Translation is not kale

Anca L. Szilágyi

August 10, 2017

August 2017 marks the fourth year running for Women in Translation Month. The project was launched in 2014 by Meytal Radzinski, a scholar and passionate reader of non-English literature, to encourage discussion about the incredible disparity in publication of translated works by women vs. men. The skew line is, painfully but not surprisingly, even steeper than for published writing overall.

It's an urgent issue, enough to keep the WIT project expanding to an ever-broader group of participants around the world — writers, translators, readers, critics — and to drive the inauguration of the new Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, to be awarded in November of this year. Hometown antihero Amazon steps up as a white hat in this conversation, with its AmazonCrossing imprint — sounds like an open challenge to Seattle's independent publishers to us.

Hopefully we don't have to plead the case for making sure great writing reaches the widest possible audience. If we do, Anca Szilágyi has done a compelling job below. Read Anca's piece, watch the Women in Translation website and Tumblr, and follow @Read_WIT on Twitter this month to learn more.

Approximately three percent of books published in the United States are translations. Approximately thirty percent of this already small number are books by women. This maddening dearth, which I learned about from literary blogger and biophysicist Meytal Radzinski’s Women in Translation Month campaign, is worse than the gender disparity in English-language publications, well-documented by VIDA. Among publishers with enough of a translation catalog to count, only two are achieving gender parity: Europa Editions and AmazonCrossing. (Radzinski examined the numbers here, excluding publishers releasing less than seven translated titles in 2015.) And Other Stories has committed to publishing only women in 2018, which is great, but what happens after that?

Where are all the women in translation?”, asks Alison Anderson, before mulling over theories she doesn’t necessarily endorse: women in other countries don’t write as much as men (ha) and women in other countries are published less and win fewer prizes — and are thus overlooked by American publishers (perhaps). I can also imagine a faulty market-driven theory that readers in the United States are not seeking out works in translation and, by extension, women in translation, because they simply do not enjoy reading books that have been translated from another language.

Perhaps they are intimidated by something foreign, Judith Gurewich of Other Press supposes in Bill Morris’s Daily Beast article “Why Americans don’t read foreign fiction.” (This piece does not address gender disparity and focuses mainly on Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano and other prominent male authors; Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek is the only female author mentioned: “an obscure writer only a member of the Swedish Academy could love.”) The same article cites German writer Peter Schneider’s theory that translation is popular in Germany because it is a relatively homogenous society — whereas in the United States, a multicultural society, we assume we know enough about other cultures.

To all this I say: poppycock. Most readers don’t care what language a great work of literature was originally written in. (Of course, the problem with defining “great” is that it becomes muddied with gender bias.) Europa Editions knows translations can be wildly successful: witness “Ferrante fever.”

Last year on this site, Paul Constant recommended an event featuring Vietnamese poet and translator Nguyen Phan Que Mai, writing, “You don’t read enough work in translation. Translated poetry is a great way to learn about another culture without taking on crippling airfare costs.” I appreciated the note, because I most certainly agree, but still it didn’t sit well with me. I worried the light admonishment would keep away readers who aren’t already swimming in poetry in translation. The key, in reaching readers (if that is really the issue, though I think we also have a gate-keeping problem), is not to say that we should read works in translation because it is “good for you” — that is akin to saying eat your kale.

We need to change that part of the conversation. We need to talk about what we’re devouring.

In the arena of book gobbling, several titles spring to mind.

Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, translated by Ann Goldstein, was so good it ruined me for other books for a long time. Darker and tighter than the sprawling My Brilliant Friend, it drills into the psyche of Olga, a woman spiraling out of control after her husband leaves her and their two young children. In one scene, Olga tells her daughter to poke her in the thigh with a knife to keep her from being distracted. Ants infest the apartment, the dog dies from insecticide, the hot summer days give everything a sheen of violence. A lot happens in a short space. But there’s more to women in translation than Ferrante, no?

Lise Tremblay’s Mile End, translated by Gail Scott, as taut and macabre as The Days of Abandonment, follows an unnamed obese pianist at a ballet school in Mile End, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Montreal. Her suburban-dwelling mother watches American talk shows without understanding English, her father’s newfound celebrity as a director is achieved in part by erasing his rural Québécois accent, her restless boyfriend “swallows [her] breasts at the same time as the wine.” She is disappearing, on the edge of psychosis: “I was afraid of falling apart ... of being no longer able to contain myself, as if my body were leaking out of its skin.”

Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, translated by Vincent Kling, tells the story of Romanian refugees working in a traveling circus. The black humor of the young female narrator, exploited by her parents, is more outrageous and more absurd than The Days of Abandonment — it is a circus, after all. Her mother’s acrobatic shtick involves hanging from her hair; the narrator supposes that if she doesn’t fall to her death, they can all enjoy chicken soup after the performance. All-caps pronouncements punctuate Veteranyi’s prose, as when the mother kills chickens in their hotel bathroom: “CHICKENS HAVE AN INTERNATIONAL SQUAWK WHEN THEY’RE BEING SLAUGHTERED; WE UNDERSTAND THEM WHEREVER WE ARE.”

Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, translated by Andrea G. Labinger, depicts a dystopian Buenos Aires rife with security cameras, unsafe streets, and creepy medical institutions with seriously questionable intentions. Deadpan humor helps digest the notion that we could be headed into similar territory, where the richest sequester themselves in tightly guarded compounds, while unrest roils everywhere else and the vulnerable are driven toward death. I wondered whether the author was exploring the question “What if Argentina’s Dirty War ended differently?” What if the fascists, greedy, eager to “cleanse” society, and rendered incompetent by nepotism, stayed in power?

These are books that stayed with me for years after reading. Recently, I devoured another book worth mentioning, in part because it is excellent and in part because it is almost impossible to find in the United States, unless you order it through Amazon. (Powell’s international warehouse recently had four copies; they are now out of stock.)

Last spring, I visited the American Book Center in Amsterdam and scoured the shelves of Dutch fiction in translation, looking for something good to take home. A little note recommended Esther Gerritsen’s Craving, translated by Michele Hutchinson. Thank you, kind bookseller, for pointing me in an utterly refreshing direction!

Craving juxtaposes the perspectives of Coco and her estranged mother Elisabeth, who may or may not be on the autism spectrum. The story opens when they run into each other in the street, and Elisabeth “smiles like a person about to tell a joke”: she tells Coco she is dying. She is happy that she can finally tell her doctor the right thing, that she is telling people the news of her imminent death. Throughout her life, she struggles to be nice, polite, normal, rational.

Coco is wilder in energy but not much different in her failed attempts to be nice, polite, normal, rational. She relishes the drama of telling the news to her much older psychologist boyfriend Hans, her father Wilbert, and her stepmother Miriam, who’d raised her since age five. Over Chinese food, they badmouth Elisabeth under a thin sheen of concern for her, and try to dissuade Coco from moving in with her to be a caretaker. She doesn’t owe her mother anything, they say, reminding her that when Coco was two, Elisabeth locked her up alone in the bedroom. Spite — and maybe something deeper — propels Coco to live with Elisabeth anyway.

Gerritsen is a playwright, and this scene, and much of the dialogue throughout, is brilliant. Gerritsen takes her characters’ directness to surprising extremes, such as when Hans tells Coco that her mother (who he has yet to meet) simply doesn’t interest him or when Elisabeth warmly asks Miriam if she is a vampire because she asks for permission to enter Elisabeth’s house.

Food is a source of comfort Coco doggedly pursues when faced with difficult emotions:

The evening she knows her mother is going to die, she is on her own and eats Caramac and Toffee Cups in bed. These are sweets she eats when [Hans is] not looking because she’d rather conceal her childish taste. She knows he is going to leave her ... But now there’s a sick mother; things like that excite him.

When food fails, she switches to alcohol, then sex. There’s a scene where she gives a bewildered bartender a blowjob, but only on the condition that the bar door remain unlocked, so that there is the possibility of being caught; then she pukes into a bucket.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth must remind herself of simple things: compliment children, be obviously friendly. As a socially awkward introvert, I related to many of these internal reminders. Like The Days of Abandonment, Craving is a complex portrayal of motherhood. Elizabeth feels she’d been a normal woman until she had Coco. Coco made her strange. Coco had a streak for destruction. Elisabeth didn’t know how to tell little Coco not to destroy things, so instead she kept cleaning up after her to the point of exhaustion, until she couldn’t take it anymore, and she locked Coco in a room with little plastic bags of food. Coco would have been angry either way, Elisabeth rationalizes.

The psychology of this novel is heartbreaking and absurd and rings true. What is this relief in the prospect of death that both characters feel? Ah, I won’t have to deal with this difficult person anymore. Elisabeth wants to die alone, without witnesses, so she can just feel normal, and Coco wants to create the socially correct story to tell later, that she was by her mother’s side and said she loved her. Alone in Elisabeth’s house together, their desires for normalcy ricochet off each other and lurch in wild, unexpected directions. Here is a book that lacks the unpalatable toughness of raw kale yet will leave you with that day-after-eating-kale sparkle.

Obviously, literature in translation is good for you, obviously it offers a fresh perspective on what it means to be human, obviously that means we need multiple perspectives that are not primarily one gender, obviously the culture is a thin gruel without them, obviously the gross gender disparity needs to be addressed and not just every August or in 2018. It is up to individuals in the literary ecosystem (publishers, translators, reviewers, booksellers) to make the effort to regularly seek out these stories and put them in the hands of readers — all the while eschewing the shoulds and simply, raucously celebrating.

Books in this review:
  • The Days of Abandonment
    by Elena Ferrante
    Translated by Ann Goldstein
    Europa Editions
    September 01, 2005
    188 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Mile End
    by Lise Tremblay
    Translated by Gail Scott
    March 15, 2002
    144 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta
    by Aglaja Veteranyi
    Translated by Vincent Kling
    Dalkey Archive Press
    January 17, 2012
    200 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Death as a Side Effect
    by Ana María Shua
    Translated by Andrea G. Labinger
    Bison Books
    December 01, 2010
    176 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Craving
    by Esther Gerritsen
    Translated by Michele Hutchison
    World Books
    January 08, 2015
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air, published by Lanternfish Press in December 2017. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of awards from Artist Trust and 4Culture, among others.

Follow Anca L. Szilágyi on Twitter: @@ancawrites

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