dialogues and friendships; several of the translators are themselves poets I’ve translated from Spanish into English. So it’s hard to be objective about it; it’s all felt like a series of long, warm conversations, marked by a sense both of deep connection and of distance. Distance in the sense that I always hope a translator will feel that the poems also belong to her, you know? In all her particularities, all her personal styles and tastes and approaches.

If I write a poem and someone else translates it—or the other way around—it’s ours.

Part of what I still find uniquely powerful about the experience of being translated into Spanish, though, is that my books have only been published in Spanish translation. Not in English, and not in my own country of origin. And since I’m based in Mexico, when I take part in poetry readings, for example, I mostly read in Spanish. Which means I’m directly and constantly identifying myself with someone else’s work as my primary form of participation. Which means I’m inhabiting and sharing theirs as much as my own.

6. Are you currently translating any books? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?

I currently have three prose projects in the works: by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Chile), there’s Cars on Fire, a wild, free-wheeling, darkly funny collection of short stories set between Chile and New York, forthcoming from Open Letter Books in 2020; Animals at the End of the World, a novel by Gloria Susana Esquivel (Colombia) about a young girl growing up in her grandparents’ house in Bogotá, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in 2020; and The Restless Dead, a book of critical essays by Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico) about disappropriation, “necropolitics,” and contemporary literature. I’m also working on various poetry projects in hopes of eventually finding homes for them in English. These include work by Javier Peñalosa, Maricela Guerrero, and Isabel Zapata (three Mexican poets whose recent books take beautifully and radically different approaches to the natural world and its relationship with contemporary humans); Daniel Lipara, Claudia Masin, and Alejandro Crotto (all from Argentina); and Adalber Salas Hernández (from Venezuela).

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Juana Adcock, a Mexican-born, Scotland-based poet and translator. Juana translates between Spanish and English in both directions (a superpower that never ceases to amaze me!). Into English, she is the translator of Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (with Lucy Greaves) and An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (with Sophie Hughes). I met Juana in person only recently, although we’d been in touch for months before that, because I had the privilege of translating her poetry collection Manca into English. By the end of the process—which involved great openness, engagement, and creativity on her part—I really felt that Juana and I had become co-translators. I feel lucky to know her and learn from her in both languages!

Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Whittle

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dearest readers!

This month, our Great Woman in Translation is the British-American literary translator Charlotte Whittle, nominated by Julia Sanches.

Charlotte Whittle

Created with Canva

1. I always love to learn about translators’ beginnings in translation. How about starting by telling us yours?

My path into translation wasn’t exactly a linear one. I grew up in a monolingual family, learned Spanish in Mexico when I was 18, studied Spanish and literature in college in the UK, and lived in Peru and Chile. The first translations I remember doing were of César Vallejo, when I was still an undergraduate. I was living in Peru and became obsessed with his work. Translating poems seemed to me like the best way to engage with them, to get inside them and see how they worked, and there was something really thrilling about making them breathe in another language. A couple of years later, I did a diploma in translation studies in Santiago de Chile, but this was an experience that closed doors as well as opening them. My final project was a translation of a story by the great Peruvian writer José María Arguedas. I was so happy thinking about and doing translation, but I remember the instructor saying in very clear terms that it was impossible to make a living from literary translation. Being young and inexperienced, I took his word for it, and I didn’t pursue translation seriously for a long time after that. I took the academic route, and translated poems for fun. I discovered that I loved teaching, but after a few years, I found it didn’t leave me enough time for creative projects. I finally realized that translation was the activity that brought my skills, experience, and interests together under one umbrella, and that was when I decided to make it my focus, despite the dire warnings of penury.

2. Could you tell us why your translation of Norah Lange’s People in the Room can be considered important for the gender imbalance in literature?

The data collected on this subject – for instance, by the Three Percent Translation Database, now housed by Publishers Weekly – tells us that of all the books translated into English, as many as three fourths are by men. Why is this? Partly because of the implicit bias that male writers are somehow more “important,” partly because of the lack of gender parity in publishing in other countries as well as our own, and partly because, while women translators translate both men and women nearly to equal degrees, male translators seem to be more disposed towards translating men.

 People in the Room was published in English 68 years after it first appeared in Spanish; during that lapse, Lange received significantly less critical attention in her home country than her male peers (who were also more often translated), despite the importance of her writing. It’s so easy for women writers who weren’t sufficiently lauded in their time to pass under the radar, and translators can play a role in rectifying this. Obviously, I’m not claiming to be able to shift the canon with a single translation, but the fact that I was able to find a publisher for this novel and that Lange’s work has been well received in English, demonstrates that there has been a small change in the tide, at least in the world of literary fiction in translation. I think there is more interest than there’s been in the past in projects that draw attention to women writers who’ve been overlooked. Recent books such as The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris and Matt Gleeson, and The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated by Kit Maude, are further evidence that there is now an audience for this kind of work. All these projects are significant because they go some way towards rebalancing the gender inequality in translation. Of course, there’s a lot more to be done and there are multiple forces at play, but things are slowly evolving in a positive direction.

3. You are currently working on the translation of Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations. Do you feel there are any particularities between translating men x women?

Norah Lange and Jorge Comensal could hardly be more different: People in the Room is somber and full of mystery, while The Mutations is satirical and hilarious, but I would trace differences between authors to geographic region, time period, and individual authors’ concerns and idiosyncrasies before making sweeping statements about gender differences. In the cases of both these books, their style captivated me, I felt a deep, personal draw to their subject matter, and an urgent need to share them with English-language readers. In terms of the practicalities of the two translations, perhaps the biggest difference was that one author was dead and the other alive. Sometimes, when translating Lange, I wished I could hold a séance, or a table-tapping session like the one described in her book, just to be able to ask her if she thought I was on the right track. In contrast, I talk to Jorge often, and think our conversations have enriched the translation process. But to go back to the question of gender, the concerns and idiosyncrasies that make writers unique may result from their experience, and gender can certainly be a factor in that. A woman writing in the mid-C20th is working under a different set of constraints than a man writing in the present. As a translator, I think about gender less in terms of the characteristics of the writing, and more in relation to the conditions that determine how writing by men and women is read and received, and the conditions that allow them to write in the first place.

4. Could you also talk a bit about your translation of Agus Morales’ We are not Refugees?

Morales is a Spanish journalist who has spent most of a decade gathering the stories of members of displaced populations in different parts of the world. We Are Not Refugees is the result of his intensive exploration of the factors that cause mass migration, and the real-life experiences of those who are forced to flee. The book describes the situation of multiple displaced communities: Central Americans fleeing northwards from violence, Afghan and Syrian refugees in Turkey, internal displacement in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Few writers have such breadth of experience when it comes to mass migration, and Morales identifies the specifics of a range of cases, while also finding commonalities between them. He writes movingly of his subjects, while letting those he encounters tell their own stories, so readers can get to know some of the faces behind the headlines to which we are often numb. I came away from this project with so much admiration for writers and journalists who have the emotional stamina to tell these stories in a clear-eyed manner.

5. What have you learned so far about being a (literary) translator that you could pass on to newbies?

I’m still learning! But here are a few things that come to mind: I’ve learned that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to pay your bills as a translator; that there are many different ways a book can happen; that there’s no limit to how much a translation can change during the first few drafts; and that the editor is not the enemy.

But the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that as translators, we have to create our own community.

Translating books requires hour after hour of solitary work, week after week, month after month. Without an office to go to or a cohort of colleagues you see every day, it can get lonely. That’s why I’m so incredibly grateful for my translation colleagues, both in New York and further afield. I have regular workshops with translator friends where we discuss everything from tricky sentences to how to collectively improve working conditions for translators. It’s important to see your colleagues as allies rather than competitors, and the brilliant and fascinating people I’ve met through this work are one of the things I most treasure about it.

6. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Robin Myers, a translator from Spanish based in Mexico City. Robin is a tireless translator of poetry and prose, and an extraordinary poet in her own right. I recently devoured her translation of Empty Pool, a collection of gorgeous, luminous essays by Isabel Zapata. I also had the pleasure of editing her translation of Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s Lyric Poetry Is Dead for Cardboard House Press, where we publish bilingual editions of Latin American Poetry. Robin’s handling of rhythm and meter in that collection is a masterclass – I’ll leave it to her to tell you more about it!

