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.

Guest post: TA First Translation Prize shortlists

Happy 2018, dearest readers!

Thanks for the patience in waiting for new posts! Posts will resume as usual starting from today. And to make up to your patient and kind waiting, here are some words on the fresh announcement of the Society of Authors’ TA First Translation Prize, from Daniel Hahn himself.

Welcome, Daniel!

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Source: Society of Authors

Today my fellow judges and I announce the four shortlisted books for this year’s TA First Translation Prize, a prize launched in 2017 and run by the Society of Authors, to reward the best book-length debut prose translation published in the UK. The translation profession is pretty rude health, I think, but the relative shortage of work means it’s still highly competitive, which means it’s hard for a newcomer to break into; so this prize is designed to give those starting out a little friendly encouragement…

The judges for the inaugural prize last year selected Bela Shayevich’s translation of Second-Hand Time (by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich), published by Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Books. Testard himself shared in the win, as this £2000 prize unusually rewards not only the translator but also her/his editor – in grateful recognition of that invaluable but mostly invisible contribution editors make to our profession.

This year, translator Margaret Jull Costa, publisher Philip Gwyn Jones and I read through all the eligible books – fiction long and short, assorted non-fiction, work for children, illustrated books – and narrowed them down to just four titles. A slightly shorter shortlist than last year, but we took the decision that we didn’t merely want to settle with a fixed number that a majority of us were more or less keen on, rather we wanted a list of books – however many that may be – of which we all felt that genuinely any one could win. Which is certainly the case for the selection we ended up with: very different books, but all of us felt that any one of them would be a worthy winner of the prize. We three judges were delighted at what we discovered. (And we – two translators and a publisher, all very experienced – are a pretty demanding bunch…)

The books we’ve chosen are as follows:

I Am the Brother of XXGini Alhadeff’s translation of a collection of Fleur Jaeggy’s short stories (publ. And Other Stories). This isn’t just a superb collection from Jaeggy herself, it’s also a masterpiece of translatory control. Gini Alhadeff follows every beat of Jaeggy’s prose, matching its subtle modulations and its sharp turns to truly impressive effect. This is writing that’s often restrained, often cool, and yet really gets under your skin, and stays there. I learned after reading this that Alhadeff has some experience translating poetry, which comes as no surprise.

The Impossible Fairy-TaleJanet Hong’s translation of the beautiful and disturbing novel by Han Yujoo (pub. Tilted Axis Press). Any book that needs to grip its reader so tightly for over 300 pages demands great precision from a translator. But a novel that seems to have language as one of its subjects must of course present a particular additional challenge, and Janet Hong has met this challenge brilliantly – with energy, style and often great imaginativeness.

FirefliesFionn Petch’s translation of the book by Luis Sagasti (publ. Charco Press). An unusual book, and – I think for all of us on the panel – one of the real discoveries of our reading. It’s an ambitious novel (is it really a novel?), deeply and cleverly intriguing but structurally fleet-footed (-winged?). Translator Fionn Petch gives us Sagasti in a voice that is just as erudite, meditative and beautifully poetic as it needs to be but conveyed in absolutely readable clarity, too – a lot harder to do than it looks.

Can You Hear Me?Alex Valente’s translation of Elena Varvello’s unputdownable piece of noir (publ. Two Roads). In some ways, this is the most understated piece of translation on the list, which is its own challenge; the particular voice and atmosphere and pacing require something very clear, very clean, very unshowy – a kind of prose with no room for any wrong notes. Which can be as hard, and certainly as unforgiving, as the more virtuosic work – but Valente’s work is impeccable.

It’s quite a quartet, I think. I’d strongly recommend you check out the work of these four brilliant translators – who may just be starting out, but, rather depressingly, can already teach the rest of us a thing or two…

We announce the winning translator and editor at an event at the British Library in London, on the evening of February 13th.

Official announcement: The Translation Prizes 2018 shortlists

About the author

Daniel Hahn

Credit: John Lawrence

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with some sixty books to his name. He is a past chair of the Translators Association and the Society of Authors, and currently on the judging panel for the TA First Translation Prize.

Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Collins

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Image credit: Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series! It’s been a long time since our last interview due to my vacation. We are now back with our last interviewee of the year, Charlotte Collins, nominated by Marta Dziurosz.

Welcome, Charlotte!

Charlotte Collins

Photo credit: Jaime Stewart / Image created with Canva

1. You only started as a literary translator in 2012. Before that, you were mainly a journalistic translator. However, with the very first book you translated, A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you won the 2017 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translation Prize. Do you think that having had a connection with the book beforehand made a difference to the way you translated it? I’m referring to the fact that you were asked to write a reader’s report on the book for Picador, were very enthusiastic about it, and the publisher was convinced to buy the rights.

It’s not unusual for a translator to come to a book in this way, after writing a reader’s report for the publisher. What I didn’t realize at the time, because I was just starting out, was that you’re seldom asked to read something this good! It’s a rare delight for me to feel such an intense personal and emotional connection with the work.

I’m not sure to what extent that influenced the translation process, though. I try to be meticulous with everything I translate. Literary translation isn’t just about communicating content; you’re trying to reproduce, as closely as possible, the atmosphere and feel of the original. But this is such a delicate thing to do. It’s necessarily subjective; the text is being filtered through your own mind and sensibility, so what you’re reproducing for others to read – and interpret – is your impression of it. Another translator will inevitably reproduce it differently. So however ‘invisible’ a translator tries to be, they can’t help but be an integral part of the text.

Because of this, I feel a duty to try and stay as close to the original as I can – without, of course, sounding clunky. I pay very close attention to what I believe to be the author’s intention (though here again my interpretation can only be subjective), and feel I have a responsibility not to betray it. So, for example, I might be weighing up translation choices and find myself thinking, “But if s/he had wanted to say that, s/he would have chosen this word instead.” In which case I’ll stick with whichever’s closer, providing it works.

I felt it was especially important to do this with A Whole Life. It was clear to me that the author had chosen each word with great care, for a reason, and it was vital that I do the same. With other texts I might allow myself a bit more freedom. The one I’m translating now, for example – Mark und Bein (Homeland) by Walter Kempowski – requires a much looser approach: he has a very distinctive style, and that needs to come across, but it runs the risk of sounding awkward in English. I’ll be discussing with the editor how free it can be. It’s a challenge.

2. You think the literary translation community is “tremendously supportive.” How do you think this benefits new translators entering the market?

I think this is a wonderful time for emerging literary translators – in the anglophone world, at least; I can’t speak for other regions. Translated fiction is enjoying something of a ‘moment’ – sales are up, the readership is expanding, and new and reconstituted prizes like the Man Booker International, the Dublin International, the new Translators Association prize for emerging translators and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation are making a fantastic contribution to promoting translated literature, as well as increasing the visibility of the translators themselves and an appreciation of what it is we do.

One of the most valuable resources out there is the Emerging Translators Network. It was set up by three of my colleagues in 2011, and is aimed at translators who are just embarking on their literary career. It now has hundreds of members all around the world. The ETN provides practical peer support and advice via an online forum, and it’s also a great social network. As is the case for any writer, there’s the potential for translation to be quite an isolated profession. I was lucky enough to move into literary translation shortly after the ETN was founded. There are so many translation-related events happening, and if you look or post on the forum you can usually find colleagues who are going. Some colleagues I met just a few years ago are now close friends.

Once you’ve published something, or have a contract to publish, you’re eligible to join the Translators Association of the (UK) Society of Authors. It’s really worth doing, not only for the networking and in order to keep abreast of developments in the profession, but also because, once you’re a member, you can send contracts to the SoA’s legal team. They’ll check them for you with a fine-toothed comb, and advise you on what you could and should be asking for. That alone is worth far more than the membership fee!

3. I previously watched and shared on my social media channels the speech you gave on accepting the prize mentioned in question 1. I’ve just watched it again to write these questions and was equally impressed and inspired by it. One of the most beautiful things you said was that you “feel passionately that the learning of languages is tremendously important for breaking through […] walls, for crossing […] borders, for making […] connections, for understanding other cultures.” You made a connection between this growing spirit of isolation, especially among political leaders, of not wanting to communicate, to reach out to other people and cultures, and the drop in the learning of languages by English speakers. Could you elaborate a bit on the connection between learning new languages and the spirit of openness and understanding?

In order to learn to speak another language well, you need to understand how that language works within the culture. Language isn’t just words. Everyone knows – translators especially – that words exist within a context, and that context is all. So learning another language means you’re opening yourself up to that other culture, learning about different ways of thinking and doing things; you gain a sense of a different history and environment, a different way of life. It can’t help but broaden the mind. Our world today is globalised: we’re not living, and cannot live, in isolation, be it social, cultural, economic or political. But we’ll never all be the same. We can and should celebrate our differences and diversity – including linguistic diversity – while at the same time seeking to bridge those differences and facilitate better understanding between peoples. The better we’re able to communicate with someone in their own language – the more of their language and culture we understand – the better we’re able to understand them and their way of thinking. And that of course puts us in a better position to build bridges, cement ties, do business, negotiate peace, do whatever it is we want or need to do.

