By Anton Hur
Last month, literary translator Nicholas Glastonbury, who translates from Turkish and Kurdish, posted a Twitter thread about the failings of the publishing industry when it comes to translated literature. I recently interviewed Nicholas to discuss these failings, especially when it comes to non-Western languages, and how we can better navigate this flawed system.
Anton Hur (AH): Your recent thread on the frustrations of the submission process for literature in translation obviously struck a chord with many translators, and the fact that you're an award-winning translator who already has an important and successful book published made us feel, I don't know how to put this, a little extra despairing, judging from the reactions of my colleagues.
Nicholas Glastonbury (NG): I was honestly so surprised at the chord it struck, because I thought I was speaking from my very specific vantage point as a translator of two less frequently translated languages, Turkish and Kurdish. On the one hand, it was validating to know that I'm not alone in the dread and despair I feel anytime I send out a pitch, but on the other hand, it's actually really discouraging to know that the many acclaimed and accomplished translators who engaged with the thread still feel so much frustration with publishing.
AH: Could you explain more about the specifics of the situation you were in?
NG: The pandemic began in earnest about two weeks after the small book tour we had for Every Fire You Tend, which was published in November 2019. By then the book had been reviewed quite favorably in a number of publications, and it seemed to be getting as good a reception as an experimental, ecofeminist debut novel from a "minor" language could. And so as the intractable horizon of the pandemic drew further and further into the distance, I felt emboldened to put together samples and pitches for books I'd wanted to work on for a long time. I sent them around to a handful of editors I knew and continued working on those (and other) samples. Since then, I've had periodic blitzes of sending more samples for different projects to various editors, but I haven't gotten any traction (or any responses!). By the time Every Fire received the TA First Translation Prize in February, I felt newly emboldened to get all my samples out to publishers, wanting to ride the prize's wave of esteem and recognition into at least one new book deal.
“The hustle doesn't stop even after you have a book out.”
Out of the few rejections I've received since then, one of them sticks out. The editor wrote, "I don't even have a critique to give. But, simply put, I just don't know how to publish this book, which, as great as it sounds, feels just too small for us." This statement irked me, and so I followed up to ask what they meant by "too small." The problem ended up being that the book was translated from Turkish, rather than from a "bigger" language like French or Spanish! That was really the straw that broke the camel's back and that precipitated my Twitter thread. How do publishers measure the "size" of a literature? By number of speakers? By demand? Or merely by proximity to English? No matter what metric I use to think through that characterization, I arrive at a really sorry, grim picture of the current landscape of World Literature. That interaction, on top of years of trying to advocate for my projects, just left me feeling so hopeless about whether there's even a future for me as a literary translator. The more I thought about it, the more desperate the situation seemed: if I'm having this frustration, translating from the legible literary context of an official language of a nation-state, what happens to work written in nonofficial or nonstate languages, many of which are often under active erasure? When I think about the kinds of books that I really love—weird, experimental, genre-bending, attentive to language, pushing the limits of form—I begin to wonder how many translated books there are that I would want to read but that publishers probably aren't daring to touch because the national(ist) infrastructures that subtend the World Literary market make them unattractive investments. Both practically and philosophically, the world of World Literature just seems fundamentally broken.
AH: I completely agree. Many of my colleagues at Smoking Tigers make it their explicit mission to challenge what the West thinks of Korea, which is why we deliberately seek out genre fiction, queer narratives, and books written by nonmen. I can’t tell you the number of times people have been surprised at the fact that Korea has a gay best seller; an American press asked me if Love in the Big City was “an underground hit” and I replied, “No, it’s an overground hit.” But far inferior books have sold quicker than Love to English publishers because the latter just doesn’t fit the West’s preconceived notions of Korea, although the book did eventually find a great home.
NG: Right! It might be an easy assumption for an uninformed reader to make, but I think editors should hold themselves to a higher standard of knowledge when it comes to the literatures they're acquiring, or at least take a more capacious approach to them in the absence of knowledge. There are so many assumptions inherent in the framing of Love as an underground work that serve a) to perpetuate the notion that non-Western contexts are places where homophobia (or transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) constitute obstacles for platforming minoritized voices, and b) to imagine Euro-American contexts as exceptionally progressive, places where those obstacles don't exist. Of course, we know better. So the work that Smoking Tigers does to counter that kind of exceptionalism is so important—I have such admiration for the whole enterprise—and I think the Anglophone readerly public is better for it.
AH: There will always be a market for trauma porn from Asia, for some reason, which was why your translation of Sema Kaygusuz’s Every Fire You Tend was so encouraging to me, because here we have a successful work that manages to talk about trauma and not make it trauma porn, plus the fact that it provides a blueprint for such works for translators and publishers to follow. The blueprint is almost literal, because the author’s afterword and the translator’s note are essential manifestos on the topic. But apparently change is slower than I thought.
NG: I’m struck by your mention of trauma porn, and it seems to me there’s something of a trauma porn industrial complex in World Literature: certain literatures, especially those from the Global South, are often only called upon or published to serve this purpose. As you say, Every Fire You Tend is very consciously trying not to do trauma porn: Sema writes in her afterword that she’s not trying to offer a depiction of the Dersim massacres, or even to speak on behalf of its victims, but instead to problematize the relationship between language, trauma, the body, and the world. And yet review after review was drawn to the more sensational aspects of the book, reading into it the genre conventions of trauma porn that it’s actively trying to defy. It’s as if readers have been conditioned, almost, to read “lesser” translated literatures with this intent, probably because trauma porn is what publishers tend to gravitate to when it comes to these literatures.
AH: Trauma porn industrial complex! That’s exactly what it is. Speaking of change happening slowly, the submission process is a major topic of recurring discussion among book creators—and especially translators—because not only are so few translations being published in the Anglophone world, editors (who tend to read in only certain European languages) are being asked to acquire fiction based on partial samples when usually they get to read the whole work. This is leading to what I refer to as "the full-sample hellscape" for noncolonial languages, where entire books are translated, even on spec, in order to present the publisher with a "complete" work—this on top of everything else translators do. What has your experience been like in terms of producing samples and getting them funded? What can we do to improve this process?
NG: Mercifully, I haven't been beckoned into the "full-sample hellscape" yet, on spec or otherwise, but you're absolutely right that things are tending that way as publishers become more and more risk-averse. Newer editors who might otherwise be more enterprising and adventurous in their acquisitions, themselves facing new forms of employment precarity, can't take the risks they’d like to because they might be out of a job if a book they acquire doesn't do well. So it's easy to imagine why books they can't read might be the first to get the chop. But I think the lack of linguistic expertise is part and parcel of a larger cultural incompetence in the literary market when it comes to literatures of the global South. One doesn't have to be able to read in Turkish or Korean to have a broad, general sense of what Turkish or Korean literatures have been up to for, say, the past century; and yet an editor is more likely to acquire a work by a French or German author, even if they don't read French or German, because aesthetic trends and literary movements in those contexts are more immediately legible, given the relatively outsized presence of those languages in English translation.
“What would a perfect pitch system look like?”
So on the one hand, the history of inequitable representation in publishing ramifies into present decisions about acquisitions; on the other hand, rectifying these editorial blind spots then becomes the responsibility of the translator, whether in the form of a full sample or didactic explanations of basic historical events that take the "oomph" (to use Emily Wilson's term) out of the work being proposed. In my case, that has meant having to explain what alphabet is used in Turkish (the Latin alphabet) and the history of the post-Ottoman language reform, when the language was latinized; having to explain where Kurdistan is (and that it isn't a nation-state); and having to narrativize twentieth-century coups in Turkey and the post-nineties Islamization of Turkish politics. So many of these histories and dynamics are conditions of possibility for some of the most compelling and urgent writing being done in Turkey in the present, and they strike me as really basic knowledge to have about the world. Maybe I'm being unfair in expecting editors to know about such things, but part of the responsibility of reading widely (as acquiring editors ought to do) should also be acquiring the necessary context to do so.
As for how we can improve this process, I think there's a lot that could be done. Easy steps could include having editors do their due diligence when working with literatures coming out of non-European contexts and/or the global South, or having organizations like ALTA or the Author's Guild insist on a set of fair labor standards (e.g., publishers should not be allowed to expect more than, say, twenty-five pages for an initial sample) that might fend off the "full-sample hellscape" for now. More idealistically, though, what would a perfect pitch system look like? What if our pitches were entitled to some amount of money from the publishers who solicit them or from organizations we might belong to, like PEN or ALTA? What if, instead of one-off contracts for books in translation, translators could pitch writers to publishers and end up with multibook contracts, so we wouldn't have to hustle to pitch the next project as soon as we'd placed the last? Do you have ideas?
AH: For now, I’m trying to think of what translators themselves can do to reform the system or at least make it bearable, like networking with each other to share information or even airing our frustrations over the process, as you have, so we don’t feel so alone. I’ve found translator collectives very useful for both things, and members of Smoking Tigers have definitely landed each other a few gigs by removing certain barriers to trust, but I wish there were more ways we could make meaningful connections with decision-makers instead of going at it blind or having to shell out for book fairs, conferences, or living in New York or London. On the other hand, my answer is totally banal compared to yours, and it just goes to show how much of the problem is systemic and how there is only so much we can do as individual or even collective translators. To paraphrase the great French Canadian philosopher C. Dion paraphrasing the great American theorist D. Warren, if there had been any other way for literary translators to make things better, we would’ve found it by now.
NG: I wonder, in fact, if Smoking Tigers might be an interesting model for translators of other languages to follow, a kind of provisional fix in a still-broken system. That might be one of the solutions to the isolating and lonely process of pitching and translating that you've noted and that so many of us are currently going through. I know organizations like ALTA have caucuses that ideally try to achieve something like this, but they seem a lot less formal and a lot less predicated on the counternarrative (and collective power) that Smoking Tigers offers. What would it be like if there were more formal language- or region-based translator affinity groups like Smoking Tigers, each committed in their own way to resisting the flattening colonial gaze that Anglophone publishers train on so much of the world? It also strikes me as particularly meaningful that Smoking Tigers takes as its premise that it’s working within a broken system—that it is, in other words, a "complaint," as its mission statement notes—registering the failings of the publishing industry to represent Korean literature. Maybe this is something I ought to look into, and maybe we should encourage other translators to do the same!
AH: That’s a really good take on “complaint,” which is a word the German translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire taught me. Translators complain and learn from each other. Sharing is definitely a useful thing for translators to do, and I encourage beginning translators to find or create a community and support network. But also, as you mentioned, our methods of sharing, like translator collectives and whatnot, exist to redress failings in the publishing industry (and are jury-rigged solutions that take a lot of time and effort to maintain). Failings such as the insistence that "we're too busy to respond to every query," which seems a disingenuous way to explain publishers’ lack of responses, especially when there are technologies that exist to automate that process. It always struck me as a power gesture: they're basically saying, You're not important enough for me to give you the courtesy of even an automated response. Am I just bitter?
NG: I think you're absolutely right that it's a power dynamic. Publishers of course have huge slush piles, and it's probably impossible for editors to give detailed feedback to everything they receive. But when editors solicit pitches and samples and then don't respond to queries about those pitches and samples, it seems like a particularly egregious power move, and naturally it'll leave a bitter taste in your mouth. You described the process on Twitter as a "worst-case scenario," and it seems that way not just for translators and writers but for editors too. A lot of independent presses and journals use Submittable, which I've always found to be a great system (having not only submitted through it but also used it to review submissions as a judge for the PEN/Heim last year). It strikes me as a no-brainer for bigger publishers to move to a more transparent submission process through Submittable or a similar system, but it seems that they imagine a lack of transparency only strengthens their prestige. Nonetheless, given the fact that almost every editor I've corresponded with over the past year has described how behind they are on reading and reviewing submissions, it seems it'd be in everyone's best interest to use some technological fix that centralizes submissions away from the chaos of an email inbox.
“I'm not quite so nihilistic as to believe that there are too many translators.”
AH: What other ways do you think this power differential is exploited? Because the differential is definitely real. I find that translators have to be extremely careful about treading on other people’s toes, and we seem to be at the bottom of the publishing hierarchy. This has enabled a kind of culture of obsequiousness masquerading as collegiality among translators, and you will almost never hear a translator criticize publisher practices, which is part of why your thread had such an impact, even if it was ultimately saying something as simple as “we need to improve the submission system.”