Robin’s interview will be published on June 3, as I’ll be on vacation from April 20 to May 19.

Greatest Women in Translation: Julia Sanches

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dearest followers! After a long hiatus of setbacks, we’re finally back!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Julia Sanches, Brazilian-born literary translator from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan into English.

Julia Sanches

Image created with Canva

1. You’re Brazilian-born (São Paulo), but work into English (from Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and French). How is that so, considering we usually translate into our mother tongue?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, lately; not about how it is I translate into English – it’s obvious to me – but about the idea of mother tongues. This rethinking was in part prompted by Esther Kim and Frances McNeill’s essays in the latest issue of In Other Words. In “We May Have All Come on Different Ships, But We’re in the Same Boat Now: Why We Should Not Label Translators as ‘L2’ or ‘Non-Native,’” McNeill interrogates the validity of the L1/L2 designations (L1 being “the language you think in, you feel in, you know best, whereas L2 is the language you aspire to speak fluently”), while in “Inheritance from Mother,” Kim points to the troubling lack of heritage speakers in the professional world of literary translation, and offers ways to address this.

In her essay, McNeill offers three examples that belie the L1/L2 dichotomy and interrogates whether or not one should consider the person in question an L2 speaker. Here’s my example: A person born in Brazil to Brazilian parents moves to the United States with her parents when she is three-months old. She is dropped into English-only education and quickly comes to speak English fluently. She speaks Portuguese at home and with her extended family in Brazil; they call her gringa. Eight years later, she moves with her parents to Mexico City and enters a bilingual school, where classes are imparted both in Spanish and English. She becomes fluent in Spanish – they call her güera – retains her English and continues to speak Portuguese at home. Five years later, she moves back to the United States with her family, where she attends a monolingual (English) public school. One year later, she moves with her family to Switzerland, where she attends an international school (read: where students’ common language is English). She later completes her higher education in Scotland (English) and Spain (Spanish). What is this person’s (you got it, it’s me) L1/L2?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘mother tongue’ as ‘one’s native language; a first language.’ So, in that respect, Portuguese is my mother tongue – it is the first language I picked up at home, from my mother, who always insisted that I should never lose it – although the notion of languages being native (i.e. inherent to, innate, naturally becoming, again according to the OED) to anyone baffles me a little; our capacity for language may be innate, but its execution has, in my experience, been very much learned.

What’s more: I’m a citizen of Brazil and of no other country. Although I lived in Europe for fifteen years, it was never anywhere that made citizenship an easy path for me. After about thirteen years in the United States, I can finally apply for citizenship, though I’m not sure I’ll ever feel American. I could uncomplicate my identity as a translator by obviating the fact that I’m Brazilian, but what’s the fun in that?

2. On your website, you say you are soon-to-be chair of the Translators Group of the Authors Guild. Could you tell us more about it?

We’re in the process of creating a Translators Group within the Authors Guild, following the model of the Society of Authors’ Translators Association in the UK. Generally speaking, there’s an industry standard for author contracts and terms here in the U.S. This standard wasn’t arrived at out of the kindness of publishers’ hearts, but was fought for. The idea behind creating a Translators Group is to support work to establish similar industry standards for translators. Alex Zucker and Jessica Cohen have been working with the Authors Guild on a model contract that would spell out certain contractual terms that might seem impenetrable to some translators, among other things.

Another thing we’re exploring is establishing translator communities within the Authors Guild’s regional chapters around the country, to help better share information about contracts and other working conditions. The Authors Guild is the only organization in the U.S. with in-house lawyers providing legal services to authors and translators, and they’re already huge advocates for translation and translators. The idea is to focus this effort.

3. Last year, the Brazilian publishing house Companhia das Letras invited five Brazilian literary translators to talk about their professional trajectory in their blog in celebration of the International Translation Day, and you were among them. You wrote about your experience translating The Sun on My Head, Geovani Martins’ first book. On Twitter, you said you wrote the blog post in English and then translated it into Portuguese, but didn’t like the self-translation process. Do you remember why?

I sound completely unlike myself in Portuguese. It was like giving voice to a stilted and awkward-sounding stranger who happened to also be called Julia Sanches.

4. You retweeted a quote by Javier Cercas at the Edinburgh Book Festival, “Translators are like psychoanalysts. They know you really, really, really well. I’m really scared of them.” On your post for Companhia das Letras (above), you said the relationship between translators and “their” authors is disturbing, unbalanced, partial and voyeuristic (curiosity: were these the words you originally used in your English version?). Could you elaborate more on the relationship between the author and their translator?

First off: in English, it was “lopsided, unreciprocated, and often hair-raisingly voyeuristic.” Interesting…

What can I say but that: when I translate – especially when the book in question is such an engrossing challenge as Martins’ collection, something so distant from my lived experience – I get a tad obsessive. If you were to decontextualize my behavior, it might seem stalkerish, even. I read everything I can about the book, the author, I read the book itself a gazillion times, both in English and in Portuguese (and I’d probably read them in other languages, if it were available to me). I follow the author on Twitter if I can, and Instagram (yikes). I draw connections between what they post about music (etc) and the musical (and other) references in the book. Often, I go to bed with a translation problem at the back of my mind – sometimes even at the forefront – and wake up fretting about it, too. On good days, I’ll have a solution by the time I’m at my computer.

It’s a bit like crawling into and living in another person’s skin for a long stretch of time. Or spying on a neighbor from across the street. You know near everything about them and often they don’t know the first thing about you. It’s a little bit creepy – in a totally harmless way.

5. You are one of the organizers of the And Other Stories’ Portuguese Reading Group. The 2018 group had, for the first ever, an all-Brazilian reading list (including one translated by yourself). Could you tell us a bit more about how it works? Are there any plans for another edition in the near future?

And Other Stories’ Reading Groups are a rather innovative and ingenious way for the publisher (AOS) to find overlooked gems from other languages to publish in English. The idea is to put in the hands of readers some of the sleuthing, reading, and evaluating that goes into figuring out what to publish. On my side: I email a bunch of Portuguese readers and ask if they’d like to participate; then reach out to agents and ask for materials (hard copies usually, no one really likes reading on screens); we meet, in person, if possible, but usually over Skype, to discuss our impressions, which I then memorialize and share with the publishers. Rinse and repeat. It’s quite fun. Victor Meadowcroft, who will be heading the UK group, and I are currently choosing which titles to read and discuss in the fall. You should join us!

6. You write really well! I’m truly impressed and in love with your writings. Haven’t you ever thought of venturing into being an author yourself?

Oh, gosh. Thank you! Writing fills me with a very particular and acute anxiety, so I tend to avoid it. Translating ticks that box for me, whatever that means. It’s thrilling, plus, I get to hang out in and between various languages, which is where I feel most at home.

7. I will take advantage of your inside view into Brazilian literature and ask for recommendations. What books do you personally recommend, translated or not?

I’ve recently finished reading Emilio Fraia’s Sebastopol, which I deeply enjoyed. The prose is just my style, limpid and charged. He’s also quite masterful at creating suspense, at leaving things unsaid, at giving voice and weight to silences.

8. I could keep asking you a ton of questions, but I’ll leave you for now. So now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Charlotte Whittle, an acrobatic translator from Spanish whose recent projects include Norah Lange’s People in the Room and Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations. She is also one of the editors of Cardboard House Press and periodically holds cartonera workshops. Aside from all this, Charlotte is an amazing storyteller; she’s got an eye for the most off-kilter and delightful details and remembers them, too. We keep each other sane and safe from bouts of imposter syndrome. I think of her as a co-conspirator.

Greatest Women in Translation: Heather Cleary

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our amazing Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Heather Cleary, Spanish into English literary translator nominated by Allison Markin Powell.

Heather Cleary

Image created with Canva

1. First of all, it’s a pleasure to be talking to one of the nominees for the inaugural National Book Awards in the category of Translated Literature. Congratulations, Heather! Could you tell us a bit more about the book that rendered your nomination, Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy?

