Breaking into English

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books