Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Whittle

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

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

Allison Markin Powell

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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.

Greatest Women in Translation: Ginny Takemori

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Did you know August is Women in Translation month? Learn more about the initiative here. And follow the hashtag #WITMonth on Twitter.

This month I talk to Ginny Takemori, nominated by our last interviewee, Nicky Smalley.

Welcome, Ginny!

Ginny Takemori

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1. Translators usually like to learn more about other translators’ beginnings. How was yours?

Well, I actually started out translating Spanish and Catalan. I approached a small agency in Barcelona, which took me on despite my lack of experience because they liked the way I tackled tricky designer-speak articles that their regular translators weren’t keen on. They basically taught me how to translate, editing my work and giving it back to me to learn from. Gradually the red ink on the page diminished as I got better. It was through translation that I got to know a literary agent who asked me to translate blurbs and promotional material, then suggested I write them myself from scratch, and eventually took me on as a foreign-rights agent. It was while working for her that I developed a fascination for Japanese language and literature, and decided to drop everything and enroll in SOAS in London to study Japanese with the long-term goal of translating Japanese literature into English.

2. And you have managed to achieve your goal. What advice would you give to translators who are thinking of venturing into another working language from scratch?

I suppose I’m living proof that it is possible to learn a new—and challenging— language as an adult. I should say though that I had learned several languages before this (French, German, Spanish, Catalan), and also the first few years of my life were spent in Tanzania, surrounded by people speaking Swahili as well as English. I think being exposed to more than one language at that critical, most formative time means a child already learns about different worlds, and even if they forget the language later (as I did), the ability to move between languages and worlds is already hardwired in their brain. Having said that, learning a new language as an adult requires a lot of dedication and hard work. Part-time language study was never going to be enough, so I dropped everything and enrolled on a challenging four year BA Honours course at SOAS, with year 2 at Waseda University in Tokyo, which had me living and breathing study for the duration (as well as working to support myself). All my study options were focused on courses that might be useful to me as a literary translator, including classical Japanese. After graduating I went back into publishing, this time as an editor at Kodansha International in Tokyo, where I could continue to improve my Japanese, learn about a different aspect of publishing, and also edit other literary translators, all of which has stood me in good stead as a translator too. Eventually I decided it was time to take the plunge as a freelancer again, and enrolled in a distance learning MA at Sheffield University to get me back into the study mode. The flexibility of the course enabled me to combine it with work, and the most important benefit of it to me was that it gave me the opportunity to focus on literary translation and get feedback from tutors, which was invaluable. At first most of my freelance work was as a literary editor, but little by little I started pushing the balance more towards translation, and now I only translate.

So my advice to translators would be to always have a clear goal in mind, and work hard towards it taking whatever opportunities present themselves along the way.

Also don’t be shy about trying to make your own opportunities: Kodansha wasn’t advertising for staff, but I found out the name of a senior editor there and wrote to him asking for work—and was quite amazed when he wrote back saying he needed another editor.

3. Could you tell us a bit about your latest translation, Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata?

Sayaka Murata is one of the most exciting young women writers in Japan, with an utterly unique voice. I’ve translated a number of her short stories before, but Convenience Store Woman is the first novel to come out in English. It won the prestigious Akutagawa Award before going on to be a runaway bestseller in Japan, with over 650,000 hardcover copies sold, and pocket book edition out soon. It has had an amazing reception from reviewers and readers alike in the US and the UK, and is rapidly becoming an international bestseller with translations into 22 languages. The narrative is from the hyperlogical perspective of a socially awkward 36-year-old woman who is still working in the same casual job in a convenience store that she took on while at university. Despite pressure from family and friends to either get married or start a career job, Keiko takes pride and satisfaction in excelling in her role in the store, which enables her to be a functioning member of society. Her deadpan observations and the disconnect between her thoughts and those of the people around her provide some laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a somewhat caustic look at how society functions and the pressure it places on individuals to fit in. She also has an eye for the grotesque, which can be both hilarious and very dark. My favourite review quote so far was from Dwight Garner in the New York Times: “One begins to spin through one’s Rolodex of loners, and wonder if Keiko is less like Dickens’s Miss Havisham and less like Babette in Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” and perhaps more like Norman Bates, without the mommy issues.” He really nailed it!  I’m a huge fan of all Murata’s work and am looking forward to bringing more of it into English.

4. In your opinion and based on your experience, what are the challenges in translating Japanese into English? Do you mind giving a couple of examples based on your translations?

Japanese as a language is absolutely context based, whereas English and other European languages are largely grammar based. This means you often have to pin down details in the original that were intended to be ambiguous. To give you just one small example, there are several dozen words for the first person pronoun “I” which determine a lot about the person using it and their relationships with people around them, the level of formality and so forth—and often it is omitted altogether! English does not allow for the same level of ambiguity and you are often forced to pin down something that was meant to be left open-ended. I think this is true of everything I translate to some extent, but perhaps the most extreme example was my translation of a 1906 short story by Izumi Kyoka, who writes a bit like an impressionist painter. Mimicking the style would have been unreadable in English, so I decided to focus on aspects of the text that I could capture such as the very visual aspect with strong images.

Another problem is when you have words that simply don’t exist in English. In Convenience Store Woman, for example, you have the stock phrases used by store workers—these are absolutely formulaic, set out in the manual, and practiced daily. I decided to keep one of the phrases in Japanese—irasshaimasé—which anyone who comes to Japan will hear every time they go into a shop or a restaurant. It means, basically, “welcome,” but it would sound just too weird to translate it as that in English, and we really don’t have any equivalent. Store workers might call out hello, but not every time somebody comes into the store, so I decided it would be more natural to keep the Japanese word. Other phrases I came up with something more or less equivalent in English, keeping the formulaic feel, but making it sound more or less natural. “Yes madam, certainly madam,” and so forth.

The fact that Japanese people tend to call each other by their family names with “san” (or other title) can be a little difficult to handle in translation, since in English we do not use Mr./Mrs./Miss in the same way – it generally sounds very formal and stilted. I made the protagonist Miss Furukura to her coworkers in the store, since this emphasizes her status as a single woman, but otherwise generally tended to use her first name, Keiko (even when she was called Furukura in the original). I chose to call her coworker, who takes a more senior role, Mrs. Izumi to emphasise the difference between the two of them, although they are similar ages. For the man she ends up living with, we only know his last name, Shiraha, but it would sound very unnatural to have Keiko call him Mr. Shiraha, so I dropped any title for him (which I though suited his character anyway). I had to make similar decisions for all the characters in the book.

5. August is Women in Translation month, so why don’t you tell us more about the event you organized with two colleagues promoting Japanese women in translation, Strong Women, Soft Power?

This all started at the London Book Fair in 2016, when Allison Markin Powell, Lucy North, and I decided to take advantage of the fact that we were all attending (Allison from the US, me from Japan, Lucy from the UK) to organize a reading of our work. This was the beginnings of our collective, Strong Women, Soft Power. It coincided with a big get-together among translators of many different languages to discuss the poor representation of women authors from around the world in English translation, and ways in which we could improve this. When we crunched the numbers for Japanese literature, we were quite shocked to see how few women were making it into translation, especially given the prominence of women authors in Japan. We decided, therefore, to hold a symposium in Tokyo to address this issue, as well as to encourage increased collaboration between translators, and between translators and industry people to better promote literature in translation. The symposium was a great success, bringing together translators, academics, editors, rights managers, and agents together into the discussion. There are so many great Japanese women authors out there, and I think we will be seeing many more making it into translation from now on.

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

I nominate Allison Markin Powell, who in addition to being a great translator herself has also been a dedicated advocate for translators generally, not least during her stint as co-Chair of the Pen Translation Committee.

Greatest Women in Translation: Nicky Smalley

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

We’re already half-way through the year, huh? Hope everyone’s doing fine so far.

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Swedish and Norwegian translator Nicky Smalley, nominated by Jen Calleja.

 

Nicky Smalley (1)

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1. Being Brazilian myself, I cannot help it but start by asking about your English translation of Jogo Bonito, by Henrik Brandão Jönsson, a Swedish book about Brazilian football. What an interesting combination! Could you tell us a bit about your experience?

Ha! It was great! I’m not much of a football buff, but I spent some time living in Brazil a few years ago, and one of my best experiences while living in Rio was seeing Botafogo play Flamengo at the Maracanã. I speak some (very imperfect) Portuguese, so it felt like combining two of my interests – Sweden and Brazil – while learning a lot about football and its role in Brazilian society. Unfortunately, I have to admit to a terrible crime: the murder (or perhaps manslaughter, since there was no intention!) of a former Brazilian president – I mistakenly translated ‘avgå’ (to leave one’s job) as ‘to pass away’ (in Swedish ‘avlida’). I had some accomplices though – neither the author, editor, copy-editor nor the proofreader caught my mistake, so it ended up in the printed book, and only got discovered by a Brazilian journalist who was reviewing the book…

2. You currently live in London, but have previously lived in Berlin, Stockholm and Rio. How long did you live in Rio? How was your experience as a Swedish and Norwegian translator into English? Have you ever translated from Brazilian Portuguese?

I only lived in Rio for a few months – this was at the very beginning of my translation career, when I was working freelance, translating finance texts (oh how I hope I never have to translate another annual report!) for a big multinational. It seemed like the perfect excuse to go and hang out in a tropical country, to dance, to explore, and to drink amazing fruit juice every day! I was also studying Portuguese, which was amazing – I love the language, and it’s a dream to one day speak it really well, maybe even to the extent I could translate it, as there’s so much great writing in Portuguese.

3. Are you translating any book at the moment?

Ahhhhhh… there’s the rub! I should be dedicating all my free time to translating an incredible Swedish book called Eländet (working title ‘Wretchedness’) by Andrzej Tichý, one of my absolute favourite writers. I’ve done half of it, but I’m also expecting my first child, and so my priorities and energy levels are a little all over the place. You could say the human baby I’m nurturing has made it tough to make time for the word baby I’m nurturing!

4. Besides being a translator, you are Publicity, Marketing and Sales Manager for And Other Stories. What exactly does it entail?

Lots and lots of emails and building relationships, be that with authors, translators, journalists, sales reps, booksellers, other publishers, and most importantly, readers! It’s my responsibility to ensure that And Other Stories’ books get talked about in the wider world – in the media, in bookshops, online, in book groups, in homes! I love the books we publish, which makes my job easier, and it’s a really fun challenge to excite people about books that are outside of the mainstream. But my job is so hugely varied – there are certain yearly cycles, but every single day is completely different. I might be writing copy in the morning, pitching authors for interview by lunch, checking sales mid-afternoon, and administering our subscription scheme before home-time. I also work remotely (And Other Stories is based in Sheffield), so there’s lots of self-reliance, which is a skill I developed as a translator.

5. I loved this article you wrote on the reasons why we should read more women in translation! Since you love Swedish and Norwegian literature, what books from those languages, translated (preferably by women, why not?) or not, do you recommend?

Ooh, such a tricky question! My knowledge of Norwegian literature is not as extensive as I’d like (I’m only just starting to get into translating Norwegian (my first Norwegian book – An Unreliable Man, by Jostein Gaarder – is out this autumn with Weidenfeld & Nicholson). One recommendation I can most wholeheartedly give is for people to seek out Gunnhild Øyehaug. A collection of her short stories called Knots was published by FSG last year, and it’s truly excellent. The excellent Kari Dickson translated it, and you can be sure she did an excellent job.

As far as Swedish writers go, I lovelovelove Lina Wolff (coincidentally, she’s a writer we publish at And Other Stories). Working on her novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (translated by Frank Perry) has been one of the highlights of my time in publishing – she’s really funny, as well as being razor-sharp and uncompromising in her criticism of the male canon we’ve all been brought up reading. I’m really looking forward to her next novel, The Polyglot Lovers, coming out next year in the wonderful Saskia Vogel’s translation – I’m expecting big things for it! When I first read it, I was laughing so much on the train that the man next to me stopped me reading and asked ‘Is it really that funny?’ I think he was jealous he couldn’t read it himself. Other Swedish loves of mine include Agnes Lidbeck, who’s written two novels, neither of which has been translated into English, despite my best efforts (she’s very much about the invisible and not-so-invisible tensions underlying relationships, something English-language publishers are often wary of, as they don’t see it as being that marketable in an English-language context).

I’m also a big fan of Mirja Unge’s short story collection It Was Just, Yesterday, which was published by Comma Press a few years back (another Kari Dickson delight!). I used to run a book club for contemporary Swedish fiction, and that was one of my favourites of the books we read. One of my all-time favourite books in Swedish is Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater (translated by the great Joan Tate), which is a super-smart thriller set in rural northern Sweden – it’s creepy as hell, but also really gets under the skin of a very different way of life. Speaking of northern Sweden, another author I’d absolutely love to see translated into English (but who might well be untranslatable), is Stina Stoor, whose debut collection Bli som folk (literally ‘Be respectable’ or ‘Be like everyone else’ or something – the titles in itself is untranslatable!) transfixed me, but is such an astonishingly rich portrait, both linguistically and socially, of the kind of isolated community in Sweden’s far north where Stoor lives, that no one would go near it. It would just be too hard to effectively render its extraordinary dialectal voices, and without them, so much of the magic would be lost. Still, I think it’s nice sometimes, that a language gets to keep its writers to itself, because they’re just too special to be shared (at least I tell myself that – though if someone was brave enough to publish it, I’d leap at the chance to be the enabler of that project).

6. For your PhD in Scandinavian Studies at UCL, you wrote a thesis titled “Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Rap, Literature and Translation, in Sweden and the UK.” Could you tell us more about it, since it sounds rather interesting?

Do I have to? Only (half-)joking.

I was researching the way in which the everyday language of contemporary cities (in particular London and Stockholm) is influenced by the multilingualism that characterizes them, and the way in which young people in particular use that multilingualism creatively – both in innovating the everyday language they speak to one another, and in codifying that informal language in creative forms like rap. In turn, I looked at the way contemporary writers take inspiration from that informal language, and the rapping that’s born out of it, to create literary representations of life in today’s cities. I also looked at how translators go about taking that writing into other languages – and found a lot of people trying really hard to create their own innovations in order to capture the innovative writing they were working with. It was fun, and the topic is fascinating, but I’m not a natural academic, so let’s just say my scholarly days are behind me!

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

I nominate Ginny Tapley Takemori, a translator from Japanese, based outside Tokyo.

Greatest Women in Translation: Jen Calleja

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month’s interviewee is Jen Calleja, British writer and literary translator, nominated by Rosalind Harvey.

Welcome, Jen!

Jen Calleja

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1. You’re about to conclude your residency at the British Library (you are their first Translator in Residence). How was the experience?

I feel really happy with what I managed to do at the BL one day a week for a year during the residency – it actually took a year to believe and appreciate that I had got this residency.

I held open forums with staff about the languages they used at work, wrote poetry based on the poet-translator Michael Hamburger’s archive, created and led a weekend creative masterclass for writers and translators, and organized and chaired three panel discussions, and some other things.

Coming from a DIY music and grassroots activism background has informed my compulsion to demystify translation and empower people to try translating who may not have thought it was – as a thing or as a practice – ‘for them’. I tried to always envision an audience comprised of the generally interested but monolingual person, multilingual people who have never explored translation and/or haven’t seen multilingualism celebrated and nourished in the UK setting, and those interested in literature but who didn’t necessarily have any knowledge of translation.

I am indeed in a phase of concluding – and a new resident is starting this month – but my residency has actually been extended to match the new resident’s day-and-a-half-a-week allowance, enabled by the Institute for Modern Languages Research joining the BL and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a third partner for the residency going forward. I’ll use the time to mentor the new resident, write some more Hamburger poems and complete a video project. Oh, and create a movement performance. And maybe something else.

2. What’s your story with the German language?

Well, I often get asked if there’s any family collection, but I just always liked the way German was put together and sounded, and the way it expressed things. My dad’s Maltese but my brother and I weren’t brought up with Maltese or Italian, only English, but it’s probably why I ended up going into languages.

I studied it at GCSE and A-Level – along with French – and actually ended up being the only student doing any language at my school post-GCSE, which was a bit of a lonely and disheartening experience. They actually wanted to cancel languages that year but there weren’t any other local colleges that could take me. My teachers were overworked and they tried their best, but a mixture of our lack of motivation ended up with me passing with a B in German and C in French at A-level.