Thank you for the invitation! And for your kind congratulations. Roque and I are very excited about the NBA nomination; the longlist is full of wonderful books that your readers might enjoy checking out. Comemadre is a short novel—very dark, very funny—about our collective obsession with progress and with leaving our mark on the world; it’s about hubris, violence, and love (specifically, the violence inherent to different kinds of love). The title refers to a plant that releases carnivorous spores, which plays a key role in each section.

Comemadre is divided into two parts, the first of which takes place in 1907 in a sanatorium near Buenos Aires, Argentina. A group of doctors has decided to experiment on unwitting test subjects to determine what happens in the moments after death (I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but there are guillotines involved). When they’re not trying to swindle their patients into signing away their lives, these men are busy stabbing one another in the back professionally and romantically; a number of them are infatuated with Ménendez, the Head Nurse. Unsurprisingly, things end badly. We then flash forward a hundred years to drop in on an artist who made a name for himself with a piece involving a two-headed baby, and then teamed up with his doppelgänger to develop performance pieces that involve physical mutilation. Think Damien Hirst on acid. This second part of the novel addresses, through the lens of art, many of the ethical and philosophical questions raised in the first section through science.

This book was extraordinarily fun to translate. It’s grotesque, insightful, and perversely hilarious. It’s full of dirty puns, which I love, and presented other interesting challenges. For example, the “oracles” in the first section of the book occasionally blurt out snippets of text from the second section; finding a way to make this continuity clear without giving too much away or slipping into anachronism was a delightful puzzle.

2. After having two Japanese translator nominees, Allison Markin Powell and Ginny Takemori; a Scandinavian, Nicky Smalley; and a German translator, Jen Calleja, we are back to Latin language translators with you, who translates from Spanish. How did your connection with Spanish start?

It was peer pressure, really. I was in seventh or eighth grade, I think, and my friends were studying Spanish at school. So I joined them. But most of them stopped after a year or two, and by that time I had already fallen in love with the language. I studied it straight through high school, then spent the following summer (and a semester in college) in Spain. After that, I spent some time in Mexico, and later lived in Buenos Aires for almost two years. I kind of stumbled into literary translation in a similar way: I had been frustrated with the shape my undergraduate honors thesis was taking when Richard Sieburth, a professor in the department of Comparative Literature at NYU and a gifted translator of French and German, suggested I switch gears and try my hand at translation. I was immediately hooked, and ended up organizing my life around my desire to do more of it.

3. I noticed your name is placed in a highlighted position on the cover of Comemadre. As far as I know, not all publishers display the translator’s name on the cover, right? At least not in Brazil. So, besides being on the cover, you are highlighted! This is fantastic! Do you think this is something that has been changing lately? What role do translators play in convincing publishers to recognize the translator on the cover of translated books?

Thanks! It has been an absolute delight to work with Coffee House; it really is a press that values translation. As for how common it is here to note the translator’s name on the cover, it varies from publisher to publisher, with independent presses tending to be a bit more open to the idea than the bigger houses. There are always exceptions, though. I think there has definitely been a greater awareness about translation in recent years, and a greater appreciation of what it is that we translators actually do. For this, we have a number of vocal advocates and organizations, like the PEN Translation Committee, to thank.

4. I have already heard of the Japanese term ikigai, which is about finding your purpose in life. Now I see you translated a book called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles, also from Spanish. Something interesting is that the authors describe the term as “the happiness of always being busy.” Now I am curious. Could you tell a bit more about this book?

Héctor García and Francesc Miralles both spent time in Japan and discovered a shared fascination with certain aspects of the culture there, above all with the value placed on staying active and engaged with friends and family in some of the longest-living communities in the country. In the book, they combine their personal experience talking with centenarians in Okinawa with research from different parts of the world into the benefits of staying active by finding a passion to pursue. From what I understand, the book has done very well.

5. The books you have already translated vary from non-fiction, fiction and poetry, in diverse topics. Do you have a favorite genre?

