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!

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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.

Greatest Women in Translation: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dear readers! Our interviewee today is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, award-winning literary translator from Polish into English.

Welcome, Antonia!

Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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1. Your wide list of published translations from Polish into English include fiction, reportage, biographies, poetry, children’s books, film scripts, short stories, academic essays, among others. In such a diverse portfolio, what do you like translating the most?

I don’t have a favourite genre, but I enjoy varying my diet. When I’m translating an entire book, it inevitably gets into my blood stream – to sense fully what the author is aiming to achieve, I have to let it get inside me, let it touch my soul, before I can find a voice for it in English. It can be a painful experience if the emotions expressed in the book are difficult (and Polish literature has more than its fair share of tragedy), so I need variety to alter the mood.

One of the features of Polish literature is that it has very strong literary non-fiction, with just as much to offer the translator as fiction. The genre that has come to be known as reportage is largely a Polish invention, started off by Ryszard Kapuściński in the 1950s and developed by Hanna Krall, and in the next generation by writers including Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Jagielski. They write books that are about true events, people and places, but it is neither news reporting or travel writing; instead they portray whole societies or nations from the bottom up, through the lives of ordinary people. In terms of style these are some of the most challenging books I have translated, and among the most fascinating.

I love translating children’s books, probably because I have never fully grown up myself, but also because they offer specific translation puzzles that are fun to unscramble.

For instance, in Krystyna Boglar’s novel Clementine Loves Red, which I co-translated with Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, there’s a little girl with the weird name ‘Jarzynka’, which means literally ‘little vegetable’. When they meet her, the other children are amazed, but later it turns out her father is called Mr Jarzyna, an unsurprising Polish surname, and the child’s nickname is a diminutive based on it. After much head-scratching, in English we called her Macadamia, and her father was Mr MacAdam.

My translations due to appear this year illustrate the huge range on offer in Polish literature, and I really can’t say which is my favourite. This month there’s Posts, a witty poetry collection by Tadeusz Dąbrowski, including evocative poems inspired by the trips to New York that resulted from a previous joint publication. Next month there’s Dancing Bears, reportage by Witold Szabłowski, who uses the fate of performing bears rescued from Bulgarian Gypsies and rehomed in a special shelter as an allegory for people in countries that have emerged from totalitarianism, but who don’t understand freedom. In May there’s Priceless, a high-energy thriller by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, about a team of Poles commissioned on behalf of the nation to steal a Renaissance painting that was looted during the war, but when they try, they realize someone’s trying to kill them. In June there’s Lala by Jacek Dehnel, an exquisitely written novel, closely based on reality, about the colourful life and adventures of the author’s grandmother. And finally in September, there’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, an eco-crime novel by Olga Tokarczuk, in which the female narrator lives deep in the Polish countryside, where she insists that avenging animals are responsible for a series of strange deaths of local male bigwigs who hunt.

2. You have led workshops for Translation Nation project in UK primary schools working with children aged 10-11 to produce translations of stories from their own native cultures. How was this experience in introducing translation to kids?

I’m not sure what the children would say about my competence as a teacher. I came away from this experience with undying admiration for all primary school teachers, as they do one of the most difficult jobs imaginable, especially teaching classes with children from twenty or more cultures. And I’m also in awe of Sarah Ardizzone, who devised and runs the whole project (now as Translators in Schools). Even with my lack of ability to organize boisterous 10-year-olds, I found it tremendously rewarding.

The project involved encouraging children from various cultures to bring stories from home, for their classmates to translate and then read to each other in performance. At the first school, the story that made the greatest impression came from a shy Polish boy who told it to me between sessions in the corridor; it was about his granny’s appalling experiences as a deportee in Siberia during the war. The other children were moved and shocked by the real-life story of their friend’s relative. It was the only moment in three whole days when they sat riveted, in silence. Afterwards the headmaster thanked me for bringing so much out of this shy boy, and had a local paper report on it. But it wasn’t me, it was the excellent project that gave him a chance to explain something about his culture to his school friends.

Another child said he was half-Greek, and brought in the Odyssey! That was a bit ambitious as a translation project, but we chose the story of the Cyclops, which went down well too. At the second school, an Egyptian boy who had only been living in Britain for a few months made up his own wonderful story, about a man living in Cairo with a giant pet tortoise that destroyed the neighbour’s garden but made up for it by giving him a daily ride to work on its back. And there was a Latvian girl who at first wanted nothing to do with the project, but ended up as our most enthusiastic participant. I felt sad to say goodbye to her and hope she’s flourishing.

Children from abroad who’ve settled in the UK with their parents learn English very fast and often speak it better than the adults, so they act as ambassadors for the older generation. And among them there are sure to be some future literary translators, so it’s brilliant to start nourishing their talents early.

3. You promote Polish books to English-language (UK and US) publishers and readers. Apart from having two past winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, namely Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, in your opinion, what’s special about the Polish literature? What’s your pitch to publishers and readers?

Polish literature has several special features. Its fiction tends to differ from English-language novels, for instance, by being based more often on style and less often on linear plots or straightforward story-telling. That quality can make it not just hard to translate, but hard to sell to publishers, who view it as experimental and possibly unappealing to British and American readers, whose expectations tend to be fairly conventional. But it is actually an asset for ambitious, high-quality literature.

For instance, last year two Polish novels were very well received in English, though neither has a conventional structure and both are characterized by superb style. They’re Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg’s evocation of childhood in a Polish village, translated by Eliza Marciniak, and Flights, Olga Tokarczuk’s unusual take on the broadly understood concept of travel, translated by Jennifer Croft. I’m thrilled to see what excellent reviews these books have had, as both are gems of contemporary Polish fiction.

As I have said above, Polish reportage is in a special category of its own, so I often find myself explaining its particular qualities to publishers. In the past I have put a lot of effort into finding publishers for my own generation of reportage authors, and now I’m very pleased that my colleague Sean Bye has made headway with bringing more of them to English-language audiences. His translation of Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance, about the fate of a mining town that ceased to exist, brings a superb new voice to a wider audience. And we both have plans for more Polish reportage in translation.

I suspect that translators from some of the more mainstream languages, such as French, Spanish or German, are more likely to be commissioned than translators of ‘minor’ languages such as Polish. Instead, translators from Polish have to work alongside Polish publishers and agents to convince foreign publishers to buy the rights to Polish books. On average, only about 10 to 15 literary works in English translation from Polish are published each year. But I don’t see anything wrong with that as an annual ‘score’ – what counts is quality, and the competition that Polish books have to go through to appear in English to some extent guarantees that it’s the best books that get through, or at least the ones with the best chance of success on English-language markets.

Of course Polish poetry is well-represented in English, but there are some dynamic younger poets yet to be translated. Although I rarely translate poetry I’m hoping to find a publisher for a collection by Krystyna Dąbrowska, a personal favourite of mine. How would I pitch her work? It’s vivid, evocative, haunting, sometimes deeply personal and emotional, sometimes keenly observing other people’s lives, often inspired by travel to faraway places. But the best way will be to show it to them.

Another Polish speciality is children’s illustrated books. There is a fabulous new generation of illustrators and graphic artists at work now, many of them inspired by their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s. After a rather Disneyesque phase, the best tradition is back and booming. So far Daniel & Aleksandra Mizielińska have blazed a trail abroad with their worldwide best-selling Maps, H.O.U.S.E., and Under Earth, Under Water. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — Polish illustrated children’s books represent an unexploited gold mine, represented by artists such as Katarzyna Bogucka, Agata Dudek, Paweł Pawlak, and many others. Their work speaks for itself, and I’m hoping more English-language publishers will soon see the light.

4. According to your own words, you find it enriching to mentor emerging translators. Why?

Mentoring is one of the best parts of my job. I’m now working with my sixth mentee, Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, who for the mentorship is focusing on children’s books, especially YA and younger children’s novels. What a great excuse for me to find out more about them too. We have just spent a week in Poland talking to people who are well-placed to advise us on the latest publications. There’s a wealth of good books to choose from, and the hardest thing is to decide which ones are likely to work on English-language markets. We came away with lots of ideas, and a big task ahead to sift out the ones we want to pitch at the Bologna book fair in March.

I don’t have time to work on all the books I would like to promote or translate, so helping younger translators to develop their careers allows me to pass on ideas or projects that deserve attention. Sometimes I pass on work to them that I haven’t time for, but I don’t want to treat my mentees like a dumping ground – mainly I try to help each one to identify and then realize translation projects that they feel passionate about. I think mentoring is the best way to increase the number of Polish books being published in English while also guaranteeing quality. Over the years I’ve built up useful contacts and experience that I can pass on to emerging translators, which gives them an instant leg-up in the profession. I’m very proud of their achievements so far and look forward to watching them change the future face of Polish literature in translation.