A former student at my school who had gone on to study modern languages and had then moved to Munich came to visit teachers and we were introduced and she casually said that if I ever wanted to spend some time in Germany I could come and live with her. Literally two months after finishing my A-levels I moved to Munich. I lived with her for two weeks, a morose and clueless 18 year old, then was a terrible au pair, then got a nice office job as an editor and typist working predominantly in English. When I got there I realized that a B-grade A-level in German was useless, my German was awful. I ended up living there for eighteen months, got my own place, got a social life – I started going to gigs three or four times a week – started seeing a guy there, and my German obviously got better.

I then moved to London to take up a place studying Media and Modern Literature with Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, but in my second year I missed the German language so decided to read German literature in my spare time (I’d read only English literature in Munich). The first book was Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader) and it took me about a year to get through it. By the time I finished my degree I knew I wanted to specialize in German so did a Masters in German Language, Culture and History at UCL taking courses in German art and literature, and also took a life-changing course in Translation Theory and Practice, which I ended up specializing in for my dissertation.
I graduated in 2012 and got my first book translation job – a YA book – while finishing my MA because a friend remembered me saying I wanted to translate German literature and told a friend of a friend who needed someone to translate a book.

I would say I’ve learned how to translate literature on the job, literally by doing it. I’m now on books 11 and 12.

3. You are such a diverse professional: writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry; literary translator; columnist for literature in translation; editor; co-director and trainer; and last by not least musician! I’m curious, just like Rosalind, who nominated you, how do you juggle everything “with such aplomb,” according to her words?

Ha, it’s nice of her to say, and it’s a question I get asked quite often. I suppose I started by doing everything I wanted to do (writing, reading German lit, starting a band) when I was about nineteen to see what I liked the most – but then I didn’t want to compromise so ended up doing everything, and each thing is important to me. I like always having one foot in and one foot out of things – different ‘scenes’ and expertise such as poetry, music, translation – because it helps me keep perspective and view things from the outside. I just have a compulsion to do it all, and I know other people who have similar lives. Each thing also informs the other thing. Not an average day, but a day I’ve actually had was when I had to be at the BBC at 8 in the morning to speak on live TV about the anti-harassment campaign I help coordinate, then go to the British Library to send some residency emails and finish a sample translation, and then I got picked up to go on tour for a couple of days. I would say it’s getting harder to deal with the lack of balance and the stress though – something’s going to have to give this year I think.

4. Do you think that being a writer helps as a translator? If so, how?

I started as a writer – I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was about 17 – and I approach translating as a storyteller passing on someone’s story the best way I can. To me the processes are extremely similar. As a writer you’re used to trying out different words and sentences to see what works best, and you do the same thing when translating. Every sentence starts with ‘how would I say this if I had to say it immediately’ and then you go from there to make it fit in the context, make it fit the voice and the tone, while making sure the intention and vital information behind that line or word isn’t lost. There’s really just one additional starting layer – the original text! I’m also aware of what’s happening in writing and poetry and can see connections and threads leading from German literature into English literature and vice versa. Being a big reader in the language you’re translating into is so vital – after all, you’re creating something that has to fit within the English literature context.

5. You voluntarily coordinate the Good Night Out campaign, an organization that tackles harassment in the night-time economy. That seems quite interesting and fitting for this series (being it focused on women). Could you tell us a bit more about it?

Good Night Out was founded by someone I knew from the DIY music scene called Bryony Beynon and then two years ago she brought on a few people to help run it. We’re now a community interest company and are all Directors. We train staff in pubs, student unions, clubs (bar staff, managers, door staff, cloakroom staff and glass collectors, everyone!) how to handle disclosures of harassment – predominantly sexual harassment, but importantly how this also intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc. We know that anyone can be harassed on a night out, but statistically it will be women and those who identify as LGBTQ+ who are harassed the most. Staff aren’t usually trained in how to react or handle this kind of situation, so we want them to feel comfortable to handle it professionally and calmly and that someone who has been harassed isn’t left feeling even worse after reporting it. Belief is the biggest issue, and not taking it seriously enough – a lot of the time people try to brush it off because they don’t know what to say or do, and because we don’t take it seriously as a society.

Harassment is everyone’s problem.

I give training and train new trainers, plus act as a spokeswoman and coordinate a couple of our partnerships. I’d like to work on getting literary venues and event spaces involved.

6. According to your website, you are “keen to mentor emerging writers and translators from less privileged backgrounds, those who haven’t attended university, or are the first in their family to attend university.” That is very kind and thoughtful of you! How does your translator mentoring work?

As soon as I felt like I had knowledge to pass on I wanted to mentor, and wanted to try and do it as part of the BL residency but didn’t have time. Then I was offered to be a mentor for the British Council’s Translation Fellowship, and also received a translation mentee via Goldsmiths Alumni services after I signed up to be a mentor. We know from the great research and data gathering people in the literary scene and publishing sector have been doing that. The literary world we inhabit is disproportionately white and middle-class, and I’d like to help more people basically like me – I was the first person in my family to go to university, I’m from a working-class background with Maltese and Anglo-Irish parents – and from various and non-traditional walks of life help getting into literary translation and writing. I tend to give around five hours of my time so the mentee can pick my brains, see some of my reader reports, learn some do’s and don’ts, and so we can discuss one of their sample translations and edit it together if they like. I’d like to do more in the future.

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

I’d like to nominate Nicky Smalley, translator from (mainly) Swedish and publicist for publisher And Other Stories. She is not only a translator but someone who works tirelessly to promote literature in translation and has been super involved in AoS’s Year of Publishing Women – which has for them been a big year of publishing women in translation. She also mentored for the British Council and I’m always happy to see her at events and out and about.

