The translator as literary activist

Jethro Soutar writes for PEN Atlas on the urgent case of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, the PEN-award-winning author whom he translates and whom he is now trying to help protect, as Juan faces persecution from the regime in Equatorial Guinea

Traduttore, traditore, they say. But far from being a traitor, the translator is often a writer’s closest ally. US soldier Matthew Zeller was in the midst of a fierce gun battle in Afghanistan when he was outflanked by two Taliban fighters: as they moved in for the kill, Zeller’s Afghan interpreter saw the danger and shot the insurgents dead. Zeller had to campaign for several years to secure a US visa for Janis Shinwari, his translator and saviour.The life of a literary translator is thankfully a lot less gory. Nevertheless, we are occasionally called upon to offer our authors a lifeline. This week, news reached me that Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, an Equatorial Guinean author whose novel By Night the Mountain Burns I translated for And Other Stories, was being pursued by his country’s dictatorial regime. Ávila Laurel and five others, including Salvador Ebang Ela, founder of Elefante y la Palmera, the Elephant and Palm Tree, a political party known for conducting peaceful protests against police brutality, had requested permission from the Provincial Government of Bioko Norte to hold a demonstration in Plaza Ewaiso E’pola on 23 February. The request was refused and followed by an announcement that Ebang El and his sympathisers were to be rounded up.When writers come under threat in their own countries, translators can act as a bridge to the outside world. Sometimes publicising what’s happening can make a real difference, letting writer and tormentor know that the rest of the world is watching. When Orhan Pamuk was formally charged with insulting Turkishness, Maureen Freely, his English-language translator, published as many articles as she could about the case in the international press.Shirley Lee translates from Korean and has focused her attention on exiled North Korean writers. She provides them with a lifeline simply by being interested in what they have to say, but she also has to coax and encourage them: it’s not easy expressing yourself freely if you’ve been conditioned to writing under the scrutiny of a repressive regime.Becoming a translator is not a political act in itself – Lee says she was drawn to North Korea by the peculiarities of the country’s language and literature, not its politics – but it’s hard not to be politicised by such exposure to tyrannical regimes.Pietro Zveteremich was political. He withdrew his membership from the Italian Communist Party after translating Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which was published in translation before it was ever published in Russian. The Soviet Union went to great lengths to try and prevent publication, even forcing Pasternak to sign a telegram sent to Zveteremich, asking him to withhold his translation. But Pasternak also sent Zveteremich a handwritten note saying precisely the opposite; Zveteremich licensed publication of his translation and the book was launched to great fanfare and acclaim.Pasternak and Pamuk were both given the Nobel Prize and the international prestige that goes with such awards can be vital in protecting writers from persecution at home. In the UK, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize provides prestige and some media coverage, while doing a sterling job in recognising the contribution of translators and championing translated works from distant lands.They don’t come much more distant than Annóbon Island, the setting for By Night the Mountain Burns. Annóbon is a remote island off the west coast of Africa, administered by Equatorial Guinea but periodically cut-off by the regime, for reasons of power and control.I first met Ávila Laurel in 2012 in Barcelona, where he’d fled after going on hunger strike in Equatorial Guinea, a protest against government oppression. We went for a drink in a bar in the Raval area that was run by another Guinean exile. It was a friendly place, but there was a sadness to it. As Ávila Laurel explained: ‘Barcelona’s a lovely city, but we’re not here out of choice.’ Critics of President Obiang’s regime are bullied into leaving as a matter of course, and Ávila Laurel had been proud of the fact that he’d stuck it out, that he was an outspoken writer living in Equatorial Guinea.I asked him whether he was working on anything in Barcelona and he said that he was: he was writing his memoirs, he said, to leave them in Barcelona when he flew back to Guinea, por si acaso… just in case.It was a chilling thing to be told: here was a man calmly preparing for the worst, yet determined to go home.And go home he did. He’s at home now in fact, literally so, for although he’s been advised to go into hiding, he refuses to do so: he’s done nothing wrong, so why should he hide? All the same, he’s been forced into keeping a low profile, to being confined to the neighbourhood and suspending his public work. He’s safe for now, but there’s no telling whether the danger has passed: Equatorial Guinea’s regime creates a climate of fear by making threats, real and veiled, and by following up on some of them.So it’s left to myself and David Shook, Ávila Laurel’s poetry translator, to stay alert and watch our author’s back: to act as his bridge and keep the world informed, por si acasoAbout the authorJethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. His translation of Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto will be published by Bitter Lemon Press, while By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel will be published by And Other Stories in the autumn. Both books were awarded a PEN Writers in Translation award. Soutar is currently editing a book of translated football-themed writing from Latin America, The Football Crónicas.About Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel Juan Tomas Avila LaurelJuan Tomás Ávila Laurel was born in 1966 in Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. His parents were from the remote Annobón Island, off the African coast. His books include the novel Avión de Ricos, Ladrón De Cerdos(The Pig Thief And The Rich Man’s Aeroplane) and the short story collection Cuentos Crudos (Raw Tales). Ávila Laurel has been a constant thorn in the side of his country’s long-standing dictatorial government. A nurse by profession, for many years he was one of the best known Equatorial Guinean writers not to have opted to live in exile. But, in 2011, after a week-long hunger strike in protest against Obiang’s regime, timed to coincide with the President of Spain’s visit to Equatorial Guinea, Ávila Laurel moved to Barcelona. He writes across all media, in particular as a blogger, essayist and novelist.Additional information By Night the Mountain Burns was awarded an English PEN translation grant. To further support the book’s publication, visit the And Other Stories website.Set on Annobón, a remote island off the West African coast governed by Equatorial Guinea but completely neglected by the government, By Night The Mountain Burns recounts the narrator’s childhood, growing up among countless siblings, several mothers, ever absent fathers and an unusual grandfather. We learn of the dark realities of island life: bush fires that destroy crops and threaten homesteads, cholera outbreaks, the sometimes uneasy marriage between folklore and religion and the imposition of an official language that is not their own and, which has very little context within their isolated world.By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar and will be published in November 2014. To support the publication of this book, subscribe by 5 March.Jethro Soutar wrote about Juan Tomás for the Guardian Books blog.David Shook, Juan Tomás’s poetry translator, writes about the current situation in the Los Angeles Review of Books.A panel of translators and human rights activists will be considering the role of the translator as ‘literary activist’ at this year’s London Book Fair. The discussion will take place on 10 April at 1pm.