Even learning a language to a very basic level will take you some of the way. It’s not just about being able to speak fluently: you’ll experience and understand how different languages actually force you to think and communicate differently. I’ve learned to appreciate, for example, that my bad habit of interrupting people is even more unacceptable in German. How can I possibly know what someone’s trying to say when they haven’t even got to the verb! And when speaking in German you need to have a very clear idea of what you want to say, otherwise you may have to go back and start the sentence again. It’s much easier to waffle in English.

4. In your opinion, not only learning languages but also reading translated fiction is important for the exploration of new cultures. You say that, when we read, we enter into the character’s head; we become that person, we are drawn into their world. How is that particularly special when reading translated fiction?

For all the reasons given above. It’s essential that we broaden our understanding of others, of how people outside our own little bubble of experience live and think, and why. It’s important that we learn to have empathy, and realise how our actions impact on those around us. What better way to do this than through fiction? Fiction takes you inside someone else’s head; you’re directly experiencing things from their point of view, thinking their thoughts, living their life, hearing their voice inside your mind as if it were your own, being transported to places you’ve never seen, that may not even exist. If you look at it this way, reading is a kind of magic. And if you’re reading literature in translation, the starting point is already a culture other than your own, so the book will inevitably transport you to places and points of view outside your immediate realm of experience.

5. In your speech, you said: “It is important, especially now, that we read well, that we read wisely, and that we read translations.” How do you think we – translators – can play our part in increasing awareness of this?

First, we need to promote ourselves more. Translators are not, on the whole, natural Rampensäue (limelight-hoggers). In our profession we spend the majority of our time working at home, on our own, in silence, with just a book for company, in close communion with the mind of someone who may or may not be dead, and is almost certainly unaware of our devoted attention. This is what we’ve chosen to do, and there are probably reasons for that. I think many of us find it difficult to promote ourselves and our work, beyond telling a few friends and colleagues when we’ve got a book out, either because we’re a bit shy, or because we’re afraid of coming across as arrogant or pushy. To me, each individual translator is a representative of and an advocate for the profession. This is why I support the #namethetranslator initiative, which aims to ensure that translators are always credited alongside authors on websites, in reviews, broadcasts and so on. We want readers to be aware of the work we do, to be conscious that they’ve just read and enjoyed a translation, because it might make them want to read others. In my experience, once people really start thinking about what translation involves, they’re intrigued and want to find out more. At literary festivals, translators are becoming a bit of a draw in themselves – talking about a specific book, examining their craft, discussing with the author, or representing him/her if s/he is unavailable (or dead). Once we can command that interest, we acquire a platform to speak about our work, about the books we love, and about wider contemporary issues, and be heard.

6. “Life is just one moment after another. They might be big moments or small moments, but every one is precious.” This was another of your touching lines, referring to the depth of the book A Whole Life and the author’s attention to detail. I reckon one of your big moments in life was receiving the prize. How about one of your small, but special, moments? I would love to learn what it was.

Small, special moments… well, there are so many. They’re all around us, all the time. You just have to focus on them. As soon as anyone talks about it like this they immediately sound like a New Ager, but it’s true. I’d say that, like Andreas Egger in A Whole Life, I often find them in nature. I have lots of memories of moments spent looking at a beautiful view. For example: sitting outside a mountain hut early one morning and looking down on the mist clearing from the Kaisertal as the sun came up, all those little fluffy clouds drifting off like sheep in search of the exit. Or… aged 18, reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for the first time, under the sloping ceiling of an attic room. It was breathtaking – I felt as if I were being swept up and away in a whirlwind, and when I finished I more or less fell off the bed.

And all shall be well and 
All manner of thing shall be well
 
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
 
Into the crowned knot of fire
 
And the fire and the rose are one.

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

I’d like to nominate Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has just stepped down after three years as co-chair of the Translators Association. As well as being a multiple-award-winning translator in her own right and one of the leading practitioners in her field, Antonia’s also a dedicated mentor and an inspiration to a great many of her colleagues, particularly emerging translators from the Polish. She has long been a vocal and active champion of translators and translated fiction.