Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Hughes

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

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

Welcome, Sophie!

Sophie Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Greatest Women in Translation: Juana Adcock

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

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

Juana Adcock

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                   Deid-loss or Daidalos

                                                                   fit’s it gaan tae be?

 

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

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

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

 

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

draigelt yowes; the slalom loons fae Dandruff Canyon; wheepers

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatest Women in Translation: Robin Myers

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

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

Robin Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can have it.

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

The night rage, the gray dawn
forgiving you.

The train,
the track.

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

You can have the rest of it.

You can rest.

It will drive you mad.

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

having it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Whittle

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

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

Charlotte Whittle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatest Women in Translation: Julia Sanches

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

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

Julia Sanches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Heather Cleary

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

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

Heather Cleary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatest Women in Translation: Sabine Lammersdorf

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series – the last one of 2015.

As it’s been happening with this series, I didn’t know today’s interviewee. So I’ve been thinking that it has been a sort of networking for me. I get to e-meet the person and to know more about her in order to make up the questions. Fantastic, right?

Now, let’s welcome today’s interviewee, Sabine Lammersdorf, nominated by Giselle Chaumien.


sabine lammersdorf

1. You have two ferrets, Luciano and Mephisto. How is it like to have them around the house being a freelancer?

They are pure joy, fun and distraction. They allow me to escape from my desk and take breaks, although this is not the reason for having them around. I spend many hours at my desk and so Luciano and Mephisto provide the much welcomed mischief, laughter, carefreeness in an otherwise serious work environment. As any other pet would wish for, I take good care of them and attend to their needs; in other words: They enable me to forget work for a little while and help me clear my mind.

2. After your son was born in 1993, you used your long-term maternity leave to attend lectures in mechanical engineering as a guest student and do your Abitur (A levels). How did you manage to study and raise a kid?

Doing my A levels and attending guest lectures in mechanical engineering was part of a long-term plan. After giving birth to my son and at the time I was convinced that he would be content with someone looking after him for several hours, I put a schedule together and started looking for a babysitter. I was very lucky to find a wonderful elderly lady who not only agreed to take care of him whenever I attended night school or lectures, but also became an additional grandmother for my son.

3. What made you decide to attend lectures in mechanical engineering after having worked for 11 years as an in-house translator and interpreter in IT?

My father was a passionate mechanical engineer and I used to spend the better part of my childhood together with my father at his drawing board. I was fascinated to see the sketches on his drawing board come to life, first as small scale models and later as huge and live equipment. He constantly encouraged me to experiment, to play with the most basic laws of physics explaining why they worked – or not (more often than they did).

After completing my studies, I happened to land my first job at a company selling and servicing, including repairing, hard and floppy disk drives. Back then in 1982, hard and floppy disk drives were very expensive, so they actually repaired them. The parent company was Indian, supplying all the then big players in the industry with their hard and floppy disks. My main task was to translate the complete documentation into German and act as an interpreter for the trainer during training sessions and conferences. In order to understand what I was talking and writing about, I spent quite a while in the workshop actually repairing disk drives. Admittedly, I enjoyed this combination of “theoretical” and hands-on work – which is entirely based on physics and mathematics, just as mechanical engineering is.

As disk drives became more affordable and the development focussed more and more on software it was fascinating to learn how strings of electrical impulses made things happen on the screen, offering the possibility to scale down the necessary hardware. I never got round to learn how to programme; at that time, I still worked as a translator and interpreter with a gradually changing focus on software, as I did not feel that my knowledge was sufficient enough at that point to specialise in mechanical engineering. It was really fascinating to learn how computers and large machinery items were combined, especially in the area of high precision machinery.

4. Why have you decided to relocate to Spain after your son was born, after having lived so many years in Germany?

Well, the long-term plan had always been to work as a translator and/or interpreter for a major multi-national company and to relocate to Asia. For many reasons, I found this too difficult with a small child, so I began thinking about European countries which could provide career opportunities for me and a stable, safe environment for my son. As I did not want to learn another language and because I loved the Mediterranean, Spain and France were on the cards. The dice fell on the Spanish Mediterranean Coast which is where we now reside, within a multi-national environment which I actually enjoy. The internet and computer era not only liberated us from typewriters, they also granted us the opportunity to allow us to live and work wherever we wished or to travel the world whilst working, as some colleagues actually did.

5. You and Giselle Chaumien have a blog together, Wissenswinkel, where you both share lots of information for newbies in the translation industry. Why do you feel it is important to welcome and help newcomers in the translation industry?

“Wissenswinkel” is in fact the result of a failure. It all originated from a discussion about mentoring in general on Facebook and as a result of some newbies informing us that they would appreciate guidance and support when starting their own careers. And thus I founded a mentoring group on Facebook, which was in fact far too spontaneous – without any planning in advance. Giselle Chaumien became a member of this group, this is where we actually met and soon discovered that we both felt the same about sharing our knowledge with newcomers. The former Facebook mentoring group failed, and Giselle Chaumien and I decided to find another way of relaying our knowledge and experience free of charge – that is how “Wissenswinkel” was born.

Generally speaking, newcomers leave university or any language institute with plenty of theoretical knowledge; they usually learn everything connected with the translation and /or interpretation process, but are not introduced to real-world practicalities such as company procedures, processes, organisational issues which inevitably arise when being self-employed. This has not changed since I passed my exams, and having had something like “Wissenswinkel” at hand would have saved me a lot of time and would have helped me to avoid many mistakes. 

There are countless workshops, conferences, webinars, etc. subject to attendance fees. However, a newcomer with very little income, if any, might not be able to afford to attend them. The number of limited resources available which are free of charge mostly focus on marketing aspects. Marketing is undoubtedly an important topic, however, there are many more equally important topics which are hardly ever covered and newcomers might find it difficult to obtain further information or answers to their questions. I had the opportunity to learn so much, gather so much information, sharing this is my pleasure and joy.

“Wissenswinkel” continues to grow at a steady pace. We want it to become some sort of knowledge database covering topics from advice and pricing to case studies to explanations of technical terms and terminology. Our aim and hope is that it shall be helpful and that newcomers will not find themselves completely lost at the beginning of their own working careers. Besides that, newcomers are always welcome to contact us via other channels.

6. Giselle describes yourself as “very reliable”. Do you think reliability is an essential quality as a translator? Why (not)?

Well, the translation industry belongs to the service sector and everything related to service in its broadest sense is based on trust and reliability. This is even more important if someone works in a field where they never (or hardly ever) meet their clients. As we all expect our clients to pay our invoices, so they expect us to deliver our product – the translation – as to the specifications agreed beforehand. 

Reliability, trust, and the delivery of mutually objectives are the foundations of any business – and the translation business does not differ from any other business within the service sector.

7. Contracts and other legal documents were always part of your work, so you recently decided to study Business Law. Do you think it has helped doing a major after already working in the area?

I adore legal language and I very much like translating such documents. Legal language is beautiful and sometimes a challenge, as one single sentence may cover an entire page. The more contracts I translated over the years, the more interesting they became and I began researching the possibility to broaden my horizons without having to interrupt my career. Thanks to modern technology and “newish” types of study courses this is now possible, providing me an option to further dig into this very interesting subject, and to explore new fields of business in the long run.

Contract translation work is the somewhat logical consequence of technological product translation work, as whatever the result of a development is going to be sold. I would not say that this helped to take this decision to study, but love of legal language was certainly its root and the beginning of a very interesting open-ended journey 🙂  

8. One can hardly find information about your business online. Your website is still under construction. Do you think that not being visible online hinders your possibility of being found by potential clients?

Actually, I do not think so. A website is nothing but an extended business card or an extended entry in the yellow pages. Just as back in the pre-internet days nobody would actually file through the yellow pages to find a translator, nobody, nowadays looks at the numerous translator websites available. For sure, access to a website certainly makes it easier to showcase one’s work and capabilities, and thus the marketing element becomes easier; however, I personally do not consider it as a major pre-requisite. I do believe in the principle of meeting potential clients where they are visible, for example, at conferences, trade fairs, specialist forums, etc. My approach might be very old-school, however, this approach allows me firstly to establish the client contact and then explore the needs of a potential client somehow more detailed than just being contacted through a website without really knowing anything about the background of such an enquiry. I find it easier to establish long-term business relationships via my old-school approach, many of my clients come through recommendation anyway.

Nevertheless, my website will be completed sometime next year, and I will then see what it can do for me and how to use it. 

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

I would like to nominate Allison Wright, she is a German, French and Portuguese to English translator based in Portugal and an accredited member of SATI/SAVI (South Africa), and more recently became a member of the Association of Portuguese Translators and Interpreters, APTRAD. Besides her translation work, she has her own blog “That elusive pair of Jeans” and I really enjoy her eloquent writing.

I feel a bit like standing on the red carpet and I would like to thank you, Caroline, for this forum and also I would like to thank Giselle Chaumien for nominating me. A special thanks goes to Isabel Wilkins, who took on the task of putting my “Germlish” thoughts into proper English. She is a market researcher, a true professional in her own field and a very dear friend.


Thank you, Sabine, for promptly accepting Giselle’s nomination and my invitation to be interviewed for our series! It was a real pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you better. 🙂