Making Literature Travel between Europe and Asia: INDONESIAN TRANSLATION PROGRAMS

How does writing from other continents find its way to European publishers in today’s competitive book industry? And how do we interact with markets and literary scenes as remote as those of China, India or Indonesia?’
In the lead up to Asia Pacific Writers & Translators’ conference in Bali, Indonesian translator Eliza Vitri Handayani shares her thoughts on Making Literature Travel, a subject she spoke about at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, the year Indonesia was Guest of Honour. The issues she raised, particularly about government support—or the lack of it—for literary translations can be extrapolated to other countries.

TRANSLATORS PLAY AN important part in introducing the literature of any country to another. Eliza Vitri Handayani, founder of InterSastra, a free, independent space for literary exchange between Indonesia and other countries, n Indonesian literary translation initiative, pointed out that many translations are achieved because of a proposal to a publisher by a translator knowledgeable in a country’s literature. ‘Translators can inform the industry about which foreign books are likely to sell in other markets,’ she said.

She stressed the importance of government support for translation programs. In the specific case of Indonesian literature she said, ‘To get more translations from Indonesia into Europe, it’s crucial for the Ministry of Education and Culture to continue investing in translators through the Indonesian Translation Funding Program.’

She suggested investment could be done in many ways.

1) Hold literary translation workshops and mentoring programs. (Handayani flagged the success of her own translation initiative, InterSastra, which partnered with British Centre for Literary Translation to hold translation workshops, seminars, readings, and other events with Indonesian and European authors.)

2) Train translators how to network with and pitch a work to international publishers.

3) Events like APWT’s conferences can do this. Handayani mentioned the European Literature Night’s Translation Pitch which helps translators sharpen their skills and promote the authors whose works they admire. The pitches can then be distributed on social media to create even bigger buzz around the books and translatorsauthors.

4) Train translators to write reader’s report and proposals that they can submit to international publishers. ‘These will give translators experience in creating a book summary, gathering info on sales, prizes, media coverage, and explaining to publishers why they think the book would be successful with the target audience.,’ Handayani said.

5) Hold a Translators Exchange Program. Handayani suggested collaborations with European countries with organizations devoted to promoting their country’s literature. ‘They could collaborate to create a program enabling a translator working to translate a book by, say, a German author to work in Germany for a period of time, supported by the German organization, and a translator working to translate a book by an Indonesian author, can work in Indonesia.’

She said the Indonesian Translation Funding Program could fill a real need by
improving the infrastructure for writers in Indonesia. . ‘Hold workshops to raise awareness regarding copyrights; create a network of translators who are able to translate from regional Indonesian languages; develop festivals and residencies, especially including in the regionsprovinces, where authors, editors, and translators can meet,’ ‘ she suggested.

She said all these steps are necessary to address complaints from translators of that source texts are often poorly edited. ‘The ITFP should also consider holding editing workshops with Indonesian authors and editors.’

Olivia Sears, director of the Center for the Arts of Translation in San Francisco, pointed out at an earlier InterSastra seminar that some less-translated countries have had success (in achieving published translations of in other countries ) by inviting delegations of editors and publishers to their country to meet authors. ‘ITFP can do this periodically,’ Handayani said. ‘And the other way around, sponsor visits of Indonesian writers to various literary festivals, perhaps in collaboration with embassies abroad. Another simple, but useful, thing to do is to donate Indonesian books to schools and libraries abroad.’

She also suggested that government- supported translation arms like the ITFP should post on the web a catalog of translation samples into English. These could be easily browsed by foreign publishers.

At the 2010 InterSastra seminar Professor Lily Rose Tope from the University of the Philippines highlighted the sad fact that Southeast Asian countries don’t read each other.


‘ONE OBVIOUS BARRIER is language,’ said Handayani. ‘If we can get more translation going between Indonesia and our English-speaking neighboring countries, such as Singapore and Australia, we can open doors for translations into other languages in the region and beyond.’

Handayani recommended that because most publishers don’t have the resources to pay for translation costs, the government translation initiative must continue, but rather than directing grants to Indonesian publishers, it must reach out to international publishers.

‘If ITFP already paid a grant to translate a book into English, published by an Indonesian publisher, and then, say, a UK publisher wants to acquire the book but they don’t like the translation and want to hire a different translator, then the public will have to spend twice as much on the grant for that book,’ she said.

She expressed concern over how much is paid to translators themselves, and whether translators retain the copyright to their work. For Indonesian work showcased at the Frankfurt Book Fair she said that public money discriminated against citizens. ‘Translators who are Indonesian citizens had to work for a lower rate than that for non-Indonesians, even if the books are published in key foreign markets, such as the US and Australia, and even if the Indonesian translators themselves live in countries with higher living costs than Indonesia. The rates for Indonesian translators were IDR 140,000 per page to translate into English and 160,000 into German; the rates for foreign-citizen translators were IDR 300,000 into English and 480,000 into German.

‘I understand that most esteemed translators translate into their native tongue, but the work’s quality, not the translator’s citizenship, should determine the rates the translator gets. Increasing our appreciation for translators’ work will pay off in the quality of the translation.’


TRANSLATORS THEMSELVES CAN create public events that attract a wider audience to increase general appreciation for what we they do. Handayani cited several inspiring examples:

1) The British Centre for Literary Translation’s Translation Duel. Two translators are tasked with translating the same short text. They go on stage to debate their translation choices. Rosalind Harvey, an award-winning translator from Spanish into English, said: “When I participated in Translation Duel I invited my friends to watch. On the way home, they told me that the event made them see that my job is not the same as that of a typist. They saw that what I do is actually challenging and fun.”