Greatest Women in Translation: Rosalind Harvey

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our last interviewee, Anna Holmwood, nominated Rosalind Harvey.

Welcome, Rosalind!

RosalindHarvey

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1. You translate from Spanish into English and have translated literature from different Hispanic countries. How are they different among each other, including in terms of translation?

The various Spanishes around the world are pretty different from each other, and between Latin American countries the difference can be even greater than between Latin American and Iberian Spanish. Not only in terms of pronunciation, which varies wildly, but also vocabulary and grammar. I fell head over heels with Spanish as an undergraduate student on my year abroad in Peru, and the Spanish spoken there is usually described as one of the clearest and easiest for beginners (luckily for me!); while I was there I spoke very little English, even began dreaming in Spanish, and I’ve also spent time in Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia so, for me, the rhythms and cadences of Latin American Spanish are still the ones I respond most strongly to. In terms of translation, I always feel more drawn to Latin American writers because I feel closer to the culture and way of speaking, although I have translated two Spanish authors so far. In the end though, as long as I respond personally to a text and am able to have access to the author when translating (this is why I haven’t to date worked on any dead authors!), it doesn’t really matter to me where the text is from.

2. You created, along with theater group Coney, a real-world translation game called Wordkeys. Can you tell us about it?

In 2011 I was the first translator in residence at the Free Word Centre in London, and my remit was to demystify literary translation by developing a programme of public events around the practice. I programmed a few talks and more conventional activities, but I knew from the start that I wanted to do something that would take people out into the street and talking to strangers, because this is where real-world translation happens, and it is something that all of us engage in every day, very often without realizing it. I approached Coney because they had done work for an organization my then-boyfriend was involved with, Guerilla Science, which puts on fun, wacky events about science for the general public. Coney’s members all have theatre backgrounds and they’ve developed what you might call ‘real-world’ games for adults, people who have forgotten to or no longer have the chance to play in their lives, and playfulness is such an important aspect of literary translation, as well as performance, so it was a perfect fit. The game works like this: there are two teams who uncover clues hidden around an outside space, clues written in a foreign language which they have to translate, and then at the end there’s a shared activity the teams have to perform together. It’s easier to explain by watching a video!

3. In this interview you gave to Free Word, you said that “[a]s translators, we can stand up for ourselves more,” and gave a few examples of what we can do, such as “try and demand the recommended rates.” What recommended rates do you refer to? In Brazil, our union, Sintra, has a table of recommended rates for different translation services, but I’m not aware of any other.

‘Recommended’ is actually not quite the right word. In the UK we are lucky to have the Translators Association, a subgroup of the Society of Authors, and every year its committee meets to discuss what (due to legal reasons) we have to call the ‘observed rate’. Currently this is £95 per thousand words for prose, and £1.10 per line of poetry with a minimum of £35 per poem. A different approach is often taken with illustrated children’s books or graphic novels, but the general gist is that this is roughly the amount that certain UK publishers have been observed to pay to translators. This doesn’t mean that it’s the recommended rate, nor that it is an amount that all publishers will pay (unfortunately!), but is meant to be a minimum, and indeed English PEN will only fund books in translation where the publisher has agreed that they will pay the translator this minimum. We also need to take into account that this rate, aside from being a per-word figure, will often include any time taken to look over edits, any time taken to promote the book. Ultimately, I think it’s important that we recognize that our work is work, that it takes time and effort, and that, unless you are a student (in which case, working for free can be a useful way to gain experience), you should be properly remunerated for it.

4. You teach Modern Spanish Language; Language, Text and Identity; and Translation: Methods and Practice at University of Warwick. What are some important advice you give to your students who are about to enter the translation market?

Read voraciously, figure out what you like to read and who in the UK is publishing that kind of work, put yourself in situations where you will be around other translators to share knowledge, follow closely what is happening in the literary arena in the country whose language you will be working from (ie keeping abreast of literary prizes and finding out who your favourite authors’ favourite authors are), try to gain at least a basic understanding of how the publishing industry works… and don’t give up the day job!

5. You are chair and co-founder of the Emerging Translators Network, an email-based peer-to-peer support group for early-career literary translators working into English (primarily). Could you tell us more about it?

The ETN was founded by myself, Anna Holmwood (your previous interviewee) and Jamie Lee Searle, who translates from German, in 2011, when we half-jokingly described ourselves as ‘the forgotten child stars of literary translation’ – we had all had one book out, which had received a nice amount of attention, and we weren’t sure what to do next to ride the momentum. The world of an early-career literary translator still felt a little disjointed back then: people with one less book than us under their belt were unable to join the Translators Association (you can only join once you have a contract) and so to connect themselves to other working translators; we would all occasionally bump into each other by chance at a a book fair or a launch, but it wasn’t very organized or formal. We wanted to create a friendly space for people at that stage of their career to come together and share experience, advice and good practice, and so we set up a Google Group and started adding members. It quickly grew into this brilliant online community of practitioners talking about a whole range of issues: really practical, nuts-and-bolts things as well as esoteric discussions of semi-colon use. We held a sell-out conference in 2014, and now have over 1,000 members, and I think it’s safe to say that it has changed the landscape of literary translation in that it’s made it easier for what has traditionally been a very disparate group of shy professionals into a group with far more visibility, a louder voice, and an idea of what our shared goals are. I’m very proud of what we achieved, and I’d like to say thank you to all of our members for making the community as wonderful as it is!

