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Women in Translation Month

and an interview with Charlotte Coombe

“It is about sharing perspectives and addressing inequality, and making people all over the world aware of what women in different countries and cultures are writing about.”

It’s August, which means it’s Women in Translation Month! An excellent opportunity to celebrate translated women’s literature, and an excuse to read some great books.

The brainchild of Meytal Radzinski, a bilingual PhD student, WIT Month was created in reaction to the notable lack of women’s literature translated into English, and the imbalance in the number of published translations of works penned by women compared with men. It aims to draw attention to this disparity (according to Radzinski’s findings, less than 30% of all translated literature published in the UK and the US are by female authors) and impel publishers to address the issue and restore the balance.

This year’s event follows some recent high-profile success for women’s translated literature, so it certainly feels like some progress is already being made. In May this year, the International Booker Prize was won by female author Jokha Alharthi and shared with her female translator, Marilyn Booth. Alharthi is the first Omani novelist to win the prize and it is the first Arabic-language work to reach the top spot; a success for female writers, translators and languages alike! In her WIT Month 2019 blog, Radzinski acknowledges that things are improving, but also notes the ground still to be covered. This is, after all, the sixth consecutive year of a campaign that Radzinski had hoped would only need to exist for a couple of years.

A key objective of the annual Women in Translation Month is to promote the reading of literature written by female authors in languages other than English.

Among various events such as talks and reading groups, the main event really is just READING! The campaign encourages us all to assess our personal reading trends and to intentionally select a translated piece of women’s literature to read this month. Many individuals, groups and organisations publish recommended reading lists for WIT Month, so we have no excuse not to pick a great read and get involved!

Here are a few of the exciting reading lists we have come across so far:

For this year’s campaign, Radzinski herself will be publishing a reading list of the 100 best books by female writers, curated from nominations and votes from the public. So, watch this space for the final list to be revealed at the end of August.

At Wessex Translations we specialise in many fields of translation and have a number of skilled translators and colleagues who are lucky enough to count literary translation as their main area of work. WIT Month therefore seems like the perfect occasion to celebrate one of our talented colleagues!

Charlotte Coombe

For WIT month, we are putting the spotlight on Charlotte Coombe (CMC Translations), freelance translator and women’s literature enthusiast.

Since working inhouse with us at Wessex Translations over ten years ago, Charlie has gone on to develop a successful career in freelance translation, focussing in recent years on literary translation. Charlie has already translated more than 10 books from Spanish and French into English and says she has always wanted to translate “amazing, beautifully written books”.

Thank you for agreeing to let us put you under the spotlight Charlie!

No problem. Anything to be involved in WIT Month is always welcome! I am so glad that it has become a yearly thing that is getting people talking. It is really taking off and people are getting involved on social media and in the publishing industry. It is helping to encourage positive changes (some publishers have now even done a year where they only publish women writers, for example, which is amazing!)

So, have you always been a keen reader?

I was a total bookworm as a child and I started reading from an early age. I used to love Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Terry Pratchett… all the usual kid stuff. I also really liked some of the classic ‘swashbuckling’ kinds of books about pirates and smugglers (Robinson Crusoe, Moonfleet, etc.) and I had a few books on Greek myths and legends, which also fascinated me. But I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on. My parents always had bookshelves full of books all around the house, and I have a vivid memory of selecting books off their shelves and reading them. So I would sometimes read books that were perhaps a little too grown-up for me.

Oh dear! Any examples?

I remember reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (an eye opener!), one afternoon sitting on the carpet by the bookcase, and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (which scared me witless!). I can’t have been more than about 10 or 11. There was a very distinct feeling of doing something wrong, but at the same time, I believe if a child is an advanced reader, they should read whatever they want, and that’s the joy of reading – it should not be censored in any way.

Do you have a favourite author?

The indomitable Margaret Atwood. She is an author who has been with me all my life. I started reading her books in my early teens (having discovered her on my parent’s bookshelves), and then I studied The Handmaid’s Tale for English Literature A-level, which cemented my adoration of her as an absolute literary genius. She is an incredibly talented author, so perceptive. She can slay you emotionally with one carefully constructed, achingly beautiful sentence. Plus, her style is so diverse. She can write about anything, and her books range from dystopian fiction to short stories, to retellings of Shakespeare. I have read most of her books (not all, but I am working on it!) and I saw her give an address at the 2016 PEN Pinter prize – she is so worldly, wise, and funny, in her deadpan way. So much love for this writer!

