The shortlisted translators of the 2020 International Booker Prize in conversation with Georgina Godwin.

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GEORGINA GODWIN: I’d like to start by discussing collaboration – not just between author and translator, but between translator and translator. Fiona and Iona, you co-translated Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron. How did you find that experience?

IONA MacINTYRE:I certainly have no complaints. We didn’t really take advice; we found a way ourselves. We shared out chunks to translate, and from those created a big, ugly first draft. It was intentionally rubbish, so that we didn’t feel too attached to our own work. And then we worked in very close collaboration, sitting next to each other all the time.

FIONA MacKINTOSH: It’s a very intense process, but it’s also really reassuring. Normally, as a translator, you’re a bit on your own. If you come up against a problem, you wrestle with it and bounce your ideas with online dictionaries. But if you’ve got someone next to you, you can instead bounce things with them, and they often have the word that you spent so long searching for right at their fingertips. So the back and forth is actually very freeing.

Sharing the experience of reading a book so intensely with somebody else is also very special – to share in microscopic detail is a real privilege.

GG: Stephen, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police was originally published in the 90s. Was it translated at that time? Or did you recently complete the English version?

STEPHEN SNYDER: It’s only just been translated. It’s a little complicated having a writer who, in Japanese, has a backlist of 25 titles, most of which haven’t yet been translated into English. My translations started later than Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle’s excellent translations into French, and, for various reasons, I’ve been working at a slower pace.

I meet with Yōko once a year or so. We have dinner in Tokyo and discuss those books of hers that I’ve read but not yet translated. In consultation with her agent and editor, we decide what will be next. The Memory Police is one I’ve wanted to translate for a long time. It’s one of Yōko’s favourite books that she’s written, and so, after working on some of the titles that the publisher was intent on having translated, we settled on this one.

GG: And you’re in constant collaboration throughout the process?

SS: Not at all. I work completely independently, and Yōko is generous in allowing me freedom with the translation. The collaboration is all in that process of deciding which book will come next.

GG: Ross, how does it work with Daniel Kehlmann? You translated Tyll, for which you are both shortlisted.

ROSS BENJAMIN: Daniel and I spoke throughout the process of translating Tyll – mostly initiated by me. I’d send him questions, ideas, versions of things. He’s, of course, a rich source of insight when it comes to authorial intention. Right now, I’m also translating Kafka’s diaries, for which I have no access to the author. And with diaries, which are intended as private, things can be very cryptic, very opaque. The transparency of the communication with Daniel is so, so refreshing – and I actually gain freedom from it because there’s so much that has to be reinvented anew. That’s especially the case in a book like this: there’s a passage where Shakespeare is talking, and Shakespeare has to sound a certain way to English ears that he doesn’t necessary sounds to German ears. Having an author who endorses latitude takes a burden off – a burden of fear that you’re doing something totally wrong.

The main thing with Tyll is that it has to be funny. I don’t care if it’s funny in a different way in the English to how it is in the German; if it’s not funny in the English, you have to do something else funny. Daniel agrees, and having the author’s endorsement to take that sort of liberty is very helpful.

GG: To the anonymous translator of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, how did collaboration work with you and Shokoofeh Azar?

ANONYMOUS: The closeness of collaboration varied throughout the translation process. Shokoofeh and I corresponded via email, and occasionally through voice notes on WhatsApp. These exchanges mostly came about when I needed clarifications on intention and tone. Like Ross, I had a lot of latitude, for which I was grateful. But there is always the debate of how close to the original text the translation should remain – not just in meaning, but in style as well.

Take sentence length – which in Persian tends to be long anyway, but which in Shokoofeh’s work was taken almost to an extreme – and word repetition. The effect of the latter is different in each language. The whole process was an exercise in building trust, and I think in that regard it was successful.

GG: Sophie, this is the second time you’ve been shortlisted for the Prize – last year, it was for Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, and this year it’s for Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season. How different were the ways of working with those two authors? 

SOPHIE HUGHES: I was smiling ear-to-ear listening to Ross, because it’s so similar to how I worked with both Fernanda and Alia. With Alia, as she’s based in London, we were able to meet up and do readings aloud – which was wonderful because, as she often said to me, What matters is how this flows. It’s the music. It’s the music. Whereas, Fernanda and I have never met, and so our albeit very extensive correspondence has been via email.

Being in close communication with Fernanda was particularly helpful because Hurricane Season is filled with Veracruz dialect, which is very specific to one region of Mexico – so specific that other Mexicans may well not understand it. And so specific that, when it was published in Spanish in Peninsular Spain, many readers there said they could barely understand any of it. Being able to discuss linguistic points with Fernanda was helpful in capturing the dialect. As Ross has said, knowing an author’s intention actually sets you free.

I always ask an author if they want to correspond and, if they do, I love it. I’ve only worked with one dead author – it was much harder.

GG: Michele, I know that you’ve worked as an editor as well as a translator, and – as Stephen noted – collaboration involves editors, too. Having been on both sides, could you explore the complexities of that collaboration?

MICHELE HUTCHISON: With The Discomfort of Evening, I worked closely with the author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, and also with both the English and Dutch editors. As an editor, you want to bring out everything you can in a translation whilst making sure you point out if something doesn’t quite work. The editors involved with this book were able to highlight both, and that was wonderful.

Marieke Lucas didn’t want to read a draft of the translation, but we had lengthy email conversations about my initial questions, and then spoke over the phone to work through the edits from Faber.

GG: I want to turn to the Black Lives Matter movement, and current conversations around race and racism in literature. Could we talk a little about the different language contexts you all work in, and how those conversations differ in different spaces? What do you do as translators when you are confronted by a problematic portrayal of race? And how representative and diverse is the literary translation community itself?

RB: Issues of race in German literature have been examined and re-examined extensively by scholars – particularly in reckoning with the Holocaust and portrayals of Jewish characters. More recently, complexities around race and belonging in German literature have focused on migrant contexts and the Middle Eastern diaspora. And there have been conversations – as in many other language contexts – about the prevalence of racial slurs against black people (and there is an N-word in German) in beloved children’s literature from the 50s and 60s.

I’m in America at the moment, and so I can’t really speak about Germany’s engagement with BLM: I haven’t been reading the German press of late, because there is so much in the American press at the forefront of my consciousness.

IM: Co-translating The Adventures of China Iron, I sometimes felt as though I was an accessory to racism. I had to remind myself what my role was – had to remind myself that the narrative voice of China Iron is taking stock of her national context, and all its racist, disgusting baggage.

Ross mentioned the German-language N-word; the English-language N-word was present in the original Spanish version of China Iron as part of a multilingual device Gabriella uses, and we ultimately decided to transpose it into our English translation. We discussed this so much: it threw up so many questions about the ethics of translation, which were luckily made easier as we were working with a deeply ethical author. The language is part of the storyline – it’s part of China Iron’s journey of reckoning with colonialism, and the violence, exploitation and extraction inherent to the British Empire. It’s done amazingly – and bluntly – in the original, and it was a complex privilege to translate that.

SH: Reading China Iron brought home to me something I’ve always felt: that whilst we talk about reading as a bridge that allows us insight into other cultures, this book, like so many translated works, gives us insight into how we – the Anglophone population at-large – are seen by others. I’d like more literature to do that; to resist being an exoticising, outward-looking anthropological process and to give us new eyes to interrogate ourselves.

SS: Georgina, I wanted to speak to your question about diversity in the translation community. On this side of the Atlantic, PEN America recently hosted an event focused on revising and reissuing their manifesto for translators. The main discussion was a recognition that the translation community has been a deeply privileged one, and that we can’t diversify meaningfully if we aren’t diversifying who gets to translate texts, as well as who gets to be translated. That comes down to training, and programmes that develop literary translators must place this firmly front-and-centre.

GG: Thanks Stephen. Michele, do the Spanish and German contexts speak to the Dutch?

MH: Well, we have the exact same word in Dutch as the German N-word. And it’s even still used in some contemporary novels. So that’s something I have to contend with as part of my practice. When it comes to the diversity of the community, I think a significant issue is that it simply doesn’t pay well. Until the terms get better, you have to be in some way privileged in order to survive as a translator.

Sophie, could I ask you a question? One of the things I struggled with in The Discomfort of Evening was translating passages of terrible violence. How did you find that with Hurricane Season?

SH: I feel like lots of us have had to contend with that. Whenever I go to talk about this, someone in my head says Well, imagine writing it. Whatever I felt translating it, it’s not my exercise in imaginative empathy – I just had momentarily to babysit it. But babysitting involves a lot of care. It’s a lot of re-reading very upsetting content. The pernickety nature of translation helps, though, in a way, in putting down a little barrier to the upset.

That said, when we talk about the difficulty of choosing the words we deploy when we translate, choosing the words to deploy for some of the worst things you could possibly imagine is deeply upsetting. It still upsets me.

MH: It’s visceral, isn’t it – I’m typing, and these words are coming out of my fingers, my body. I feel so connected to the text, and it can be hard to get distance from the upset.

GG: I’d like to talk about untranslatability. What do you do when it comes to untranslatability? What do you leave untranslated?

MH: In Dutch, we have short words that are basically meaningless – they function only to affirm or question what someone is saying. I think German is the same – Ross?

RB: Yeah. Kafka uses them constantly – they’re something akin to Greek participles. They inflect and emphasise. But it simply doesn’t work when you maintain approximate versions in the English, and so inflection and emphasis have to be realised in a different way. It’s a challenge with someone like Kafka, whose tone is so slippery to begin with, which would be unmanageably so when you add in ‘moreover’, ‘besides’, ‘indeed’, ‘isn’t it’ every few words.

MH: Everything Ross has said about the German is true for the Dutch – which is fascinating. I think I’ll have to learn German, now.

RB: Yes – I’ve done translation workshops with Dutch translators from the German, and it seems terribly unfair because everyone else has to reckon with deeply difficult things, whilst the Dutch translators say Oh, yes, we have that too.

GG: Stephen, what about Japanese?

SS: With the development, worldwide, of an understanding of Japanese culture, untranslatability becomes less of an issue; people can simply Google concepts. So we have more Japanese remaining in translations than ever before. When I first started translating – and that’s a long time ago – you couldn’t use the word ‘tofu’, because it was neither something with which people were familiar nor something of which they could readily find the meaning. Both those things have changed.

Of course, sometimes, you simply have to leave things out. The writers I have worked with have all understood that this is in the interest of creating a readable translation – that sometimes you have to leave out the kinds of interjections Michele and Ross have mentioned.

A: Untranslatability comes up quite often when translating from Farsi to English. But because Shokoofeh wrote the book to be published in English first, rather than Farsi, she had already anticipated that complexity with some helpful footnotes. Like in all translation, I imagine, the complexity with Farsi often lies in the deeply cultural, religious, and historical nature of particular ideas and words.

I found the poetry included in the text particularly problematic – of course because of the well-known issues of rhythm and rhyme, but also because of the feelings the verse evoked. And, with this, I really don’t know how successful I was. Shokoofeh has a very musical, playful way of writing that really pushes some semantic boundaries. I tried to focus on tone – as Sophie has discussed – and create something roughly equivalent.

GG: And Sophie, Iona and Fiona – how is that inflected by different dialects in the Spanish? Sophie, you mentioned Veracruz earlier.

FM: There are huge differences not just between Spain and Latin America, but between Latin American countries – and indeed within them. In our particular case, that involved translating forms of speech distinct to Argentina and other Southern Cone countries, and also Guaraní.

With Guaraní, I luckily had a friend in Paraguay who didn’t mind my incessant WhatsApp messages when we were translating the final part of the book – where Guaraní words are introduced. But we also had to contend with the fact that, for the vast majority of Spanish-language readers, these words were new. A metropolitan Buenos Aires reader will not have encountered this vocabulary. So, ultimately, we left these words untranslated in the English, too.

IM: These issues also occur at the sentence-structure level. We faced two main troubles with the translation: sex and syntax. If it wasn’t the former, it was the latter that gave us headaches. I had probably not sufficiently challenged, before working on this book, some rules of thumb about translating Spanish – mainly that sentences that are long in the Spanish can always legitimately be cropped. I had to unwork that for this translation, and contend with that constant battle in terms of ‘how far we go’ when we translate.

SH: Could I ask how you came to the decision to re-translate the Martín Fierro? Have you had any pushback on that?

IM: We knew quite a bit about Walter Owen – the original translator of the Fierro – from a research context. The translation is great. But we felt that, in this context of a reimagining of a literary scenario, it was right that we retranslated it.

I did notice in a review of China Iron that a reader had looked for a quotation of ours in the Walter Owen translation, and subsequently felt aggrieved because they felt ours wasn’t ‘real’ or ‘true’. So I guess we’ve accidentally sent some people on a merry dance.

FM: I’d add that, as Walter Owen was an early 20th Century Glaswegian, his translation is certainly heavily inflected as Scottish. It was reviewed as sounding like a racy border ballad in translation. And it did feel a little dated.

As Iona has said, because Gabriela had been free with the original Fierro poem, and pulled it apart and queered it, we felt we could pull apart and queer the translation too. So, in our version, we rhyme ‘construct’, ‘obstruct’ and ‘get fucked’.

SH: I’d love you guys to translate the whole poem.

FM: We actually did. I sent a WhatsApp voice note of us reading it to Gabriela – she couldn’t understand all the English, but she wanted to hear how it sounded. She liked the sound, the musicality, and so we knew it was right.

GG: Ross, could we go back to your point about humour, and how it relates to the idea of translatability? Tyll is a very funny book. How do you preserve that?

RB: There are different types of humour. There’s the diegetic humour in the book – things Tyll’s doing that are almost outdated; things that might have been humorous to Germans in the original medieval chapbook aren’t that funny to Germans anymore – the incredibly malevolent pranks that he plays, for instance. But there’s also the humour of Daniel’s writing – his wit – which is in part about timing, and beat, and rhythm, and wordplay. I find transporting Daniel’s sensibility and sense of humour into English quite seamless, but there’s of course a challenge when it comes to wordplay and rhyme.

GG: To the translator of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, could I ask if there’s anything you’d like to discuss about your decision to remain anonymous?

A: Well, unfortunately, I believe the decision was necessary. That this is the case is tragic for many people who are much, much more affected by the state of Iran than I. And, on a personal level, it hurts my ego just a bit that I can’t enjoy the recognition of being shortlisted a bit more publicly.

GG: On that, and although that recognition can’t be public, what does being shortlisted for the Prize mean to you?

A: It’s amazing – naturally, it’s a huge honour. Literary translation is not my profession, though, for years, on-and-off interpretation has been. And so I feel humbled to be among all of these very accomplished translators.

GG: I’d like to ask the same question to everyone else: how important is being shortlisted for the International Booker Prize?

SS: It’s enormously valuable – particularly as it elevates the translator as an equal to the writer, which many prizes don’t. The Memory Police was also a finalist for the National Book Award in the US, and together these successes have made me feel personally very seen. The international and translated category for the NBAs was only added two years ago, and it has really changed the landscape for translators over here. These prizes are enormously important to a community of people who have, for so long, felt on some level invisible.

SH: I’d add that the point of raising our status and making us more visible is not the end – it’s a means to a greater end: gaining trust from readers. If publishers keep insisting that there’s still a hesitation and reticence for readers when it comes to translation, the only way we gain trust is by being seen – by people seeing how deeply careful we are, how skilled we are, how brilliantly we’re trained and nurtured.

RB: I feel publishers are embracing platforming the translator more and more. There’s a greater appreciation of the act of translation, and the pivotal role it plays in our world right now. The cross-cultural essence of literature – the international essence of literature – is re-emerging in people’s consciousnesses in a way that it wasn’t, say, ten years ago. And that’s so vital.

The Bible wasn’t written in English. The consciousness of the cross-cultural nature of literature is a consciousness of what literature has always been about, and always been interested in: continuing to foster the richness and the evolution of the world.

A: This conversation has been wonderful. I relate to so many of the issues that have been discussed. And I wish we were sitting at a real round table, sharing experiences and solutions.

Georgina Godwin, broadcast journalist, is Books Editor for Monocle 24,  a regular host of current affairs programmes and analyst of Southern African politics for various media outlets.  She chairs literary events worldwide. She was a founder member of Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station, is on the board of English PEN and the charity Developing Artists. She tweets @georginagodwin

Ross Benjamin is a prizewinning translator and writes literary criticism for The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. He was a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow and graduated from Vassar college. He lives in New York.​

Sophie Hughes is a literary translator from Spanish to English, known for her translations of writers such as Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún, and José Revueltas. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder. She has also been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (2017; 2018), the ALTA National Translation Award in Prose (2018) and the PEN Translation Prize (2018). In 2017 she received a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and in  2018 she was named one of the Arts Foundation “25” for her contribution to the field of literary translation. Sophie is the co-editor of the anthology Europa28: Visions for the Future in association with Womarts and Hay Festival and published by Comma Press, and she is currently working with the Stephen Spender Trust taking creative translation to UK classrooms to promote language learning in schools. 

Michele Hutchison was born in the UK and has lived in Amsterdam since 2004. After a stint as an editor, she became a literary translator from Dutch. Her translations include the bestselling An American Princess by Annejet van der Zijl, Mona in Three Acts by Griet op de Beeck and Seaweed by Miek Zwamborn – and most recently, The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Riijneveld. She is also co-author of The Happiest Kids in the World.

Iona Macintyre is a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Iona’s teaching and research has focused on nineteenth-century Spanish American history and culture. Within this area she works primarily on Argentina, history of the book, translation studies, gender studies and transatlantic relations. She has also published on the contemporary fiction of Jorge Accame. 

Fiona Mackintosh is a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Literature at the University of Edinburgh with research interests in gender studies, comparative literature and literary translation. Fiona specialises in Argentinian fiction and poetry and has published extensively on Alejandra Pizarnik and Silvina Ocampo in particular, as well as on contemporary authors. She has translated Luisa Valenzuela’s ‘The Other Book’ for Bomb magazine and selected poems by Esteban Peicovich for In Other Words. She is currently writing a book on the novels of Claudia Piñeiro.

Stephen Snyder is a Japanese translator and professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont. He has translated works by Yoko Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s Out was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004, and his translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.​

The translator of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree wishes to remain Anonymous.

The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for the best single work of fiction translated into English and published in the UK. It was known as the Man Booker International Prize when sponsored by Man Group. The £50,000 prize is divided equally between the author and the translator. Each shortlisted author and translator receives £1,000. The 2019 winner was Celestial Bodies written by Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. The 2020 judging panel is chaired by Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, and consists of: comparative literature and translation specialist Lucie Campos; Man Booker International winning translator and writer Jennifer Croft; writer Valeria Luiselli; and Man Booker shortlisted writer and musician Jeet Thayil. The 2020 winner will be announced on 26 August. 

For the current The Booker Prize longlist and The International Booker Prize shortlist, as well as a full history of the prize including previous winners, shortlisted authors and judges visit the website:

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