6. How do you juggle translation work with teaching?

The short answer is, I don’t! (weeps gently). No, but seriously: it’s not easy, but without the day job I wouldn’t be able to survive, and I think it’s really important to talk about that, about the money side of things. Before I got into teaching I worked for around 10 years as a freelance translator alongside various other things (bookselling, being a university receptionist, private Spanish tutoring, and working in a Chinese furniture shop), and for most of that time I struggled financially. I was building up my career, but I was cash poor and time poor! Now I’m cash-comfortable but time-destitute, and my goal for the near future is to develop a balance so that I can translate one book a year in the holidays, when teaching stops and I have time to focus, and I think that will keep me satisfied – along with shoehorning as much literature into my translation classes as I can get away with. What’s also nice now is that I can use my own translations in lessons, something the students often find valuable as a book is such a tangible thing compare to an obscure academic paper, and it means they’re able to see the link between what they’re studying and a way they might use their skills in the future. It’s always fun to get them to critique my own translations to start a discussion about how no translation (or original!) is ever perfect and it’s such a subjective process, which is particularly valuable in an age when education can be far too focused on right or wrong answers and ease of measurability and results.

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

I’d like to nominate Jen Calleja, who is a translator from the German, editor, poet, current translator in residence at the British Library, a member of the band Sauna Youth, and an ambassador for the Good night out …. – partly because I admire the way she brings feminism/activism into her work, but mainly, if I’m honest, it’s because I want to know how the hell she finds time to do all the creative things she does with such aplomb!

Greatest Women in Translation: Anna Holmwood

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee today is Anna Holmwood, Chinese and Swedish literary translator.

Anna Holmwood

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1. According to The Guardian, Jin Yong is the world’s biggest kung fu fantasy writer, enjoying huge popularity in the Chinese-speaking world and being among the 10 bestselling authors. However, his name is barely known to the rest of the world “due to the complexity of the world he has created and the puzzle that has posed for translators.” As the translator of one of his books, what is this complexity and the puzzle about?

There are many reasons why Jin Yong’s work has not been published by a trade publisher in English before (and barely in any other language either, for that matter). Jin Yong first stories were published in his Hong Kong newspaper in serial form in the 1950s, but due to the political upheavals of the time, he only became a household name in China and Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s. Contact between the Chinese-speaking world and the west only really started to pick up in intensity in the 1990s, and in terms of deeper understanding, I think we are really only at the beginning of what will turn out to be a big shift in world culture as we start to understand Asia better and they take their place at the centre of the world stage. Jin Yong’s stories are grounded in a particularly Chinese genre that dates back several hundred years, but he was also someone who modernised martial arts fiction and made it relevant again. His significance to contemporary writers of kung fu novels cannot be understated. As no martial arts fiction has been translated by a trade publisher in English, editors are understandably a bit unsure – will it sell? Will readers connect? But it makes sense to start with the master, if anyone can make martial arts fiction popular in the west, surely it has to be Jin Yong?

2. In this same article mentioned in question 1, you say that you don’t explain everything in the book because you believe “readers like a bit of a challenge.” That’s a tough decision to make – whether to provide more contextual and cultural information to the reader or not through footnotes or any other sort of side note to the original. How did you come to this decision?

Reading is no fun if it’s too easy! But indeed, you have to maintain a balance between provoking a reader’s interest and losing them completely due to incomprehensibility. In the case of Jin Yong, the broad sweep of the story, the emotional worlds of the characters, the moral framework behind their actions: all these things translate very easily in my opinion. The parts that are more difficult are mostly in the detail, the elements of Chinese medicine or historical references that are perfectly obvious to a Chinese reader. And yet, it is my opinion that an English reader doesn’t need to understand everything on the same level as his/her Chinese counterpart. I would rather that a translation inspires a reader to explore something further than sacrifices the energy and flow in order to make every detail plain.

3. The first volume of Jin Yong’s most popular trilogy, A Hero Born, was translated by yourself (taking you five years). The other two volumes are being translated by different translators. How was this experience of sharing a series of books with other translators?

Actually, I am working with one other translator only, Gigi Chang. I will work on the odd numbers, she’s doing the even numbers. It’s been great to have her on board – she started working on book two just after I finished and handed in book 1 to our editors. We’ve been able to bounce around ideas and she was someone for me to bounce ideas around with during the editing process, so I can’t imagine not having her with me on this journey now. We are in daily contact, despite living on opposite sides of the world. It’s been very important for us to find a way to work together that gives each translator the freedom to work in their own way, but to come together to create a joint voice for Jin Yong in English. This is no small task! But I feel very lucky to have found someone with whom I work so well together.

4. You have been recently appointed Foreign Rights Manager at DKW Agency. What exactly does this role entail?

I am in charge of selling translation rights for our authors, which means, selling into all territories apart from English-speaking ones. This means meeting and talking with editors from all around the world and finding out what books are popular in their markets, what kinds of stories they think resonate with their readers and what excites them personally. It’s a brilliant counterpoint to doing all the detailed work of translating, it’s the best way to get a “bigger picture” of what happens when a book travels across languages.

5. Besides translating from Chinese, you also translate from Swedish. And I must say this article on your translation The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled From India to Europe for Love, by Per J. Andersson, captivated me. It must have been a real joy to translate it. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

I loved translating this. PK’s story is incredibly inspiring, and I know from having had contact with him during the translation process, he is as humble and committed to living a life founded on love and acceptance as he comes across in Per’s book. It made for a nice change to Chinese martial arts. It’s that balance between different projects and languages that makes my job fun.

6. What are the differences between translating from Chinese and from Swedish in terms of difficulties or even joys?

I learned Swedish as a child because my mother is Swedish. As such, the ways I came to speak Mandarin and Swedish could not be different – one was from immersion only, I have barely any formal education in Swedish. The other I studied as an adult, alongside courses in the history, economy, politics and of course literature of China. When I first started out, the difference was perhaps more pronounced. I found dialogue in Swedish came very naturally, I understood things by tone and instinct in a way that I didn’t in Mandarin. I have since married and had a child “in Chinese” however, so the intellectual/emotional distinction no longer feels so strong. Now that I live and work in Sweden, I can feel the two languages converge.

There is, of course, a huge difference in terms of literary culture. Swedish fiction has greater and deeper connections to English writing, the underlying grammar and values are far more similar, so translating between these two is like crossing a stream, where Chinese to English translation requires a long-distance ferry-ride across a wide ocean. I think we underestimate how culturally specific our notions of “good writing” really are, and as such, translating between European languages rarely challenges readers at the level of what is fiction, how do we structure a story. There are many cases of Chinese genres that do not have simple equivalents. Crime writing, poetry, essays: these look very different in Chinese. This presents translators and editors with a far bigger challenge than I think the industry is prepared to recognise. And similarly, many types of writing that are popular in the west don’t work in China, for example.

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

I’d like to nominate Rosalind Harvey for the next interview!

Greatest Women in Translation: Nicky Harman

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Welcome back to our interview series!

This month, I had the pleasure of e-meeting and getting to know a bit more about our first Chinese translator, Nicky Harman, nominated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Nicky Harman

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1. Your latest translated book is Happy Dreams, by Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most celebrated writers. What is it about?

It’s about a pair of migrant workers from a remote village outside Xi’an in China, who come to the big city to make their fortune. Happy Liu and his fellow-villager Wufu find a semi-derelict building to live in and settle into life as trash collectors. We follow them through a series of tragi-comic adventures, but when Happy falls in love, things get more serious: the woman, a prostitute in one of Xi’an’s ‘hair and beauty salons’, is arrested by the Vice Squad and sent to a rehabilitation centre; Happy and Wufu get work on a building site to earn the money to bail her out; Wufu dies and Happy tries to take his corpse back to their village, because the folk belief is that when the body is not returned for burial in his or her home village, the soul will never rest in peace. (This is not a plot-spoiler, the scene actually opens the novel.) Despite the grimness (being a trash-collector in China really is getting down and dirty), this novel is a joy to read. What makes it for me is the character of the eponymous Happy, an unlikely hero who is, by turns, pretentious (he is always ready with an aphorism or a homily), engaging, obnoxious, honest, devious, foul-mouthed and tender (to his best friend and to his lover). Think Charlie Chaplin, Chinese-style. I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing for taking a punt on this novel because, although Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most important living writers, his novels are hard to translate (full of dialect), so have not made much impact in the West. His writing is wonderful but many of his novels are set in the remote countryside where Jia himself grew up, and are long and complex, which is a combination hard to sell to publishers who can’t read the original.

2. I guess the differences between American and British English can be compared to the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. I only translate into my native language, Brazilian Portuguese, and don’t dare venturing into the European one. How about you? Being British, do you translate into American English? If so, do you find it difficult?

You’ve absolutely put your finger on a key issue for me as a translator. I write British English, especially if it’s slang dialogue. That’s another reason why I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing – for having faith in me, and for giving me an editor who was sensitive enough to make useful suggestions when I had no idea how to make my British-sounding slang acceptable to American readers. That said, I feel a little sad that Happy Liu could never be ‘chuffed’, but always had to be ‘delighted’, or ‘satisfied’ or something similar. I think the characters’ voices come from deep inside me, as the translator, in fact, I imagine them as coming from my belly, and it’s difficult to restrain the tendency to use certain words when they seem to fit so perfectly the ‘voice’ as one hears it. But every translation is a process of negotiation and compromise, and my feeling, from readers’ reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, is that our combined efforts paid off.

3. Your next translation, due out in May 2018 is Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China, by Rao Pingru. What was special about its translation?

I signed the contract, opened my working document to start the translation…and my heart sank! This author is extremely well-educated and the book is sprinkled with quotes from classical Chinese poetry, as well as references to history, to his Confucian-style upbringing (he’s now in his 90s), and to folk customs and local food. To say nothing of his war-time career, which required me to get a grip on military terminology. But within a few pages, I was entranced – Rao Pingru has the rare gift of telling his life story as if you and he were sitting in his living room and you were the only listener there. This is the only book I’ve ever done (and I’ve translated some pretty gut-wrenching stuff) where every time I arrived at the final pages as I went through first draft, successive drafts, and edits, I got a lump in my throat. He wrote it in grief after his beloved wife died, but it is full of affection and humour. The book is gorgeous to look at too, because Rao is a painter and there are colour illustrations on every page.

4. And you have another novel translation out in May, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, by Yan Ge?

Yes, that’s a record for me, two book-length translations out in the same month! I actually finished translating The Chilli Bean Paste Clan three years ago, but the route to publication was somewhat tortuous. (Hats off to Roh-Suan Tung, of Balestier Press, who took it on, and has given it a gorgeous cover too.) It’s completely unlike any other novel I’ve translated: a family drama that manages to be both warm and funny, barbed and irreverent, and highly profane. The novel is set in a (fictional) small Sichuan town in twenty-first century China, where Gran’s impending eightieth birthday celebrations are the trigger for growing tensions between the family’s middle-aged siblings. Events take an unexpected turn on the day itself, when secrets from everyone’s past are revealed, including that of the matriarch herself. Yan Ge started writing young adult fiction in her teens and is a well-established and prize-winning author. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan [《我们家》, My Family, in Chinese] was her first excursion into adult fiction, and it is an extraordinarily clever one. The challenges here for me were to express the family bonds and animosities with sufficient subtlety, and the dialect (again!), which Yan Ge herself says is highly local to the small town in which she grew up. In both these areas, she was extremely helpful in explaining things to me. I hope the book does well, because it’s hugely enjoyable. A sort of very wicked Chinese Jane Austen-style story.