2) Katy Derbyshire’s blog Going Dutch with German Authors. Derbyshire is a widely acclaimed translator from German into English, every week or so she would go out for drinks with an author and have a relaxed conversation about many things. The blog is an amusing and effective way to draw wider attention to the authors.

3) Paper Republic’s Chinese Short Story Year, which . This publishes online one piece by a Chinese writer every week. Posting a new piece every week keeps the project fresh, and the short pieces can attract readers previously uninterested in Chinese literature.

4) Translators should work with authors to submit their pieces to all kinds of literary media abroad—many now are accepting translations. Indonesian writing should be put on the global literary map, not only in a special edition of Indonesian authors, not only as writing from Indonesia or Asia, but as a part of world literature.

In return, authors must also support their translators and not forget to acknowledge them. With creativity and social media savvies, authors and translators can now do so much more to help bring the writings we love across countries and continents.


IN FRANKFURT HANDAYANI took the opportunity to speak about a collection of Indonesian writing, translated into English, called ‘Diverse Indonesia’.

‘As has happened in other Guest of Honour countries before, in Indonesia there were controversies surrounding the selection of authors featured at the Fair. When InterSastra was invited to the Fair by Literature Across Frontiers, I decided to open up space for authors not yet selected by the national committee. In August we sent out a call for submission, and in September we read and selected the submissions without seeing the author’s name to focus only on the works’ quality. We then approached emerging translators to translate the works and paired them with established translators, so that the program also became a training opportunity for the emerging translators. ‘InterSastra is from, by and for writers and translators – all working voluntarily. We do hope that in the future we will receive support from the ITFP so that we can do much more.’

‘By making investments in translators and the infrastructure for Indonesian literature, the ITFP will bring benefits not only for our performance at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but also for Indonesian literature in the long term.’

Eliza Vitri Handayani is a novelist and literary translator from Indonesia. Her novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different was published in 2015 and was launched internationally, including at the APWT Summit and Frankfurt Book Fair. At the launch of the novel in Oslo and Jakarta, she wore a dress that she made herself using the novel’s proofs. The book’s launch at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was cancelled due to police objections, and Eliza protested by wearing to the festival t-shirts with excerpts from her novel. Her short works have appeared in Indonesian and international anthologies and media, such as Koran Tempo, Jakarta Post, Magdalene, Asia Literary Review, Griffith Review, Exchanges Journal, Words Without Borders, Inside Indonesia, Index on Censorship. In 2016 Eliza was a selected as a fellow for the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) program, and she appeared in several literary festivals: Northern Territory Writers Festival, Makassar International Writers Festival, and Melbourne Writers Festival. Eliza is the founder and manager of InterSastra, which is currently publishing “Defiant Voices”, a series of works by writers who keep writing in face of censorship or intimidation; and “Literary Souvenirs”, works by writers encountered during travels.

Journey to One’s Own Culture

Filipino author Victor Sugbo speaks with passion about his experience in bringing the Waray literature and culture. Here’s what he said in a session about ‘Regional Vs National and Global Literatures’ at APWT’s 2015 conference.



It became a return to my cultural community of which I had little knowledge. I knew more about English and American literature and society but not Waray literature.


I BELONG in the Philippines who, after graduation from the university, did not know anything about literature in my first language, Waray.

I had little knowledge about the Waray as a people. My father would sometimes mention the name of a playwright in Waray, but I did not bother to inquire about this writer’s works further because he seemed remote and irrelevant to my immediate concern then, which was to find a job.

Things took a different turn for me when my graduate professor in Language and Literature—the doyenne of Bikol literature, Maria Lilia F. Realubit of the University of the Philippines—invited me to sit in a national committee for literary arts at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

It was here that I met for the first time professor writers and critics who wrote in English and who came from the regions. They were the who’s who in the literature of the country. I was the initiate trying to understand the serious concerns of the academics and writers.

Though most of them wrote in English, they advocated the revitalization and propagation of Philippine literature in the other languages.

While they were having translation and anthology projects for their respective literatures in their mother tongues, I was compelled to propose an anthology project on Waray literature. This began my deep involvement in the translation of Waray language and literature. I started studying the myths and legends in Waray.


Initially I had difficulty reading Waray texts since I was conditioned to reading English medium books most of the time. I was able to overcome my reading difficulty only by reading with an open mind and shedding attitudes. My intention was to produce an anthology that was to introduce readers to Waray literature.

Inasmuch as I expected that the audience of the anthology would be the Waray speakers who had developed an aversion for reading Waray texts, I had to translate the literary texts to English. This was my way of bringing the Waray back to their literature and culture.
Translation became my own adventure into the Waray language and culture of my father and grandparents. It became a return to my cultural community of which I had little knowledge. I knew more about English and American literature and society but not Waray literature.

During the preparation stage of the anthology, I read documents and tomes on the history of Leyte and Samar and the outlying islands. One of the books revealed that in these islands during the 1600s different kinds of oral poems were sung on different occasions.

The ancient people had a sophisticated way of predicting weather. They had a flourishing boat building and jewelry industries. I also learned about their ancient customs and manner of dressing, and gathered their songs from existing museum collections; translating the songs was fun because I learned about their witticisms and ironic humor.

Translating the published literary works found in periodicals from the 1800s to the 1960s revealed that the Waray language had not really undergone drastic changes in vocabulary and syntax. The poetry over this period provided the narrative fabric of the social history of the people.

In the 1800s, the men were shy and since courtship customs were a bit difficult to follow, they expressed their feelings though love songs that revealed their sad plight. In the 1920s, the poems reported that people began to copy the manner of dressing of the Americans. In Calbayog, for instance, there was a time when women wore bathrobes when they went to market as they thought this was the fashion.

