The shortlisted translators of the 2022 International Booker Prize in conversation with Ellah P. Wakatama.
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ELLAH P. WAKATAMA: I want to start off by asking you all for an origin story. Anton and Daisy – can you tell me when you started exploring in a language that wasn’t your first, and when you understood that learning another language opened up a different world for you?
ANTON HUR: I think I’m the only heritage speaker here – my family speaks Korean. But my dad’s job took us all over the world, so I attended international schools where we were taught in English. I very naturally became a translator: it was a skill I’d had since I was a child, when I’d translate for my parents, and so I thought, if I already have this skill, why should I learn another? I’m very lazy, and I love literature, so I became a translator.
DAISY ROCKWELL: I’m not bilingual, and I started learning languages, like many people, in school. I first translated in Latin class – in the US, Latin teaching is completely translation-based, but very boring; they didn’t want you to elaborate or embellish. But I would always play with it anyway. And when I went to college I wanted something that was completely unfamiliar to the way the American system works, where I could just experiment with things. Hindi fit in my schedule, and that’s how I came to it
EPW: This is great: one of you became a translator through sheer laziness, and one of you because of scheduling issues!
DR: There’s a Hindi word for that, that you all know: Kismet.
EPW: Damion – what about you?
DAMION SEARLS: Could I just follow on from what Daisy saying? Because Latin class and translation is something that I bring up in a different context. I often find myself telling people that they shouldn’t be scared of translation. Even reviewers – people who judge books by other people every day – will say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly judge a translation.’ And my theory is that it’s because they think of translation in the context of a Latin teacher testing your knowledge of vocabulary and syntax. But when those reviewers heard or read Cinderella and Poseidon stories as a kid, they had no problem with translations. It’s just that didn’t get categorised as the thing that happens in Latin class, where there’s a teacher marking you down for a mistake. So when you were enjoying those stories as a kid, you were doing something your Latin teacher didn’t want you to do.
EPW: An act of rebellion. And so what’s your origin story?
DS: Mine isn’t that interesting. I just took classes in college and liked it. But maybe I can tell you my Norwegian origin story, because I’m mostly a translator from German. I learned Norwegian because of this writer, Jon Fosse. A publisher asked me to do a reader report of another of his books, which had been translated into German. I said, ‘This book is total genius. You absolutely should do it.’ And they said, ‘Thank you very much. Here’s your 100 bucks. And no, we’re not going to do it.’ That’s normal – publishers make their decisions. But I asked if I could take the project somewhere else, and they said yes, so I got in touch with someone who works between Norwegian, German and English, and we co-translated it. And from there I learned Norwegian to the extent that I know it – I don’t speak it, I couldn’t order a meal in Norway, but I could read a menu, and I could write it. I think that relates to a common misconception: people think that to translate you have to be perfect in the language you’re going from, but it’s really about being able to read in a very deep way, and being able to triangulate and find the right English. Because ultimately I’m writing a book in English, and you’re reading it in English.
EPW: When I’m working as an editor on translations, I feel that process of triangulation. You don’t necessarily know what the right word is, but you can tell when there’s a wrong word.
DS: Yes – I bet everyone here would agree that you can tell a good translation, even if it’s from a language you don’t know. You can sort of see how the English is deformed, in a good way, in a way in which you haven’t encountered before, that feels as though it has a mind behind it, that feels right.
EPW: Frances – could I ask you to go right back? What was your first encounter with different languages?
FRANCES RIDDLE: I’m from Houston, Texas. My mother was a librarian, and she didn’t have very much maternity leave. And when she went back to work, she’d leave me in the home of a Cuban woman with her grandchildren and loads of other kids, all of whom only spoke Spanish. So I learned to speak Spanish as I was learning to speak English, and I would go home and speak to my parents, and they’d have no idea what I was saying. Then I started day-care and forgot all my Spanish.
But it must have stayed there subconsciously. I had to choose a language to learn at school when I was 12 or so, and it had to be French or Spanish – and French doesn’t serve you very well in Texas. The Spanish came so easily back to me. My friends would copy off me in tests, and encourage me to keep learning the language beyond what I needed, so that they could keep copying me and keep doing better. I became obsessed – although Damion says it isn’t necessary – with perfecting my Spanish. I wanted to become bilingual. So I travelled to Mexico, to Spain, majored in Spanish at college, and then moved to Buenos Aires in 2010. Someone who knew I spoke English and Spanish asked if I’d translate something for their company, and I just loved the puzzle of it. It’s a very literary city, and I love reading, and I realised I wanted to translate books, but it took a long time to find the path to that. The Spanish version of Elena Knows was actually the first book I read in Argentina, so it’s pretty cool that a decade later I’m its translator.
EPW: That’s a wonderful story – thank you. Sam and David – you translated Mieko Kawakama’s Heaven together, but could I hear your individual origin stories?
SAM BETT: My origin story is that I failed French class. I couldn’t do French, and I had to do something, so I took Japanese.
AH: You failed French, but you passed Japanese?
SB: Yeah – I couldn’t pronounce the ‘r’s. My French teacher said, ‘Look, you’re never going to be able to speak French.’ So I had to switch, and the only open language was Japanese.
DR: See – it’s all about scheduling.
DAVID BOYD: I pretty much dropped out of high school. I failed every class. I started going to the library and read whatever caught my eye. Before long, I realised that all the covers I’d been drawn to belonged to books translated from Japanese. Then I really got into Japanese literature, started idolising particular translators, and thought, ‘I want to do what they’re doing.’
EPW: Anton – could you tell us a little about Bora Chung?
AH: Despite some of her work being very dark, she’s actually a hilarious person. She was until very recently an academic of Slavic literature, and then quit to become a full-time writer once it became clear that her international career was taking off. Her English is perfect, and she could translate if she wanted to, so I’m very glad that she doesn’t translate herself. And she’s also known for her political activism. When she was shortlisted for the International Booker, the newspapers called her and asked, ‘How do you feel?’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m at a protest at the Russian embassy, because of the war in Ukraine, and because I’m at a protest I’m cold and hungry.’ That’s the kind of person she is.
EPW: Damion – I’d love to hear about your relationship with Jon Fosse. Have you met?
DS: I’m actually going to be meeting him in person for the first time on Thursday at the International Booker Prize ceremony. But we’ve emailed a lot over the years, and I really cherish the friendship we have in that medium. He’s very kind. He’s very supportive. He also translates, and so he understands.
EPW: David and Sam – I’d like to talk to you about working together. How did that come about?
DB: I translated some of Mieko Kawakami’s short stories a while back. I met her here in the UK, at a workshop for literary translators. She was the invited writer. Then Sam and I met later on, around 2016, when I was working on some of Mieko’s other stories, and we got talking about her work. Our collaboration grew out of that.
SB: I hadn’t published any literary work at that time. I was translating patents– it’s not as bad as it sounds – and I wrote David a kind of fan letter. Anton has written very beautifully of the idea of the translator “valley of death”, this space before you start getting paid for literary work, which is disorientating and isolating, and that’s where I was at the time.
EPW: I’m interested in that switch from technical to literary translation. Could you talk about that a little?
SB: Well, patents are technical, but they’re also not. A lot of manipulation and art goes into patents; the best description I’ve heard is that you’re trying to protect an idea with language. And something similar is going on with a novel: the engine of any novel, I’d say, is an idea that you try to unfold in stages with extreme calculation.
EPW: And how does working together work? Where do you start?
SB: People have been co-translating for a long time – the Bible, for example, is a co-translation. And there are so many different models for it, so you approach things differently depending on the book. We decided to divide this book along what we called ‘pre-existing lines’: in our first draft, we split the dialogue/letters and the rest of the prose, so that any differences in voice would be endemic to differences in form. I recently learned that people who make furniture from driftwood mix wood glue with wasp nests, because wasp nests are basically macerated wood. If you were gluing acorns together, you’d need to glue it with something else – oatmeal, maybe – and that’s what we were doing.
EPW: Daisy – are you the same person when you’re inhabiting the language you’re translating from? Or do you take on a different persona? Does the language have its own personality within you?
DR:There have been lots of studies on how multilingual people have different personae in different languages – Anton’s nodding, so it must be true. And Hindi is certainly a different space for me. You also have to inhabit a different mentality when you’re inside a text to the degree that we translators are – not just what’s inside the author’s head, but also what’s outside it. I keep being asked, ‘How do you create the voice? How do you reproduce the voice?’ And I don’t know how I do that. It’s like a channelling, you know – it comes into your head; you have to be able to feel it.
EPW:And do you surround yourself with cultural cues when you’re translating?
DR: I don’t, actually – and this book was so hard to translate, was such an overwhelming experience, that I actually did the opposite. There are so many voices in Tomb of Sand. Geetanjali Shree uses language nobody uses: she makes up words, she makes up ways to describe things, she makes things into characters. The perspective constantly changes. It’s very overwhelming. And I needed a vacation – I needed to be in other worlds when I wasn’t working on the book. So I’d read a French novel, or eat Mexican food.
DS: Also, you’re writing a book in English. If you were writing a book in Japanese, maybe you’d eat Japanese food. But if you’re too much in the world you’re translating from, you risk forgetting that the readers of your books are not necessarily sharing in those things.
AH: When I was translating Love in the Big City, which was longlisted for the prize, I asked the author Sang Young Park which writers he liked reading in translation from English into Korean. He said Chuck Palahniuk and David Sedaris, and I thought, ‘Yeah, actually, you do sound like them, but in Korean.’ So I leaned on their voices quite a lot.
EPW: So you’re looking for a voice of a literary equivalent – fascinating. Frances – your route to translation was interesting because there was a learning of language, forgetting of it, and then a picking up again. Could you talk about who you are in Spanish?
FR: Argentine Spanish is a very difficult dialect. When I moved to Buenos Aires, I felt like I had to relearn the language. It employs a lot of exaggeration, a lot of slang. I actually think it’s immensely helpful to be in the country whose language I’m translating from. My desk is in my kitchen, and I live with lots of people who are always coming in and out – which can be really annoying, but can also be very helpful. I’ll ask them, ‘What does this word mean to you? What is this?’ and I find that extremely useful.
EPW: Daisy – how much creating do you do as a translator?
DR: This particular book required extra creative process because of its wordplay and imaginativeness. And Geetanjali very strongly wanted me to play with the language as much as she played with it. She didn’t want me to translate exactly what the words meant; she wanted their combination to feel the way her combination of words felt. It wasn’t just about lexical meaning, it was about feeling and sensation. And the more I did it, the more Geetanjali liked it.
I think it’s also important to think about your audience. Until now, my audience has almost entirely been Indians in India who read in English, or South Asians in the diaspora. And they want to feel it. Geetanjali’s English is perfect. She could have written the book in English, or translated it from Hindi to English. But she didn’t. She’s a terrible translator, she’d say. And she writes in Hindi. That’s how she wants it to be. But I have to be mindful of her voice in the English. As Damion said, I am writing it in English – in my English – but I still have to reflect her radiance.
EPW: How do others feel about that?
AH: Jon Fosse said something really profound at the Southbank event on Sunday: that when he writes, he doesn’t feel like his language comes from within him, but that it is coming from outside him. He’s just writing it down. And that’s exactly what I do is a translator. People always ask me ‘How do you translate?’ And the answer is that I just get very, very quiet, and I listen very, very carefully, and my subconscious pushes it up into the conscious.
FR: I feel like get into a flow. I jump into the text and let it guide me.
DS: Yeah – I feel that it’s like reading. When you’re reading, you’re in the book, you’re getting it, you’re there. As a translator, it’s that experience you get when reading a book of the author speaking it out in your head, but you’re just externalising that speaking. So the question ‘What do you do when you’re translating?’ is a bit like asking ‘How do you come up with the thoughts when you’re reading Jane Austen?’
