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Breaking into English

By Lily MeyerSeptember 19, 2022

Breaking into English
IN 2016, MEXICAN ESSAYIST Mariana Oliver released her debut collection, Aves migratorias. In March 2017, she read a fragment of the book on a podcast, catching the attention of the literary translator Julia Sanches. At the time, Sanches, a former literary agent, had just quit her job and moved to Rhode Island, where she was debating her next professional steps. She ordered a copy of Aves migratorias, waited the seeming eternity it can often take for a book to cross national borders, and, after reading the collection, began to translate an excerpt. She submitted the resulting English-language essay to several journals, but had no luck until Charlotte Whittle, a fellow translator and Oliver fan, included it in her pitch for an issue of the international literary magazine Words Without Borders focusing on women essayists from Mexico — an issue that eventually came out in May 2020. Adam Levy, one of the founding editors of the Oakland-based publisher Transit Books, read the essay and reached out to Sanches, and, as she told me, “the rest is history.” Migratory Birds came out from Transit a year later and went on to win the 2022 PEN Translation Prize.

This years-long story is not, in the world of translation, uncommonly slow. If anything, six years between the publication of the original text and its English translation is rather speedy, especially for a literary work whose author is not a known quantity in the United States. Books like Oliver’s often take a long time to appear in English, finding publishers only through intense effort and great patience on their translators’ part. Indeed, translators frequently double — or, really, quadruple — as literary agents, scouts, and tastemakers. So do the editors who make a point of working with them. It is telling that Sanches first published her translation of Oliver’s work in a journal that rarely prints creative works written originally in English; telling, too, that Levy runs a press that specializes in translation. Increasingly, translated literature in the United States exists in its own ecosystem, one that Eric Becker, digital director and senior editor at Words Without Borders, says “grew out of necessity.” The journal was founded in 2003, he told me, to “address the fact that there wasn’t much work being published in translation.” Twenty years later, the translation landscape is growing, and the magazine has expanded its mission, striving not only to publish translated works but also to “reach people who may not even know they’re interested in international literature” and to advocate for the translators and critics who help that work enter the American literary conversation.

Of course, the question of what constitutes advocacy in the literary world is a complex one. For Words Without Borders, Becker told me, it means crediting translators, paying writers and translators equally, and actively seeking to launch new writers’ and translators’ careers. The magazine has published some 3,000 poems, stories, and essays by authors from over 140 countries, giving many — including every writer mentioned in this essay — their first English-language exposure or helping their work grab the attention of agents who can further their careers. Crucially, that exposure is readily available to anyone with an internet connection: unlike many print-only or print-focused literary journals, which tend to rely on a subscription model, Words Without Borders is free.

But free isn’t always a good thing. Many translators, myself included, are exhaustingly familiar with the expectation that we should work for little or no pay. One way to resist that idea is simply to expose it; another, for many translators, is cooperative action. Translators’ collectives are abundant; online and in industry groups like the American Literary Translators Association, translators offer each other information and support that can be vital in the often opaque publishing industry. Asked about the effect of her agenting past on her translation present, including her role as the chair of the Authors Guild’s Translation Group, Sanches said that this insider knowledge “makes me a better advocate for myself and my peers.” She then highlighted the Authors Guild’s model translation contract, which is heavily annotated and includes the explicit statement that “a large number of U.S. translators are being paid rates that make it difficult, if not impossible, to earn a living, so we continue urging translators to ask for fair compensation and publishers to provide it.” Arguably, fair compensation is the bedrock on which any other politics of translation must rest; as Jhumpa Lahiri writes in the introduction to her 2022 essay collection Translating Myself and Others, it’s hard to perform the “essential aesthetic and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders” without being able to make the rent.

Yet many translators still set out not only to open borders but also to break barriers. Without their efforts — and without the continuing presence of translation-oriented journals and presses willing to take risks and “think expansively,” as Sanches puts it, “about who their potential readers are” — it would be highly difficult for marginalized writers, or writers whose work is strange, challenging, or unclassifiable, to be published in translation. Breaking into the competitive, commercialized US market would be harder still; Becker points out that, although it troubles him that translation is often treated as “its own genre,” that very phenomenon helps create a platform for translated literature. Besides, for many writers, having their work appear in English is itself a promise of opportunity. Miguelángel Meza, a Paraguayan poet who writes in Guaraní and self-translates into Spanish, told me via email that, although he feels no different about seeing his work in English than he does seeing it in Spanish, he’s conscious that “being translated into English opens doors that [he] could never reach before.”

Meza is both an advocate and something of a groundbreaker himself. He’s been writing in Guaraní since well before Paraguay’s 1992 constitution made it an official language, and is among a small but growing number of writers whose work has been translated from Guaraní and other Indigenous Latin American languages into English. Meza’s sparse, lyrical poetry draws heavily on Mbyá Guaraní cosmology. His translator Elisa Taber, who reads Guaraní, asked to translate his collection Dream Pattering Soles into English, and collaborated closely with him — which, he told me, was an “immense joy” — to keep the translation fully grounded in Guaraní culture. Taber’s translations of Meza’s work first appeared as part of the Indigenous Writing Project from Words Without Borders, which not only helped his poems reach English-language readers but also helped contextualize them. For Taber, this is key: her goal, she said in a Poetry Foundation interview with her editor, Silvina López Medin, has been to ensure that the work would be understood “on its own terms,” not in terms of what anglophone readers might consider “canonically legitimate.”

