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Women Translating Women: An Interview with Literary Translators

By Allison Merola

To conclude our celebration of Women in Translation month in 2017, we interviewed some of the women on the front lines of the effort to promote literary works by women around the world: their translators. Jennifer Croft, Bonnie Huie, Emma Ramadan, and Julia Sanches answer our questions about their work, their approach to current challenges, and what to read next.

Words Without Borders (WWB): What is a recent work by a woman that you’ve translated? How did you find her work and what interested you about the project?

Jennifer Croft: I just translated Romina Paula’s novel August, which was published in April by The Feminist Press, as well as Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, which was published in May by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is coming out next spring in the US from Riverhead. In both cases, I came across the authors’ works and fell in love with them and got in touch, then translated an excerpt to send to publishers along with a report on the entire text. In both cases, too, this process took a long time, since it can be hard to convince English-language publishers to take a chance on foreign writers—but I’m very grateful to Lauren Hook at The Feminist Press and Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo for doing just that. These are very different books, but both appeal to me intellectually and emotionally, and my sense is that they've been resonating with target-language readers since their publication, too.

Bonnie Huie: I just started Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise by Lin Yi-Han. I became interested in her book, which came out in Taiwan earlier this year, because it drew comparisons to Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, which I translated. It addresses a subject that few people talk about candidly, namely the sexual abuse of minors and the distortion thereupon of the boundaries between rape and consent. Notes of a Crocodile rewrites a trauma narrative to help others imagine how to scale a wall, even if it means emerging scraped and bloody on the other side. Books like these have the potential to be triggering as well as healing.

Emma Ramadan: I recently translated Anne Garréta’s Not One Day, published by Deep Vellum in May 2017. I came to Garréta’s work when I was reading a book about the members of the Oulipo, a group of writers that write texts using constraints. The first book of hers I translated, Sphinx, doesn’t use any gender markers for the two main characters, and I was interested in the challenge of translating the book using that constraint. Her autobiographical book, Not One Day, didn’t pose the same kind of challenges. The constraint applies only to the author—she set out to write for five hours a day, every day, for thirty days, writing strictly from memory, never going back to erase or edit what she had written. But it wasn’t the constraint that drew me to this book. Instead it was the way Garréta chose to retell her life: the book’s chapters each describe a woman she had loved or who had loved her. A life told through love. The book is deeply personal, but also stubbornly philosophical, and as you read you can tell Garréta is realizing things about herself, her past, and about society, through writing this book.

Julia Sanches: Oh, there are quite a few! Right now, I’m working on a few fragments of Claudia Hernández’s Roza tumba quema, an excerpt of which recently ran in Words Without Borders; it’s a sparse yet forceful narrative that follows a former female guerrilla fighter as she grapples with how to survive and make a life for her daughters in the very insecure postwar context of her home country. The book is set in a nameless country just out of the grips of a civil war, and is starkly reminiscent of much of Central and Latin America in the last century. This came to me through the foreign rights agent for Laguna Libros, a small publisher in Colombia who are publishing an array of excellent Spanish-language women writers, such as Fernanda Trías, Margarita García Robayo, and Mariana Enríquez, to name just a few.

I’m also working on a short piece by the Brazilian writer Natalia Borges Polesso; it’s a story about a girl who comes face-to-face with her parents’ prejudices (specifically about gay women) without ever fully understanding or embodying them. And then I’m working on one by Paula Porroni (from Argentina) about a mother and her seamstress daughters—a story told in beautiful images of fabrics and flowers and womanhood. These two I stumbled upon by just reading about them on the internet. 


WWB: In your opinion, why might it be so difficult to get women’s work translated? What do you think can be done to ensure that more work by women is translated? Is there something about particular writers and translations that have enabled them to break through to the mainstream?

