Our Think in Translation project has been made possible thanks to The Space and Creative Scotland.

Episode Two: Discovering Diverse Voices in Translation

Annie Rutherford (left) & Mairi Oliver

Annie Rutherford (left) & Mairi Oliver

We've established that reading in translation can change the way you think about the world. In this episode, Lighthouse Bookshop's Mairi Oliver and Annie Rutherford elaborate on that and go on to explore what it means to be in a gatekeeper position: as publishers and booksellers we have a responsibility to bring diverse voices to our readers. 

Annie Rutherford is the programme coordinator at StAnza, and a translator herself. Mairi Oliver is a bookseller at the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, where both Annie and Mairi run the Women in Translation book club. The two discuss their favourite translations and translators, as well as what reading in translation means to them. Above all they seek diversity in translation, and they provide a wealth of info about writers, translators and publishers who are currently producing exciting work. 

The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.

+ Read the transcript

Alex Blott (host): You’re listening to Think in Translation: a literary podcast from Vagabond Voices in Glasgow. The series is made up of conversations with international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books more accessible. It's Episode Two, so we have two guests. Annie Rutherford is the programme coordinator at StAnza, and a translator herself. She is joined by Mairi Oliver, who is a bookseller at the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh. They discuss what it currently means to be reading in translation, the difficulty of finding women in translation, and how they identify the publishers they want to read and sell books from.

Annie Rutherford (AR): I’m Annie Rutherford, I am programme coordinator at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, where we put a lot of focus on inviting international poets, some of whom have published translations in English, and some of whom haven’t. I also work as a freelance translator myself, mainly from German into English, and I’ve got my first translated collection of poetry coming out in August: Hydra’s Heads by Nora Gomringer, and I run the Women in Translation book group at the wonderful Lighthouse Books.

Mairi Oliver (MO): My name’s Mairi Oliver, I run the Lighthouse Bookshop.


MO: My favourite book in translation was A Bird is Not a Stone, which was a collection of Palestinian poetry, which was translated into the Scots languages by the now defunct Freight books, but it was a stunning translation because you had the original works in Arabic by several different Palestinian poets, and then they asked Scots poets to translate it into the language that they wrote their poetry in, so Liz Lochhead rewrote these Palestinian verses to reflect both the original but very much a poem that she would herself have written. And then you also had Christine De Luca – ah, there were a few other Scots poets – and it was very beautifully done, both deeply respectful to the original poetry, and having it there on the page for you to see, and being able to see the bridge poems to see how something had become, yeah it’s lingered with me for a long time as something where the old and the new existed very tangibly together.

AR: I really love Bricks and Mortar, by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire. It’s a German novel originally, it was published as Im Stein in German, and I think it’s an amazing book. I just think it’s mind-bogglingly, like the closest comparison I have for it is Ulysses and I know that sounds superlative but it really is very modernist in many ways, and given that I just can’t imagine how Katy Derbyshire ever managed to translate it – like, there are bits where you can’t figure out for a page whose speaking, or at what time the conversation takes place or the monologue takes place, and you know, all of this sort of hyper-modernist confusion although it’s a contemporary novel. She conveys that but without making it seem unintentional in translation, she really captures the spirit of the original, and it’s also the only book that I have come across where a translator has managed to perfectly capture the essence of having to shift from the formal address – so the formal “you” in German – to the informal “you”, without it seeming somehow awkward. Like you know exactly what’s going on as a reader, but without it feeling like it’s a conversation happening in a different language, and that was just something that blew my mind because it’s such a tricky thing to do.

MO: I don’t read one particular region. My reading patterns tend to be determined as a bookseller by what’s coming out next, and so there will be waves of things because publishing fashions go in waves. So a few years ago I was reading a lot of Finnish translation and Finnish-Nordic translations, and then I had a big wave of Latin American and Spanish translation. My mother tongue is French, and so I find myself avoiding French translation because you run that risk of it losing the flavour of the original language. But then there are publishers like Gaelic Books, where if I want a bit of French and I can’t get my hands on an actual book in French, then I will read a Gaelic publication because you come out the other end and you feel like you’ve read it in French, because they capture the texture and they pick very French books, and so yeah I dip into a lot of different languages. There are some that I’ve found – recently a lot of people are getting excited about some Estonian translations that are coming over, and I realise I’ve never read an Estonian writer, which also led me to realise that I’ve read very little of Eastern Europe, and very little even of Russia, because I didn’t study the classics.

AR: I think that was something that I very much realised when I was sort of trying to think of books for the upcoming months for the book group: that I’m very – completely subconsciously – very Eurocentric in my reading, so I could do a whole year of German books, but there were a lot of German and Scandinavian books in my original list and a lot of French ones, and that was quite an unconscious bias, and I think it’s just what I know and what is possibly more accessible, and of course there are more translators working from French and German than there are say from Estonian or from Arabic, and well I would assume at least from Arabic. But that was actually something – it’s not that I would say I particularly enjoy Western European books, it’s just that that’s what I go for and actually it was a real joy of the book group to go okay no I’m going to read a book from – so we’re currently doing a book from an Indian writer which is, yeah, really lovely to experience that difference.

MO: The book club that we have at the Lighthouse, it sort of mirrors my own reading habits as we’re looking for women in translation, as opposed to just translation, and suddenly your access to your pool of writers drops dramatically when you add that subcategory, so it becomes much harder to find – and this is just from trying to scope out books for book club – but it suddenly became much harder to find Asian and Southeast Asian women in translation, than it was to find men in translation. And it was the same then, trying to find a translation from one of the African nations and looking at what was available and suddenly, yeah once you add that you’re looking for a woman, it dropped off. So I found that I’d been reading fewer translations in a year that I’m focusing more on making sure that I’m reading more women and more writers of colour, because finding women and writers of colour in translation is more challenging – they’re out there, but it is more challenging.

AR: That’s something that Deborah Smith – she set up the publishing house Tilted Axis, and they publish contemporary fiction from Asia and they don’t only publish women, but they do have a big focus on publishing women, and so there are definitely really exciting initiatives out there at the moment. And there’s also Les Fugitives, who publish French literature but only women – they just publish two books a year I think and they’re always amazing, very exciting books.

MO: I would say that as a bookseller there are definitely some publishers that, you get a sense of what they’re trying to achieve with their translation and that chimes with what we’re trying to give our readers.

MO: My impression is that the interaction between the publisher who commissions something and the publisher who has their pool of writers and their pool of translators, as a bookseller you know the ones who are going to be translating the kind of books that are going to appeal to your audience, so for us And Other Stories is just brilliant, because it’s not genre fiction, they are brilliant books that happen to be written in another language and they are bringing them to your audience, and so I don’t know that there’s a standardised voice that is the And Other Stories voice, but what they do have is that – and you know that with Pushkin, they’re less us, other than some of their children’s and YA that they’re doing brilliantly and they fit us very well as a bookshop, but again they’re a publisher that have an identity in terms of “We’re going to translate only the best”, and that’s what you’re getting.

AR: I think I’d agree with that actually as a reader as well. There are publishers I trust, and I trust Pushkin and And Other Stories and Les Fugitives absolutely. I would pick up anything that they publish, even if it’s an author I’ve never heard of which, frequently it is – or a genre that maybe isn’t quite something that I would necessarily come to otherwise. So there’s definitely a style in terms of books chosen. And I mean that’s my own experience. My publisher – my book is the first translation that they’re publishing, and they focus on spoken word poets, so they’ve published Hollie McNish for example and Raymond Antrobus, and the poet who I’m translating is a performance and spoken word poet: Nora Gomringer – well, not spoken word but she has a huge element of translation in her work. That’s an example of someone who, unlike Pushkin, doesn’t focus on translation but they’re still picking things which fit within their own identity.

MO: I find that I follow, so someone like Danny Hahn, who I find so inspiring on the way that he just has that fever and fire about how amazing translation is, that it’s infectious, his passion for it is infectious, and I follow him and I will try writing that he has recommended in one form or another whether it’s on social media or in a review, or anything that he’s translated himself because I trust him as a translator to again be valuing something for the sake of it – you know to be valuing a piece of work because the original is brilliant, and to be valuing the translator for their ability to bring it to a new audience in an authentic way.

AR: I think that’s – actually Katy Derbyshire, who’s again translated Bricks and Mortar … she’s not got the same level of fame as Danny Hahn, who is, I mean who is just amazing, but she’s a similar figure for me of, if there’s somebody that she’s chosen to translate, then I will be really excited to read that because I know it’s going to be an unusual book, and it’s going to be – well that she’s decided she wants to spend six months or a year with, and that means a lot.

MO: I think in terms of what translation should be addressing now, my sense is that the world seems to be getting ever smaller while getting ever more expansive at the same time, and it creates this weird paradoxical situation where when it comes to literature we seem to be reading the world, but the gatekeepers to those worlds, in some instances – I think in many – are showing us the worlds that we think we already see, so we get to see very Asian novels, in our perception of what is an Asian novel or an Asian story, you know in terms of the choices of – and I think Han Kang bucked that on what Korean literature gets shown and the idea of what is a quintessentially Korean novel, or a quintessentially Latin American novel, or Brazilian novel specifically, where you’re going, “Well this is… What does a British or an English-speaking person think of Brazil?”, and then we’re giving them those novels, and the prime example being Scandinavia and Scanda-noir, where we’re not getting the great literature and the books that deserve to be – that open doors – quite as much as we’re getting the books that publishers think are essentially extensions of the world that we have in English.

AR: I mean I think that the market for translated fiction and translated books generally, it needs to focus on diversity, and that does go back to the women in translation thing, but it’s also about – I mean I said, you know, I read a lot of translated European books because I know about them, and it’s also the thing of, yeah, having those translated Asian and African books … um, Latin America does I think does a wee bit better because of some of the classics it means that they’re, the contemporary writing is also more out there. So I think diversity on all levels, both in terms of where it’s from and gender, sexuality, ethnicity…

I mean it’s a problem for the publishing industry generally and that’s going to be the case for translation – again, translation being something where a publisher is taking more of a risk. It’s possibly almost more of an issue, so that’s very much something – I think in terms of sort of the act of translation…

AR: Related to that, but not quite the same, is the thing of publishers going, “Oh well this is done really well from this country…” So on the one hand, like The Vegetarian did buck a certain trend, but on the other hand, after it was published, it was last year – so a couple of Han Kang novels had had a lot of publicity – and the Korean literary translator said that actually it’s now really hard to get like humorous – I mean it’s really hard to get contemporary Korean fiction translated anyway – but it’s really hard to get humorous Korean lit… [laughter] because everyone thinks of The Vegetarian. It’s like “Oh it’s grim,” and there’s that thing of, yeah you know, German books have to be set in the 20th century and deal with World War Two or the divided country, or you know, it’s got to deal with some traumatic bit of 19th century German history–

MO: – that we already know…

AR: Yes. Latin American books have to have magic realism in them, or dictators–

MO: or both

AR: – yes or both. I think that’s sort of trying to get beyond those clichés…

MO: Yeah. And exoticising things. Anything, you know, anything that comes from the Islands has to be some literary version of Gauguin I mean, this is all much generalised, but I think for me it resonates because there are those publishers that are not doing those things, and they’re the ones – I think largely small presses, like Deep Vellum, like And Other Stories, like Vagabond Voices – who are seeking out great books, and bringing them to new readers, and it feels a lot less like a gimmick, and I think those publishers are, for me, getting to the heart of what I find joyous about translation, and it is that, walking into another world, and the way you should be with any book – just being transported – and they’re opening up those worlds, and I think that, they’re the ones to get excited about and get behind, because I think they’re getting it. They’re doing what translation should be doing.

Alex Blott: Thanks for listening to Think in Translation. This show is made possible by the support of The Space and Creative Scotland. For more information about Vagabond Voicea and Think in Translation, including blog posts exploring translation from various angles, visit vagabondvoices.co.uk. Our music, “Puid Metsa”, is written and performed by Matthew Hyde and his Quintet. The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.