What was it that inspired you to become a literary translator? Was there a particular book?

Wanting to translate literature was really a culmination of a whole life spent loving books, being good at writing, then later in life developing my love of languages; this opened up a whole world of new literature to me (and my reading wish list tripled in size!). It seemed a natural progression for me, to bring all those things together.

However, when I was first reading a lot in Spanish and discovering Spanish authors, and the excitement of all that, one of the first writers I came across was Lucia Etxebarria, and her book Amor, Curiosidad, Prozac y Dudas. I absolutely loved that book and remember it was a moment when I started thinking about how I would translate her words into English. It was the first book that I perhaps felt really connected to, in terms of being able to hear it in my head in English, while I was reading.

You are a women’s literature enthusiast – is there something in particular about women’s writing that makes it such a good read?

I think the way we talk about fiction is important – saying ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘translated fiction’ immediately pigeonholes a book, potentially putting men off from reading it because of its ‘femaleness’ or ‘foreignness’, and immediately creates a wall. There is only one criteria for fiction really, and that is, is it any good? I focus on ‘women’s literature’ only because so many female voices have been overlooked historically, and this balance needs to be addressed. I would not translate a book just because it was written by a woman. I have to love the style and be interested in the characters or the topic, as with any book.

Would you like to tell us a bit about your most recent translations?

Last year, my translation of Argentinian author Eduardo Berti’s The Imagined Land was published by the US press Deep Vellum. It is a love story set in pre-revolutionary China, and you can read an extract here.

The most recent translation I worked on was Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, a collection of novellas and short stories which was published by Charco Press in 2018. Translating this incredible Colombian author, for me, has been a turning point in my career. I am fortunate to be working on another of Margarita García Robayo’s books, also for Charco Press, which will come out next year, entitled Holiday Heart (Tiempo Muerto in the original Spanish). In brief, it is about the breakdown of a marriage, essentially, but it also deals with themes of migration and integration (of Latin Americans who live outside their countries), and has the author’s characteristic style of cynicism and biting wit. My translation is in the draft stages, so I am editing my rough draft at the moment.

I am also trying to find publishers for a couple of authors, and have just made those samples available on my website.

In an article you wrote about translating Fish Soup, you said that you felt an instant connection with the author’s voice. Is it easier to translate a text when you feel that connection to the story, or at least, enjoy it?

Yes, and I think as a literary translator, if you read a book and don’t feel the voice, or a connection to the text, then you really shouldn’t take that book on. You are probably not the right person for the book. Yes, you can do it, but the end result might be something a bit forced, or stilted, and it would be better for the book’s sake to let someone else who does feel that connection do the job. I have turned down books that I know are out of my comfort zone, or realm of knowledge (sci-fi, or a book where the characters or the style just do nothing for me), because I want the best result for the book (and its author) at the end of the day. When you feel passionate about a book and you get to translate it, that is an amazing feeling. Of course, there are plenty of occasions where you champion a book and would give anything to translate it, and someone else ends up doing it. That is always tough, but that’s the business!

You can read some reviews of Fish Soup here:

How does it feel to have your name next to the author’s on the front cover of the books? Do you feel like translators of literature are fairly recognised for their contribution?

It is the best feeling in the world. I honestly cry every time I get my copies of my most recent books from the publishers, and I see my name on it, it’s a big moment for me. I think that is because I always thought I wanted to be writer, and now I am one, in a way. I heard a fellow translator say recently that ‘Translators are writers, not authors’ and this is so true. We have all the joy of writing, but without having to worry about plot and character development.

I am lucky that the publishers I have worked for do put their translator’s names on the cover and include a translator bio. Some of the other publishers (usually the larger ones rather than the small indie presses) don’t actually do this. It is something I would definitely stipulate and fight for in any translation contract I sign.