In the 1930s and 40s, during the American occupation, the writers assailed the people’s changing mores. The Waray began speaking English. Their women now spent more time preening before the mirror, wearing sleeveless dresses to the annoyance of the men. Government officials were flaunting their power in the community. About the Japanese war, the poets wrote about the heroism of the Waray soldiers.

In the ’50s, after World War II, writers riled against women who started to wear make-up, dress like Westerners, speak English to create snob appeal, and marry American soldiers instead of the local men. The literature during the period showed the writers’ growing apprehension over the increasing dominance of English in the weekly newspapers and similar periodicals. They worried that very few writers were writing in Waray. At the time, a sizeable number were already writing in English and since their works were imitations of American and English poetry and fiction, these did not elicit any significant attention from the educated Waray.

My translation of the Waray literary texts to English in the early 1990s was designed for the Waray who preferred reading English texts and who did not consider literature in Waray to be significant. The intent was to make them begin reading Waray literature after understanding the translations in English, and to have them appreciate their taken-for-granted literary heritage. My other intended audience were those starting to write in Waray. In a sense, my translation work was not intended for the international community of readers.

Today, after numerous writers workshops in Waray, young and new writers have produced new poetry and short fiction in Waray, which they occasionally translate to English. The absence of local publication venues, like periodicals and magazines, has pushed them to publish their works in e-zines and similar venues in cyberspace. The aim here has been to get critical notices from serious critics in the country and attract a wider reading community around the globe.

Globalization of information as an upshot of the new media could have been the channel for making the literatures of other Philippine languages known globally. They do not have to be approved nor endorsed by the powerful critics of Manila. By translating these works to English and making them available in cyberspace, they could now be read by literary critics outside the country. The majority of these works, however, have not earned the interest of these critics and readers; for this reason, one can say that the opportunities of having one’s literary output known globally are merely illusory.

Perhaps, one can learn from the experience of Brazil’s poet par excellence, Carlos Drummond de Andrade whose works got significant attention from the English-speaking world when these were translated to English sometime in the ’80s by Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand, two of America’s much admired poets.

The case of Miroslav Holub from Prague, Czechoslovakia took a different route. It was the translation and the “excellent introduction” by noted American critic, A. Alvarez that made Holub widely known. Federico Garcia Lorca of Spain became widely known with the translations of his poems to English by translators Rolfe Humphries, Ben Belitt, Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili.

Clearly, the road for an excellent writer toward international renown is for his works to gain first the critical attention of either accomplished American writers or translators who have good working relations with their publishers. The good fortune that came to Andrade of Brazil, Holub of Czechoslovakia and Lorca of Spain took place long before the onslaught of globalization. Today, the scene has not changed.

Apparently, in the realm of globalization, a little known writer’s work, particularly that coming from a developing country like the Philippines, gathers energy only when an international writer of renown or translator takes notice of the former and translates the text to English.


Victorio N. Sugbo has been a Professor of Communication and Literature at the University of the Philippines Visayas. He holds a PhD in Communication, an MA-Tesl and an MAIR, all from the UP Diliman. He has published articles in national refereed journals and edited books. He has likewise papers in international conferences. A poet, he writes in English and Waray (his mother tongue). His poetry has been included in national and international anthologies and periodicals.


Actors and Literary Translators, the Great Imitators

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Shelly Bryant argues that literary translators need the same skills as actors who imitate the voices and mannerisms of others.

Last year, the world lost one of the greatest comedic geniuses of our times when Robin Williams passed away. While he will be remembered for many roles on television and in the movies, his earliest claim to fame was as a stand-up comedian. From those early days of his career, one of the main tools of his trade was the impression, and he was one of the best. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, and Carol Channing were just a few of the celebrity impressions Williams employed in a single film, Aladdin. He captured the mannerisms and voice of each one convincingly, alerting his audiences immediately to whom he was depicting.

This same gift of imitating others’ voices and quirks comes to life on the page in the work of a gifted literary translator. The translator’s job is not to duplicate the words of an author in a second language – taking the ‘original’ and repackaging it in a ‘target language.’ Instead, the translator’s job is to mimic the voice and mannerisms observed in the source text and replay them in a different venue for another audience. The translator’s voice will be heard – just as we see Robin Williams even when it is unmistakable that he is mimicking John Wayne or Ronald Reagan – but it will be a faithful enough representation of the author’s voice that the personality of the source material will come to life, being foregrounded to the point that the translator is lost in the shadow of the author. This is why the same work will sound slightly different in the hands of different translators, though the original is recognizable in each rendering.

The trick to successful literary translation is similar to successful impression. One must latch onto some details of expression, voice, or gesture and magnify those, being aware that doing so requires the relinquishing of other details. It is not a duplication of the whole person, but imitating certain traits specific to her or him. Sometimes it was a gesture or mannerism, such as John Wayne’s distinctive walk, that Williams would hang his imitation on, but as often as not, it was the voice. Jack Nicholson, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Walter Cronkite all became part of the repertoire on the strength of their very recognizable voices.

A similar skill can serve as the perfect foundation for a successful literary translation. The decision about what to latch onto and what to relinquish will vary from translator to translator, and that which is lost in the process will invite comments and criticism as soon as the work is published.

Sometimes, in order to make the impression recognizable, exaggeration of a point is required, and all exaggeration is necessarily a departure from the strictest literal translation. For instance, in my translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, I knew as I read the book what I wanted the English version to sound like. It needed to bounce. It was crisp, sharp, cheeky, and extremely clever. When I started the translation, the first sentence of the book read, ‘她,就是钱小红,湖南的。’ The most literal translation of this is, She is Qian Xiaohong from Hunan (Province). My translation is, Her. Right there. That’s Qian Xiaohong, from Hunan Province. My version is more consistent with the voice of the novel as a whole, even if it is something of a ‘free’ approach to that first sentence.