Jennifer Croft: It’s difficult to get work translated into English period, although fortunately that’s been changing a lot lately with the emergence of great translation-focused publishers like Open Letter (Rochester), Deep Vellum (Dallas), Transit Books (San Francisco), and others, not to mention the sustained efforts by wonderful houses like New Directions (New York). In the past there may have been more of an emphasis on publishing “serious” and “important” foreign writers, as opposed to talented and interesting writers doing wonderful and inventive things, with a bias toward male authors with long lists of well-established accolades and the kind of prestige that has traditionally been accorded to male intellectuals in many cultures, including ours. That has definitely shifted in the past few years. Another help has been breakout successes by women in translation, like Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein. I do think lots of publishers, regardless of their size or focus, are now mindful of gender and other imbalances and are rightfully encouraging translations of women, be they by male or female translators. Annual announcements of things like the Best Translated Book Awards, as well as helpful funding sources like the PEN/Heim Award and the National Endowment for the Arts’s Translation Grant, are wonderful ways of highlighting for the public all the great translations currently being done into English, an increasing number of which are of women’s work. 

Bonnie Huie: The Olympics-like vision of world literature, in which authors have come to be seen as representatives of nations, gives rise to literature as product-for-export and self-glorifying national history in quasi-entertainment form, thereby reinforcing institutions in which men tend to be the greatest beneficiaries.

There is a vicious cycle for women, as the difficulties do not end upon publication but continue in reception. Gender bias still affects how books are judged today. Take, for example, two authors—one male and Anglophone, one female and in translation—both of whom are portraying a character’s attraction to a twenty-year-old woman, using the same metaphor but contrary perspectives. One of them writes: “Her hair waterfalled to the top thoracic vertebra, her tanned flesh issued from a laundered yellow corolla. A human sunflower.” The other writes: “[S]he had pointed with a child’s wanton smile and said, ‘I want that one.’ There was no way I could refuse. And like a potted sunflower that had just been sold to a customer, I was taken away.” The male author’s work has been described as “written with intelligence and feeling.” The female author’s work has been described as “overwrought with youthful naïveté.” Underlying these appraisals is the bias toward a certain type of subject-object relationship—which hints at the strict, separate codes of speech and behavior for men and women—as well as the infantilization of women.

One of the most eye-opening approaches to translated literature is the study of form, as conventions and rules should never be taken for granted across languages and cultures. My colleague Madhu Kaza put it this way: “Books in translation teach you how to read them.” I suspect the work of women in translation would benefit from such close reading. I tend to notice reading comprehension errors in reviews, which can easily become the subject of morbid fascination, as they reveal the reader’s prejudices. English-language readers should be weaned off “plots” and “narrative arcs.” The stubborn insistence on plot is often little more than middlebrow masquerading as traditionalist.

The relative mainstream success of genre fiction—such as detective and sci-fi—is worth examining. Dystopias somehow never feel foreign.

Emma Ramadan: The same reason it’s hard to get women’s work published in its original language: sexism. Plain and simple. Translations are already a hard sell, and publishers want to hear about how many prizes the author has won, or how prolific they are, or how popular they are in their home country. And here and in other countries there is a history of favoring men in terms of publication, prizes, respect, everything. If we want more work by women to be translated, we translators have to pitch more books written by women to publishers. And the bigger publishers who don’t take their cues from translators have to consciously decide to seek out more women writers to publish and be aware of how unbalanced their lists are. We all need to stop glorifying prize-winning dead white dudes and put in the time to seek out great books by women and underrepresented writers, and stick by the projects until they come to fruition.

I think someone like Elena Ferrante has managed to break through to the mainstream because her books are, simply, good. They’re gripping and addictive, universally relatable, and people enjoy reading them. There are other books like those out there, and we’ll see more of them breaking through to the mainstream when we see more publishers willing to take more chances on women in translation, and more translators making the effort to find and pitch these projects.

Julia Sanches: Again, there’s so much to say here; so much that seems obvious to me, or systemic, and sometimes feel insurmountable (it’s not, it’s just hard).