It’s worth pointing out that López Medin edits for Ugly Duckling Presse, an avant-garde publishing collective that’s often at the forefront of translated Latin American poetry. Ugly Duckling, with its experimental reputation and internationally minded audience, is unusually well positioned to work with Meza, who sees publishing with the firm as a way to continue his “production and defense of literature in Paraguayan Guaraní, which is a passion that stems from my earliest youth and that I see as a form of ministry. It goes hand-in-hand with my poetry, and has since I can remember.” (All of Meza’s comments were written in Spanish, and appear here in my translation.)

For the Welsh writer Manon Steffan Ros, who, like Meza, self-translates, success has looked quite different, although she shares Meza’s commitment to pushing against the dominance of a colonial language — which, for her, is English. Her 2018 novel Llyfr Glas Nebo, which she sees as “quintessentially Welsh,” got noticed not by an individual translator, as was the case for Meza, but by two major cultural-promotion engines: the Wales Literature Exchange and Literature Across Frontiers. Ros wound up working with Sterling Lord Literistic, a major agency, to get The Blue Book of Nebo, her translation of Llfyr Glas Nebo, to publishers, including Dallas’s translation-centered Deep Vellum Books, who made it a US hit in 2021.

Although Ros was surprised by her novel’s international appeal, she told me that she has come to see its “very basic themes as fears and loves that are universal. We love our families. We’re afraid of what is happening to the world. We love our children, and we must let them go. People everywhere think about these things, and they are the bare bones of this story.” It’s quite possible that this universality — or, rather, this version of universality, acceptable across a range of political and social perspectives — goes some way toward explaining the institutional support the novel received in Wales.

Another recent translated hit, South Korean novelist Sang Young Park’s Booker-nominated Love in the Big City (2019), had a much tougher path to translation. The novel is, as Spencer Lee-Lenfield writes, a “comic alternative to the queer novel of tragic seriousness.” Its protagonist, a writer named Young, drinks and jokes his way through professional setbacks, familial trouble, social boredom, and what can seem like an absolute swarm of bad boyfriends. When I asked Park how Young, if he were real, would react to the book’s success, which includes rave reviews on top of the Booker nod, he told me that he imagined Young resorting to his usual “self-deprecating brand of humor, saying, ‘It’s kind of ridiculous that the whole world right now is reading about how I get drunk and throw up and get laid.’”

Of course, throwing up and getting laid are some of the most universal experiences out there — just as universal as the parental fear and love at the heart of The Blue Book of Nebo. Yet the translator Anton Hur, who came across an early short story of Park’s and immediately set out to translate his work into English, struggled to find institutional support. He told me that, as a queer translator, it is important to him to work on books that belong to the “long and rich tradition of queerness in Korean literature,” even when he couldn’t get funding from the Korean institutions that often underwrite sample translations. I asked Hur how he maintained his energy and optimism in the face of this disinterest, and he shot back, “I don’t know what you mean — I have neither!” Shortly afterwards, though, he spoke of being

inspired by colleagues who were activist translators in the sense that they wanted to change the face of Korean literature in translation to be more inclusive, to be anticolonial, to burn things down. Colleagues like Deborah Smith, Sophie Bowman, Victoria Caudle, and Soje, who aren’t just translating bestsellers or doing one book after another because someone told them to. They made me see how translators can change literary discourse at a fundamental level.

Activist translation is a major part of Love in the Big City’s story. So is activist editing, not to mention queer solidarity — Park told me he’s always “seen himself as part of the world queer literature community,” and the novel has received the support of Eileen Myles, Alexander Chee, and other queer anglophone writers. Hur translated a sample of Love in the Big City without getting paid to do so, and found it homes with Peter Blackstock at Grove Atlantic in the United States and the aforementioned Deborah Smith at Tilted Axis Press in the United Kingdom; Julia Sanches, working on Tilted Axis’s behalf, sold it to Peter Blackstock at Grove Atlantic in the United States. Blackstock has worked with queer writers such as Douglas Stuart and Akwaeke Emezi, and has said that he actively seeks a list that “represents the world”; Smith, meanwhile, founded Tilted Axis, a nonprofit translation press whose mission includes rejecting the “monoculture of globalisation.” Both Smith and Blackstock pushed Hur toward anticolonial translation practices, nudging him to ground the text in Korean language and culture rather than smoothing it out for English-speaking readers. Blackstock, at one point, flagged the phrase “side dishes” in the text and, as Hur tells it, wrote, “‘Don’t you mean banchan? Just say banchan.’ I basically do everything my editors tell me to, but wow, that was such a great moment. I don’t know if Peter even remembers putting that comment in the manuscript, but I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life.”

In corresponding with Hur and Park about Love in the Big City, I found myself intensely frustrated on Hur’s behalf — and intensely grateful both for his persistence and for the many forms of solidarity and advocacy that made it pay off. Julia Sanches thinks that without activist magazines like Words Without Borders and small presses like Deep Vellum, Tilted Axis, Transit, and Ugly Duckling, as she told me, “the country would be cluttered with more and more of the same or very similar books.” For that to happen would be not just a loss but a waste of the literary abundance that exists outside the borders of the English language — and outside the borders of expectation. I never thought I’d get hooked by a novel about postapocalyptic parenthood in Wales — and before encountering Ugly Duckling’s trilingual edition of Dream Pattering Soles, I’d never read a word of Guaraní. I’m grateful for those opportunities, just as I’m grateful to get to see bits of my own reading life refracted though Oliver’s essays, or my not-literary-at-all life in Young’s misadventures in Seoul and Bangkok. All readers deserve — and should ask for — these chances. The more kinds of literature we demand and support, the bigger our world will get.


Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator. Her translations include Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird (2021) and Ice for Martians (2022).


Featured image: Klänge (1913) by Vasily Kandinsky. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, DC. She’s a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in places including CrimeReads, Electric Literature, Latin American Literature Today, and Tin House Flash Fridays.


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