On a larger scale, I had another decision to make early in translating Northern Girls. In the Chinese, there are no quotation marks to set off the dialogue. On the page, it all looks like free indirect speech, which often flows fluidly into more narrative portions, occasionally making it a little tricky to discern between dialogue and narrative, or between the narrator’s voice and a character’s thoughts, in an application of stream-of-consciousness techniques. In Chinese, this makes for a very fast-paced read, creating a lively text that is full of verve and sparkle. In English, the application of the same technique would slow the narrative down, as evidenced by much English-language stream-of-consciousness fiction. I made the choice from the beginning to forego the use of the technique, opting for an imitation of the voice, style, and personality over a duplication of the technique. Throughout my work on the translation of the novel, I tried to consistently apply this approach.

Another point to consider in translating from Chinese to English is that longer sentences and paragraphs are more the norm in Chinese. I often break a single Chinese sentence into two, or even several, English sentences. I have heard some translators suggest that sticking to the sentence and paragraph breaks – even the punctuation – of the original is part of the standard used to judge accuracy. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that from someone who works from Chinese to English.) The problem with this is that the same sentence breaks create a very different effect in English to that achieved in Chinese, which results in an imitation that seems to miss the mark of the voice or original personality of the piece. I prefer to be more faithful to the overall effect, even if it means sacrificing some details.

It might be argued that this approach fails in the strictest standards of accuracy. Rather than try to dispute that claim, I would reply that ‘strict accuracy’ is seldom an ideal that should be pursued in literary translation. Instead, I aim for faithfulness – a faithful rendering of the voice and character of the text – in an attempt to imitate the original’s effects on Chinese readers in an English-language readership, as opposed to a duplication of textual details. If a translation is too literal, it creates an odd mirroring that is like what you expect to find in a fun house; you might recognize the image, but you immediately know it is distorted.

Emphasizing imitation of voice in translation is not without its problems. I have seen my own preoccupation with imitation of voice create some problems or misunderstandings in the course of a project. In one instance, an author hired me directly to translate her work. When the final draft was complete, I received an email from her husband, a native English speaker, who wanted revisions done to capture what he considered to be the voice of the piece. He described it as upbeat, feisty, and fast-paced. This puzzled me, because my feel was that the text was slow, contemplative, and a little melancholy. I sought another opinion from a colleague, who agreed with my understanding and felt the voice I had employed was a good representation (or imitation) of the original. So, while the client and I were both focused on imitating the voice of the text, we were hearing different voices.

The matter was cleared up when I replied to the author’s husband, asking him to give me some examples from the text where he felt the voice was significantly different in English from the Chinese version. He wrote back to say, ‘I don’t read Chinese. This is just the impression I’ve got from my wife narrating the story to me.’ This was a somewhat unusual turn of events, with her spoken retelling of the story taking on a faster-paced, more frenzied tone than she employed in her writing. Her husband and I were each trying to mimic her voice, but she was not using the same voice when addressing each audience. The differences of opinion arose not only from the differences in the forms of the text presented to us, but in our respective relationships to that text. We were two very different audiences, and so the text morphed in our readings of it, resulting in almost polar opposite ideas about what the English version of the book should sound like.

When I thought more about this experience, it made perfect sense. The intended audience for a specific project always plays a key role in the approach to translation, a fact which creates space for many versions of the same work in translation. No single rendering can perfectly convey the original in the target language, translation by its nature being an inexact art, so multiple versions created for a variety of audiences and performed on numerous stages is the ideal. Sadly, it is an ideal that is rarely achieved, especially considering how inadequate the body of work we have available to us in translation is, even in the best of circumstances.
ShellyShelly Bryant  is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Publishing, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, Rinchen Books and Griffith Review. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.

Translators in Schools training program captures the zeitgeist

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Director of the Stephen Spender Trust Robina Pelham Burn introduces an exciting new schools translation scheme she helped start.

Sarah Ardizzone, Sam Holmes and I are united by our enthusiasm for language learning, our desire to celebrate the many languages spoken in schools throughout the UK and our interest in using translation as the basis for creative multilingual workshops in schools.

Sarah is an award-winning translator from French, Sam is working on a PhD in multilingualism, and I graduated in Chinese, edit translated fiction and have been the director of the Stephen Spender Trust since 2001.

Sarah and Sam devised the programs for Translation Nation, an initiative started in 2010 to encourage children to explore literatures and cultures from around the world. Translation Nation revealed how few people there are with the skills to develop and deliver creative translation workshops.

The Translators in Schools (TiS) professional development programme addresses this through two strands of training aimed at those who speak English and at least one other language.

Non-teachers are invited to attend a series of three training days that are spread out over three or four months to allow time for preparation between each stage. Day 1 includes fun translation activities, lesson planning and classroom management, as well as a taste of a real workshop. Day 2 requires participants to put into practice what they have learnt, and sees 20 of them working in pairs to deliver to small groups of 8–11 year olds a book-based workshop and games involving translation. On Day 3 participants bounce ideas off one another and try out activities as part of the process of developing their own original workshop, which they will later pilot for free in a school in order to become an accredited graduate of the programme.

The training also teaches participants how to approach schools and demonstrate how their workshop ties in with the National Curriculum. An online forum enables graduates to continue exchanging ideas.

Multilingual primary and secondary teachers are offered a standalone training day to help them to engage particular groups of pupils or parents with the aim of developing broader literacy skills. The teachers also learn how to organise after-school or lunchtime clubs focusing on creative multilingualism, enrich particular lessons/schemes of work, and promote interest in writing in the home language as a first step towards sitting a GCSE in the home language.

It is worth explaining what is meant here by translation: code-cracking/semantic transfer on the one hand and creative writing that picks up on all sorts of story-telling clues (including the visual and non-verbal) and nuances of register on the other.

Crucially, children who take part in the workshops don’t need to speak or read the source language in order to transform it into creative expression in the target language. What matters is the journey between both languages, which will develop the children’s literacy skills, as well as their grasp of cultural, grammatical and syntactical nuance.

The children who served as guinea pigs at a recent training day translated books from Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Spanish. There was a real buzz created by the exposure to new languages and a sense of epiphany as the children discovered subtle differences for the verb to tip-toe in different languages, to take one small example. By the end of the day they had learnt how language concretely, intricately shapes our worlds, our imaginations, our ability to tell stories.

Creative multilingualism is about finding a voice: engaging imaginatively with mother tongues and other languages, as well as developing flair and originality in written English. It is as relevant to schools with a preponderance of monolingual children as it in schools where 70 per cent of the children do not have English as a first language. As a way to excite children about learning other languages, encourage them to value the ‘home languages’ they and their peers speak, and help them hone their powers of expression in English, the TiS programme seems to have captured the zeitgeist in the UK.

Members of the APWT and other readers of LEAP+ are welcome to take part in a TiS programme in the UK. We can also explore ways to deliver the program in countries in other parts of the world. To date, our target language has been English. The next big adventure for us is to move beyond that.

Robin Pelham BurnRobina Pelham Burn


Sophie Mayer, writing in ‘Free Word’, asks why most books translated into English are written by men.

Just over a year ago, translator Alison Anderson switched her dictionary for a calculator, and set out to crunch some numbers for translation magazine Words Without Borders. She says:

I decided it was time to confirm for myself what I had sensed over the last few years working full-time as a freelance literary translator: the Vida figures would probably apply to translated literature, as well. Far more male novelists make their way into English than female ones… [I]t is not the lists or the numbers that matter per se; it is what they represent, and the questions they raise. Where are the women in translation? Why aren’t more women getting into print in English, particularly when one bears in mind that the proportions are reversed when the gender of the translator is in question.

Since 2009, VIDA, an organisation representing women in Anglophone literary arts, has published its VIDA count, breaking down publication of books and reviews by gender, to shocking effect. Anderson’s findings were equally concerning, with percentages by year, based on Three Percent’s translation database, hovering between 25 and 35 percent.

Krys Lee

Krys Lee

Anderson presented her findings as part of an English PEN panel at the 2014 London Book Fair (LBF), which I chaired, with For Books’ Sake editor Jane Bradley and novelist Krys Lee, who offered a dual perspective on the situation of women writers in South Korea and writers in translation in the US. So many people (mainly women) attended the panel, including journalists, publishers, writers, translators, and reviewers, that we realised the question wasn’t ‘Where are the women in translation?’ but ‘Where are the (often) male gatekeepers prepared to listen to us and help make change?’

On International Translation Day (ITD), Bradley and I were joined at the British Library by translator and Love German Books blogger Katy Derbyshire for a workshop on Amplifying Women’s Voices in Translation, with contributions from the floor from experts including Anderson, translator Ros Schwartz and Words Without Borders’ founding editor Samantha Schnee.

Over 50 ITD attendees joined the discussion – once again, predominantly female. Several attendees noted that the workshop provided a ‘safe space’ to discuss the frustrations they experienced as female translators pitching non-Anglophone books by women to (often) male publishers. These important anecdotal reports from the field buoyed our commitment to high-profile, practical solutions to what’s evidently a bottleneck that keeps the great books being published by women in languages other than English from keen Anglophone readers.

Only 14 women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature

There was an appetite for a greater diversity of voices in translation, more avenues through which to discover them, and more incentives for publishers, reviewers and booksellers to pay attention to them.

What we learned from these panels – and what many translators already know – is that the books are out there, but they are struggling to cross the border. When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, for instance, only one of her books was available in English translation. We’re looking for practical solutions.

Despite Müller’s success (and more recently, Alice Munro’s), only 14 women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature since the prize was first awarded in 1901, and women account for only four of the 22 laureates awarded the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature since its inception in 1970.

This lack of recognition affects the awareness and appetite of publishers and readers, leading to lower numbers of books being translated, and often less attention to those that are.

One highlight (or lowlight) of Anderson’s findings is that no novel by a woman has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Yet small press Peirene, with only 12 titles on its list, has had three novels by women shortlisted in its four years of operation, a sign of the high quality of contemporary literary fiction by European women. Is it time, Anderson wondered, to found a prize for women in English translation?

There is precedent. Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48 percent of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42 percent said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.

With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes.

That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.

Derbyshire, who chaired the ITD workshop’s working group on founding a prize, has taken up this idea, posting a blog that has gained wide support online, from translators including Susan Bernofsky (Translationista), while Publishing Perspectives’ coverage was flagged up by World Literature Today.

Such a prize could capitalise on 2014’s grassroots online push for wider attention to women writers. @readwomen2014 was created by Joanna Walsh (@baudade), and has over 5,000 Twitter followers, and #WITmonth (women in translation month), an initiative within the larger campaign, took place this August with particularly enthusiastic participation from translation press And Other Stories, who have recently published their first female author in translation, Elvira Dones, and are consciously looking to add others to their list.

While it’s impossible to trace the diffuse effects of a hashtag campaign on book sales, it garnered thousands of tweets, initiating previously unheard conversations between readers, writers, publishers, bloggers and reviewers.

