BY ALYSE MGRDICHIAN
Although Women in Translation Month was in August, the celebration and amplification of diverse voices in publishing shouldn’t be confined to a single month. With the theme of this issue being “Read Global,” the topic of writing and translating internationally is applicable, both to the magazine in general and to Women in Translation Month as a whole. I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing seven incredible women for this article—some are writers, some are translators, and some do a bit of both! From Romania and Guadeloupe to Chile and Jordan, I wanted to pull perspectives from global sources, and am excited to share those with you.
Whether it be a poem, play, novel, or academic article, the heart of a story is the culture and experience of its author. So, let’s first take a look at the writers in our lineup.
Doina Ruști, a Romanian author, shares with me about how her writing is highly influenced by her Balkan heritage. “My youth was spent during the communist period,” Doina says, “so I got published with difficulty. In the late ‘80s I had written a novel and was trying to publish it. I tried to reach out to all the publishing houses in Romania that I could, but I was not allowed to physically enter the buildings without special papers. It was only after the fall of communism that I was able to publish my stories. Such experiences have influenced the language of my current novels.”
“My themes are varied,” Doina continues, “but there are some obsessions of mine that I return to regularly. Among these, the theme of family reoccurs, as do lifestyles from the past—I have a well-known passion for the Romanian 18th century, called the Phanariot Era. I am also drawn to recipe books, the daily life of the middle class, and private documents, such as wills, contracts, letters, etc.”
Doina reveals that, when her Romanian work is translated into other languages, she tries her best not to think about it. “Translation is like a gamble,” she tells me. “You cross your fingers and hope for the best. Only after the reviews are published are you able to determine if the text was well translated. I have been very lucky to find great translators for my work, most of whom are writers themselves. For example, James Christian Brown is a professor at the University of Bucharest, and is a colleague of mine. I have learned a lot from him in our work together, and he is a very talented translator. In very few cases, a translator will sometimes summarize or rigidly translate word for word, but these cases are rare. I am very grateful that I have been able to see my work shared in multiple languages.”
In 2022, one of Doina’s earlier Romanian publications, The Book of Perilous Dishes, will be receiving an English translation for the first time. While Doina’s work has been translated into many languages, including Italian, Hungarian, German, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian, and Chinese, she has found that getting published in English was the hardest for her. In the beginning, she was only able to publish short stories in magazines and anthologies, and one of her novels, Lizoanca, was then published on Amazon and translated there by two young Londoners. The Book of Perilous Dishes is now Doina’s first book to be translated into English by a publishing house that offers wide distribution possibilities. “The novelty,” Doina tells me, “compared to other countries, is that I also have a literary agent, which makes me feel much more confident. The Book of Perilous Dishes is a story that takes place at the end of the 18th century, and revolves around a 15-year-old girl and her occult powers. As the title foreshadows, the novel also brings into question an old culinary book.”
Gerty Dambury has been writing poems since she was a teenager living in the suburbs of France. She now lives in Brittany, but often comes and goes from the European continent to her native island, Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean. “When I moved back to Guadeloupe for the first time,” Gerty tells me, “the themes of my poems changed completely. I used to write about things like love and people’s living conditions, but the political situation in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, started inspiring more political poems. The relationship between men and women in my country, the difficulty of being a woman and a lonely mother in the Caribbean, became my first preoccupation.”
“Two main themes can be read throughout my plays and poems: the political and economic situation in Guadeloupe, and the history and stories of black women. I tend to be fond of the work that goes unnoticed and underappreciated, because the works that are ‘famous’ lose their impact for me. If a poem or play of mine becomes popular, I worry that it is because it was not disturbing or shocking enough. This is why one of my favorite projects is a play titled Enfouissements, which went unnoticed. This play of mine was impactful and strange and beautiful, exploring loss and guilt, and I’m glad that it was never popularized. It is more special to me as it is now.”