But I also learn a lot from my mentees. Translation can be an isolated profession, so to see how other people approach a piece of text, which works attract younger translators and what they’re interested in translating broadens my vision and keeps me open to new ideas.

5. In your interview for Authors & Translators, you said, “It’s disheartening that some people would never contemplate watching a film with subtitles or reading a book in translation – saddest of all for them, as they’re missing out on a feast of entertainment and knowledge. And the world loses, for lack of mutual understanding.” Apart from Polish literature, what translated books have you enjoyed reading and suggest to us? 

Where do I start? I’ll tell you about three authors I have recently read in translation. I can’t stop thinking about The Gurugu Pledge by the Equatorial Guinean writer Juan Tomás Ávilar Laurel, translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar (published by And Other Stories). It’s a shocking account of the desperation that drives people to leave their homes in African countries and try to get into Europe, but end up trapped in a horrible encampment in Morocco, where the women in particular suffer appallingly. I think every world leader should be made to read it.

Another book I’d recommend is Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi, translated from French by Jeffery Zuckerman (published by Les Fugitives/CB Editions). Set in Mauritus, it’s about four teenagers grappling with their own identities and with the adversities life has forced on them already. I’m pleased to see that Jeffery Zuckerman has been shortlisted for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize for his beautiful translation.

And finally please read Jón Gnarr’s trilogy, translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith (published by Deep Vellum). Gnarr was a stand-up comedian who became a rather unlikely but apparently successful Mayor of Reykjavik. Based on his childhood and adolescence, the first in the trilogy is The Indian, which despite being about a child’s struggle with his own intellectual limitations and the lack of understanding of the world around him, is riotously funny. The second is The Pirate, about his determined teenage efforts to be a punk rocker, when there was only one other punk in all of Iceland. The third is The Outlaw, when things turn dark as our hero discovers sex and drugs. Moving, comical, disturbing, brave, highly recommended.

6. You have translated different books by the same authors, such as Zygmunt Miłoszewski, Olga Tokarczuk and Paweł Huelle. Do you get more familiar with the author’s style after the first book or is every book unique?

It depends on the author. Paweł Huelle does more or less write in the same style, and of course practice has made me more familiar with it. He has favourite words (whether he knows it or not) that he understands in a particular way. But he sometimes surprises me totally – not long ago he wrote a story that could have been by Gogol, or Dostoevsky in his satirical mood, featuring an insane dream largely set in Saint Petersburg. Apart from that, two of his novels are deliberately stylized in homage to great European authors: Mercedes-Benz is a tribute to Bohumil Hrabal, and Castorp is a prequel to The Magic Mountain and owes a great deal to Mann. In both cases I read translations of these authors into English to help me to attune to the style.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski is best known in English for his crime trilogy featuring Prosecutor Szacki (Entanglement, A Grain of Truth and Rage), and they do have a homogeneous style, but his thriller Priceless reads more like similar books written in English – at times I felt I was translating a translation. And his latest book in Polish, As Ever, is a totally new departure, not a crime novel but a romantic book with a historical twist; in 2014 an old couple are celebrating 50 years of married life, then they mysteriously wake up back in 1964 with the chance to live all over again, but this time Poland is not under Soviet, but French control. In every way it is new and different from his earlier books, and I’m looking forward to translating it.

Olga Tokarczuk is extremely versatile and every book is distinctly different. She loves to play with form and voice, so it’s hard to say that I grow more familiar with her style from one book to the next. The three I have translated are House of Day, House of Night, which is one of her ‘constellation’ novels, consisting of a loosely connected set of stories, ideas and images; Primeval and Other Times, the twentieth-century history of a village told through its residents, which owes a lot stylistically to myths and legends; and Drive Your Plow… in which the narrator’s sometimes unsettling voice is influenced partly by William Blake, partly by Leonora Carrington, and wholly by Olga Tokarczuk. Luckily I share her work with Jennifer Croft, an excellent translator, who is now working on The Books of Jacob, a sweeping historical epic about the mystical leader of an eighteenth-century religious sect.