5. I think you are our first Chinese translator interviewee! 😊 Why did you choose Chinese as your working language?

There was no contest, really. I do read and speak various European languages, but so do many other excellent translators, much better than me. My degree was in modern Chinese but for many years I let it drop and did other work and lived a completely different life. Then in the late 1980s, I came back to it and re-learnt it. A Chilean translator friend of mine suggested I should try translating because, he maintained, ‘There must be lots of work out there.’ That proved a little over-optimistic and my career as a translator started slowly. But I was instantly hooked on literary translation and I still am.

6. What are the challenges of translating from Chinese into English?

One huge challenge is that you are recreating in idiomatic English a text which in grammar and syntax is just about as far from English as it could possibly be. So the operative term here is ‘recreate’. But at the same time, you have to reproduce exactly what the author is saying as well as being sensitive to how s/he is saying it and the effect s/he is trying to achieve, all the usual considerations of literary translation from any language. So your English has to be extremely good. There’s no way you can follow the source language sentence word for word, you have to make something new, but it has to be an accurate and faithful representation of the original. Of course this applies to translation from any East Asian language, like Japanese, Korean and so on, because they’re all so different from English.

Then, of course, China is a big country and there’s a lot to learn with every book you translate. I think everything I’ve mentioned above just about sums it up: dialogue must sound natural, many writers use dialect, which you have to understand and find a way to express in English, and there are cultural and historical references which are instantly recognisable to the Chinese reader, but which are opaque to many western readers without some sort of a gloss. (Do not mention the word ‘footnote’! These are anathema to most editors nowadays.) Not that I’m complaining at all. I absolutely love this work.

7. What are you most proud of having achieved in your translating career?

My work on Paper-Republic.org is one thing. After all, the work doesn’t end when the translation is finished. I’m passionate about getting readers interested in Chinese fiction and luckily, among Chinese-to-English translators, I’m not alone in that: for the last ten years, I have been part of a core of volunteers on Paper Republic, which works to facilitate both literary and publishing connections between China and the rest of the world. We run online and offline events and publications aimed at raising the profile of Chinese literature among readers, students, editors and journalists. For readers, we provide complete short stories (in our ‘Read Paper Republic’ project) and novel excerpts, as well as public events with opportunities for reading and discussion. For students, translators, and educators, we provide translation-focused educational materials, and facilitate translation-related events and training. The Paper Republic website is also home to an extensive database of Chinese literature and its translation, helping visitors gain an overview of Chinese literature, and its various translations into English. In short, in many ways we have become an effective bridge between Chinese writers and their writing on the one hand, and English-language readers on the other.

With regard to my own translations, I often get involved in promotional work, especially when the author doesn’t speak English. I write blogs, do book launches, and talk at literary festivals. I absolutely love this aspect of translating too, I mean, who would want to sit in front of the computer all day every day, going boggle-eyed over even the best-written book? Not me, I need to get out and about too.

I also feel hugely privileged that I have been able to introduce such a wide variety of Chinese authors in English, and some have become personal friends, which is an added bonus. One area that we all need to work on, however, is a greater focus on Chinese women writers. I tallied up the gender balance in my translations, and it’s about even. But in our annual rollcall of translations from Chinese on Paper Republic, there is a preponderance of male authors, reflecting, one has to assume, men’s greater visibility in the literary world both east and west. Out of the 110 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only 13 have been women. Only a fifth of winners of China’s prestigious Mao Dun Prize have been women, which is a bit dismal because there are so many good female writers in China.

8. What’s the best way of learning more about Chinese fiction, for people who don’t know where to start?

Well, we run the Read Paper Republic project I mentioned above specifically for readers wanting to dip a toe in the waters of Chinese fiction. We began by publishing a complete short story (or essay or poem) every Thursday for a year. We have since added a couple more series of short stories and will continue to do so on an occasional basis. They are all still online – just click on the Read Paper Republic heading or logo on our home page. Of course, we’re not the only people posting Chinese short fiction online: Asymptote Journal and Words Without Borders post excellent work from Chinese, as well as other languages. If you want something longer and meatier, well, a visit to your local bookstore should produce a good novel. Or try googling for helpful lists such as the one produced by TimeOut Beijing, TheCultureTrip and The Wall Street Journal. I recently made up a list myself, for London’s China Exchange festival.  Interestingly, some of the same books and authors turn up on all four lists, which I think indicates growing recognition and appreciation of Chinese literature among English-language readers worldwide. And of course, those lists are only the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more out there. For instance, if you like scifi, then you are in for a treat, it’s one genre where Chinese writers have made a big impact. For instance, Liu Cixin, winner of the Galaxy Award and the Hugo Award, has half-a-dozen books in translation; and a number of Hao Jingfang’s short stories and novellas are available online in English. And martial arts, a great Chinese genre which hitherto has hardly been translated, has a gem just out in English, A Hero Born, by the inimitable and much-loved Jin Yong, (MacLehose Press, translated by Anna Holmwood). Dig in and enjoy!

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

Anna Holmwood.