Gerty believes that she became a writer when she was a young girl—she loved playing with words, trying to create her own language, and inventing stories that she would then act out alone, hidden in a cupboard. The first time one of her poems was published was in 1981, and her first published play, Lettres Indiennes (translated as Crosscurrents in English), wasn’t edited until 1992. “So,” Gerty says, “Although I have always been a writer, I have only officially been a writer since the ‘80s in my country and since the ‘90s in France. I hope to write more in my native language, though, which is Creole. The colonial situation between Guadeloupe and France is still the same—French is considered to be the main language on our island. If we want to be read outside of Guadeloupe, we write in French. A lot will need to be done to change this.”
Regarding being translated, Gerty holds a positive view. Although she has noticed a few errors when her books are translated, she has been able to have conversations with the translators about it before publication. “Translation is such complicated work,” Gerty states. “The translator has an immediate perception of the words, but not of what is behind the words. The words are nothing without thoughts, life, experience, personal geography, and history. How can a translator catch all this? It requires an immense amount of work, which some (but not all) translators are willing to do. My language in writing is informed by my identity, by French words that aren’t fully French, because Creole is just under or in or beside it. There are phrases that are difficult to translate for someone who does not comprehend all these complexities. Language is such a general word for such an immense world through which a poet or writer expresses herself. It’s important to be translated, though, specifically because it opens a door for people to experience another culture they would not have normally gotten to see.”
Gerty recently got an English translation of her novel, The Restless (Les Rétifs in French), and has also just finished the French translation of The Black Unicorn, a poetry collection by Audre Lorde (set to be published on October 8, 2021). Let’s meet the next three women on our list who, like Gerty, work in the fields of both writing and translation.
Mariam Rahmani holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA, and is newer to the world of translation, reporting that she only started because she fell in love with In Case of Emergency (by Mahsa Mohebali). She has been working on this project since 2017, and has found passion in it. “I had never been interested in translation before,” she tells me, “but I felt that it was an important work, and that it needed to be translated into English. I am fluent in Persian, so after trying my hand at a chapter and liking the challenge, I tracked Mahsa down to talk about pursuing full publication. The strength of her voice is what struck me, and I was compelled by the prospect of translating an image of Iran that Americans don’t know exists.”
On top of the four-year-long process of translating Mahsa’s Iranian novel, Mariam is also in the process of drafting her own debut novel. “My novel follows two Iranian Muslim families in Ohio in the wake of 9/11,” Mariam tells me. “It’s an interrogation of the costs of being American and of the global power systems in which educated, middle class people are all invested to varying extents. I find writing much easier than translating because I am only beholden to my own vision rather than responsible for shepherding that of another author. That said, I’ve learned a great deal from translating Mohebali—her novel is so tightly crafted, and translating it has been a great study in structure.”
Sunyoung Park is an associate professor at USC, teaching East Asian Languages & Cultures as well as Gender & Sexuality. While she was doing her graduate study of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Sunyoung learned that Korean literature was relatively unknown in the United States. So, she decided to write her dissertation on the subject. Sunyoung’s first translated anthology, On the Eve of the Uprising and Other Stories from Colonial Korea (2010), on which she collaborated with Jefferson Gatrall, stemmed from her dissertation research on colonial Korean literature.
Although Sunyoung is a non-native speaker of English, she boldly took on the challenge of translating Korean novellas, short stories, and articles into English in order to offer them more exposure to English-speaking audiences.
“When it comes to theme,” Sunyoung tells me, “my translation projects are shaped by my scholarly research and academic writing. After writing my first monograph, The Proletarian Wave: Literature and Leftist Culture in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 (2015), I moved on to research in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. While these genres were becoming increasingly popular, they were still largely neglected by Korean critics. In my recent translations, I’ve been trying to showcase the rich and diverse world of these fictional works. I especially appreciate speculative stories that imagine a radically alternative future for minorities in South Korea. For example, Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction (Kaya Press, 2019) includes many stories of the kind. I’m very fond of this book, which I co-edited with Sang Joon Park, an archivist and historian of the country’s sci-fi culture. This first anthology of South Korean science fiction was a very collaborative achievement. Although I contributed my own translations to the volume, I discovered through experience how rewarding it could be to be an editor.” According to Sunyoung, she plans to step back from translation and take on more editorial roles, like she did with Readymade Bodhisattva. Three more sci-fi titles will be released from Kaya Press within the next few years, which Sunyoung is excited to see. While she will not be personally editing these collections, she looks forward to the advancement of Korean sci-fi and, more broadly, speculative fiction.
“When editing or translating,” Sunyoung tells me, “I am most glad when the story takes on a life of its own, receives good responses from its readers, and contributes to bringing recognition to a deserving author. When this happens, I feel like the critical appeal of the original work has been kept alive, even though it is now in a much different language than Korean. Take, for example, On the Origin of Species and Other Stories, by Bo-Young Kim. I was so taken by her story about time travel and a teenage girl’s suicide (Between Zero and One) that I wanted to do a collection of her work. I selected the stories in consultation with the writer, and entrusted its translation to Sora Kim-Russell, a veteran translator who brought us titles such as The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun and The Plotters by Un-Su Kim. She then brought onboard Joungmin Lee Comfort, and the two of them did such marvelous work in rendering Kim’s evocative and highly crafted literary sentences into English. The book just got longlisted for the National Book Awards for Translated Literature, and I’m very happy to see Bo-Young and the translators receiving due recognition for their hard work.”
Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington D.C. As a Ph.D. candidate in Fiction at the University of Cincinnati, Lily has published both short stories and criticism in various digital and print magazines. Lily began translating from Spanish to English eight years ago. “At first,” Lily tells me, “I was treating translation more or less like a craft exercise, hoping it would improve my fiction and keep my Spanish sharp. However, when I read Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s collection, Pajarito, I loved it so intensely that I felt compelled to translate it seriously, both out of admiration and because I wanted to share it with English-language readers.”
When deciding which projects to pick up for translation, Lily reports that she is drawn toward strong voices. In fact, she is currently studying for her Ph.D. exams, and one of the exam areas which she has chosen is that of “swagger” in literature—books that command attention. Stories with that sort of voice and grip are the ones that Lily likes most.
“When translating,” she tells me, “I am intimidated by the idea of a book that cannot be broken up into story-sized chunks. So, I usually end up taking on individual short stories, short story collections, or, currently, a novel that is broken up into sections (Kintsugi, by María José Navia). Writing fiction and criticism can be very solitary acts, and I often feel like I have to shield myself from other people’s ideas when I’m writing. However, translation is the reverse. I have been lucky enough to work with two writers, Claudia Ulloa Donoso and María José Navia, who are, first of all, alive, and second of all, very willing to collaborate with me. Working in tandem with them to create the best possible English-language iterations of their work is a delight, and I have been able to develop wonderful relationships with them.”
Now, let’s meet the final two women in our group, whose focus is solely on translation.
Megan McDowell, a Spanish-to-English translator, reports always having been a big reader. “I studied English literature in college,” Megan says, “but the books I found myself more interested in tended to be those that had been translated. So, I went deeper into that interest after I graduated, and did a year-long publishing fellowship at Dalkey Archive Press. They do a lot of experimental fiction and translation there, and I learned that I really love the experimental stuff. After the fellowship, I decided to learn Spanish, because I was into Argentine and Latin American literature.”
“I then did a Master’s at the University of Dallas, and I started translating Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean writer, for one of my workshops there. I think I got really lucky, because the book I translated, The Private Lives of Trees, was published a couple years later, and I’ve been translating Alejandro’s books ever since. I now live in Chile and focus on contemporary Chilean and Argentine authors. I didn’t originally set out to translate only living writers, but I’ve realized that I really enjoy working with modern experimental (but accessible) fiction. I like writers who play with form and genre, and who push the boundaries of what a story can do.”