There has been a big movement to ensure that translators are named more often in press reviews and online, especially with the twitter campaign #namethetranslator which calls out reviewers for not naming them. When you think about it logically, it seems crazy for a book review of a translated book to talk about the style of the author, and quotes from the book, and then the translator is not named. Translators sometimes work for years on the translation of a book, and to not be credited can be very demoralising. I think that the role of the ‘invisible’ translator is definitely something that translators want to change, and which is changing. They should be invisible in terms of the text sounding like an original piece in English, but they definitely deserve credit for creating that seamless English! The translator should be reviewed and praised and credited as much as the author, because essentially, they wrote that book in English. It would be like mentioning a book but not mentioning the author, and that would never happen.

You still work with Wessex Translations on a regular basis as a freelance translator and proofreader, but you used to work in our office, too. As a successful, prize-winning literary translator, we are obviously very proud to boast of you as one of our own! Can you tell us a bit about the Wessex Translations part of your career?

Thanks! I wouldn’t call myself award-winning, (two PEN grants is a nice thing to have achieved though) and I am still emerging into my career as a literary translator. My year working at Wessex was at the very beginning of my career and it gave me such an excellent insight into how translation companies work, from an insider perspective, which was invaluable when I left and started out as a freelancer. As well as learning a lot about revising translations for various clients, including the EU, working at Wessex gave me an amazing overview of the translation industry, and one which I think not all freelancers have when they start out: things like how PMs select translators for projects, an idea of translation rates, what kind of volume of work a translator can handle each day, what goes on in terms of QA in-house… All of that knowledge is something you don’t have as a freelance translator if you have never worked in-house, so for me, it was a great place to start and gain experience – it set me up for the rest of my career. I have continued to do revision and translation work for Wessex over the past 11 years – and you are one of my most reliable clients in terms of payment – some other larger companies could do with taking a leaf out of your book, in that respect! I think I owe you a long overdue visit, and some chocolate tiffin.


What are you reading for Women in Translation Month this year?

This month is really busy for me, as I am working on finishing a draft of my latest translation, so there won’t be time for much else. But I have just got back from a month in Spain and Portugal, where I had plenty of time to read. I caught up on some gems from Charco Press’ latest catalogue – The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) and Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (translated from the Spanish by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott). Both amazing reads.

I have – and I am not exaggerating – hundreds of books waiting to be read. I am a compulsive book buyer! I am planning to prioritise the translated books that are by women authors. I’d like to read them all this month in honour of WIT month, but I don’t think I’ll manage it! Here they are:

  • “Mina” by Kim Sagwa, translated from the Korean by Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton
  • “The Last Children of Tokyo” by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
  • “Abandon” by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
  • “The Dinner Guest” by Gabriela Ybarra, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
  • “Human Acts” by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
  • “After the Winter” by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

Do you have a favourite piece of translated women’s literature? Could you recommend one for me to read for WIT Month?

Hmm, this is tricky – there is so much out there. In recent years, books that have stayed with me are: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell), Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) and Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha), both just for the style of the writing and the atmosphere they created, which has not left me. The kind of books that even if you forget what they are about, when you close your eyes, you have an image in your mind of them.

And finally – you’ve been involved in WIT Month since the very beginning – you even designed their original logo! What does the movement mean for you?

It means that people are becoming aware of the gender imbalance that has historically existed in the translation and publishing industry and are doing something about it. Thismeans that some incredible female voices are getting the recognition they deserve. It builds a sense of community, not one that is exclusive of men, but one which celebrates women who have perhaps been pushed into the shadows by the gender bias of the publishing industry. It is about sharing perspectives and addressing inequality and making people all over the world aware of what women in different countries and cultures are writing about. And discovering that we are not all so different. Keeping these channels open, and alive, is important in these worrying political times.

Really, we shouldn’t need to have a month to celebrate women’s writing, it should be every day, but this is an important step in a gradual shift, and one which is much welcomed by the literary translation world.

I completely agree! Thank you, Charlie, for such an interesting insight on life as a literary translator and Women in Translation Month. You’ve definitely inspired us to get reading and given us a fair few titles to get started with! Good luck with your next book!

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