As many participants at the workshop confirmed, the lack of women writers from publication, translation, reviews and prizes is not a discrete phenomenon; it’s part of systemic sexism. Highlighting women’s narratives and creative practices can be a part of changing that system, starting with altering the persistent narrative about an absence of women, rather than their omission. Jill McDonough’s current post on the VIDA blog calls for an attitude shift towards ‘Rejecting Models of Scarcity, Believing in Plenty’.

Other working groups at the workshop proposed sourcing funding to continue and expand Alison’s research, including investigating best practice internationally to understand how women writers fare in translation into other than English. There was also a concerted discussion about reaching those absent gatekeepers and about shifting gatekeeping power towards readers, teachers, and booksellers, who are more often pro-equality.

Some initiatives already exist, such as Words Without Borders , which publishes translations with an attention to diversity including an annual Queer Issue. For Books’ Sake is dedicated to reviewing and promoting writing by women, and UK feminist webzine The F-Word has an active fiction and non-fiction reviews section.

All of these initiatives depend on volunteer labour from editors and contributors, which is committed, celebratory and certainly bears out McDonough’s belief in plenty. But, as the VIDA figures show, this dynamic community has yet to make an impact on the mainstream media, which could provide fees for reviewers as well as greater coverage for authors.

So, we need to reconfigure the question: how we stop counting numbers of women in translation, and make women writers, translators and reviewers count?

From hashtag campaigns to a high-profile prize via intelligent media coverage at every level–every strategy to apply pressure on publishers–counts. I believe in plenty.

Thanks to Sophie Mayer and ‘Free Word’ for their permission to use this (updated) article.


In translation, the angle of light changes, and your attention is redirected.

Suddenly, your attention is redirected, the angle of light changed…

Author Sarah Bower works with the British Centre for Literary Translation and here reflects that behind many a great book is a great (and mostly under-valued) translator.

You know how it is. Something you’ve never really noticed, taken for granted all your life and then, suddenly, your attention is redirected, the angle of light changed, and this thing, this piece of the scenery, moves to centre stage.

In the summer of 2011, I was recommended to the writer and translator Daniel Hahn as a possible co-ordinator for a scheme he was setting up to match selected emerging literary translators with more experienced mentors, to help promote not just the nascent careers of these mentees but an awareness of literary translation more generally.

As any translator will tell you, they (translators) are woefully under-appreciated and underpaid, though perhaps their condition has improved a little over the past three years thanks to what has become the British Centre for Literary Translation Mentoring Scheme and other initiatives.

The name change of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (from the original Asia Pacific Writing Partnership) is just one piece of evidence that the climate for literary translators is improving, though there is no room for complacency.

I have been as guilty as the next woman of taking translators for granted. I have fallen under the wheels of Anna Karenina’s train, mused with Gregor Samsa on the consequences of becoming a cockroach, faced the firing squad with Colonel Aureliano Buendia and tried to remember the date of my mother’s death with Meursault. I have worried, with Prince Mishkin, about smashing china, and about murder with Raskolnikov, without ever considering how these texts, most of them written originally in languages I do not understand, came to me.

They were simply ‘the classics’, ‘the canon’, the books you read if you were an informed reader and particularly if, like me, you aspired to be a writer. Their status in no way differed, for me, from that of great books written in English, from Great Expectations to The Great Gatsby.

My meeting with Danny Hahn and my three subsequent years of running the BCLT Mentoring Scheme with him have changed all that.

Spending half an hour listening to three translators debate the best way to translate the word ‘maman’ in the iconic opening sentence of Camus’ L’Etranger (and there again…The Stranger, or The Outsider?), and realising the discussion of that one word, with all its cultural and emotional baggage, could go on all day, nay all week, a lifetime even, has changed all that. Not only has it sharpened my appreciation of literature in translation, but of literature in general.

Three translators walked into a bar...

Three translators walked into a bar…how translation has changed in the past 150 years

It is a sad fact that, when fiction writers gather, what they mostly talk about is advances, agents and, increasingly nowadays, the ‘evil empire’ of Amazon. There is only one fellow inmate of our particular asylum with whom I ever talk about why and how we do what we do.

Among translators, however, there seems to be a wonderful, fresh eagerness and enthusiasm to talk turkey (in Turkish, possibly, or Khorasani Turkic) and to share technical and creative know-how.

Creative. Now there’s a word. I recently participated in a summer conference at BCLT part of whose purpose was to examine the notion that translations are creative works in their own right. As part of a series of workshops in which we translated, among other things, picture books and birdsong, I gave a creative writing workshop. Alas, I succeeded in terrifying my participant translators, despite my best endeavours to provide them with exercises designed to entertain. It became clear during the workshop that they did not see themselves as original creators but as interpreters of their source texts, channels, if you like, of other writers’ imaginations. They missed their safety net, even if it was a recording of a kookaburra or a set of images from an anarchic, contemporary French Red Riding Hood.

It involves an identification with the original author not dissimilar in mystery and intensity to the author’s involvement with character.

I suggest two responses to this. Firstly, the act of interpreting and translating someone else’s imagination is surely a creative act. It involves an identification with the original author not dissimilar in mystery and intensity to the author’s involvement with character. What writing fiction feels like is a process of translating the thoughts, feelings and actions of a set of characters into words.

What translation looks like, to me as an outsider (or stranger?), is what the eminent translator and educator, Michael Henry Heim, called ‘creating the same text.’ A good translation is true to its original, but in seeking after artistic truth it may diverge from the ‘fact’ of the original. Word order, for example, will almost always vary from source to target language, but beyond the basics lie the many complex, nuanced decisions translators have to make in order to translate a culture.

Take fat. Fat, in English, has become an ugly word, associated with greed, physical ugliness, a lack of self-control. In other cultures, however, it has positive connotations – of having sufficient wealth not to go hungry or to have to engage in physical labour.

So, if you are translating a positive culture of fatness into English, you cannot use the word ‘fat’. You must choose an alternative which does not carry the same negative baggage – ‘plump’, perhaps, or ‘generously proportioned’, or ‘curvaceous’. Of course, each of these has a different meaning in English, so before you can choose you must delve into the psyche of the original writer and try to divine his intent.

This seems to me not too far removed from the process I go through, as a novelist, in order to divine what my characters mean when they act in certain ways and put this into the right words.

Here is a quotation from the Israeli playwright, Amos Oz, whose English translator, Nicholas de Lange, we are also privileged to count among our mentors. This is from Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness:

‘My father could read in sixteen or seventeen languages, and speak eleven… My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand…Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and they presumably dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew.’

When the older members of the family wished to gossip or tell lewd stories, they did so in Russian, to protect the child. The young Amos, on the other hand, could swear in Hebrew with impunity because it was a language his parents only knew on its best behaviour and they did not understand street slang.

In Europe, our medieval ancestors believed a facility with languages was a gift of the Devil. You can see how that might happen. The Devil, of course, has all the best tunes.

Sarah Bower is a UK based novelist and short story writer whose membership of APWT is a legacy of her six months as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where she taught classes of Chinese, Korean, American, and one Slovakian, students, in English. As well as running the BCLT Mentoring Scheme, she also organises, and helps to teach, masterclasses in Japanese to English translation for BCLT and the Nippon Foundation. She speaks no language with any conviction other than English. 



Australian author, cultural commentator, essayist and translator Linda Jaivin shared her thoughts on literary translations in her keynote speech at the 2014 Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference.

Fellow subversives and saboteurs, I come to you to praise not just the ‘plural world’ but the acts of violence that make it possible.

I’m referring to the ‘acts of violence’ of which Victor Hugo spoke in his preface to a French translation of Shakespeare published in France in 1865: the disruptive, discomposing effects that translation can have on language and culture.
Translation introduces new ways of thinking about the world, new linguistic formulations, and new paths of connection between cultures – and these are not always welcomed with open arms.

Hugo wrote (André Lefevere’s translation): “When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look on the translation as an act of violence against itself … Bourgeois taste tends to resist the universal spirit.” He continued:

To translate a foreign writer is to add to your own national poetry; [yet] such a widening of the horizon does not please those who profit from it, at least not in the beginning. The first reaction is one of rebellion. If a foreign idiom is transplanted into a language in this way, that language will do all it can to reject that foreign idiom… There is an abuse of images, a profusion of metaphors, a violation of frontiers, a forced introduction of the cosmopolitan into local taste.

See what happens when you translate? All hell breaks loose – if you’re doing it right.

The introduction of new, challenging ideas into a culture or language through translation is like placing a book about male penguins raising a baby penguin onto the shelf of a library in Singapore. (I refer to the controversy at the time of the conference about a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, in our host city). You will alarm the most parochial, reactionary and small-minded members of society. They will do all they can to reject this ‘foreign idiom’, this ‘introduction of the cosmopolitan into local taste’. They will say that they cannot accept ‘this kind of taste’.

To liken the placement of And Tango Makes Three onto Singapore’s library shelves to the act of translation is not a linguistic stretch. The word translation in English derives from the Latin trans, meaning across, plus latum, the past participle of to bear or carry. It describes transferring something from one place or realm to another and is not confined to the metaphorical. Catholics speak of translating the relics of saints when they move them from one shrine to the next.

The North Koreans, like Singapore’s National Library Board, are more than aware of the potential violence that can be done to a closed culture by translation. When the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the Chosun Social Sciences Institute in Pyongyang translate foreign-language books into Korean, they typically restrict the print run to one hundred copies. Only the leadership and their closest associates have access to books in the One Hundred Copy Collection; only they can be trusted with such mass weapons of ideological destruction as, say, the collected poems of Lord Byron.

The new book (translated by one of APWT’s co-founders, Shirley Lee) Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung, a former official poet in Kim Jung-il’s circle and defector provides a vivid illustration of Victor Hugo’s point about ‘acts of violence’.

Jang was a teenager when he encountered the Korean translation of The Collected Works of Lord Byron from the One Hundred Copy Collection on his father’s bookshelf. Jang writes:

I opened the book with vague curiosity, but I was pulled in from the first page and the poetry seized me at once. The vocabulary was bold and the words pushed their definitions and associations to the limits, unlike anything I had ever read.

In North Korea, the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the National Literary Deliberation Committee combine to set ‘strict boundaries for the written and spoken word.’ Byron’s poetry, Jang writes, was ‘like a dictionary of New Korean to me’.

He writes in Dear Leader that in the North Korean language: ‘There are two distinct registers of speech: one relating to the Leader, and one to everyone else. Before encountering Byron’s poetry, I had thought that adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” were a special form of pronoun in the Korean language reserved for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il … I had assumed that these adjectives were names just like Kim and therefore etymologically and purely Korean.’ The notion that they could be applied to another individual, he writes, ‘elated him’.

The poetry itself, meanwhile achieved something even more shocking: it led him to understand that ‘emotions could be experienced in a personal sphere that did not include the Leader’ – what he calls ‘an astounding epiphany’.

It could hardly have been the intention of Byron’s North Korean translators to shake the world-view of their highly select readers but in other cases, such ‘acts of violence’ may be precisely the translator’s aim.

One extreme of translation theory

In her new book, Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, the Monash University scholar Gloria Davis writes of a fierce debate about translation that blew up in China in the late 1920s. The debate pitted the progressive writer Lu Xun against the prominent literary critic Liang Shiqiu. The controversy concerned Lu Xun’s style of translation from the Japanese, which he himself described as ‘hard translation’ – hard in the sense of rigid or solid. Liang was unimpressed. He considered Lu Xun’s translations overly and unnecessarily literal, and said they were not so much ‘hard’ as ‘dead’.