NG: "Culture of obsequiousness" is perhaps the most apt characterization I’ve heard of how we talk about publishers. The precarity of our work in some ways necessitates that obsequiousness, because we really have no recourse to rectify the exploitation that stems from the power differential you mentioned. There is certainly a whisper network among translators as to which publishers (and editors) are worth avoiding, but the horror stories I heard because of the thread—both publicly and in private messages—were really harrowing. One translator even told me that a very well-known and highly esteemed publisher was trying to persuade them that no well-regarded translator expects to have royalties in a contract. It's just crazy! And nobody can really speak out for fear of seeming unprofessional or ungrateful or, worse yet, of being blacklisted. Part of me wishes that this whisper network had some kind of wiki page or database wherein translators could anonymously share their complaints (or praise!) regarding their experiences with publishers. Because the fact is that publishers do rely on us, and it doesn't suit their bottom line if they get reputations for treating their translators poorly.
But the power differential gets exploited in other ways, too. For example, I've personally dealt with instances of sexual harassment from a couple of editors, and that has also been one of the reasons I've contemplated quitting. I felt like I had to put up with sexual advances or flirtatious comments because I didn't want to ruin my chances of getting a current or future project published. I have no doubt that my experiences aren't anomalies, and that others (especially people who aren't cis men) have almost certainly had to put up with worse simply because they care about their work and want to see it out in the world.
AH: That is . . . incredibly disturbing. I have no idea what I would’ve done in your place, and I’m really sorry that happened to you.
NG: The worst part is that, because of the gross imbalance of power, I can't foresee any meaningful remedy for translators who experience this kind of malfeasance, so for me it's been a process of acknowledging for myself that I just won't ever be able to publish at those presses.
AH: What were the most surprising responses to your thread?
NG: The horror stories I heard of translators grappling with and being gaslit by publishers really stand out. But maybe the most surprising responses were from people—both editors and translators—who told me that my response rate (three rejections out of nearly thirty pitches) was above average, or that this is just how publishing works. Like, I know this is how publishing works, and that is a huge problem! That was the point of the thread! I don't see myself or my experience as an aberration at all, but as proof of a norm according to which hierarchies of labor and power in publishing push translators into increasing precarity and leave them without recourse in the face of flagrant unprofessionalism and borderline hostility.
“Keeping a foothold in the profession is almost as hard as getting a foothold in the first place.”
Another conversation in the thread that surprised me had to do with agents. One editor—coincidentally at a press I submitted a project to three months ago and haven't heard anything from since—told me that I should pitch my projects to agents rather than to publishers, which was surprising and frustrating for a couple of reasons. Firstly, almost all of the authors whose projects I've pitched don't have agents. Secondly, I pitched almost all of these projects to editors I personally know and who had expressed interest in them, so I'm not sure how an agent would have helped in this situation. Thirdly, the foreign rights agencies in Turkey that do have rosters of authors are often built around selling rights to non-English markets where Turkish cultural production is very successful—for instance, in South Asia, the Balkans, and Arabic-speaking countries. For better or worse, they're not really built around (or equipped to navigate) the process of selling books to Anglophone publishers, because that isn't where there's money to be made. If Sema Kaygusuz, Arkadaş Z. Özger, Murat Uyurkulak, Ebru Ojen, Şener Özmen, or Füruzan—to name a couple of the writers I'm working on—had agents with connections to Anglophone publishers, I would of course be working with those agents. The fact is, they don't. Does that make their work any less worthy of consideration? Why should they be disqualified because of the structural imbalances of World Literature? Why should Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, talented though they are, be the be-all and end-all of Turkish literature in translation? What's more, pitching these writers to agents who are equipped to navigate the Anglophone literary market (and who probably don't read Turkish or Kurdish) simply amounts to more time, more steps, more gatekeeping, and more free labor in order to advocate for these projects.
AH: I hear you, especially about agents; because of the way rights are structured in Korea, it’s rare to find writers, even very established ones, who have literary agents. These are solutions that just don’t work in certain situations, and I honestly can’t find a workaround for it except to keep suggesting books to the very few agents who do understand the Korean rights structure, even if the book may not be right for them, or to keep doing the work myself. It’s just another thing I find myself explaining to Korean translators over and over again. Speaking of which, your thread also birthed a massive subthread on whether there was a point to training and encouraging literary translators when the market seems saturated. What would you say to aspiring literary translators trying to get their foothold in the profession?
NG: I feel a little funny trying to answer this question, because I'm still aspiring to get my foothold in this profession, but I will say the best thing I've done—and this was only in the past few years—was to make friends with translators who have more experience and practical knowledge of publishing. I started pursuing translation in 2012 and spent way too many years working on projects alone, thinking that because there's so much excellent untranslated Turkish literature, and because there aren't as many translators to compete with as in other languages, it'd be a breeze to get my translations published. I had such faith—not only in my ability to translate but also in the self-evident quality of the work I was translating—that it never occurred to me that I might need to know a thing or two about how publishing works, and so I made some really amateur mistakes (like translating an entire book before I knew the rights weren't available) that wasted my time and that I'd never encourage anyone to do.
“Why do something that feels so punishing so much of the time?”
I do agree that the market seems saturated, but I'm not quite so nihilistic as to believe that there are too many translators. The real problem is that publishers aren't publishing enough work in translation. In my experience, emerging translators have a real penchant for finding books that are off-kilter, that are weird and strange and can transform our sense of what kind of literature is possible, and they're passionate about those projects in ways that more established (read: more jaded) translators might not be. We all benefit from that passion—as colleagues, as collaborators, and, most importantly, as readers. That said, I don't want aspiring translators to have any illusions about what they're getting into. This work is so punishingly precarious and so thankless, and the amount of hours we put into a project often means we're making less than minimum wage for the time we work. The only reason I've been able to even continue pitching this past year is because I've been able to live off expanded unemployment benefits, wages as an adjunct at my university, and income from sources other than literary translation. I always hoped I'd be able to make literary translation into at least half a career, and it's been disheartening that that hasn't happened.
I guess I'd also add that the hustle doesn't stop even after you have a book out. In the lead-up to the publication of Every Fire You Tend, I'd figured that editors and publishers would come knocking if Sema's book did well. Some did, but certainly not enough that I could rest on my laurels, so to speak. In other words, keeping a foothold in the profession is almost as hard as getting a foothold in the first place. There is a certain discursive move made by both publishers and reviewers to romanticize this hustle, like when a book is successful only because of a translator's persistence in getting the book published against all odds, but being in that place of persistence all the time feels awful, and it is emotionally and financially unsustainable.
AH: I was looking at my translation diary for the past two years, which I’d been writing with the vague idea that I would publish it someday, but it is . . . unpublishable. For one thing, it’s mostly me ranting about how badly literary translators are treated and how much I want to quit and go back to the nonliterary work I’ve done in the past. It kind of made me wonder: why do we do it?
NG: This is the kind of question that keeps me up at night, something I’ve been asking myself over and over, especially but not only during the past year. Why do something that feels so punishing so much of the time? Why willingly enroll your labor-power in a market-driven industry in which you are so disposable? Why throw yourself at publishers for the chance to put a book out when this awful world will keep turning either way? The kinds of recognition that translation can afford are certainly nice, and appealing, but I don’t think that’s what drives me to keep sending pitches to publishers. It’s certainly not for the money, which is anyway much easier to come by as a translator of nonliterary texts.
I suppose why I keep doing it really comes down to much larger, more existential questions about the world we inhabit. One thing that the books I’ve taken an interest in translating all share is that they chip away at some of the sureties I have about what it means to be human in this broken world, unsettling easy assumptions about language and love and family and history and death and all of the big, unwieldy stuff that structures our lives without us necessarily fully realizing it. They unmake the world and admonish the reader to make it better; they are complaints, in other words. I’m drawn to this notion of not only listening to these complaints but actively trying to share them as a kind of collaboration on the work of unmaking the world. I wrote about it in my afterword to Every Fire You Tend, but I think it’s really what guides my approach to translation and why I keep at it. Aimé Césaire has a line in a poem called “At the Locks of the Void,” translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, that says, “It gives me pleasure to think of the world undone.” Literary translation is my way to think of the world undone, and it gives me enough pleasure that I don’t yet want to give it up.
AH: That is just wonderful. Translators: burn it all down, and translate the world undone!
Nicholas Glastonbury is a translator of Turkish and Kurdish literature. His translation of Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz won the 2020 TA First Translation Prize from the Society of Authors. He is a coeditor of the e-zine Jadaliyya and a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center.
Published May 25, 2021 Copyright 2021 Anton Hur