I wouldn’t say I have a favorite genre, necessarily, but rather that there are certain things I look for in a project. I love working on books that are linguistically complex in one way or another: one of my earliest translation projects was of the work of an avant-garde poet from Argentina named Oliverio Girondo. His later collections are full of neologisms and derive much of their meaning from the sound of the words, the way they ricochet off one another. Sergio Chejfec’s novels are marked by long, intricate sentences that require juggling nested clauses, and Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, as I mentioned above, is full of puns and wordplay. In this last case, I also enjoyed the challenge of establishing two distinct narrative voices that evoked two very different historical moments. One of the writers I’m working with now, Fernanda Trías, is fascinating for a different reason: she writes emotionally charged narratives with absolute restraint and precision.

6. You are a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, where I found a link to Brasília, among other worldwide cities, and other fiction writings from Brazilian authors. Could you tell us a bit more about this project?

Ah, the BAR! I’m very proud of the work we’ve done, though our production schedule has slowed down [clears throat] significantly. In late 2011, I picked up and moved to Buenos Aires, where Jennifer Croft (winner of this year’s International Man Booker Prize for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights) was living. She and I spoke extensively about all the wonderful writers around us who were entirely unknown to readers of English; we decided that we wanted to do something about it by creating a platform that was more nimble than print publishing, and able to take more risks. She then invited the writer Maxine Swann, who also lives in Buenos Aires, to join us, and Maxine brought in Pola Oloixarac. And so the magazine was born. It was our hope that it would serve as a launching pad for writers and translators, alike; we’ve also had the privilege of publishing new work by luminaries like Ishion Hutchinson, Ada Limón, Mario Bellatin, and Carol Bensimon. We started with a focus on creating an exchange between English and Spanish, and then broadened our scope to include Portuguese, Chinese, German… the list goes on. Every text on the website appears in at least two languages. It has been a (huge) labor of love that wouldn’t have been possible without our rock star editors, Martín Felipe Castagnet (whose Bodies of Summer was published last year by Dalkey), Lucas Mertehikian, Andrea Rosenberg (see Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion, among her many fabulous translations), and Belén Agustina Sánchez.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Elisabeth Jaquette, who—in addition to being a brilliant translator from the Arabic—is also a vital part of the translation community as the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)… and as a member of the Cedilla & Co. translators collective, of course. Her work has been shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and supported by PEN/Heim and several English PEN Translates Awards

Greatest Women in Translation: Allison Markin Powell

^3BD2FAACEAC897D21BE68030808476304DC722B6E37A1C22D8^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee today, Allison Markin Powell, was nominated by Ginny Takemori.

Allison Markin Powell

Image created with Canva. Picture credit: Jonathan Armstrong for The Documentist.

1. Japanese is your third language. How have you become a Japanese-to-English literary translator then, translating successful Japanese novels?

Well, where I grew up, it wasn’t until seventh grade that we had the opportunity to study another language, and at that time it was French (or nothing). But I loved learning French, so when I entered university I knew I would study at least one more language, and that turned out to be Japanese. I had been interested in literary translation from the time when I was assigned Le Petit Prince in high school, and ultimately I ran with it in Japanese. I think one of the reasons is that there are fewer Japanese literary translators, and fewer Japanese works that have been translated as well. That said, I feel there are greater challenges in bringing Japanese books into English than from Western languages.

I came to translation from a publishing perspective—I worked in various editorial departments where I learned how the industry works—in the U.S., that is—before I began translating books from Japanese. And now I translate all sorts of books—primarily fiction, but I work on nonfiction projects as well. This past summer, for instance, I’ve had the chance to translate a book on Zen and one on embroidery as well. It certainly keeps things interesting.

2. In this interview you gave to The Japan Times, you say, “I don’t really see the author as more or less of an authority on their book from a translation perspective.” Could you elaborate and explain what exactly you meant by that?

I believe that, once a work of literature is out there, it becomes something like the communal property of readers, open to infinite interpretations. Some of those interpretations may not have been intentional, yet they exist, for better or worse. When I translate something, I always try to convey the myriad possibilities that are incorporated in the original, rather than simply the version that I might prefer personally. It’s also been my experience that an author’s attitude toward their work shifts and changes, so that they may see things differently at one point from what they meant at the time it was written, especially as they mature as a writer or gain a more international audience—and that might change their answers to my questions.

3. In this interview you gave to PEN Atlas, you mention book titles are translated differently in the United States and in the United Kingdom. We hear a lot about different translations of movie titles, but I don’t think I have ever heard the same happened with book titles. Could you talk a bit about that, based on your experience with your own translations? Are the books themselves also translated differently for both markets? If so, how?

The first novel I translated by Hiromi Kawakami was published in the U.S. as The Briefcase, and then retitled as Strange Weather in Tokyo by the U.K. publisher. The Briefcase is a more literal translation of the original title in Japanese, and it was a rather oblique title at that. The author agreed to the change, and the book ended up being much more successful in the U.K. Last fall, it was reissued in the U.S. with the U.K. title and the U.K. cover as well. I think it was confusing for readers, and it’s hard to say how much of the book’s success has to do with the title and the cover—though some would say, “A lot!”—but it’s fair to say that a book’s packaging and presentation has a lot to do with how it is received. As for the text itself, I translate into American English, and the British publisher edits for context. I aim for neutral English, if there is such a thing, but inevitably certain details—like the register vs. the till or the trunk vs. the boot of a car—are adjusted for different markets.

4. As Ginny Tapley Takemori already told us about, you, she and Lucy North formed a collective called Strong Women, Soft Power, which is committed to promoting Japanese writers, in particular Japanese women writers who are being overlooked in translation. What’s your role in this collective? Has it shown any positive outcomes so far?

I don’t think I can overstate how positive it has been to be a member of Strong Women, Soft Power. As translators, our work is most often solitary and isolated. And yet, especially to those of us for whom it is a full-time occupation, the fact is that our work and practices affect one another, either in the form of setting precedents for the terms of our contracts or by the choices we make about which books we translate. The three of us—Lucy North, Ginny Tapley Takemori, and I—are equal members in the collective, and we work to support each other as much as we try to promote Japanese women writers. Our first endeavor was a reading we held during the London Book Fair in 2016; next we collaborated on an article for Literary Hub about ten Japanese books by women we’d love to see in English; then we planned a full-day symposium in Tokyo in 2017; and we have some exciting things on tap for the future. We really are stronger together, and the fact is that, rather than feel we are in competition with each other for the small number of books that are being translated from Japanese, working with each other has had the effect of creating more opportunities. It’s been very true for us that “A rising tide lifts all ships.” And the collective model is tremendously invigorating—we are inspired with ideas and to create new initiatives, especially when we know that we have the others’ support.

5. You have translated both women and men writers. Are there any differences or particularities in translating women versus men or are authors all the same, regardless of gender?

I have translated both women and men writers, including female protagonists written by male authors as well as male protagonists created by women authors. I wouldn’t say there are gendered differences in translating the work itself, beyond the fact that every writer is distinct. With each author, it’s necessary for me to feel comfortable and confident about capturing the voice and style of the piece that I’m translating. But as for how the work is received—or whether it is received at all—I do believe that there are imbalances between male and female authors. I have done some research, and recent data show that women writers in Japan currently maintain something close to parity within publishing in terms of prestige—the number of literary prizes won—and popularity—their representation on bestseller lists. But that equality does not appear in translation—little more than a quarter of the books translated from Japanese are by women—and I have yet to figure out why that is the case.

6. You have a website (which is a searchable database) where you showcase all existing literary works translated from Japanese into English, Japanese Literature in English. Besides this great initiative and the collective Strong Women, Soft Power, in which other ways are you engaged in promoting Japanese literature in translation?

My website has been sadly neglected lately, and I am eager to update the database with recent publications and found titles. Besides Strong Women, Soft Power, I am also a founding member of another collective, Cedilla & Co., and through that initiative I work closely with specific writers to bring their work into English and introduce them to English-language readers. Through my experience in book publishing, I have met many people who are champions of literature in translation, and that enables me to recommend and promote Japanese authors and books that may have been overlooked.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I am thrilled to nominate one of my Cedilla colleagues, Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish.