Issue 53 of The Quarterly Conversation


A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan Part III

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan Part III

When I first read Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile for my high school AP French class, an alarm went off on me. That I was reading the words of someone who understood love in the same way I did. At that point in my life I hadn’t yet experienced love, but it didn’t matter. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come, of what I already knew to be true. The next year, in a college French class, I read Duras’s The Lover. From the first page (J’ai un visage détruit) I saw myself again. I felt recognized.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

In the tempest-plagued teapot of English translation, Michael Hofmann’s dust-ups are notorious: he compared Stefan Zweig’s suicide note to an Oscar acceptance speech, eviscerated James Reidel’s translations of Thomas Bernhard’s poems, brushed off George Konrad’s A Feast in the Garden as “dire… export-quality horseshit.” Critics seem generally pleased with his translations, but then, critics like Toril Moi, Tim Parks, or Hofmann himself—that is to say, those willing and able to scrutinize the changes a text in translation undergoes, and the details of what is gained and lost alone the way—are rare, and the newspaper reviewer’s “cleverly translated,” “serviceably translated,” and suchlike don’t count for too much. Readers I know are not of one mind about his work: some are unqualified fans, particularly of Angina Days, his selected poetry of Günter Eich. What seems to grate on the less enthusiastic are his translations’ motley surfaces, the “occasional rhinestones or bits of jet,” as he has it in one interview, which mark them, not as the pellucid transmigration of the author’s inspiration from source language into target, but as a patent contrivance in the latter.


The Joshua Cohen Interview

The Joshua Cohen Interview

Book of Numbers is based, to a degree, on the Biblical book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament, known in Hebrew as Bemidbar. It’s a strange book. One of the strangest books ever. The first three books of the Bible tell the stories—all the great stories we know and love—while the last book, the fifth book, is basically just a legal code, and a summary. The fourth book, then, is where stories break down. The major story, the Exodus from Egypt, is over, and the Israelites have been freed from slavery, but condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years—which is to say, they’re condemned to wander the wilderness until they’re dead, and the next generation has replaced them. One of the interpretations of this death-sentence is that people who were born and raised as slaves can never live as a free people in a free land—AKA the Promised Land, Zion. My novel takes that 40-year timeframe of wandering, but transposes it onto the four decades between the invention of the semiconductor, which is the genesis of personal computing, and the advent of the leak—so, ca. 1972-2012. During this span, the old culture “enslaved” to the book gave way to the new culture “freed” by digital technologies—a new people seeking a trans-national and virtual Promised Land that will never quite live up to its promise. Just as the Biblical book is about how a people were remade in, and by, the desert, my own novel seeks to show how a people were remade online—for better and for worse.


After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel

Loneliness warps our souls. The isolation from others—from embrace, conversation, community, understanding—can feel suffocating and, in our desperate flailing to breathe, we lash out violently at those who might connect with us, which only isolates us further. Or we suffer a sort of emotional atrophy, in which our failure to socialize makes us worse and worse at doing so in the first place. (We may try flirting on Tinder after not doing it for months, or even years, and it quickly becomes clear how out of shape we are.) Or we just decide to drown for a while, buried in our books, records, DVDs, videogames, and porn, living socially only vicariously, through the visions of artists and performers. In capturing the voices, travails, and eventual connection of two lonelyhearts, Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter captures the spirit of urban loneliness so vividly that it’s often painful to read.

Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee

Echo in Four Beats by Rita Banerjee

Rita Banerjee´s debut poetry collection, Echo in Four Beats, published by Finishing Line Press, is a modern feminist re-interpretation of the myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid´s Metamorphoses. Echo in Four Beats performs at the intersection between classical Greek and Indic myth, gender politics, political oppression, Vedic and Buddhist philosophy, and deeply personal narratives through verse redolent with tonal originality. The collection is not exclusively centered on the rampant narcissism of our times, nor is it just an appeal to reclaim an authentic female narrative free of patriarchal heteronormative echoes—its contemporary topical significance also lies in its rally against the discourse of capitalistic ideologies and the damaging heritage of colonisation. The collection encourages the reader to ponder the transformative and transcendental power of art and spiritual consciousness.

Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob

Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob

Imaginary Lives (1896) was Schwob’s last book of fiction. He composed its twenty-two chapters—each one the story of a life, recounted in fewer than a dozen pages, with all of these lives arranged in chronological order—between 1893 and 1896. Early in its composition, at the age of twenty-six, Schwob suffered the first attack of a mysterious intestinal ailment whose painful effects and questionable treatments (ether, opium, morphine) would lead to his death at thirty-seven. Schwob’s physical condition to some extent shaped his fiction, and though all the chapters of Imaginary Lives culminate, naturally enough, in their subjects’ deaths, these deaths are often unnaturally violent. Lucretius the Poet is poisoned by his lover. Clodia the Licentious Matron is strangled, robbed, and dumped in the river Tiber. Gabriel Spenser the Actor is stabbed in the lung by Ben Jonson the playwright. And the three pirates of the book (Captain Kidd, Walter Kennedy, Stede Bonnet) are hanged and left to rot upon the rope. Imaginary Lives is, among other things, a study of human violence, proceeding from the sun-stroked era of ancient Greek gods and demigods to the soot-blackened nineteenth-century Edinburgh of the serial murderers Burke and Hare.

Heretics by Leonardo Padura

Heretics by Leonardo Padura

The shape of a crime novel is determined by the search for something absent. But that missing person or object or knowledge is present in every deliberate or unintended lacuna. Leonardo Padura is famous for his books starring Conde, who used to be a detective, wants to be a writer, and ends up a used book seller and occasional freelance private eye. Or at least that’s where we find him in Heretics. Padura’s books scan Cuba’s streets and food and rum and heat and sea, the history of isolation enforced by imperial power bent toward the global rule of capitalism. In a 2013 New Yorker profile that brought his name to a wider U.S. public, Padura is presented as a curiosity for writing critically while living under the Castro regime. Maybe honesty demands exile. Or maybe Padura’s commitment to the people he cares about, and their care and commitment for him in return, has maintained some alternate and formidable community within the general decadence.

Issue 52 of The Quarterly Conversation


A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan Part II

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan Part II

Translation used to be my hobby, when I had another job to pay the bills. My stable side-project, the thing I could go home to or spend weekends with, the place I could turn to in secret when there were slow moments at work. I was happy to be spared from that. When my fiancé Tom and I moved to Rhode Island to open Riffraff, our bookstore/bar, for the year leading up to our opening, translation was suddenly my only job. My full-time job. I was a literary translator. I could ease into it every morning. Wake up, make a cup of tea, commit myself to my desk, pull down the blinds so the sun wasn’t shining in my face, force myself to sit and translate until I reached a certain point in the book, then let myself get up, pee, shower, eat lunch, watch some reality TV to let my mind rest for a bit, then get right back to it. I would translate until around 5pm, then Tom and I would play board games for an hour before dinner, or have a drink outside and grill. Ever-present that year was the anxiety of trying to get our store open. All I wanted in those moments was for our store to exist. But I erase that part from my memory when I look back on that time with longing.

Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava

Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava

One of the most ambitious, audacious books of recent memory, Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava brings together a smorgasbord of plot lines and scenes ranging from the serious to the comic, including: a clash between the NFL and the Indoor Football League, the history of Joni Mitchell’s career, the heist of a lost Picasso, a court case involving a high-profile murder and an incredibly intelligent inmate, the Mandela Effect, the life of a 911 operator, the origins of a brain tumor, quantum mechanics and the mind-body divide as it relates to time and consciousness, an accidental impaling and the said consequences of such as relates to the nature of getting revenge, multiple love stories that go unfulfilled, and a fight between a pig mascot and a crab one.

Morocco vs. the Space-time Continuum, with Nicknames—On Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital

Morocco vs. the Space-time Continuum, with Nicknames—On Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital

As is often the case in the current economic climate, there are some problems in the singular hospital system where the narrator finds himself. First and foremost, this hospital doesn’t agree with time or space. Where is it, for starters? Yes, it’s firmly anchored in Bouanani’s native Morocco, as translator Lara Vergnaud points out in her afterword: it is anchored there by words, by substantives that connect it to the very earth and roots upon which it has been built. And yet once one is admitted into this timeless bureaucratic institution, with its “section of infinity, surrounded on all sides by pending files, moldy paperwork, and shelves overflowing with x-rays of lungs,” and its “folders stacked across miles of sky until the next eternity,” one might just as well be lost in the labyrinthine stacks of a Borgesian library where all the books have been checked out. Or, behind the Iron Curtain, in the administrative offices of an unknown future such as the papyrocracy in Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, or the Government Warehouse in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Tale of the Troika.

On Reading Moon Brow, A Burnt Generation

On Reading Moon Brow, A Burnt Generation

I was amazed that Sarah Khalili seemed to internalize the language and created an entirely new novel, one that shares Moon Brow’s concern with Iran’s political and social events before, during and after 1979. This novel felt as though it has been written for a Western audience, an American audience that knows little about Iran apart from the hostage crisis—the novel sometimes goes into details about the Eight Years War that an Iranian reader would never need.

Voyage to the Storm

Voyage to the Storm

I was reading a book in Spanish, in Mexico City, a book I no longer remember as it was eclipsed by facts I found among its words. In the flow of sentences and ideas, there was a name where all of my concentration clustered: Fleur Jaeggy. A flower with a bizarre surname. I immediately knew I needed to find out more about this writer, who, as I understood from the book that had become anonymous to me now, admired Robert Walser. Overtaken by the sudden connections and the agitation of possibly finding something familiar in a distant land, someone I could meet on the territory of ideas, which belongs to no one and has no name, I found Los Hermosos Años del Castigo, a Spanish translation of I Beati Anni del Castigo, published by Tusquets Editores, one of the last pieces available in the country, only in Porrúa bookshop in the city center. I also found out that Fleur wrote in Italian.

Lost in the Woods: Richard Powers’s The Overstory

Lost in the Woods: Richard Powers’s The Overstory

The Overstory displays some of the formal and stylistic ingenuity we have come to expect from a Richard Powers novel, from his acoustically adventurous prose to his multiple, intertwined narratives (even more multiple in this novel), so characterizing it as purely “agitprop” would be neither fair nor accurate, although the novel is certainly transparent enough in its effort to promote environmental mindfulness. And since Powers has always been willing to take on the weightiest of subjects, generally treated in an earnestly sincere manner, it would go too far to call The Overstory sentimental, although the passages invoking its characters’ often rapturous appreciation of the trees that threaten to replace the characters themselves as the novel’s true dramatis personae are surely full of passionate intensity.


Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala by Jacek Dehnel

If a novel is especially immersive, if the voice of its narrator is sufficiently consistent and evocative, the world it describes may come to life in picturesque color. I say picturesque, rather than vivid, because a novel’s dominant colors may not be entirely lifelike; they may be closer to the rich oils of Rembrandt or the downy pastels of Degas. Such colors suggest life but also remind us of art’s mediating presence. Jacek Dehnel’s lush debut novel, Lala, for instance, is awash in the sepia tones of old photographs, a few of which punctuate the text. Like an old family album, assembled by an eccentric relative with an artistic bent, Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack.

The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee by Jan Wilm

The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee by Jan Wilm

Particularly since the publication of Elizabeth Costello (2003), a strong academic conversation on literature and philosophy has developed around the writings of J.M. Coetzee. As literary scholars and philosophers have approached this nexus, they have confronted questions about what counts as “philosophy” or “literature,” and what benefits are afforded by conversing across the disciplines. So, as this dialogue continues moving forward, there may be some benefit in also slowing down, pausing, and looking back at the one monograph to expressly locate Coetzee’s writings on a spectrum between literature and philosophy. Although not the most recent publication on the topic, Jan Wilm’s The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee (2016) merits renewed attention for its use of both literary and philosophical tools in explicating how Coetzee’s texts act upon their readers’ very modes of thinking.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

What most of the characters in The Sparsholt Affair actually do—is left between the chapters. The titular affair (or at least its most public and scandalous iteration) occurs somewhere between the second and third sections, and Johnny seems to lack any desire to think or speak about it when his last name reveals his scandalous heritage. Instead, Hollinghurst forces us speculate what occurs in the breaks. Perhaps, more accurately, he urges us to gossip—a fitting invitation for a novel where sex, scandal, success, and sensation never occur in the text.

The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte

The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte

Curzio Malaparte’s been in his grave for over sixty years, and he’s still trolling us. That an author whose chosen pseudonym is a conscious inversion of Napoleon Bonaparte would have a fondness for provocation is no real surprise. Malaparte’s work falls uneasily in the gulf between fiction and nonfiction: 1957’s The Kremlin Ball, newly translated into English by Jenny McPhee, is subtitled (Material For a Novel), and its opening pages set out exactly how fiction and nonfiction will intermingle. “The characters did not originate in the author’s imagination, but were drawn from life, each with his own name, face, words, and actions,” Malaparte writes.

Trick by Domenico Starnone

Trick by Domenico Starnone

Perhaps it is Starnone’s newness in the English-speaking world that explains why reviewers have tended to jump over his proven track record and speculate about his connections to the mysterious and pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante. Their rumored personal relationship is beside the point, but their books are similarly staggering—and the resemblances between their styles and subjects is hard to ignore. Set in modern-day Naples, Trick follows seventy-something illustrator Daniele Mallarico as he decamps to the house where he grew up. There, he cares for his grandson Mario while the boy’s parents are at a conference. Only four years old, Mario possesses an uncanny breadth of vocabulary, and an unsettling grasp of how the world functions.

Bang by Daniel Peña

Bang by Daniel Peña

Bang tells us about a Mexican family that began its story based on luck, when Araceli met Eugenio in a horseracing track, but somewhere along the line that luck was lost, probably years later, when the father got deported. But that is backstory. The book begins with Araceli waiting for Eugenio to cross back into the United States from Mexico. She lives with her sons, Uli and Cuauhtémoc, in the orange groves in Harlingen, Texas. They are living their life “in hiding” and trying to belong at the same time. On the night of Uli’s sixteenth birthday, the two brothers suffer a plane accident and crash on the Mexican side of the border, and the story of their new misfortune begins. They get separated after the crash (Cuauhtémoc leaves the site to look for help and never comes back) and neither of them try to cross back into the U.S., instead going to find their father who supposedly lives in San Miguel, a town in Chihuahua, a place where they all lived before moving. The day after, Araceli also drives to Mexico to find her sons. Now we have the three family members looking for each other and trying to get to their original home, as they get sucked into the narco nightmare in the border territories.

These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy

These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy

Jaeggy has taken the written and anecdotal record of her Romantics, Creatives (each ill and delicate in his own way), and wraps them in the shroud of her slow-burning melancholic rumination. By claiming De Quincey as a visionary in the opening sentence, she enters the realm of dreams and storytelling; she depicts pirates and depressives, fairy tales, death, and grandeur — through their lives, she makes contact with the very fabric of these artists work. For our sake (and likely hers), she burrows beneath the veneer of history that allows us to rest comfortably in order to detach these men from ready caricature, to ensure we inhabit the emotional and literary forces that motivated them. This allows Jaeggy, in such short pieces, to feel for the essence of her subjects, and effectively, bring them that much closer to the reader.

6 Questions for Stephen Henighan on Ondjaki and Transparent City

Ondjaki is one of the leading African writers, and one considered to be among the best in the Lusophone world. He has received many of the most prestigious prizes for Portuguese-language authors, as well as being included on the Africa39 list. Although his books are often described as working in the style of magical realism, Ondjaki tends to see his work not as powerfully imaginative but as reflective of the realities in his birth nation, Angola:

Fiction doesn’t happen to me, fiction happens in Angola and I happen to be there, and I happen to be born there. Among us, if you find another writer from Angola, you will not hear this comment, “oh that book of yours, what a powerful imagination,” no; the question is, where did you see that?!

His novel Transparent City, translated by Stephen Henighan and forthcoming from Biblioasis in April, has received the 2013 José Saramago Prize, the 2015 Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman Africain, and a Prix Littérature-Monde at the 2016 St. Malo literary festival.

Transparent City joins his previous works Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, also translated by Stephen for Biblioasis.

Stephen is among the most dedicated, discerning, and best-informed translators of Lusophone fiction that I know of (or just one of the best translators, period), so when he says that Ondjaki is among the best writers Africa has to offer, I take notice. I recently corresponded with him to learn more about Ondjaki and the process of translating Transparent City.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Ondjaki has been quite a prolific and successful writer. Since his debut in 2000, he’s published no fewer than 20 books and has won a number of prestigious awards—all at just 40 years old. Can you tell us a little about Ondjaki as a writer and what has made him so successful?

Stephen Henighan: For one thing, he hasn’t been distracted by alternate careers! Though he’s dabbled in film-making, and occasionally teaches a creative writing workshop or writes a newspaper article, basically he devotes all of his time to writing and promoting his fiction and poetry.  His fiction can be whimsical,  but his professional comportment is punctual and organized. He has an excellent eye for detail when it comes to marketing and promotional issues. He travels tirelessly through the Portuguese-speaking countries that are his main market, and the fact that he’s also fluent in English and Spanish has helped him to expand his market beyond the Lusophone world.

Aside from the quality and originality of his work, the other point I would make is that Ondjaki grew up in a literary culture.   We often take this for granted when we speak of writers from New York or London, but a writer from Luanda can also grow up in a literary culture.   Ondjaki’s mother was a teacher; his father, though trained as an engineer and later involved in politics, published a novel; his parents wrote a play together. When Ondjaki was growing up, the family’s circle of friends included the prolific, bestselling novelist Pepetela, the well-known writer Manuel Rui, and a number of others.  It was natural for him to become a writer, and to feel that this a normal profession to follow.

VSE: This is your third translation of Ondjaki, following Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. What made you want to translate this author’s work?

SH: I read Good Morning Comrades in Portugal in 2005 and immediately felt a kinship with it.  The novel describes the relationship between Angolan schoolchildren of the 1980s and their Cuban teachers. When the Cubans leave in 1990, it’s clear that their childhood has ended.   Though I’m of an older generation, I also grew up with parents who participated in a left-wing culture: the fringes of the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, opening our farm to U.S. Vietnam War draft dodgers who had come to Canada, and so on.  There came a point in my early adolescence when the draft dodgers disappeared and I realized my childhood had ended, much as happened to Ondjaki and his friends with the Cubans.  As I was reading Good Morning Comrades, I felt an immediate identification with the story. I also had another reaction, which only happens once in a long while: reading the book in Portuguese, I began, involuntarily,  to imagine how it would sound in English. I  was mainly a short story writer and novelist at that stage–as I still am today. What I mean is, I wasn’t translating much –just occasional short pieces from French or Spanish–and this was my first intimation that my future might include some serious translating.

Later in 2005 I visited Angola and met Ondjaki and his family there. When I returned to Canada, Dan Wells of Biblioasis told me he was starting a translation series and asked me to edit it.  Dan had one book lined up–the collected poems of Ryszard Kapuściński–and asked me what I thought we should do second. I suggested Good Morning Comrades.  It took a while to convince Ondjaki and his agent that Biblioasis –at that stage a tiny one-man operation very different from the Biblioasis of today– deserved their confidence, but eventually we pulled it off. Translation opened up a new world for me, and also, I hope, for readers who discovered that book and all the others we’ve translated since. Translating Ondjaki was not only my entrée into the Biblioasis International Translation Series, it’s also probably my biggest contribution to the series, even more so than the editorial work I’ve done for them.

VSE: I’m curious to hear a little more about the literary culture that Ondjaki grew up in. I know that literary aesthetics in different parts of the world can be quite different from what we’re accustomed to here in North America—what is the tradition that Ondjaki writes in like—for instance, what parts of the world does it traffic with, what are the dominant modes of storytelling—and what do you see as his place in it? Is there anything you’d want a reader of his to know before they started the book?

SH: My view would be that a number of traditions dovetail in his work. The linguistic experimentation of José Luandino Vieira, an Angolan writer of dense monologues and prose that mingles Portuguese syntax with Kimbundu rhythms–very challenging,  almost untranslatable writing–was  important to Ondjaki at an early stage of his development.  Also, the early, more linguistically acrobatic, work of Mia Couto, which transposes the narrative prose of the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa and the terse  dialogue of the Mexican Juan Rulfo to Africa. Thanks to a highly literary uncle on his mother’s side, Ondjaki was given books like One Hundred Years of Solitude to read at an early age–and, as García Márquez himself noted when he visited Angola in the late 1970s, the African oral tradition–very important in Ondjaki’s fiction–is a  connecting tissue between coastal Colombian fiction and Angolan culture.

These aesthetic influences seem to have been complemented by the fact that most of the writers Ondjaki’s family knew had participated in the independence struggle and were members, at some level, of the governing party, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola).   Writers like Pepetela and Arnoldo Santos were seeking the essence of  angolanidade— “Angolanness.”   Where we in the Global North often see (erroneously, in my view) a contradiction between committed writing and aesthetic experimentation, I think it’s fair to say that Ondjaki grew up in a literary community where both of these strands were present, and, in many ways, they were intertwined. For me, this is particularly clear in the novel that’s just coming out in English, Transparent City.

VSE: I’m fascinated by this kinship that you feel with Ondjaki, despite coming from such very different places. What do you feel that his work brings to the literatures of the U.S. and Canada?

SH: My reaction to Good Morning Comrades when I first read it was extremely personal and possibly not transferable in precisely the same way to other readers. On the other hand, everyone has a childhood, and everyone becomes aware at some point that it has ended.  These days most people live in cities, and many readers will find some shred of their own cities in the Luanda described in Transparent City–though they’ll also find things that are utterly unexpected and unusual!  More literary types can hardly help but be fascinated by how neo-Faulknerian Modernism, having mythologized Latin America in the work of García Márquez, the early Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, etc.,  later found a home in Lusophone Africa, and that some of its aesthetic quests, adapted to African realities,  have continued in Luandino Vieira, Mia Couto and Ondjaki, among others.

Finally, reading Ondjaki helps break down North American stereotypes about Africa. In Canada–and I believe it’s similar in the U.S..–we see Africa as speaking English and French, and being racially Black.  In other words,  our “Africa”  is Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and maybe Kenya or Ethiopia, but not much else.   We overlook literatures written in Africa in Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili and other languages.  And we overlook the high degree of racial and cultural mixing in southern Africa, where Bantus, San people, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Arabian Peninsular Arabs, Lebanese, South Asians, Greeks and others have all blended their lineages.  I suspect that for many readers, reading Ondjaki is a wake-up call that Lusophone Africa–which now includes over 60 million people–even exists.  I was once at an event with Ondjaki where a very famous Black writer from the Global North refused to recognize him as African due to his mixed racial background and kept referring to him, rather aggressively,  as “Portuguese.”  The dissemination of Ondjaki’s writing, and that of other southern Africans, whatever their literary language, helps break down this sort of obtuseness.

VSE: What do you see as some of the challenges of translating Ondjaki’s prose? Is there anything particular about working on Transparent City that you can remark on?

SH: With the debatable exception of Luandino Vieira, Ondjaki is the most difficult Luso-African writer to translate. Pepetela, Mia Couto, Manuel Rui, Ana Paula Tavares, José Eduardo Agualusa and so on all grew up in colonies where the five per cent of the population that spoke Portuguese employed a standardized, literary version of the language. So even when there’s wordplay, as in Couto’s early works, it happens within familiar semantic parameters.  Ondjaki is writing a different language because he’s the first significant writer born after Angola (along with Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde) gained independence.  His literary idiom is the language of the 75% of the Angolan population that now uses Portuguese on a daily basis, but many of whose parents or grandparents did not speak Portuguese, or spoke it poorly.

Ondjaki’s own Portuguese is highly polished, of course, but the characters of Transparent City speak a portmanteau language that is often syntactically eccentric, containing vestiges of African languages, residues of socialist jargon, recycled phrasing from colonial administrative diction, riffs on Brazilian and Portuguese popular culture, and bursts of American English, Cuban Spanish and Russian, often distorted by the characters’  imperfect understanding of what these words and phrases actually mean. This conglomeration of influences is much more pronounced  in Transparent City than it was in Good Morning Comrades or Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret.

Since this is Ondjaki’s big urban novel,  and one that’s set in the near-present, the characters speak a real post-colonial Portuguese that takes on board every source of authority with which ordinary Angolans have come into contact.   In many scenes, characters with a moderate level of education are repeating, and often parodying or re-inventing,  phrasing they’ve heard from some official source.  In the original, these subversive little parodies provide the novel with a lot of its humour.  They were absolute hell to reproduce in English.  Some of my renderings came out stilted and others were too eccentric to get past my extremely attentive editors, Dan Wells and Emily Donaldson.  It took a mountain of work to devise ways to transmute this kind of fractured yet poetic urban post-colonial speech into an equivalent English, while maintaining a prose that sounded both particular to the city of Luanda, and to Angolan history,  and also came across as credible English rather than translatorese. I thought hard about how West Indians treat English in a mocking, playful, yet often elaborately formal way that resembles what Ondjaki’s characters do with Portuguese, and I worked from there. I think that by the third or fourth edit, we started to get it right.  The other challenges, such as ordinary punning, peculiarly Angolan references and bilingual Spanish-Portuguese or English-Portuguese conversations,  were relatively simple to deal with by comparison.

VSE: Where would you go next with Ondjaki, translation-wise?

SH: Right now, I’m just delighted that we’ve got a good English translation of Transparent City.  It’s a magnificent book.  In Portugal it won the Saramago Prize and ran through seven printings; the French translation won two more prizes.  This is a major work of fiction that’s been acclaimed internationally and I’m delighted to have it as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series.   Looking forward, well, Ondjaki has many books ahead of him. In  addition, I’ve been looking at his four short story collections.  There’s also an earlier novel, Quantas Madrugadas Tem a Noite (“How Many Dawns Has the Night”),  that’s untranslated.  One way or another, there will certainly be more Ondjaki appearing in English.

8 Questions for Alex Zucker on Translation Pay, Diversity, Copyright, and More

Last year, the Authors Guild conducted a survey of literary translators in order to get a better sense of the realities of the profession with regard to questions like pay, copyright, demographics, and other questions. The findings, which you can read here, are fascinating and well worth your time. This was the first survey of its kind, and I hope that it becomes a regular thing so that we can get better and better information about how the profession of literary translation looks in America.

I recently interviewed Alex Zucker to find out more about what the survey discovered, as well as to get deeper information on what these findings mean and what they may tell us about the future of translation in the United States. We cover a number of important subjects, including pay rates, diversity in the field, and what “fair” treatment is when considering a variety of factors that go into each individual translation.

I hope that this survey and discussion of it spurs more and more involvement on the part of professionals in the field in these questions. Although literary translation is a great field to work in, there is lots of room for improvement, and the survey certainly shows us a lot of places where we need conversations and changes to be made.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Could you tell us a little about the survey of translators that you conducted and why you did it?

Alex Zucker: To start, I want to make sure that readers understand what this survey was about. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of support for the profession of literary translation in the US. There’s far more attention paid to the art or craft, with little consideration given to how to earn a livelihood. The subject of pay is rarely discussed in concrete terms, and none of the existing organizations in this country that have the word translator or translation in their name protect the rights and advocate for the interests of professional literary translators the way the Translators Association within the Society of Authors does in the UK.

During my term as cochair of PEN America’s Translation Committee, I was privy to a lot of information about working conditions that wouldn’t have reached me otherwise. Among the literary translators I met, there was a general feeling that, in spite of the publishing buzz about translations and the seemingly higher profile of both translations and translators themselves among the public at large, professional literary translators—that is, those who depend on literary translation income for their livelihood—weren’t necessarily seeing any economic benefits from this heightened attention. But no one had data. All the information was purely anecdotal. How then to verify whether conditions for literary translators were getting worse or better?

In the US, the organization analogous to the UK’s Society of Authors is the Authors Guild. In 2014, I needed a contract reviewed for a volume I was editing (not a translation), and a friend who works in publishing suggested I join the Authors Guild, since they provide contract vetting to members free of charge. The advice I received from the Guild’s staff attorney was totally worth the cost of membership. One thing led to another and I began talking with AG staff about developing a model contract for literary translation, analogous to their model contract for authors, as well as about incorporating translators’ concerns into their long-existing advocacy on behalf of professional writers. The idea for the survey, then, was to establish a baseline of data on the issues that affect the ability of literary translators in the US to earn a living. These results could then be used as the starting point for the Guild’s advocacy.

Anyone interested in the survey’s methodology can read more about it on the AG website. Readers should know that the findings you and I discuss here come from the summary, and pertain only to translators of prose.

VSE: What poll results surprised you the most?

AZ: On the positive side, I didn’t expect to see such a high percentage of respondents (47 percent) say their contracts always or usually stipulate royalties—let alone 47 percent saying they had actually received royalty payments. (By the way, the fact that these percentages are the same is sheer coincidence.) This finding is very important, because it refutes the belief that a royalty clause is a purely symbolic gesture. It’s also worth noting that by far the main reason respondents gave for their contracts not providing royalties was that publishers refused.

On the negative side, 41 percent of respondents reported having signed contracts that made payment of their fee contingent on the publisher receiving a grant for the translation. I knew this was going on, but until we did the survey, there was no way to know how widespread the practice was. That’s a high percentage of translators committing to months of difficult work with no guarantee of being paid. I find it disturbing.

VSE: Two-thirds of the translators polled said they always or usually retained copyright to their work. Do you think there’s been a movement toward more translators retaining copyright? And how does this bode for literary translation as a practice?


AZ: Honestly, I don’t think we can talk about a movement, either toward or away, since we don’t have any data from the past to compare to today. This was the main reason I asked the Authors Guild if they would be willing to do a survey of working conditions for literary translators in the US—not just on copyright, but on all the issues that affect literary translation, not as a practice but as a profession. It’s interesting to see where things stand at the moment, but more important from an advocacy perspective is to know which conditions are getting better, which ones are getting worse, and which ones are more or less the same.

That said, even if we don’t have data, we do have some anecdotal evidence we can look to. In 1970, on the occasion of a conference in New York City titled The World of Translation, the Translation Committee of the P.E.N. American Center (now PEN America), under chair Robert Payne, published a Resolution along with a Manifesto on Translation, calling for translations to be copyrighted in the translator’s name. Together, these documents spelled out the tenets of what, in 1981, became the Translation Committee’s first model contract, which exists to this day (you can still find the first one online using the Wayback Machine). To me the fact that we’re still even talking about this issue—nearly 50 years after that conference—suggests that if there is a movement for translators to retain copyright, it’s progressing at a glacial pace.

There should be no question at this point: The copyright to a translation, by law, rests with the translator. Yet 17 percent of the respondents to the Authors Guild survey said they usually did not own the copyright to their work. One in five? That’s far too high. Among those translators who reported that they didn’t always retain copyright, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said the reason was that the publisher had refused—in other words, not because the translator didn’t know any better or because they chose to give up copyright for something in return (such as a higher fee). So clearly this is an area where we still need advocacy.

VSE: 83 percent of the survey participants self-identified as “white.” While the survey population isn’t an exact cross-section of translation, this figure does accord with my own experiences of the field, which I see as having very low diversity. What do you think about diversity in the literary translation field? How can we encourage more diversity?

AZ: Pay more: Jobs requiring high education yet offering low pay are filled mainly by people who have enough wealth or other means of support that income is unimportant. In this country, that’s primarily white people. We see this in the US publishing industry as a whole (I recommend this discussion at PEN America, with a long list of suggested reading and organizations at the end, and Lee & Low’s excellent Diversity Baseline Survey). It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented across all the arts, in fact.

So I’d say pay is the main factor. But not the only one. If the goal is to have more people of color working as literary translators, there are two questions to look at: 1) How does someone decide to become a literary translator? and 2) What kind of support do they get once they’ve become one? (I also feel a need to say that whatever suggestions I make here are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. The question of how to challenge white supremacy in our society is one that everyone needs to answer for themselves, based on who they are and which institutions and communities they’re a part of.)

On 1), people involved in the education and/or training of literary translators need to understand how their personal practices, as well as the structures and policies of the institutions they’re part of, attract people who are white as opposed to people of color, and reproduce and reinforce norms and standards of whiteness. This includes looking at who’s hired and promoted; how much they’re paid; and who holds power and makes decisions.

One other factor in 1), which also leads into 2), is jobs: because role models (and mentors and contacts) matter. When it comes to making US publishing as a whole more inclusive, black writers and editors have made it clear that from their point of view the solution is straightforward: Presses need to hire more black editors and publish more books by black writers. It’s not as if the books don’t sell; the presses will make their money. Now extend this maxim to all people of color. And apply it to translators. In other words, it’s important for people of color who are considering going into literary translation to see editors who aren’t white, editing books written by authors who aren’t white, translated by translators who aren’t white. This not only reinforces the idea that literary translation isn’t just for white people, but it also means people of color who choose to take this path will have people who understand their experience to turn to for support along the way, just as people who are white already do. The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey mentions all these things.

Which takes us to 2): Again, people involved in organizations whose mission includes supporting literary translators, and especially the people who lead or run them, need to be thinking about how what they and their organizations do reinforces whiteness and how they can change that. I would ask questions similar to the ones for people involved in teaching or training: Who leads? Who speaks? Who gets paid? Who makes the decisions? (Mentorships and fellowships for translators of color seem like a good way to start, and there are a few already.)

A final point that I’d really like to emphasize: This isn’t simply a matter of personal intentions, and it isn’t just about people who are white inviting people of color to join them. If my group or organization has no people of color in leadership positions and no people of color making decisions, then going out of my way to “invite” or “welcome” or “encourage” people of color to take part isn’t enough. To illustrate what’s wrong with this, some people use the phrase “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I would go a step further: People of color need to get to plan the party too. As a white person, I have to be willing to give up power. I can’t just say, “Let’s have a party together. We’ll have it at my house. I’ll do the decorations, choose the music, cook the food, and draw up the guest list. You just show up. You can bring any friends you want!” No. I need to be able to say, “What kind of party do you want to throw? How can I help make that happen?”

VSE: The two largest segments in the poll reported as being paid either $0.00–$0.07 per word or $0.14 or $0.15 per word. 7 cents per word would definitely quality as poor pay for literary translation; while 15 cents per word is much more in line with decent pay standards in the field, many would consider this low and not a living wage. For reference, Daniel Hahn, a very sought-after and well-regarded translator, disclosed on his website that he is paid roughly 19 cents per word on average. Is there a need for translators to know pay scales in the field and request higher rates?

AZ: Yes, absolutely. Again, the survey was conducted by the Authors Guild, a professional organization, so I approach this from a professional standpoint. When people are considering a profession, isn’t finding out what it pays one of the first things they do, normally? Every translator is responsible for educating themselves, on all the issues we’re talking about. Because unless you have an agent (and very few literary translators do), you’re negotiating your contracts yourself. At the same time, that’s why it’s important for translators to talk with one another about how much they earn.

Whether or not a given rate constitutes a living wage depends of course on what your living expenses are. The American Translators Association offers a handy tool called the Translator Earnings Calculator to help translators determine how much they should charge. It’s up to each person to decide for themselves. Where this can be a problem is when you have a professional translator (that is, someone who depends on translating for income) losing a job to a translator who is not (i.e., who doesn’t depend on translating for income), because the non-professional translator is willing to work for less. So, actually, by being familiar with going rates, you can help protect the livelihoods of professional translators even if you yourself are not a professional.

In my experience, it’s easier to ask for a higher rate if you consider yourself a professional. Hahn lives in the UK, where the professionalization of literary translation is more advanced than it is in the US. One reason for this is the longer history there of literary translators belonging to a professional organization (the Society of Authors) that protects their rights and advocates for their interests as professionals. The only organization in this country that offers equivalent services—in particular, contract vetting—is the Authors Guild. That’s why I urge every literary translator who considers themselves professional to join the Guild, which has long been open to translators, though for reasons that are unclear to me, relatively few have joined.

VSE: While we are discussing pay, we should also talk about royalties. I was pleasantly surprised to see that 1/3 of respondents reported receiving “more than $1,000” in royalties, although many translators still receive tiny royalties, if any. What do you think is a fair royalty rate that translators should aim for?

AZ: I would hope everyone reading this interview accepts the principle that translators have the right to share in a book’s profits. (For anyone who needs convincing, see this post from Lisa Carter’s excellent blog at Intralingo.) All the more so if they help to publicize the book, as so many translators do nowadays; but even if they don’t. Whether or not to exercise their right to royalties, and if so, what rate to ask for, are things every translator has to decide for themselves when negotiating their contract. Depending on the book, I may prefer to take a higher fee and a lower royalty rate, or the other way around. So, what’s fair? It depends.

Since I realize that’s not a satisfying answer, what I can add is that it’s common nowadays for translators to negotiate a royalty rate of 1 or 2% of retail price on printed books and 5% on e-books. We see this, at least for printed books, in the responses to the Authors Guild survey (the survey didn’t ask specifically about e-books; that question will have to be added next time). Note that that’s a basic rate. Some translators negotiate escalators in their royalty rate as sales of the book increase (for how that works, see this article on author royalties).

Another important detail to take into account is that it is standard for the translator’s royalty payments to begin only after the book has earned out its advance—in other words, once the publisher has earned back what they paid for the translation. This is why negotiating royalties in your contract doesn’t necessarily mean that you will receive royalty payments. (A few presses pay royalties from the first book sold, but the practice isn’t common.) The actual dollar amount will of course depend on the sales of the book.

One thing that can make it tricky for translators is that often the author signs their contract with the publisher before the translator does. A standard author royalty nowadays is 10%. So if the translator asks for 2% and the author has already signed a contract giving them 10%, the publisher may tell the translator that their royalty has to be subtracted from the author’s—i.e., 8% for the author, 2% for the translator. This may or may not be agreeable to the author and their agent, and therefore may require further negotiation. (Again, I strongly recommend this primer on royalties and literary translation by Lisa Carter at Intralingo.)

VSE: The report also noted that translators’ payments were often dependent on publishers receiving grants. Before we proceed, I should note a couple of things: obviously translators should always be paid for their work, although many of the presses doing the work here are very small publishers with barely enough resources to bring the book to market. Also, in very many cases translators receive more money than the author of the book, who generally receives a modest sum to license the work and some small royalties on sales. Considering all of these things, what’s fair when a press truly lacks the ability to pay a translator very much?

AZ: I appreciate what you’re saying. There are different niches within the publishing industry. I would be curious to see if there’s a sort of natural selection going on, with certain presses, because of their lack of money, working mainly with translators who aren’t professional—by which I don’t mean that the translators lack professional standards, but simply that they don’t depend on translating for their livelihood.

To me the principle is the important thing here: If a book is being sold for money, in the market economy, and everyone involved in its production is being paid except the translator, that isn’t fair. If the book is produced within a gift economy, and everyone involved in it is donating their labor, that’s a different story. The problem is when a press tells a translator, “I’m sorry we can’t pay you because we have to pay the printer”—the implication being that the printer’s labor has value but the translator’s does not.

There’s a difference between not paying much and not paying at all. There are small presses that are nonprofit and operate on a funding model that factors in fair fees for translators, so we know that it’s possible. Even a cash-strapped publisher can find creative ways to show goodwill.

I don’t think it’s correct to compare the fee an author is paid for the rights to publish their book in translation with the fee a translator is paid to translate the author’s book, for several reasons. First, the author presumably has already been paid for their work, when they published it in their native language. Second, the author has already expended the labor to produce the book, so they’re being paid to license the rights, whereas the translator is being paid for their labor. Third, in a typical contract, the author’s royalty, at 8%, is four times higher than the translator’s, at 2%, so the author’s earning potential from sales is higher than the translator’s. Fourth, an author can sell, and be paid for, translation rights more than once—for every language their book is translated into, the author receives a fee, whereas the translator is paid for their translation only once. Fifth, the author has potential for further income from the sale of subsidiary rights (such as film or stage adaptions), since even if an adaptation is based on the translation, the author has to be paid for the rights to the underlying work, whereas the translator, depending on their contract, may or may not receive any payment for the subsidiary rights; it isn’t a given.

This is not to say that the author will actually earn all that income, but these differences in potential earnings put them in a different position from the translator. This is the principle that underlies the author’s receiving a smaller payment for the rights to translate their work than the translator receives for translating it. Many translators and translator advocates uphold the literary translator’s art as on a par with the author’s in terms of creativity and skill. Rightfully so. Economically, however, our status is not the same.

VSE: What do you hope is the impact of this survey? Five years from now, what changes would you hope to see in the translation field?

AZ: The first thing I’d hope for is a higher level of awareness about the issues for professional literary translators in the United States. To some degree, we’ve already achieved that, just by conducting the survey and publicizing the results. I’d also like more literary translators to understand the issues, so they feel empowered to negotiate their contracts and ask questions of publishers, rather than feeling they have no choice except to sign or walk away.

I’ve mentioned already that the main reason for doing the survey was to establish benchmarks on the issues that are most critical to the viability of literary translation as a profession. We actually collected much more information than we’ve been able to analyze and publish so far: For instance, there are disaggregations I’d like to do that could reveal important differences in how translators are paid depending on what language they translate, or whether there are certain languages where it’s more likely that the translator’s payment is contingent on the publisher receiving a grant. We usually talk about fees as if there were only one translation market, but in reality, every language is a minimarket of its own. (I translate from Czech. If I turn down a book because the fee is too low, it’s not as if the publisher can offer it to somebody who translates from Korean.) In some languages, there are more translators, and the greater supply of translators may result in rates being driven down.

Also, though the information we got is revealing, it’s just a snapshot in time. The really interesting data will come five years from now, and five years after that, as we continue to run the survey and get some points of comparison.

So, what I’d like to see in five years? In general, a higher level of knowledge about contracts, among translators and publishers alike. Specifically, more translators signing contracts with royalties, fewer translators signing contracts with payment contingent on the publisher receiving a grant, and higher pay for translators. We didn’t include this in our initial findings from the survey, but when asked, “If you could at least match your present total income by translating literature full-time, would you drop your other paid work?” nearly two-thirds of respondents answered “Yes” or “Possibly.” If more of us can earn a living doing what we do best, I think it can only be to the benefit of our work.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 51


What Is a Translator?

What Is a Translator?

Are translators, to borrow a phrase from Paulo Rónai, “modest intermediaries in the relay of someone else’s messages,” or are they, as is increasingly averred, co-authors? Perhaps the encomium Paul Auster has bestowed on translators gets straight to the point: they are “shadow heroes,” a designation which assumes they are destined to see the fruits of their labor overlooked. Perhaps our confusion over what a translator is stems from our collective confusion about what it is a translator does.

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan

I ring in the New Year with a rare feeling: relief. At the end of December I finally receive some long-awaited paychecks and finish off 2017 with money in the bank. I feel like I’m in a good place. I can pay my bills, I can buy a decent bottle of champagne for my friend’s New Year’s party, my fiancé, Tom, has a friend in town and we can go out to dinner with him without tearing our hair out. This lasts about two days.

Who is Junichiro Tanizaki?

Who is Junichiro Tanizaki?

Asking who Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is may seem a little bizarre, especially to those with any kind of interest in Japanese literature. Nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and even shortlisted the year before his death, Tanizaki is one of the more prominent figures in modern Japanese literature, and he is also well-known for his other endeavors, such as his translation of The Tale of Genji from old Japanese into the modern language. But on a more personal level, the question is not quite as strange as it might initially appear. Readers often develop an image of a writer while working through their books, and many of the top Japanese authors seem easily classifiable, from the eccentric Kōbō Abe to the calm, traditionalist aesthete Yasunari Kawabata, the political protests of Kenzaburō Ōe, and, more vivid than most, Yukio Mishima’s unique blend of homoerotic and right-wing tendencies. But who exactly is Tanizaki?

Look East to Find the West

Look East to Find the West

We are lucky to have translations of the French novelist Mathias Énard, whose career suggests the exploratory, variegated template of Faulkner. A translator from Persian, Arabic, and Spanish, Énard has written nine novels in an assortment of styles and on an assortment of subjects. As Faulkner nearly always located his fiction in Mississippi, Énard has focused on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, what he calls in his eponymous novel, the “Zone.” And as the themes of slavery, black-white relations, history, Reconstruction, and the South run through Faulkner’s novels, Énard has his touchstones of music, violence, East-West relations, and literature, all of which appear in his most recent book to be translated by Charlotte Mandell into English, the 2015 Prix Goncourt winner, Compass.

A Memoir By a Writer Who Doesn’t Want One

A Memoir By a Writer Who Doesn’t Want One

Richard Ford, as decorated an American writer as currently exists, has thus far avoided mining his own life for material. But now he has written a memoir. To be sure, it is strange, almost an anti-memoir. The book consists of two halves, a recently written remembrance of his father and a remembrance of his mother, written shortly after her death in the early 1980s. The conceit of the book is that his parents are essentially unknowable and that they had a rich and fulfilling life before he arrived on the scene—that he came “between them.” His view is of the only child who sees the margin where his life ends and theirs continues on without him. The result is a memoir that is empathetic to his parents’ sovereignty as adults.


The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

The Danish transgender performance artist, has, over the course of her career, presented, masqueraded, invented, and re-invented herself many times, even having her birth-identified self, Claus Beck-Nielsen, declared dead along the way. (He was ultimately revived when the lack of any identity altogether proved too difficult to sustain.) The multi-faceted Madame Nielsen is a novelist, poet, artist, performer, stage director, composer, and singer. With The Endless Summer, newly released from Open Letter Books in a translation by Gaye Kynoch, Nielsen weaves a tale that sidesteps the common expectations of narrative progress and character development. Rather, an odd cast of characters is choreographed through a shifting, dreamlike landscape openly reminiscent of David Lynch, complete with digressions into side stories, tales from the past, and glances into the future.

North Station by Bae Suah

North Station by Bae Suah

Bae Suah seems to know that writing is a kind of time travel, and in each of these stories, brought deftly into English by Deborah Smith, the caroming and hyperlinking movements that characterize this traveling raise such questions as: what does it demand of me when I reach out to you? Where does my memory of you end and your reality begin? Why do I remember only that which I remember? And, as I write all of this, do I move any closer toward the answers?

Fragile Travellers by Jovanka Živanović

Fragile Travellers by Jovanka Živanović

Jovanka Živanović’s Fragile Travellers reads primarily as a metaphysical straddling of the spiritual and corporeal worlds, yet also manages to address practical, everyday concerns. Ema is a high school art teacher. In her mid-thirties, she lives with her lover, Žarko, an intellectually stunted lawyer. The term “lover,” of course, being misleading. The two rarely engage in any love-related activities. Ema is a timid character, trying to get through life unnoticed by others. On the other hand, Petar is a handsome, respectable pillar of the community. He has been married to his wife, Anđelija, for many years. Although unattractive and overly practical, Anđelija provides a stable and comfortable marriage that Petar has never questioned.

7 Questions for Christina MacSweeney on Julian Herbert

Although Mexican author Julián Herbert is well into his forties, has won numerous awards, and has written well over a dozen books in various formats, he is only now making his long overdue debut in English with his 2011 “novel” Tomb Song, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation.

I give the word novel those scare quotes because, in Herbert’s hands, the novel transcends its usual confines of fiction to embrace forms like memoir and essay. He is a writer about whom nothing should be taken for granted, an inveterate and playful line-crosser who has crafted his own unique and variable style. I reached out to Christina, a colleague and friend, to learn more about Herbert and this book with which he is entering the Anglo literary sphere.

Christina’s name should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Spanish literature over the past half-dozen years. She has translated multiple works by Valeria Luiselli, as well as the recently released novel Empty Set by the lauded Mexican author Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and the excellent Among Strange Victims by the very talented Daniel Saldaña París, among many others.

Scott Esposito: This is the English-language debut for Herbert. Who is he, and why is he worthy of translation?