DB: I don’t like the word ‘creative’. What we’re doing is definitely creative, but the word carries so much weight. It pushes things in a particular direction. I think translation is creative, but maybe in a different sense. Every book has different requirements, and with every text you have to relearn how to translate. That’s a big part of our creativity.
SB:I don’t have any problem with the word creative. But I think there’s a deeper question that’s not being asked when this is discussed, which is, could someone else do the same job as you? And the answer to that is: no. Everyone would translate the book differently; individually, David and I would have translated it differently. A paradigm I find helpful when explaining translation is that, when you’re brewing beer, you’re mostly a janitor – you’re not actually drinking beer with your friends, you’re mainly just cleaning things. I think a writer is mostly making decisions, so if you don’t like making decisions, and you’re a writer, you’re probably going to be getting a lot of headaches. And if you don’t like making decisions then don’t be a translator, because a translator has to make decisions about someone else’s decisions. So I think of translation as regenerative rather than generative.
AH: To add to what Damion mentioned about transcribing your reading: Gregory Rabassa, who translated Gabriel García Márquez, said that translators are the only readers in the world whose reading is preserved.
EPW: That’s beautiful.
AH: Yeah. Everyone else, when they read a book, their reading happens and then flies away. But for translators, it remains in the book they have translated. And I think it’s really important to see translators as readers, as excellent readers. I mean, of course translation is creative. But I’m prouder of myself as a reader, really. Jeremy Tiang, who is one of the judges of this year’s International Booker, said that, when we watch and hear piano players playing Mozart or Chopin, we don’t think of them as less. They’re artists. They’re interpreting the sheet music that someone else wrote, and that’s what we translators do.
SB: To use another metaphor: there’s a gait-change that happens when you go from walking to running. You can’t just walk incredibly fast. And something similar happens when you’re translating: you downshift into a lower and lower gear ratio of reading, so slow that you couldn’t possibly read that slowly unless you were translating.
EPW: Frances – what happens when you arrive at something – a joke, a relationship, a feeling – that you just cannot translate?
FR: There’s a bit in Elena Knows: a little rhyme that the character makes up. And rhymes are very hard to translate. When we got to that part, I asked to the editor, Fionn Petch, ‘Can we just say “She made up a little rhyming chant,” instead of recreating the rhyme?’ He said, ‘Let me have a crack,’ and he actually wrote the version that appears in the book. It’s completely different to the original, but it works, and its purpose as a rhyme works.
EPW: Could I please ask you all what you think brings a person to translated literature, and what you want your work to do towards that?
FR: I’ve read everybody’s books – to size up the competition! I loved them all, and getting almost to travel because of the books. I think that that’s what attracts me as a reader: wanting to see the culture through the literature.
AH:I think readers are extremely open-minded – much more so than a lot of publishers give them credit for. If Frances hadn’t translated Elena Knows, and if Charco hadn’t published it, I would have never imagined that a story like this would be possible. I’m a pretty good reader, but I’m not able to imagine that such worlds are possible until I see them in translation. Whereas, because I’ve read so many English books, I pick them up and look at the cover, or get part way through them, and know exactly what’s going to happen. And that’s never the case with translation. I also think there’s a certain extra level of vetting that comes with translation – it has to be excellent to get published.
DR: I like to think of translation as writing that wasn’t written for you. You are not the intended audience for any of these books, right? And in my casual reading life, I never read American literature because I don’t want to read books that were written for me. Translated literature is like eavesdropping; you get to listen in and discover totally different assumptions about how a story should be put together. In Anglo-American literature, there’s so much streamlining, in terms of what character development is and how a story should progress. And I don’t want that. I want to be able to enter into a story and a world that isn’t meant for me.
SB: I think a lot of American readers are sick of being told sleek stories about domestic life – largely about straight, white domestic life. And translated literature is about different perspectives, if not entirely different value systems. Also, not to reduce things purely to a business level, but although it’s a financial risk for publishers to publish translation, it’s also a lot cheaper than paying a novelist a $150,000 advance.