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

I nominate Nicky Harman, who translates from Chinese.

Greatest Women in Translation: Marta Dziurosz

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Women in Translation month is over this year, way buzzier than the previous years, but we can keep doing our job here, interviewing and recognizing the great women we have in translation.

Please welcome Marta Dziurosz, nominated by Canan Marasligil.

Marta Dziurosz

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1. The first literary translation job you found on your own was at a book fair in Poland: you say you introduced yourself “at the stall of every publisher, left them some hand-made materials […] and one of them bit.” If you had to do it again, would you do anything differently? What advice would you give to those who are starting out and would like to do the same thing you did?

That was a surprisingly successful strategy for a completely different time and place – I wanted to start translating from English into Polish, and it was perhaps ten years ago. The market of translated literature in Poland is massive, which has all the predictable problems, but it also means it was comparatively easy to start working this way. My relationship with that one publishing house lasted for seven years and I was very happy to be working with them. The thing is I am now doing it again, but the other way round – translating from Polish into English, which is a completely different kettle of fish. The market is tiny and because the resources for publishing translations are so much more stretched, you need to be more canny when introducing yourself if you want to be successful. I won’t lie – it does help to be in London and meet people personally, but exciting things in translation-focused publishing are also happening in the North, with the Northern Fiction Alliance and the focus on translation during the Edinburgh festival. Edinburgh, just like the London Book Fair, the Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School in Norwich, Translate at City and International Translation Day, are great focal points of the year when you get a massive shot of industry knowledge, so it’s great to try and be there. People on ETN (the Emerging Translators’ Network) usually have good tips on where to stay. In general, preparation is key – before you pitch or introduce yourself, know what you want to do and who you want to talk to. On the other hand, though, chance encounters and conversations are also great and potentially fruitful. Finally, read widely in your language to see what you like, and read as many books as you can translated into English from your language, see how they do it and ask yourself why.

2. Being a non-native translator of English yourself, you talk a lot about this controversial subject (here, for example). You say you are “increasingly confused about who a native speaker really is” (link above). Why is that?

I want to help make it less controversial. The reason why I am confused about this term is that you’d have to be wilfully ignorant not to see that people arrive at languages at various stages of their lives and through various circumstances.

Language competence, cultural sensitivity, suppleness of phrase, a sly sense of humour, an ear for nuance – these are not exclusive to “native” speakers.

The division between “native” and “non-native” defines the latter negatively, as if through some sort of lack, and “non-native” is frequently used as a shorthand for “in need of linguistic instruction”. I wrote an article about this for The Linguist and a good few people emailed me saying they’ve been holding themselves back in their careers because they felt it wasn’t the done thing to translate into a language you’d come into later in life. Isn’t that a shame?

3. You work at Pan Macmillan, drafting and negotiating most of their translators’ contracts. As you say, it “is an interesting peek behind the scenes” and gives you “the chance to mediate between the two sides of the deal” (link in Q1). What have you learned, as a translator, with this experience? And what advice would you give to translators regarding contracts based on this experience?

As a translator, remember that the person you’re negotiating your contract with (sometimes it will be a dedicated contracts person, sometimes not) is a human being, and not your enemy. Both sides want the deal to happen (preferably on good terms and with the minimum of hassle). Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to negotiate for your preferred terms, but pick your battles and know when to gracefully accept a compromise. Remember that the terms of your contract will to some extent depend on the terms of the “head” contract – that is, the contract your publisher signs to buy rights in the book with the original rights holder (for example, the publisher of the original Spanish book you’re translating into English). If you’re a member of the Translators’ Association, you can use their free contract vetting service, or you can listen to a podcast of an event about this I chaired at Free Word, to cover the basics.

4. You have recently presented a keynote on scents in literature. “The purpose of the talk was to reflect on the many ways in which scent is used in literature to evoke emotions and tell stories,” as you point out in the event’s blog, where you also provide a reading list related to the topic. Could you explain in more details what translating scent is all about?

We had a whole panel discussion about it at Free Word. I am very interested in the transmission of ideas; in this case between words and scents and vice versa. The perfumer Thomas Fontaine recently said in an interview: “Perfume is a story; we get a story from a, for example, fashion brand, and we translate that into fragrances”. At the Free Word event, it was fascinating to discuss the embodiment of a brief into a fragrance, and the translation of scent into literature, as well as translating a book about scents from French into English. When making a transition between languages, or between scent and text, what gets carried across? You can dig pretty deep in that topic, and Ricarda Vidal, one of the participants of the discussion, did just that in her Translation Games project.