Christina MacSweeney: “Who is Julián Herbert?” sounds like it could be a title for one of his novels. He’s a Mexican poet, novelist, essayist, musician (he is indeed the lead singer for a band called Las Madrastras), he lectures, leads workshops in cultural programs… It would probably be easier to list the things he doesn’t do. He was born into poverty in Acapulco in 1971, and much of his early life was spent travelling around Mexico with his mother, who supported her family by the only relatively steady work open to her: prostitution. But she also seems to have inculcated her son with an intense love of literature, and a very edgy way of looking at life. He is worthy of translation because, in my view, he brings a very different perspective to Mexican writing, one that is both deeply inclusive, deeply generous, but also intensely disrespectful of accepted perceptions of his country, and of what literature and music are. But if that might simply sound anarchic, he is also a very disciplined writer whose work delves into the concept of the self and existence in a truly philosophical way.

SE: Herbert is known for blending genres in his writing, and the publicity materials for Tomb Song describe it as “break[ing] open the genres of fiction, essay, and memoir.” What genre would you describe this book as fitting into, and what was your experience of it like?

CM: The only way I can answer that question is to say that I wouldn’t even start to try to categorize Tomb Song: it would be an exercise doomed to failure. As a reader, you walk a slippery high wire above a chasm of constantly shifting scenes, unfixed realities. I loved that aspect of the work when I first read it, and also the absolute authenticity of the writing, the generosity with which Julián invites you to touch the raw nerves of his life, and then the mischievousness with which he then pulls down his sleeve and tells you none of that was true. Or maybe it was. I adored that sense of never being completely certain where the next sentence would take me. And the musicality that underlines the whole book, the beauty of the writing often dealing with very ugly situations, the disrespect for convention: these were all enormous draws for me.

SE: Toward the beginning of Tomb Song, Herbert remarks “in the majority of cases, a postmodern novel is nothing more than a costumbrismo cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic rhetoric a la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.” First of all, could you give us some idea of what a costumbrismo is. And secondly, this kind of writing that Herbert is railing against here, how does this assertion work itself out in Tomb Song?

CM: Wow, that is a question and a half, Scott. But I do love that sentence, and it gave me a great deal to think about on my first and subsequent readings of Tomb Song. Ummm. To start with, costumbrismo began as a style of painting in 19th century Spain. In terms of literature it could be described as realist, there is usually an omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening and what the characters are thinking, and it emphasizes the description of everyday life and customs. But it also has a moral element that I think favors a notion of social cohesion. In this sense, it is perhaps rather flat, two-dimensional, as readers we are offered a full-face view of the characters and their environment, with little attempt at perspective. A 20th century example of costumbrismo that I think exceeds some of the traditional boundaries of the genre is Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). So my understanding of Julián’s rant is that “the postmodern novel” is at times only laying a cloak (or any other item of clothing you might mention) of intellectualism and form over what ends by being descriptive: a description of postmodernity and its mores. So I think he is saying that there is at times no true search for identity or self-perception involved, or any real questioning of values, of modes of thought (philosophical, political), or apparent reality, none of the transformative impulse of modernity or any real “spleen”, no “ideal”. But it would be really interesting to know how your readers feel about my analysis, Scott, because I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about it.

SE: True, it’s a very open quote in terms of just how one can read it (and congrats to you on a beautiful translation of it). I think among other things Herbert is voicing a little frustration with how postmodernism can become a bit of a pose, particularly where he references Kenneth Goldsmith—whatever you think of Goldsmith’s work, he really does trade very heavily on the idea of postmodernism, as well as the kind of identity of a “postmodern writer.” Herbert by contrast seems much more down to earth, the kind of person who doesn’t want to say in 1,000 words what he could just as well say in a dozen. And I think that comes through in the plain-spoken tone of this book, despite dealing with some rather life-or-death issues, including the death of the narrator’s mother. What would you say is the status of postmodernism in Mexico right now?

CM: I think I’m a bit of a postmodernism agnostic. Rather than an actual phenomenon, it feels to me like a kind of way station from which the stagecoach has already pulled out: destination still uncertain. In Mexico there are other authors and artists who, like Julián, are exploding genre boundaries. One example that immediately comes to my mind is Verónica Gerber Bicecci, who describes herself as an artist who writes and uses imagery in her work as a form of bridging the chasms language often leaves in communication. Another boundary that is being eroded in Mexico is the marginalization of women in the creative world; some of the most exciting writing coming out of the country now is written by woman, and is finally being reviewed seriously instead of being thought of as a “nice hobby for the little woman.” And there are campaigns to address issues of sexual harassment and femininicide that precede MeToo by many years.

As to what Tomb Song can offer the U.S. at this moment, I’d say it could act as an antidote to the lack of authenticity in much public discourse: it’s certainly a lesson in not believing everything you hear/read! And the directness of the writing shatters any idea of euphemism to avoid talking about what really matters.

But there, I already feel pretentious talking about postmodernism, so I’ll stop before making a complete fool of myself.

SE: This is fascinating. Could you tell us a little about a point in the book when you began to feel that you couldn’t trust everything you were reading?

CM: I think that even the opening of the book casts some doubt on the trustworthiness of the content: the narrator/character/author tells us that he had difficulty in believing in the “roundness” of the world when he was nine. And that whole passage seemed to me, or seems to me, to be an invitation to speculate on the nature of the world we inhabit, on truth. In the paragraph that follows, he blames his mother for that inability to accept the explanation given in his textbook, says they lived in a “wickerwork polygon” of railroad tracks, and only then does he tell us that she is in hospital, dying of leukemia. All that, I think, is what Julián calls “technique,” and technique is a form of artifice.

SE: Herbert sounds like a very interesting author, and one that will appeal to a lot of readers of this website. I’m curious if you could tell us what other sorts of books Herbert has in his backlist, and which ones you’d particularly like to see in English translation one day.

CM: Julián has a long backlist that moves through different styles. My favorites among those I have managed to get my hands on are the short stories in Cocaina: Manual de usario (Cocaine: A User’s Guide); Ros Harvey translated an extract for Granta (available online), but otherwise it has not yet been published in English. I’d also recommend Álbum Iscariote (The Iscariot Album), which mixes poetry, poetic prose and images, and explores the situation of, among other things, no longer being a young poet. A treasure that I found on my last trip to Mexico is the small volume of poems Bisel (“Smell of ice in the lightning flash/of vodka on your breath.”), published by the Wonderful Guadalajara house, Impronta.

At the moment I’m working on the edit of The House of the Pain of Others for Graywolf. This is a crónica of the mass killing of the members of the Chinese community in the northern Mexican city of Torreón at the outbreak of the revolution in 1911. It has spine-chilling similarities to the xenophobia that seems to be stalking large parts of the world a hundred years later, and I think is a book everyone should read and reflect on. And last year Julián published another collection of short stories with the brilliant title of Tráiganme la cabeza de Quentin Tarantino (Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino), which brings together stunning pastiches of the work of some of his influences. I’m particularly love the story called “Caries”, which is a homage to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (as I translated that novel into English, translating the story will to some extent a “translator translate thyself” experience!).

SE: Your answer here highlights the fact that you’ve worked with a lot of the more interesting writers to emerge from the Spanish language in the past few years. I think of you as working with a lot of very voice-driven books, books where the narrative voice is very important, and which are largely structured around these peculiar narrators.

CM: Yes, it’s been amazing to work with these authors. But I’m not so sure that I would describe their work as “voice-driven.” For me it would be truer to say that they don’t write plot-bound works; plot, to the extent that it exists in these books, is a sort of framework for supporting ideas, for exploring the very notion of voice, of subjectivity. And that is something that greatly attracts me. What I’m interested in right now is seeing how all this will develop and diffuse into more mainstream literature (because I’m sure it will): I’m interested in what the authors I’ve worked with—and those I haven’t, but admire—will do next, where they will go from here. And all this has implications for translation, for our practices as translators, the type of involvement we have with authors when writing their works in another language. Which in turn will, hopefully, feed back into the literary system and spark its own developments there. Translation has, historically, been a carrier of ideas, of change, but that process was somehow cloaked within the emphasis on “originality” that came along with modernism. I’m meandering a bit here, but what I’m trying to say is that the works I want to see down the line will take these trends and run with them… do exciting things that change our experiences as readers.

I Made The New York Times!

I wanted to share the good news that I have a book review in today’s issue of The New York Times Book Review. It’s of The Endless Summer by the Danish trans author Madame Nielsen—so it’s a work in translation, by a queer, female-identifying author. I don’t think there will be too many more authors that fit that profile in the Times this year.

This is my first ever writing for the Times, and, well, it’s interesting how people look at you differently when you tell them you write for The New York Times. Even with all the changes in book reviewing and literary culture in the past decade or so, this venue is still a huge cultural signifier, and virtually the only place that could grant a writer that kind of universal acknowledgement.

Some other things to share: I’ve got some interviews in the works for Conversational Reading. One of them is with all-star translator Christina MacSweeney, where we’ll be talking her latest translation, Tomb Song by Mexican author Julian Herbert.

I also have an essay upcoming in the first issue of the new journal Egress, from Little Island Press. Little Island is a rather interesting new press, as it launched last year with a title from Gordon Lish, and it has a fascinating (and award-nominated) catalog. David Winters, who is a very smart critic and a long-time friend, is the editor of Egress, and I think it will be quite good.

I’ve already shared the first half of this essay with my Patrons, and I’ll be sharing the whole thing once the issue publishes. If you want to get the essay, you only need to donate $3 per month, and that entitles you to tons of other great downloads, including copies of The Missing Books and other ebooks of mine.

Further down the line: I’ll be embarking on a long-overdue redesign of The Quarterly Conversation this year. (More on that down the line.)

And lastly, I did my first event of 2018, up in Sausalito (that’s in Marin County, a little northwest of Oakland, CA; just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco). It was a reading of The Doubles with the literary reading series Why There Are Words. Here’s a pic of me at the reading with my partner.

Winter Fundraising!

It’s winter, which means it’s one of the two times of year I traditionally ask you to pony up a little cash to support my work. Below, you’ll find a few reasons why you might want to support me, but if you don’t need any persuading and just want to go for it, here are the easiest ways to help:

Subscribe to me at Patreon — you get cool early peeks and exclusives, plus free copies of my ebooks (and a even print title, if you wanna go there . . .)

Paypal me — this is basically a one-time donation, or you can make it recurring, if you want to go that way and don’t feel like using Patreon for recurring donations (although then you’d miss out on all the cool free stuff that you get for subscribing at Patreon).

Buy stuff through my Amazon links — I know, Amazon is pretty widely despised (and if you’re shopping for books, why not go to your local indie and have them special order it? they can usually get it in 1 or 2 working days), but if you’re going to shop there anyway, maybe do it through my links, so you can ruin Jeff Bezos’s profit margin and help me out a bit?

Other stuff — If you’re unable to make a money transaction, I’d still love to have you support things in other ways. I encourage you to try writing for The Quarterly Conversation (email me at editor AT quarterlyconversation DOT com), or to interact with my social media on Twitter, Facebook, or the Gram. Or find some other creative way to be a cool person.

So anyway, why do I feel entitled to a little bit of your money?

I’ve done nearly 20 translator interviews this year, which includes championing the work of a lot of female international authors, not to mention making translators more visible and giving them a chance to shine.

I’ve edited another four issues of The Quarterly Conversation, which covers a ton of great literature that’s ignored elsewhere and that lets me mentor and help build up emerging critics.

I’ve done some cool lists, like this small/indie press gift guide, or this one of 28 female authors to read for Women in Translation Month (or the other 12 months).

Yet another year of my “interesting new books” list, championing (say it with me), lots of small press, marginal, etc, writers that tend to get ignored elsewhere.

And last of all, all year long I’ve been writing a column at Lit Hub—I’m up to #20, which represents nearly a book’s worth of writing. Over there I’ve championed a ton of small press and otherwise not-terribly-capitalist-economy-friendly authors. And maybe I’ve even personally inspired you, like with this piece on Clarice Lispector, this one on Bolaño, this one on my gender identity, or this one on indie bookstores.

Thank you to everyone who chooses to donate or who has already done so this year. It really does mean a lot, and in a practical sense it makes it much, much easier to make the things happen that you want to see me do.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 50


Bakkhai by Euripides and Anne Carson

Bakkhai by Euripides and Anne Carson

The Bakkhai continues to be one of Euripides’s (c. 484-406 b.c.e.) most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even though it was never performed in its author’s lifetime. The ancient Greek playwright and Athenian wrote The Bakkhai in the last few years of his life in Macedonia, where he had fled after becoming disillusioned with his native city-state. The play was found among his papers after his death and produced posthumously by either his nephew or his son at the Dionysia, the festival held annually for the eponymous god in Athens. The drama presents the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult in that city and exact a brutal punishment on his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god. Anne Carson’s unconventional new translation of The Bakkhai is a fitting interpretation of what is arguably Euripides’s most enigmatic tragedy.

The Novels of Jenny Erpenbeck

The Novels of Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck’s three recent novels are about displaced people, their lives swept here and there by mandates of poverty, anti-Semitism, war, and political crusade. Visitation and The End of Days trace the same swath of German history, stretching in both cases from about 1910 to 2000. Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, is also about the precarious lives of outcasts in Germany. They are refugees from Africa, forced out of Libya in 2011 and grouped in a shelter in Berlin three years later. Their lives are as thin and as ruled by seemingly senseless laws as that of the Jews who fled and hid in her earlier novels. The huge difference between this new book and the novels that came before is that the luminous passing of lifetimes has been condensed to a few months in the present day. The fairy flickering that moved her characters through decades has settled down into a gray, newspapery light. Go, Went, Gone is less a transformation of material than a shaping of it, and its luster is low. It pushes us to think about the uses of art, and what kinds of projects the politically committed can pull off in this current moment of explicit racism and unchecked power.

From Johannesburg 2004 to New York 2017: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

From Johannesburg 2004 to New York 2017: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

Whether The Exploded View is a novel in four parts or a collection of four longish stories is a question akin to whether South Africa is a nation of peoples or a collection of nations. The four parts of The Exploded View are indeed linked, through setting and theme, but it doesn’t have the marked through-line of the short story cycles that so often come out of MFA programs here in the U.S. For one thing, the links between stories are underplayed, their fragmentation being essential to the structure as well as the governing visual and epistemological theme. Vladislavić’s reluctance to give a whole and holistic image of post-apartheid South African society has earned him some critics. As the idiom has it, “when Johannesburg catches a cold, South Africa sneezes.” So a representation of the fractured, divided city, with little cause for optimism about those divisions being overcome, has been sometimes read as a sign of Afro-pessimism and willful naysaying of the entire national project. Now, in 2017, not only do these critiques seem quaint and outdated, stemming as they do from a moment of unfounded optimism when the “Rainbow Nation” and the “African Renaissance” seemed plausible projects, but The Exploded View also seems more globally relevant than ever. The world is sneezing, and while Johannesburg’s cold is not the cause, it is certainly one of the clearest presentations of the symptoms.

The Iliac Crest and Its Female Imposters

The Iliac Crest and Its Female Imposters

Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is a novel riddled with holes, disappearances that have the effect of warping and obscuring the world its reader inhabits. If this book were to have a single guiding principle, it might be these words: “Disappearance is contagious. Everyone knows this.” The narrator’s confidence in this fact is a bit alarming, and may come as news to the reader. Is disappearance a physical illness and this book some kind of existential science fiction treatise? Well, yes and no. It’s hard to assert definitively just what this book is, although what is clear is that, in Rivera Garza’s world, disappearances are not unconnected—they propagate through a chain reaction, through physical contact, as the narrator goes on to explain almost scientifically, as if we were dealing with an outbreak of the flu.

Thoreau’s Questions

Thoreau’s Questions

Henry David Thoreau didn’t like questions, or so he sometimes said.“ The wise answer no questions,—nor do they ask them,” he wrote in his Journal in 1841. In 1850 he wrote, “I do not love to entertain doubts and questions.” Yet questions were at the heart of Thoreau’s lifelong journey of self-exploration. His Journal itself, the mine from which nearly all his literary work was quarried, began with a question, thought to be posed to the freshly minted Harvard graduate by his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. “’What do you do now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry today.”

The French Invasion

The French Invasion

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought. To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences. Let us consider what happened during this watershed autumn.


“The Book Upside Down”: A Conversation on Ricardo Piglia

“The Book Upside Down”: A Conversation on Ricardo Piglia

Piglia used to say that everything he wrote—his novels, his short stories, his essays—were a mere excuse in order to one day publish his diaries. So, by the time he finally sat down to transcribe them, they had become mythical. The impressive thing is that they didn’t disappoint at all. On the contrary, they remain perhaps the clearest expression of his conceptual poetic. A shinning exploration of what it could mean both to devote a life to literature, as well as read a life as literature. They provide a wonderful final touch to his life’s work and, despite their absolute singularity, I think they should be read in tradition of the best diary writers, authors that Piglia admired, like Pavese, Kafka, and Gombrowicz.

The Cristina Rivera Garza Interview

The Cristina Rivera Garza Interview

I am prone to write in between genres (remember that, in Spanish, género translates as both gender and genre). I am always interested in what happens there, in that middle ground or limbo. My suspicion is that relevant, interesting operations are met, and at times resolved, in those spaces. It’s a lucha libre of sorts, where the tools usually associated with one genre (verse to poetry, for example, of paragraph to prose) are subverted and diverted. Most contemporary works I read tread on those turbulent waters called cross-genre. The adjective I have used to describe these works is colindante, a term that describes what is both contiguous and colliding.

The Anne Carson Interview

The Anne Carson Interview

As I was interviewing the classicist, poet, and author Anne Carson in June, 2017 via e-mail about her new translation of The Bakkhai, the question-and-answer process felt like a consultation with the ancient Pythia. Much like an ancient Greek attempting to get an answer from the priestess of Apollo, I had to go through a few layers—book publicist and agent—and the answers I received back can best be described as intriguing and esoteric; they varied in length from a few words to a paragraph to no response at all. Every reply was also written in all lower case, including the first-person singular “i,” an idiosyncrasy that seemed almost playful, and is something I usually see in the prose or text messages of a student or a younger person. Like a Greek hearing those ambiguous missives given by the Pythia, I was repeatedly surprised by the puzzling, thought-provoking answers I received.


Third Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Third Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Award-winning poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third Millennium Heart, translated into English by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, is narrated from the point of view of a monstrous, cyborg organ, a heart which is a sprawling, rumbling mega-structure; a cornubation made up of anti-heroic, Archigram-like constructions—fantastical towers and castles. From the heart’s radical connectivity emerges a puissant female voice, who unleashes a torrent of invectives, affirmations and auguries against capitalist market forces, patriarchy, toxic manhood, rape trauma, and the perversion of Western culture. A kind of germinal energy emanates from the fractal asymmetry of the 200-odd poems in this collection, like the vitality of patterns in river systems, tree branches and lightening bolts. In a state of interminable flux, the poems push back against facile interpretation even as they pull the reader closer towards self-knowledge.