Liang argued that a more fluid translation – one that read better in the target language – might contain small errors, but would at least ‘give the reader a sense of pleasure’. Lu Xun retorted that he didn’t translate ‘to enhance the reader’s “pleasure”’. He did so, he said, to introduce ‘new constructions’ in grammar, syntax and vocabulary to the Chinese language: in Davies’ words, to ‘prise open the Chinese language to accommodate new ways of sense-making’.

Lu Xun was a towering figure of the 1919 May Fourth Movement. The movement began with ad hoc patriotic demonstrations by Beijing students and grew into a cultural, social and intellectual movement that was highly self-reflective and critical of Chinese culture, asking what it was about tradition – including China’s linguistic, philosophical and literary tradition – that kept China weak, poor and seemingly unable to join the modern world as an equal.

The essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger has cited ‘national self-loathing’ as ‘one of the great spurs to translation’ in general. He writes:

It is often the case that translation flourishes when the writers feel that their language or society needs liberating.

It flourishes in times of ferment.

Lu Xun, like many other Chinese intellectuals of his era who searched for a path towards the liberation of Chinese society from its stifling and backwards-looking traditions, studied in Japan. Culturally, Japan had much in common with China: it had even borrowed Chinese characters to use in formal writing more than one thousand years earlier. Yet by the late nineteenth century Japan had successfully transformed itself into a modern nation and a major military power, while once-mighty China suffered defeat after humiliation after defeat at the hands of Western Imperialist powers like France and Britain.

This onetime ‘tribute nation’ of China had inflicted perhaps the most humiliating defeat of all on China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Japan’s occupation of Chinese territories including Taiwan. In searching for clues as to how this had happened, Chinese thinkers observed that beginning in the nineteenth century, Japan had nurtured a rich culture of translation from Western texts. These included literary and aesthetic as well as political and philosophical texts. The Japanese had, in other words, actively encouraged these very ‘acts of violence’ that would transform and strengthen them.

Usefully for the Chinese, the Japanese translators used Chinese characters, kanji, to inscribe many key concepts including ‘civilisation’ (文明= literature 文 + illumination 明) and ‘democracy’ (民主 = people 民 + plus rule, or master 主). Lu Xun did not wish to find some pre-existing Chinese formulation that could stand in for such startling, disruptive concepts, old formulations that would obscure the freshness of the ideas. He wanted them to stick out, to use a colourful Australian expression, like dog’s balls. He even tried to preserve Japanese syntax and grammar, rendering his translations quite difficult to read – and also very different from his own writing, essays and fiction that include some of the most loved Chinese texts of the twentieth century.

Lu Xun’s work represents one extreme of translation theory. Objecting to that type of translation in general, David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, remarks: ‘Why should we want or need Kafka to sound German? In German, Kafka doesn’t sound “German” at all – he sounds like Kafka.’

Kafka is a perfect example of a writer whose work in translation (as in the original) introduced such a distinctively new way of framing our experience that we have had to give him his own adjective, Kafka-esque, to do it justice. In other words, you can commit an act of violence without leaving blood all over the floor.

The translator and theorist Lawrence Venuti is one of the main adherents today of the practice that Lu Xun espoused in his translation. Like Bellos, I disagree with the notion that the reader needs to be jarred into awareness that she or he is reading a foreign text – the act of violence as a hammer in the face.

Yet, it’s also worth considering Venuti’s warning against ‘fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with English-language values’, thereby providing readers ‘with the narcissistic experience of recognising their own culture in a cultural other’.

On the other extreme, is exoticisation. In Found in Translation, I relate the cautionary tale of the very first Chinese film ever shown in a commercial cinema in the US, in New York in 1936. It was a silent film, and so featured title cards for dialogue and narration. One read, in the English translation, “Seven times the pear tree has come into blossom.” Poetic, I’m sure – but the original text in Chinese read simply 七年之后, which translates as: ‘seven years later’.

The Japanese have a number of words for translation: meiyaku for a famous translation, setsuyaku for the modest ‘my clumsy translation’, shoyaku for the translation of an excerpt from a longer work, juyaku for a translation of a translation and, my favourite, choyaku, a publishing trademark that means ‘a translation that’s better than the original’.

When my novel Eat Me became a bestseller in France, the Australian literary critic Andrew Riemer, who was not a fan of the original, speculated that it must have been greatly improved in translation. I consider that entirely possible given the talent of my translator, Nathalie Vernay, and the innate eroticism of the French language.

I didn’t expect an English-language work of erotic fiction to make much of a splash. But Eat Me became a bestseller in France.  And yet, it didn’t translate in some parts of America at all. My American publishers planned my publicity tour so that I would completely avoid the Bible Belt.

As I wrote in Found in Translation:

It’s patently counter-productive to fear or attempt to limit the contamination of new ideas … we would be pig-headed not to welcome those ‘acts of violence’ of which Hugo spoke. If these acts of violence end up knocking down some walls, the view only improves.

We live in a plural, interconnected world. Gay penguins are coming to an ice floe near you. Resistance is futile.

Linda Jaivin is an author, cultural commentator, essayist and translator (from Chinese). She has published seven novels and four works of non-fiction; her latest novel, The Empress Lover (Fourth Estate, 2014), features a protagonist who is a translator of Chinese film subtitles. ( Linda’s recent non-fiction includes her recent Quarterly Essay Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World (Black Inc, 2013) and a new book on Beijing (Beijing, published in June 2014 by Reaktion Press).