Having translated novels as well as short stories, Megan reports finding both satisfying, but adds that she has a deep love for short fiction. “I love reading stories,” she tells me, “and I love translating them. Publishers have traditionally been a little averse to short stories, but that’s the field that some of my biggest writers have focused on. Between all my short story writers, I’ve translated around five collections.”
Megan’s most recently published translation is a collection of short stories by Mariana Enriquez, titled The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. Megan tells me, “I feel like I translated the collection in dribs and drabs, because I gradually worked on the collection’s stories for magazines. By the time that it was decided that the whole collection would be published in English, the translation process ended up having more to do with editing than translating, since I had already done most of the work. And actually, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed isn’t even the most recent translation of hers that I’ve done—we are currently working on translating her long novel, Our Share of Night, which is going to come out sometime next year. I’m really looking forward to that book’s release. Readers have loved her short stories, and I think they’ll find the novel really satisfying.”
Megan has had great experiences with her writers, and has developed good working relationships with them: “Working with my writers is the best part of my job. Once I translate a writer, I always try to continue with them, if possible. And sometimes it’s not possible, but in many cases I’ve been able to develop those relationships over time and over multiple books. Some of my most important friendships are with the writers I’ve worked with. I’m able to go to them with my language- or culture-specific questions, and they are patient and generous with their answers. For example, in addition to Our Share of Night, I’m also currently working on Alejandro Zambra’s upcoming novel, titled Chilean Poet. It’s a novel about poets, step-parenting, and the families that we choose. Collaborating and negotiating with Alejandro is great, because we’re really good friends and are in constant contact.”
Knowing the writer is very important to Megan when she’s picking up a new project, and she likes to listen to the author’s voice. So, whether the writer is a new acquaintance or an old friend, she makes it a point to trade numbers, ask them questions, and have them send her spoken answers so she can hear how they express themselves. “For some reason,” Megan tells me, “after I hear the writer’s voice, I have them ingrained in my head, and I feel more confident and free when I’m translating.”
Another book that Megan has on the horizon is Yesterday, by Juan Emar. It has just been published in the UK (Peirene Press), and will be released in the U.S. next year by New Directions Press. This book is an exception to the rest of the projects Megan has taken on, specifically because the author is dead. “He was a Chilean writer,” Megan says, “and he was quite a character. I started working on Yesterday during my Master’s translation workshop. Doors opened and closed for publication in 2010 and, around ten years later, the doors opened again. The reason why this translation means so much to me is because it is one of the first things I worked on as a professional. I’ve gone back to it and developed it multiple times during my career, and it holds a very special place in my heart because of that. My workshop students sometimes want to work on books that have already been translated, just as an exercise, but I tell them, ‘No, choose something that you love that could someday be published, because you never know!’ For the two things that I worked on in my Master’s program, one was published almost immediately, and the other was published more than a decade later. A big part of translation is waiting, so you’d might as well work on something you’re passionate about.”
Nancy Roberts is an Arabic-to-English translator whose interest in Arabic was first sparked in her senior year of college. “My school didn’t offer any courses in the language,” Nancy tells me, “so I found someone to tutor me one-on-one. It wasn’t long before I was entranced by Arabic’s exotic beauty and complexity: from its graceful script to its linguistic structures that were so different from those of my own language. It was actually my passion for Arabic that led to my decision to do a graduate degree in Applied Linguistics from 1980-1981, since it would allow me to teach my own language to non-native speakers while, at the same time, continuing to be a student of Arabic by living in the Middle East.”
Nancy lived in Kuwait from 1982 to 1987. She initially had some troubles learning the language, since Arabic has tiers. You have standard Arabic, which is what is written and used on television and radio, and then you have the colloquial language, which differs from country to country. “When I first lived in Lebanon, before Kuwait,” Nancy says, “I was good at standard Arabic, but not Lebanon’s colloquial Arabic, so I struggled in conversations. It wasn’t really until I went to Kuwait that I got to practice my Arabic in conversation—they were more accepting of their native language than Lebanon was.”
While in Kuwait, Nancy was going through an issue of a young people’s magazine, and she came across a poem she wanted to translate into English. “That’s when a light went on in my head,” Nancy says, “and I knew that I wanted to become an Arabic-English translator. In 1991, I had the chance to complete an M.A. in Arabic, and in 1994 I took the American Translators Association’s accreditation exam. Not long after this I moved to Jordan, where I ended up marrying a Jordanian-Palestinian, settling, and raising two children.”
In terms of fiction, Nancy reports that she gravitates toward historical novels and novels that consciously highlight particular social issues or concerns: “I think it’s partly my personality that dictates what sorts of fiction I gravitate towards—I grew up with the mentality of ‘you should always be doing something useful,’ so I don’t feel so guilty reading a novel if I know that I’m also learning something in the process. I can enjoy fantasy just like anybody else, but I have always loved true stories. I feel like it gives me inspiration that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
When it comes to translating nonfiction, Nancy has developed a specialty in Islamic thought, specifically jurisprudence, theology, history, and Islamist groups. “This wasn’t something I had planned on,” Nancy tells me. “I was approached by Fons Vitae Publishing in 2000 about translating the first volume of a huge work by an Islamic scholar, Abd al-Rahman al-Jaziri, on Islamic forms of worship. By this time, I had already translated a book by the late Muslim scholar Muhammad Sa`id al-Buti, and given the fact that my husband was well-versed in all things Arabic and Islamic, I dared take on the tome by al-Jaziri. This project took me a year and a half to finish. Then in 2004, I was approached about working with the Institute for Islamic Thought in London, and since then I’ve translated thirteen titles for them, all on Islamic themes. So, I’ve done a lot with them, and they’ve treated me well. Even though I do not practice Islam, I am quite happy to translate Islamic things. I think that giving people a voice is an honorable role, and it doesn’t matter whether I agree with them or not. I’m just a mouthpiece for the writer. The ability to remain neutral in translation is important.”
Along with taking on lots of diverse projects, Nancy has also experienced the highs and lows of freelancing: “I’ve done around 40 books. The first three books I did were without a contract and without any money—I just did them out of sheer passion, figuring I’d find a publisher for them later. This was the only way I could really do it, because nobody knew who I was at the time. I had an income from my ESL teaching, and the translation was more of a side thing. But it was through this that, in 2005, I was approached by a publisher who had seen the translations I’d done for free. I wasn’t obsessed with self-marketing at the time, which gave me a lot of freedom—I was able to do the work because it was interesting to me. All the opportunities I received while living in Jordan came to me, rather than me seeking them out. I am incredibly grateful for this phase of my career.
I do wish, though, that going into translation, I’d had a better understanding of the business aspects of making a living as a translator: the nuts and bolts, essentially. I currently live off of my translating work, and am now living on my own in America, where things are much more expensive than they were in Jordan. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about how to market myself—I’d never learned how to do that before. I’m getting a website created for the first time in my 25 years of being a translator … I feel like I’m doing things backwards, in a way! It has been overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s exciting because I needed a change. I was burned out in some major ways, and now I’m learning about all these different things. Business in America is super brand-focused, so when someone is freelancing, they have to become their whole company. I’ve been feeling the weight of it. On the other hand, I’m not alone—all of us who do freelance work have to learn how to do it. You don’t want to stop loving what you do, though, and self-advertisement can become such an obsession that your work stops being enjoyable for you.”
It was a joy to interview these seven different women and hear about their journeys in writing and translation. A big thank you to these incredible ladies for being willing to have a conversation with me about their experiences. Wishing them all the best as they continue on their professional journeys!
Article originally Published in the October / November 2021 Issue: Read Global.