5. You are an Associate of London’s Free Word Centre, and were their 2015-2016 Translator in Residence. As a TiR, last year, as part of Free Word’s celebrations around International Women’s Day, you chaired a panel discussion on women in translation, a topic that has everything to do with this series. How can we tackle this gender imbalance in international literature and make a difference? Do you think initiatives such as Women in Translation help somehow?

Of course I am incensed that we still need to discuss this, but we do still need to discuss this. A few recent lists of recommendations for books in translation included barely any women authors, and in terms of review space (dramatically scarce as it is), percentages of books in translation published and event/panel appearances the field is still far from level. The initiative you mention, the new Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, And Other Stories’ idea of publishing only women in 2018 – looking at the history of publishing and the endless years when focusing exclusively on men didn’t even warrant a comment or a moment of reflection, I’d personally say they are very necessary. They make us reflect a bit more about what we read, where we find our recommendations, who we support with our money, attention and time, whose perspective we find worthwhile.

6. As an advocate of Polish literature, what book, in particular, do you recommend for someone who would like to start exploring it? As you already recommended a few that have not been translated yet in your interview to Jen Calleja (link in Q1), it can be one that has been already translated.

The most beautiful Polish book I’ve recently read in translation was Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Fitzcarraldo. I reviewed it for the Glasgow Review of Books – it’s a beautiful, tender look at people in transit, a personal encyclopedia of travel, movement, migration.

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

I’d like to nominate the eminent German translator Charlotte Collins, whose work I admire – this is for very selfish reasons, I’d just like to know more about her practice!

Greatest Women in Translation: Sarah Ardizzone

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Image created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Geatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Ardizzone (nominated by Sophie Lewis), French to English literary translator.

Sarah Ardizzone

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1. One of your translations worth noting here is the graphic novel Alpha, the story of a migrant desperately searching for his family (by Bessora, illustrated by Barroux). In this interview you gave to Authors Live, you say that in your career as a translator, this is the one book you were adamant had to be published, so you were very proactive in going to publishers to publish it. Why is that?

Because it tells the most pressing story of our times: that of human migration. Equally, a graphic diary penned by a fictional migrant, who embarks on a cruel odyssey from Ivory Coast to France, and aimed at everyone, from YA (young adult) readers to the grown-up literary market to Amnesty supporters, wasn’t the easiest sell: so I had to work hard to find the right publisher. Barrington Stoke proved just that publisher. They fell in love with Alpha when we ran a Spectacular Translation Machine event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2015. Which brings me to your next question…

2. Another of your translations worth noting is another graphic novel, Line of Fire. The original book in French originated “a groundbreaking new translation event” called the Spectacular Translation Machine. What was the event about and how was you experience with it?

Together with co-curator Daniel Hahn, and with the support of the British Centre for Literary Translation, we created the Spectacular Translation Machine at the Southbank Centre for the London Literature Festival 2013. The idea was simple: invite the general public to translate an entire book, as a collaborative and creative endeavour, across a couple of weekends. What better way of re-discovering and celebrating what it is that we think we do when we translate? Around the room, as if at an art gallery, we hung the images from Line of Fire (a graphic diary created by Barroux, who discovered in a skip the real handwritten diary of an unknown First World War French soldier). The public was invited to choose a picture to translate, before receiving the text that accompanied it – together with expert help on hand should they need support or want to talk ideas through. One picture alone received 17 translations… Most of all, people took the time to sit and weigh words with each other, to talk about why they made the subtle and nuanced choices they did, to solicit each other on how they could express a voice more ‘authentically’ or push a turn of phrase further or produce something fresh while avoiding infelicities or anachronisms…

3. What are the challenges and what is so fascinating about translating graphic novels, in your opinion?

Translating graphic novels can be very liberating, because the text tends to be stripped right down to the essentials. It can also mark a shift from more verbose and sometimes ‘fanciful’ literary translation to what you might call ‘urgent quality translation’. There are all sorts of other issues that come into play too, because I’m obeying two masters (pictures as well as words) whose creators in the case of Alpha both have one-name monikers beginning with B! Alpha is a fictional character but it’s an Everyman story, and as a translator that puts the wind in my sail.

4. Your real translation journey began with the translation of Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader. Can you describe your experience to us?

Well, Daniel Pennac is a master storyteller and thinker – so that’s a challenge in itself, in terms of conveying his originality into the English language. The way he expresses his ideas is so unique and so characterfully voiced that it’s as if he’s pushing the French language beyond its limits – there should be an adjective for it: Pennacian. With The Rights of the Reader he goes to the heart of why we are naturally beguiled by stories, when we are first told them, and why the education system risks making us fall out of love with them as readers. Trying to communicate Pennac’s ideas in English led to some of the most memorable editorial sessions I’ve ever experienced at my publishers, Walker Books.

5. You co-founded Translators in Schools, “a professional development programme to widen the pool of translators and teachers with the skills to run creative translation workshops in schools.” Could you tell us briefly how it works, your current role in it and your experience so far?

I co-curate the programmes we run, in partnership with the Stephen Spender Trust. Recently, we held The Big Translate which was due to take place at the Southbank Centre but, due to recent tragic events in London, took place instead at Heathbrook Primary School – this was supported by King’s Cultural Institute. We are also running a Creative Translation in the Classroom programme, supported by the Rothschild Foundation; following a CPD day, four translators and teachers have now been paired to collaborate on piloting original approaches to translation in the classroom.

6. You are a judge and translation advisor of the In Other Words initiative, by BookTrust, “a new project to promote the translation and UK publication of outstanding children’s literature from around the world.” How are books shortlisted for the initiative, i.e. on what basis are they chosen to be translated?

We’re looking for exceptional children’s fiction for children aged 6 to 12 that has not yet been published in the English language. This year, we’re open to untranslated classics still within copyright as well as recent titles, and we welcome books written by authors of all backgrounds. The deadline for entries is 16th August – so please help spread the word. How do we choose which titles get shortlisted and have 10,000-word extracts translated? That’s the eye-opening bit, as well as the hard-graft. We work through 400 odd submissions, and consider which compelling stories, excellent writing and original, timeless or previously unheard voices stand out.

7. Now it is your turn. Who do you nominate to be our next interviewee?

I nominate Canan Marasligil, writer, translator, editor and curator extraordinaire. Canan brings her translator’s eye to everything she does, including the way she walks around new cities.

Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Lewis

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Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Sophie Lewis (nominated by Alison Entrekin).

Sophie Lewis

Credits at the end of the interview.

1. Besides translating, you used to be senior editor at And Other Stories. What exactly do you do now?

I still edit but as a freelancer. I edit fiction for And Other Stories but also for other publishers, including Peirene Press and Tilted Axis Press. This sits more easily alongside my freelance translating: I try only to take on one major job, whether translation or edit, at a time, and run the smaller jobs of whatever kind alongside. In addition, though, since 2016 I have been running workshops on translation in secondary schools, under the title Shadow Heroes.

2. As editor of And Other Stories, you wrote this article about the Year of Publishing Women 2018. This has everything to do with our series, so why don’t you tell us a bit more about this amazing initiative?

What I didn’t manage to include in the article was an argument for why it’s even more important for a publisher working mainly with translations to publish women: if British publishing is male-dominated, what filters through via translation is so masculine it’s breathtaking. So the opportunity to get the word out around the world that we’re interested in something else, in women’s writing particularly, and then in digging into the systems and nets around women that allow them to write, be published and be translated – or not, was something particularly pertinent to And Other Stories. And with some very exciting books already scheduled for 2018 the provocation is already working its magic.

3. You mainly translate from French into English, and one of your numerous translations was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle, that, in your own words, is “groundbreaking women’s writing”, giving voice to “a schoolgirl in a convent school […] systematically repressed from a young age.” Being aware of the many difficulties women face and of the sex issues the world is facing, how was this experience of translating such an amazing woman writer and such a delicate story?

This was a very tough job. The prose was frequently both precise and purple, anatomical, highly detailed and also emotional and sensual. I had to find words for parts that are never comfortably named in English – the usual problem is the lack of middle ground between offensive slang and medical terminology. So I reluctantly employed some euphemism, while making sure I was as precise as I could be everywhere else. And I tried to keep hearing that teenage girl’s voice. Thérèse is precocious but also sheltered. She herself is finding new ways to express her experience and she does that awkwardly, sometimes, but always with genuine feeling. Following and recreating her experience was nearly as painful and exhilarating as it must have been for Leduc to get it down on paper.

4. Besides Leduc, you have also translated several other French writers, such as Stendhal, Jules Verne, Charles Cros, Marcel Aymé, Emilie de Turckheim, Emmanuelle Pagano. Have you already ventured into translating Brazilian Portuguese literature? If so, what have you translated so far? If not, why not?

I have translated short fiction by João Gilberto Noll and also a fair bit of non-fiction and paratextual stuff – for literary festivals and the like. I need to build up my contacts in publishing, so they know to trust me for this work as well as French books. I also need to read more Brazilian fiction, so that I can better trust my own sense of taste and how the literary landscape lies in Brazil. Lastly, I need to convince the Brazilian authorities to reinstate the translation funding so confidently announced only a few years ago. That would really help publishers make the leap to commission translations of Brazilian works.

5. What, in your opinion, are the main differences between translating from French and Brazilian Portuguese into English?

I find Brazilian Portuguese often more fluid, not being required to be quite as specific as either French or English. But really, the differences between each book and each writer’s style are much greater than the differences between the languages overall.

6. How did your story with Brazil and Brazilian Portuguese begin?

I originally began to study European Portuguese in evening classes. I had some ideas about what my next language should be and so chose Portuguese for somewhat academic purposes. I was the only person in my class to be neither related to lusophones nor in love with a lusophone. It was hard! Then my husband landed a job teaching in Rio, so we switched our Portuguese classes to Brazilian. It only really came together when we reached Rio. We lived there for four and a half years; our son Xul was born there in 2014.

7. Now it is your turn to nominate our next interviewee. Who inspires you the most?

I admire Sarah Ardizzone very much for following an inclination to specialise in working with younger writers and translating a youthful, ‘street’ world that requires immense sensitivity to slang and to street-level politics. As I see it, the work she translates presents at least as challenging difficulties as any other texts could do, but Sarah tackles them both more systematically and more passionately than any other translator I’ve encountered.

* Image created with Canva.
Credit of Sophie Lewis’ picture (provided by the interviewee herself): photographer Anna Michell.
Source of the quote on the image: Sophie Lewis and her authors.

How to become the world’s most translated author

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Becoming the world’s most translated author is no easy feat. Many of those in UNESCO’s Index Translationum list of the top 20 most translated authors have held a place in the list for some years. Or decades. Or, in the case of William Shakespeare, centuries. But that doesn’t mean that the list isn’t open to new entrants. Danielle Steel and Stephen King are both within the top ten, giving hope to those still writing away in the hope of making it big enough to need to engage an army of professional translators to spread their novels around the world.

The Index Translationum reveals some interesting information about those whose works have been translated more than any other authors’ in the world. Here we drill down into the detail in search of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author.

Clearly, being an incredibly talented writer is the most important element behind making it onto the Index Translationum list, but analysis of the other factors reveals some interesting results. When it comes to becoming one of the world’s most translated authors, less is definitely not more. All of those on the list are (or were) prolific writers. The most recent entrants have all written dozens of novels, with Danielle Steel being known for writing up to five novels at a time.

Language is also a key factor. Of the top 20 most translated authors, English was (or still is) the language used by nine of them. French comes next, with four authors writing in French, followed by Russian and German with two authors each.

Gender is also relevant. Of the top 20 authors, only six are female. While the literary world has become far less dominated by men – in particular over the last 50 or so years – there are still many countries where women are not encouraged not to become authors (or are forbidden from doing so altogether). Given these facts, that four of the top ten most translated authors are women is actually very encouraging. Men might still have the edge, but the ‘fairer sex’ is catching up fast.

Subject matter is the final important element when it comes to the criteria for making it onto UNCESCO’s list. Six of those in the top 20 wrote books for children, while five chose murder/mystery/suspense as their genre (including the author at the very top of the list, Agatha Christie). Other genres in the top 20 were as varied as religion, romance and politics.

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Image provided by the author

Based on these fascinating insights, it’s possible to identify the key characteristics of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author. If you’re a man who’s writing dozens of murder/mystery fairy tales in English, you might just be in with a chance!

About the author
louLouise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.