FR: And translated authors are great authors; it’s not easy to get published in English, and those who are published in translation are all amazing, famous authors in their own countries and languages.
EPW: It comes back to the idea of ‘vetting’ that Anton mentioned. Damion – what about you?
DS: I just liked the good stuff. Somewhat analogous is the fact that the canon is pre-vetted; most books published 150 years ago in English are bad, but the handful of them that we’ve still heard of, like, you know, Jane Eyre, are good. Something similar happens with translation publishing – not all the great books happen to have been written in English. I think that, because the languages I translate from are not particularly embattled, there’s something less activist about what I’m doing. I’m not trying to make people eat their spinach. I just want to help people be able to read the good stuff.
EPW: Laziness, scheduling issues, and the good stuff.
AUDIENCE: What happens when you come across a word and you translate it as one thing, and then finish the draft and realise that you’ve translated that word differently in different places? Do you go back and change things?
EPW: And can I add to that a question about the drafting and self-editing process? How do you go about that? Do you go back and forth between the draft and the original?
FR: I spit out a first draft and it’s horrible. And then I go back and compare the two. When I’m in a good place with the translation, I then don’t really look at the Spanish. The readers are only going to be reading the English, and I’ve already been contaminated enough by the Spanish.
DS: I’m pretty much the same, but I do a slower first draft. Then I don’t really look at the original unless there’s an issue I’m trying to work out. Also, it’s worth saying that translators don’t translate words. People think the hard words are the hard ones to translate, but the hard words are easy. If you’re translating the name of some chemical – benzene, say – you look it up and it is what it is. You don’t have to modify it – unless it’s in a rhyming couplet, for example. But if the original phrase is ‘Hey, what’s up?’ you have a hundred choices. Frances said she often finds herself asking the Argentinians in her kitchen what something means, whereas I find myself going up to strangers in a café and asking what, to them, the English is for something – like, ‘Hey, what do you call this [makes gesture]?’
AH: I agree – Jeremy Tiang (I idolise Jeremy, so I’ll quote him again), says that translators don’t translate words, we translate vibes.
A: If you’re translating a book from, say, the 1960s, how do you go about transposing a particular vernacular, or the way language evolves, in your translation?
DB: Sam and I made a playlist of era-appropriate music – stuff from the late 80s, mainly – and we listened to the same songs as we were working on the book. That can keep you in the vibe, to echo Anton’s point.
AH: I translated an author who was a communist woman from North Korea in the 1920s, and I borrowed a lot from Pearl Buck – they were both energetic, enthusiastic, college-educated women, both publishing at the same time. And I think that really worked.
SB: For me, a big question is ‘Am I giving the reader what they need?’ In the early 90s in Japan, there was a fad for having these little balls that had an aroma and keeping them in your pencil case. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a word for them in English – we’d call them scent balls – what matters is what the readers needs or doesn’t need to understand it, and how we go about enabling that. The translator Susan Bernofsky calls this stealth glossing: in her translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, there’s a fretsaw that’s being used to cut bone, and while the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know exactly what a fretsaw is, they need to get that it’s strange for it to be used in this way. So she adds a gloss along the lines of ‘ordinarily used by luthiers, if that wasn’t clear’.
A: Anton – as the only heritage speaker, has your relationship to Korean changed since you’ve been translating?
AB: It’s a very fraught topic. Publishing is very white, and translation is very, very white. A part of the reason I’m so extroverted is because I have to be, because Asian translators are otherwise completely invisible. So I have to be loud to get my books into the hands of readers. You would think that it makes sense for heritage speakers to translate, but the reality is that it’s quite rare. I think we have to acknowledge that there are racial and gender elements in how translators are picked, who gets attention, who we give credibility to. However many awards and grants I won, people just wouldn’t give me a book to translate. So I had to take matters into my own hands, sell the book, create my own job. And that’s how Cursed Bunny came about.
