London Translation Marathon

A dispatch from the 2015 London Book Fair from Slovak literary translator Julia Sherwood

I’m still recovering from last week, chockablock with translation-related events all over London, mostly connected to the 2015 London Book Fair. This huge book marketplace can be overwhelming, and the constant talk of books as commodities rather depressing, but 3 days of panel discussions at the Literary Translation Centre provided a safe haven from the hustle and bustle, as well as a great opportunity to meet fellow translators and publishers. All the panel discussions were recorded and the videos will be available on the LBF website.

The UK Translators Association kicked off the marathon on 13 April, before the book fair even began, with Translating Around the World, a day-long seminar covering a range of topics, including a comparison of translator organisation models and translation rates in the UK, US, France, and the Netherlands; opportunities for translator training; advice on contracts, working with literary agencies, and networking with other translators (through organizations such as the Emerging Translators Network in the UK, Emerging Literary Translators Network America and—particularly interesting for those who, like Asymptote staff, are scattered around the world—the Translators Association Diaspora). “Arseholes, douchebags and wankers” made an appearance in the last, highly entertaining session entitled “Bloody aubergine or goddam eggplant?”, which compared and contrasted British and U.S. English versions of three texts from Spanish, French, and Polish.

The next day, at the London Book Fair proper, three translators discussed What not to translate, where they would “draw the line,” and the political and cultural pitfalls they have to negotiate in translating Russian, Tibetan, and Arabic literature. “As translators, we must bear in mind that silence equals acquiescence,” quipped Russian translator Arch Tait, while fellow panelist Tenzin Dickie explained that she sees “language as a site of resistance and translation as a tool of resistance.” Alice Guthrie talked about the dilemmas she faces in trying to spread the word about Syrian literature, which could potentially perpetuate gender stereotypes.

As good as it was to see book critic luminaries, especially Toby Lichtig, who edits the translation section at the TLS, the eagerly anticipated panel on What Works in Translation: the Critics’ Perspective brought no new revelations, concluding that two of the greatest recent global fiction phenomena have been books in translation (Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante) and that the main thing the critics are looking for are good books. Meanwhile, in a spirited performance on a panel on The Potential Role of Public Libraries in Promoting Translated Literature, TA co-chair Antonia Lloyd Jones, vice-chair Ros Schwartz, and two librarians insisted that translators have to get out there and be more proactive in promoting their books.

Three innovative publishers discussed their publishing models and the pros and cons of print and electronic publishing. Anna Jean Hughes of Pigeonhole, started recently as a global book club, serializes its books and focuses solely on digital publishing, while Joshua Ellinson, founder of Restless Books and Scott Esposito of Two Lines Press and Deep Vellum, feature a mix of e-books and print, having found that an exclusive focus on digital publishing cuts off booksellers, who are the publishers’ natural allies, and that “the money spent on overcoming the absence of print could be spent on print.”

Wearing his Quarterly Conversation and Two Lines hats, Scott Esposito appeared again on a panel on the Role of literary journals in showcasing translated literature, alongside Daniel Medin of The White Review and Music and Literature; Sian Melangell Dafydd, of the Welsh-language Taliesin Literary Review; Susan Harris, of Words without Borders; and yours truly for Asymptote. The three internationally-oriented literary journals all have two platforms—one curated, periodically appearing platform that (with the exception of Asymptote and Words without Borders) is also printed, and another one that is more nimble and appears more frequently (in digital form and, in the case of Asymptote, as this blog).

The highlight of the week was the announcement that Asymptote had won the International Literary Translation Initiative Award for being “the place where translators want to publish their own and their authors’ work.” Lee Yew Leong, Asymptote founder and editor-in-chief, normally based in Taiwan, happened to be in Europe and was able to accept the award. Polish translators rejoiced at the news that Polish is the language chosen for this year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, with entrants asked to translate “Tatuaż,” a short story by Maciej Miłkowski. Later in the week, the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was revealed at Foyles flagship bookshop. We’ll have to wait until 27 May to learn who has won the £10,000 prize, to be split equally between the author and his or her English translator.

However, it was rather disheartening to learn that that Jenny Erpenbeck is the only woman writer on the shortlist, confirming the latest VIDA count. Where are the women writers in translation?, was the question addressed in one of the liveliest discussions at the Literary Translation Centre. Two writers, Mexico’s Carmen Boullosa (whose novel Texas: The Great Theft, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee, has been shortlisted for the 2015 PEN translation prize) and Polish-born A.M. Bakalar, whose first novel Madame Mephisto, written in English, was among reader nominations for the Guardian First Book Award in 2012, shared their experiences of working in a male-dominated industry. The Independent’s Joanna Walsh, who started the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014, and translator Katy Derbyshire (who writes the invaluable Love German books blog), announced the launch of a new translation prize specifically for women writers.

Now back to the translator’s hermit life, at least until next month, when the British Library will host European Literature Night on 13 May, another day-long event featuring, among others, the Emerging Translators Network running a Translation Clinic, and a workshop enticingly titled Choreography of Translation that will explore how literature can cross cultural borders through translation.


Julia Sherwood is Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia.