Elodie Rose Barnes explores Europa28, Comma Press’ anthology of women’s writing on the future of Europe, and in a very special interview talks to two of its translators, Ruth Clarke and Katy Derbyshire about the anthology, the nuances of translation and the importance of translated stories in our time.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking (and writing) about how reading translated work can bridge divides; about how it can remind us that the other is not so different after all, about the ways in which it can connect us in a world that sometimes feels as if it has never been so divided. And so in reading Europa28, I was struck by Leïla Slimani’s observation that, ‘To be European is to believe that we are, at once, diverse and united, that the Other is different but equal’. It perfectly captures the heart of this anthology: a visionary project from Comma Press (in collaboration with the Hay Festival and Womarts) that brings together 28 women’s voices, with 16 translators, to reflect on the future of a post-Brexit Europe.
Europa28 is an anthology that is both radical and imperative. Europe has become synonymous with burgeoning bureaucracy and a faceless jumble of institutions. It is market data and currency rather than people. It is the rise of nationalism and a growing sense of disillusionment and disenfranchisement, and so it is urgent that new voices and new ideas are heard. According to statistics cited by Laura Bates in her introduction, 90% of the Brexit debate in the UK Houses of Parliament was carried out by men. ‘For a continent named after the myth of a rape’, she writes, ‘to be forced to look at itself through women’s eyes is a refreshing and necessary concept’. Women are almost always left out of the discussions and the decision-making, leaving those with the loudest voices to write a version of the truth that is invariably ‘his-story’. If Europe is to move forward, this narrative has to change.
Here, then, lies the radical nature of Europa28: it brings together the voices of women in order to form a different story. It challenges the tradition of men writing land as woman, and all the implications of colonialism and conquest that such an approach entails. Each piece represents one country of the European Union, and while no one person can or should speak for an entire country, what emerges is a fascinating conglomeration of views and perspectives, hopes and fears, and a daring exploration of possibilities. In ‘Our Mediterranean Mother’, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, Leïla Slimani speaks passionately of a future Europe that includes the Mahgreb: a return to the ‘Greek matrix that unites the two sides of mare nostrum’. Other writers, in playing with form and style, demonstrate how the interlacing of language, geography and identity can be redefined. In Nora Nadjaran’s beautiful ‘Hummingbird’, unfolding over four acts, European cities melt into one, and a man who speaks in riddles asks, ‘What difference does it make to anyone, that you drink brandy here and not there, that your children speak German or French or English, here and not there?’
There are other memorable moments, too, some humorous and others heartbreaking. Lisa Dwan talks of her interactions with Gerry Adams. Asja Bakić, in a wonderfully unique piece of short fiction, takes a look at Europe from an alien’s point of view (‘alien’ being, of course, the term referring to a foreign national residing in a host country). Caroline Muscat talks of the horrific violence still faced by journalists, particularly women journalists, across the continent and highlights the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, murdered in Malta for her anti-corruption activism. Some essays are more personal (Saara Turunen writes movingly of love and travel and a cross-border relationship) while others are fact-based and concentrate on the figures. The diversity of work is huge. Yet it works together as an emerging conversation that offers a precious glimmer of hope: a new landscape for Europe. It shows how unity can be forged out of difference. It is in itself a kind of blueprint for what Europe could be.
As well as the writers and editors, Europa28 brought together the creativity and expertise of 16 translators from all over Europe. I had the pleasure of talking to translators and writers, Katy Derbyshire and Ruth Clarke, both of whom were involved in the project.
Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator and writer who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She has translated work by, among others, Olga Grjasnowa, Heike Geissler, Clemens Meyer and Christa Wolf, and her translation of Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and won the 2018 Straelener Prize for Translation. She hosts a monthly translation lab and the bi-monthly Dead Ladies Show podcast, and is publisher at V&Q Books, which brings literary writing from Germany to the UK and Ireland from autumn 2020.
Ruth Clarke is a translator from Italian, French and Spanish. With a background in legal translation, she has translated an eclectic range of authors and works, including Cristina Caboni’s debut novel The Secret Ways of Perfume (Transworld, 2016) and Aurora Lassaletta Atienza’s The Invisible Brain Injury (Routledge, 2019). Her translation of Evelina Santangelo’s novel From Another World is forthcoming from Granta. She is a founding member of the Starling Bureau, a London-based collective of literary translators, and works to promote translation with New Spanish Books and 12 Swiss Books.
How did you both become involved in the Europa28 project?
Katy: I was asked by Sophie Hughes, the anthology’s co-editor and a fellow translator, to translate an as-yet unwritten piece by my friend, the Austrian writer Julya Rabinowich. It was a very sweet email and she gave me plenty of notice – how could I refuse?
Ruth: Sophie Hughes (translator and co-editor of Europa28) got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in a project she and Comma Press were putting together in association with the Hay Festival and Womarts. I had Brexit blues and I was definitely keen to get involved in celebrating the European spirit. I also loved the idea of presenting an all-female take on Europe, and, this year more than ever, we can see how much we need to make space for womxn’s voices in politics and decision-making, as well as in literature.
Katy, you translated a piece by Julya Rabinowich from German (Austria), and Ruth, you translated Silvia Bencivelli’s No Science, No Future from Italian. Did you face any particular challenges in translating them?
Ruth: I didn’t have any contact with the text before translating it. The author and translator pairs were selected at the very beginning of the project, so I said yes without knowing what Silvia was going to write! That meant I had the excitement of knowing that an essay would pop into my inbox in a few months’ time – that is quite unusual.
I didn’t speak to Silvia until afterwards, when she sent me a song she’d referred to in the piece. It’s always great to listen to any music mentioned in the text you’re working on – I usually compile a soundtrack when I’m translating a book and end up with the weirdest things on repeat. (At the moment, it’s Tupac and nursery rhymes…)
During the translation process, the text went back and forth between Silvia, me, and brilliant editor Sarah Cleave. Fortunately Silvia was able to read the English and join in the editing process, so the finished product felt like a joint effort between all three of us, which is my ideal way of working.
Katy: The main challenge, as so often, was capturing Julya’s tone. I’ve translated some of her fiction writing before, although sadly not for publication in book form, and this piece is much more journalistic. However, it’s still very much in her own style, which means finding ways to follow her twists and turns, wordplay, poetics.
I simply received the text from Julya, read it and then translated it, but I know Julya well. We met at a literary festival and I interviewed her for a project I did called “Going Dutch with German Writers” – we got on swimmingly and now we visit each other in Vienna and Berlin, we know each other’s kids, the whole works. We didn’t consult a huge amount about this particular translation, only on one particular sentence where I didn’t pick up on the reference she was making and asked her what on earth she meant… She was gentle with me!
Europa28 is obviously an anthology that deals with political, economic and social issues, and to me it really brought home the idea of translated work as a way of exchanging ideas and debate; of thinking about who we are and how we relate to each other. It feels very enriching, yet sometimes it seems as if – especially with Brexit and nationalism globally – the doors are being shut. Do you see literature as becoming more “globalised” as politics becomes more nationalist and populist?
Katy: Let me start at the end, by saying that I think literature has always been global. Writers have always read each other’s work, taken inspiration from it, reshaped it, from oral literature on. Stories have always travelled between communities and languages. Perhaps national publishing structures obscure that, but think of Shakespeare drawing on Plutarch (translated by Sir Thomas North) for Anthony and Cleopatra, or Disney drawing on a story dating back to ancient Greece and medieval China for Cinderella. I hope we can keep a gateway open in the UK, even as its doors are being closed, for stories from the outside world. And translators are key in that respect – we find and provide access to books in other languages. Although I don’t believe that reading a single book will change anyone’s mind about something as divisive as Brexit, the act of identifying with someone unlike oneself, immersing oneself in their perspective – which we do whenever we read stories – is one of openness and empathy.
Ruth: It’s wonderful when a translation anthology is able to convey the spirit of the translation community – and this one certainly does. I was devastated by the Brexit vote and the prospect of everything we stand to lose by it: social cohesion, freedom of movement, Erasmus placements, food standards… there’s so much. So it’s a tonic to be reminded that European values are still there, in translation, which is a community built on exchange, relationships, and the universality of stories.
Leaving Europe, and now being literally confined to our own houses, has made many people even more determined to see the world through reading and opened their horizons to new voices and different stories from all over the world. I hope there will be a silver lining in the shape of people who don’t want to lose their European links reading more translations.
It’s an unfortunate fact that compared to publishing an English-language book, publishing a translation is more complicated and more expensive. UK publishers depend on funding schemes like Creative Europe to cover translation costs. If they lose access to this kind of funding going forward, then they will become reliant on national arts and cultural funding in the country where the book was originally published. Some countries like Norway really prioritise literature and do a lot to build links with publishers and cultural organisations abroad, but other countries simply don’t have these resources.
There is a further problem for the future of translation if the only grants available are for work already under contract. Small, independent publishers need funding from the very beginning of a translation project to be sure that they can invest in buying rights and paying their translators properly.
If we take the globalisation of literature to mean all writers are producing an ‘acceptable same’, in a world where all content becomes homogenised regardless of where it’s from, that’s no good for literature, for readers, for writers, for anyone… but I don’t think that’s in the nature of any art.
One exciting thing to come out of the mess that is 2020 has been the opportunity to see writers all over the world give a very shared response to truly global issues: Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter. As time goes on, we will see a shift from an urgent global response to more nuanced local takes on national, regional and personal situations, and in many ways that’s when stories start to get more interesting. People will always write their own truth, and however similar we or our circumstances are, everyone’s story is unique. Publishers often describe what they’re looking for in a translation as ‘unique and universal’, I think in this global political climate, translations are exactly the stories we need.
I heard a lovely quote from Allan Cameron: “translation is a continual battle with nuance”. What particular challenges are there in translating the nuances of German into English, Katy?
