Greatest Women in Translation: Julia Sanches

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Image created by Érick Tonin

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

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

Julia Sanches

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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.

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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.

Are translators traitors or heroes?

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I do not like to romanticize our profession, saying, for example, that we have superpowers or the like. We do not. Our uniqueness and importance are the same as those of any other professional. Each one has their own relevance in their own areas. We have superpowers as much as doctors or teachers have: each one with their own value in their own area. We are not better than anyone.

However, I did come across a revelation these past few weeks – something I have not actually realized before – while translating product headlines of a major online retailer.

Have you ever bought anything from online retailers with English websites? Their product headlines and descriptions are horrendous, dreadful, hideous! They are a bunch of words bundled into a sentence with no connection whatsoever. And lots of mistakes. Argh!

Unfortunately, though, this is becoming increasingly common in English, in any field: contracts, business presentations, reports, etc. We are constantly faced with poorly-written texts to translate. I am sure you can totally relate with what I am saying, right?

My aim here is not to point fingers at anyone but to discuss our roles as translators. Do we transpose this horrible English into our own target languages? Never. Or at least we shouldn’t. I know I don’t. We try our best, sometimes working miracles, to understand the disastrous source and beautifully transform it into something – if not close to perfection – great in the target. After all, this is what we do. We craft fluent translations as if they were originally written in the target language, no matter how bad the source is.

And who gets all the credit for it? Most of the times, especially in technical translation, as is my case, the author, of course. We avoid misunderstandings, noises, and bad reputation. We facilitate communication not only by simply translating from one language to the other but also by improving the quality of the source.

Isn’t that beautiful? We praise ourselves for turning something ugly into something graceful. We love turning mistakes into clear sentences that flow easily. And I even dare say translations are usually way better texts than most of the original writings out there because our job is to perfect ourselves, day after day, translation after translation. Our job is to enable communication between languages and cultures, and to do so naturally.

So is the translator really a traitor? If anything, the translator definitely is the author’s best friend, godparent, carer – a trustworthy friend they can blindly count on whenever they have linguistic needs. If you have the right professional translator by your side, that is. 😉 If you do, make sure you cherish and value them because they are a rare find. If you don’t, it would be my greatest pleasure to help. 🙂 And if you are one: kudos to you and keep up the good work!