One of the issues is that writing by women is treated as “other.” As such, the expectation is that it can only discuss, inhabit, and explain the world of women—and nothing else. I think this is because, like it is with many gendered languages, the male-gendered word, or concept, has historically been synonymous with “neutral.” So literature by men is seen as literature without any qualification, which means that writing by men—read “white men writing in English”—isn’t contained to a category. Similarly, literature in translation is often expected to only discuss the world of its country. So women’s writing in translation is doubly bound: not only is there the expectation that it be about women only, but there is also the expectation that it be about women in a specific cultural context.

I mean, then there’s also the fact that, for centuries, men have been the sole arbiters of taste, of aesthetics, of what is “objectively”—read “neutrally”—good, excellent, a masterpiece, etc. And then there’s the problem of literary prizes, which we translators often lean on to get a publisher’s attention. Those have their own particular issues. Take, for example, the Prêmio Jabuti, one of Brazil’s most important literary prizes; in the last fifty-nine years, the prize in the category of Best Novel has gone to forty-seven men and twelve women. Don’t even get me started on the Nobel—one of the only literary prizes that can definitively secure a writer’s publication in English—which has been awarded in literature to fourteen women in 115 years.

In order to publish more women, especially in translation, we have to read more responsibly, publish more responsibly, and remind ourselves over and over that aesthetic value is not objective. Our tastes have been historically reinforced—by syllabi, by the canon—and history has until recently barred women from getting an education, pressured them into filling specific gender roles, etc. We all know this, but sometimes we forget that this value-assignation takes place within a specific sociohistoric context. Oh, and treat women’s writing as writing, full stop.

I think what New Directions have done for Clarice Lispector in English should be a model. But it wasn’t only New Directions; it was Benjamin Moser, it was Clarice’s armada of translators; it involved a certain receptiveness from the press, too, as well as reader support and the support of booksellers—in essence, many of the steps that we sometimes forget are involved in the big machine that is publishing, and literature. 


WWB: Are there any challenges that have arisen consistently for you when translating women from your specific regional focus? Are there stereotypes or tropes about literature by women that you consciously seek to avoid?

Jennifer Croft: There are stereotypes about the literatures I translate in general, but they are fading. In the case of Polish, English-language audiences have wanted books about suffering (and maybe how to overcome it), and in the case of Spanish, many have expected sultry magic, perhaps emphasizing the sultriness of so-called Latin cultures all the more when the author is a woman. The writers I translate certainly buck these projections.

Bonnie Huie: Outside the world of academia, Sinophone literature is sometimes read without cultural and historical knowledge or contextualization, and that is the case to an extraordinary degree with Notes of a Crocodile. It’s a shame because the subtext is politically and artistically genius, and it went over some people’s heads. There is always cherry picking when the author is female.

The fact is, people draw on imaginary racialized and gendered bodies in their reading and interpretation. Institutionalized racism constantly enables breach of epistemic authority without any sense of overreach or consequence. The phantasm that is the Asian woman as fetish object is very real in the minds of people who believe themselves to be educated, and it is perpetuated by White supremacy, including its liberal variants. It is effectively used as a wedge and an instrument of control to provoke competition among women of different races. In my efforts to bring the voices of Sinophone women to an English-language audience, the convergence of racism and sexism in the host culture has always been an elephant in the room. When I translated a chick-lit novel set in a Hong Kong lingerie shop, there was disagreement over the enlarging of the characters’ bra sizes from the original—which was a female editor’s idea. It was emotionally taxing and I failed to convince anyone. I thought, “Great, now they’re fake. Who are we doing this for again?” The alternative is invisibility. It’s a lot of work to get one image of a real woman across the border. It’s a multifront war.

Emma Ramadan: No two female authors I’ve translated have been alike. I love celebrating Women in Translation Month, but I also shy away from grouping all female authors in translation together, or separating them out from everything else. Good literature is good literature.

Julia Sanches: I translate mostly from Portuguese and Spanish, which covers many, many countries with very different historical and cultural contexts; which is to say, I can’t think of any issue that has arisen consistently. I’ve waxed poetic—and far too at length—on everything else in response to the above question, I think.


WWB: Finally, in your own reading of women in translation, what is a text that you have not translated personally that has moved you, and why?

Jennifer Croft: I’ve read so many fantastic books by women in translation recently that it’s impossible to single out any one. Here are three: Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 2016); Eve out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Deep Vellum, 2016); Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Oneworld, 2016). Umami is a playful, subtle, heartbreaking and heartwarming novel, and Hughes’s translation expertly navigates the language-based games of the original, perfectly conveying the tone and spirit of the book. Eve out of Her Ruins is a profoundly unsettling work of absolute genius, with an equally brilliant translation by Zuckerman that I marveled over every single page. And Memoirs of a Polar Bear is an innovative, refreshing, thought-provoking study of what it means to be different, with engaging characters and stories throughout, Bernofsky’s translation capturing every nuance perfectly, as always, resulting in an English-language text that is as pleasurable as it is provocative.

Emma Ramadan: I am obsessed with the French writer Marie Ndiaye. Two Lines published her Self-Portrait in Green and All My Friends, and Knopf published Ladivine, all of which were magnificently translated by Jordan Stump. These books are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. They delve deep into the psychology of the protagonists, to the point that you can hear their thoughts and realize they’re eerily similar to your own. Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman, also had a deep impact on me. Every story in the book took a turn and brought me somewhere I never expected.

Julia Sanches: Again, there are so many! But I’m going to be a broken record here and once again mention Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (which I’ve only recommended a million times to anyone who can bear to listen). It was one of the first books I picked up when I moved to New York four years ago, I think. And I was blown away, not only by what Erpenbeck was able to do structurally, in terms of the narrative, and the sheer emotional weight of the story, but by how Susan Bernofsky was able to so beautifully expose the bones of the German sentences in her English translation. There was a moment when I felt I could feel the German breathing beneath these gorgeous, sweeping English sentences…


Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation and a Tin House Workshop Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review and has published her own work and numerous translations in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, VICEn+1Electric LiteratureLit Hub, BOMBGuernica, the New Republic, the Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Her translation from Spanish of Romina Paula’s August was recently published by the Feminist Press, and her translation from Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights was recently released by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Bonnie Huie is a literary translator of Chinese and Japanese whose books include Notes of a Crocodile (NYRB Classics, 2017), Qiu Miaojin’s coming-of-age novel about a group of queer misfits in ’90s Taiwan; and Hummingbirds Fly Backwards (AmazonCrossing, 2016), bestselling Hong Kong romance author Amy Cheung’s tale of turning thirty, as told from the perspective of the other woman. Her work has appeared in PEN America, the Brooklyn Rail, Kyoto Journal, The Margins by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and the visual arts journal Afterimage. She was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.

Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is opening Riffraff, a bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a Fulbright in Morocco. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day (Deep Vellum), Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (Deep Vellum), Anne Parian’s Monospace (La Presse/Fence Books), and Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (Mindmade Books). Her forthcoming translations include Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things (Feminist Press), Delphine Minoui’s I’m Writing You From Tehran (FSG), and Marcus Malte’s The Boy (Restless Books).

Julia Sanches is a translator of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan. Her book-length translations are Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques and What are the Blind Men Dreaming? by Noemi Jaffe. Her shorter translations have appeared in Suelta, the Washington ReviewAsymptoteTwo LinesGrantaTin HouseWords Without Borders, and Revista Machado, among others. Having spent several years as a literary agent, Julia has decided to focus her energies on translation and advocating for the authors she most loves from foreign languages.


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Published Aug 31, 2017   Copyright 2017 Allison Merola

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