Funnily enough, one major challenge is not the length of the sentences themselves – why shouldn’t they stay nice and wormlike in English? – but the position of the information within them. Often the verb comes at the very end, so we don’t know the tense or even what action is being performed, sometimes, until we’ve digested all the other stuff. It becomes a kind of punchline effect: wait for it, wait for it… boom! But there are ways to contort sentences in English too, and it’s always fun.
Another thing is that German words can sometimes be quite blunt and obvious. The pancreas is called, literally, the belly-saliva-gland, for instance, so you really get a clear picture of things. But again, there are ways to find similar effects in English, with its beautiful range of vocabulary.
And the same question for Ruth – what challenges do French, Italian and Spanish come with?
Allan Cameron’s translation podcast is great, but I prefer to think of translation as a puzzle rather than a battle! So much of language comes down to nuance and connotations, and as a translator you’re looking for as much overlap as possible. It’s not always possible on a sentence level, never mind word-by-word, but if you have to lose a pun here or a metaphor there, there might be another opportunity to recreate that language use somewhere else. It’s always a great feeling when you find the ideal word that has the same double meaning, or the same extra connotations in both languages, but it’s not that common and there’s usually work to be done in conveying those nuances without overwriting.
I often get the sense that translated literature is seen as less accessible and more ‘literary’. Do you feel this as translators?
Katy: I personally don’t see a barrier, but then I do live in Germany, where a lot more gets translated. In principle, there’s no major difference between a great novel translated from Arabic and one written in English – both have plausible, interesting characters, a gripping plotline and their own voice. But we do have different literary styles and trends and traditions, so reading a translation can be more challenging – or more invigorating, perhaps?
I think translated fiction is still seen as more “literary” because most of what gets translated into English is literary fiction. It’s different outside the Anglophone world, incidentally, where everything from gory thrillers to poetry gets translated out of English. A strange imbalance.
Ruth: In so much of the world, translated literature isn’t segregated the way it is in English-speaking markets. When I see news about new releases from a publisher in Spain, for example, there is usually a mixture of Spanish-language and translated work. New books are just new books.
In the UK, ‘Translated Literature’ certainly has a reputation as code for more literary, and perhaps longer, books that some readers consider hard work. Quite rightly, Translated Literature includes very high quality literary fiction, but we’re also translating non-fiction, children’s books, and genre fiction – many of the most successful crime novels are translated literature, but they don’t fall into this ‘difficult’ bracket – so I think we need to be careful to avoid fuelling this stereotype. Reviewers who find positive ways to engage with translation can really help to break down these barriers.
Katy, you are very active in promoting women’s literature in translation, and in supporting women translators. Is there still a sense that translated fiction by women (either as authors or translators or both) is a minority within a minority?
We’re working hard to change that, but there are still many hurdles for women who don’t write in English. In a world where women are disadvantaged anyway, they get less attention for their writing, fewer awards, fewer reviews and column inches, and hence don’t get noticed by editors. That’s the main factor, I believe, in the gender imbalance in published translations. I’m hoping that projects like Europa28 bring women writers from Europe (and beyond) more recognition in English, and ideally act as a first step towards more translations. The heartening news is that Julya Rabinowich’s YA novel, Dazwischen:Ich, is set to be published in English by Andersen Press, translated by Claire Storey.
Ruth, you’re also active in promoting translation, particularly through The Starling Bureau. How did you come to set this up?
The Starling Bureau is essentially an extension of what translators do best: supporting each other. Since we met at BCLT Summer school, we’d worked together in various combinations over the years, and always crossed paths and had inspiring chats at translation events. In 2016, Zoë and Roland attended the ALTA conference in the US where a group of New York translators announced they had formed a collective, Cedilla & Co. We thought London needed one of those, too. It has meant that we’ve been able to pool our contacts, edit each other’s work and develop strategies for pitching untranslated books to publishers.
Finally – the evil question – what is your favourite book in translation?
Katy: Too hard!
Ruth: I’m in awe of some of the work by translators in my language combinations, where I’m familiar with the linguistic challenges they face and worlds they recreate (like Natasha Wimmer’s The Savage Detectives, or Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote – yes, translators often identify books this way!) But I think my favourite translations are the ones that let me experience translation like a ‘normal’ reader, that bring me to places and voices I couldn’t otherwise access. I first remember thinking ‘I couldn’t have read or enjoyed this without the translation’ about Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums (tr. Michael Hofmann) and my most recent magical moment was reading Antonia Lloyd Jones’ translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead while I was staying in the woods in Poland.
Europa28 is published by Comma Press and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. For more information or to purchase the anthology with 10% off for #WomeninTranslationMonth click here. Click on the links in the body of the article to follow Ruth Clarke and Katy Derbyshire, and for more information on all writers.
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes
Submissions are now open for this series. See our Submissions & Contact page for full details.
Feature image is courtesy of Comma Press. Photograph of Katy Derbyshire is copyright of Anja Pietsch.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to express our deep thanks to Zoe Turner, Comma Press, Ruth Clarke and Katy Derbyshire for allowing us to publish this interview.