Ellah P. Wakatama OBE is Editor-at-Large at Canongate and was the founding Publishing Director of The Indigo Press. She is also the Creative Manchester Senior Research Fellow at the School of New Writing, University of Manchester and serves as the Chair of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. She was a judge for the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award and the 2015 Man Booker Prize. She is former deputy editor of Granta magazine and senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House. She is the editor of Africa39 and Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. Her journalism has appeared in the Telegraph, Guardian and Observer newspapers and in Spectator and The Griffith Review. She is featured in the 2019 New Daughters of Africa anthology. She is a trustee of The Royal Literary Fund and sits on the Advisory board for Art for Amnesty and the Editorial Advisory Panel of the Johannesburg Review of Books. In 2016 she was Visiting Professor and Global and Intercultural Scholar at Goshen College, Indiana and Guest Master at the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship in Cartagena, Colombia.
Sam Bett is a writer and translator of Japanese who, with David Boyd, is co-translating the novels of Mieko Kawakami for Europa Editions. Awarded Grand Prize in the 2016 JLPP International Translation Competition, Bett won the 2019/2020 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for his translation of Star by Yukio Mishima (New Directions, 2019). He has translated fiction by Yoko Ogawa, NISIOISIN and Keigo Higashino as well as essays by Banana Yoshimoto, Haruomi Hosono and Toshiyuki Horie. A founder and host of Us&Them, a quarterly Brooklyn-based reading series showcasing the work of writers who translate, Bett lives in Portland, Maine, USA.
David Boyd is assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in the USA. He has translated fiction by Izumi Suzuki, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa and Toh EnJoe, among others. His translation of Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat (Pushkin Press, 2017) won the 2017/2018 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. His translation of Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole won the same prize in 2021. With Sam Bett, he is co-translating the novels of Mieko Kawakami.
Anton Hur was born in Sweden in 1981 and raised in Hong Kong, Ethiopia and Thailand – but mostly in Korea, where he has lived for 30 years. Hur has translated Man Asia Literary Prize-winner Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer and Violets, Booker International Prize-longlisted Hwang Sok-yong’s The Prisoner, and many others. He won a PEN/Heim grant for his translation of Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny. He currently lives in Seoul.
Frances Riddle has translated numerous Spanish-language authors, including Isabel Allende, Claudia Piñeiro, Leila Guerriero, María Fernanda Ampuero, and Sara Gallardo. Her work has appeared in journals such as Granta, Electric Literature, and The White Review, among others. She holds a Bachelor’s in Spanish Literature and a Master’s in Translation Studies. Originally from Houston, Texas, she lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator living in Vermont, US. Rockwell was born in 1969 in Massachusetts. She has translated a number of classic works of Hindi and Urdu literature, including Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls, Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard. Her 2019 translation of Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize.
Damion Searls is a translator from German, Norwegian, French and Dutch – and a writer in English. He has translated four books and a libretto by Jon Fosse – Melancholy (co-translated with Grethe Kvernes), Aliss at the Fire, Morning and Evening (novel and libretto), and Scenes from a Childhood – as well as books by many other writers.
The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book, translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland.
The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators. Both novels and short-story collections are eligible. The contribution of author and translator is given equal recognition, with the £50,000 prize split between them. In addition, for the first time in 2022, the shortlisted authors and translators each received £2,500, increased from £1,000 in previous years – bringing the total value of the prize to £80,000.
This year the judges considered 135 books, with a record number of submissions received.
Together, the two Booker Prizes reward the best fiction from around the globe that is published in English in the UK and Ireland.
The 2022 International Booker Prize winner will be announced on 26 May 2022 at a ceremony at One Marylebone in London. The Booker Prizes online – the website and our channels on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and You Tube – is the home for the Booker Prizes past and present. As well as a full history of our previous winners, nominated authors and judges, it is also a hub for year-round editorial content around our 500 or so books and authors, designed to engage readers with both prizes and to foster a lifelong love of reading.