The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

No longer than the lead piece in the latest literary quarterly, yet unearthing a teleology for some of humanity’s oldest stories, The Tongue of Adam sets a reader thinking of noble forebears. W.G. Sebald comes to mind, though there’s no meandering involved, and Anne Carson, though there’s no anachronism or toying with form. Jorge Luis Borges, especially, casts his shadow, given the erudite cool with which this text handles Adam and Eve, Eden and Babel, effortlessly switching between Quranic (as spelled by Kilito) sources and Judeo-Christian. Similar material, in the hands of the great Argentine, resulted in amazing aesthetic objects, and to say the latest from Abdelfattah Kilito doesn’t shrivel in comparison—well, that’s high praise. Even more noteworthy, however, may be what the book accomplishes, at this hour of the world, for Arab civilization in general.

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III: Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III: Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In 1972 an English version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 appeared. It is the first node (then called a “knot”) of a sequential novel with the overall title The Red Wheel. In 1989 an expanded and freshly translated edition came out in English, but it took until 1999 for the second volume, November 1916, to be published. Since then other books by Solzhenitsyn have reached English readers, most recently Apricot Jam: And Other Stories (2011), but we have had to wait until now to start reading the first book of four comprising March 1917, which will be followed by the two books that make up April 1917, thus bringing this mega-novel to a close. The books share common approaches—fictional characters mingling with historical figures, the use of actual telegrams, transcripts of State Duma debates, and newspaper accounts (when applicable, as newspapers weren’t always published), and an impressionistic screenplay treatment of mob movements—and the attempt to recapture for a wide audience (but foremost, one suspects, for Solzhenitsyn’s countrymen) the multitudinous events that culminated in the Revolution. Yet there is never one definitive story, one perspective, or one inevitable outcome.

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be demands to be read and lived with for a few days or weeks—as long as you like, it’s got enough spirit and thought and music and visual interest to hold you. A considerable and openhearted novel, it is at once wild and sophisticated, poetic and prosaic. Although it is Wikswo’s first novel, it shows her to be intrepid storyteller, as she confronts issues of race, sex, gender, religion, and desire with an appreciation toward their complexity and oft-chaotic natures.

My Small/Indie Press Holiday Gift Guide

Each year I tend to do one of those “best reads of the year” lists, but this year I’ve decided to do things a little differently. Those lists tend to feature a lot of the same titles, and if you follow my Internet presence you’ve probably already got a pretty good idea of what books I’ve been really enjoying in 2017.

So instead what I’m going to do this year is do something along the lines of a gift guide to small and indie presses you may want to buy from this holiday season. I think probably everyone knows what the holiday season means to businesses and retailers, and presses are no different—this is make or break time for a lot of the publishers you love, so if you go and buy a few books from them for yourself and others, it’ll make a difference.

So here I’m going to recommend a book from each press that I think you should make an effort to check out this year. Look at them as entry points to presses I hope you get to know and buy a lot of books form in December. These books aren’t limited to things I read in 2017—they’re just great books that I think embody something important about each press. And I’m also going to try hard to get as many female, queer, & writers of color as possible in here.

And lastly, if you want to support this website during the holidays, you can shop through the Amazon links below, or if you detest Amazon then consider subscribing to me at Patreon, where you get a lot of digital downloads for your small monthly donation.

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi) — Action Books

Kim Hyesoon is a very in-your-face kind of poet, a loud poet, a poet with a kind of postmodern plasticity to her work. She talks about crazy pop cultural events like pig massacres, her aesthetics are weird, not-for-everyone, and very transgressive in the culture from which she comes. She’s also a writer who must have been a big challenge to translate, albeit a lot of fun and also one who opened up a lot of space for Don Mee Choi to re-envision this work in English. These are all things that to me make her a consummate Action Books author, as I have come to expect all of these things from this press.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia RankineGraywolf Press

I’m old enough to remember a time when Graywolf wasn’t a massively successful press notching winners and finalists of major prizes and being a fixture of the nation’s major reviews of books. I’m choosing Claudia Rankine’s first book with Graywolf for a couple reasons. First of all, this book emblematizes to me a lot of what has made Graywolf success a vital press in the last 10 years—its embrace of a lot of the lyric/personal/fragmentary essay aesthetics and and identity concerns that are present in this book and a number of its breakout titles of the decade or so since this one was released. of course, Citizen is the big book for Rankine, but I’m also recommending this one because a lot of people think Don’t Let me Be Lonely is the better book (myself included), but it hasn’t sold in nearly the same numbers. So check it out.

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle — Wave Books

This is such a great essay collection, I’m not even going to try to sum up everything wonderful in here. Basically, this book will make you think about art and life in new ways—if that’s something you want, read it. And Wave Books is a really great press who can make a writer like Mary Ruefle a house author, along with a slew of other really remarkable books, mostly of great avant-garde poetry, but also a good deal of prose.

The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol (tr. George Henson)Deep Vellum Publishing

Sergio Pitol is exactly the kind of author to put the translation scene in perspective—this guy is so good, and so legendary in the Spanish-language world, that anyone in their right mind would think that he’d be published by Random House, or FSG, or some other major prestige brand. But no, instead he was one of the first authors of this upstart translated literature press that just kind of came out of nowhere and started bringing him to the English-language world. That, to me, is a lot of the energy that Deep Vellum brings to the publishing community, and Sergio Pitol is exactly the kind of discovery that they would make for us to enjoy.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker)Feminist Press

I could say a lot of the same things for Feminist Press, except in this case Feminist Press has been around for decades—but still, they keep their ears close to the ground and keep finding edgy things that you would expect to come from a press that had only been around for a short time and still had a lot of that naive enthusiasm. The Iliac Crest is, again, exactly the kind of book that in any just world would be a bestseller. Even though it was written 15 years ago, it’s a book that captures a lot of what feminism currently is and where it’s headed, which is exactly what I feel about Feminist Press at any given moment.

My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty GunnNotting Hill Editions

If you like book-length essays, this is your publisher, as this is pretty much all Notting Hill Editions does. It’s full of quirky, remarkable projects that probably would not have found a home anywhere else.

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (tr. Margaret Schwartz)Open Letter Books

This was one of the first titles Open Letter ever did, and it was actually the way I first met Open Letter publisher Chad Post in person, and it was a book that for various reasons I was really, really excited to read, so for me personally it sums up a lot about Open Letter. This is a completely insane title that largely consists of dozens of prologues to a novel, penned by the man esteemed in his native Argentina as “Borges’s mentor,” a general weird genius uncle of Argentine literature, even though he’s basically completely unknown and unappreciated in the English-language world. And that, to me, is a lot of Open Letter—the weirdest most out there, next-level kinds of things that will blow your mind, if only you knew they existed.

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr. Bela Shayevich)Fitzcarraldo Editions

This book perfectly sums up what Fitzcarraldo is to me: who on earth was ever going to publish this book if Fitzcarraldo didn’t step up to do it? This was the very definition of a passion project, an immense and costly labor that would have done modest business and, if very fortunate, have broken even 5 years down the line. Then Alexievich won the Nobel and suddenly Fitzcarraldo owned a hot commodity. God bless. Go see what else they’re doing with that windfall, like, for instance, publishing Olga Tokarczuk.

Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrión (tr. Peter Bush) — Biblioasis

This is such a lovely bookworms’ kind of book, basically a love letter to independent bookstores that is also erudite, entertaining, anecdotal, globe-spanning, passionate, meaningful, ironic . . . It’s a great read that makes you remember why you love the literary world and why it’s your place. And that’s a lot of Biblioasis to me, the passion project of a man who truly loves literature and who somehow turned that love into a rather sizable press that does truly great stuff that will be appreciated by the kind of person who feels completely at home in a great small bookstore.

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju ColeCassava Republic

This one requires a little explanation. Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is now published by Random House, but it was originally discovered in 2007 by this weird, funky Nigerian press called Cassava Republic, who were the ones the bring Cole to prominence. And since 2007 they have continued to discover equally as good (or better) Nigerian work, to the point that now they are no longer just a press distributed to Nigeria but one whose books now have great distribution to the U.S. and UK. This is a recent development, so to many readers Cassava Republic will be a “new” press, even though they’re quite older than a number of presses on this list, but they are absolutely one you should check out.

Iraq + 100: Stories from Another IraqComma Press

This book is totally, gloriously insane: it’s an anthology of speculative fiction that asked a bunch of Iraqi authors to imagine what their country would look like in 100 years. Like a lot of Comma Press books, it has a definitely political angle, and it mixes up a bunch of genres that you would at first glance think might not go together, but it’s also just completely refreshing, novel fiction that I can’t imagine any other press would have come up with. That to me is Comma Press, a press that consummately does its own thing and somehow ends up finding amazing literature in there.

Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz — Les Figues Press

This is such a weird, uncategorizable little fiction, maybe what you’d call a “poet’s novel.” It’s the kind of beautiful little, entirely unforeseeable book that I’ve come to expect from Les Figues, whose catalog I always expect to provide me with the unexpected. There’s not a whole lot I can say to try and summarize this publisher other than “dive in and take a look!”

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella ColemanVerso Books

I guess now that we’ve had the whole 2016 election and Wikileaks has become something along the lines of a lesser Breitbart, the whole idea of Anonymous somehow seems much more quaint than it did 12 months ago. But still I think this book has aged pretty well and tells you a lot about the world in which we live. And it’s also an extraordinarily fun read—what can I say, I really loved this book, and I learned a lot from it. A lot of Verso’s list can be heavy on the theory and fairly tough going for the non-theory-inclined, but also a lot of the list is pretty general-reader-friendly and pretty up-to-the-minute, this book included. Oh, and I’ve got to give a shot to my friend Juliet Jacques’ excellent transition memoir (and so much more) Trans.

Letters to Memory by Karen Tei YamashitaCoffee House Press

This is one of those books that’s so damn good, and also incredibly essential right now, but a book that I fear is getting lost in the fall publishing cycle, which is always severely impacted and incredibly full of “must-read” titles. Anyway, definitely check it out, and also check out Coffee House, which for over 30 years now has been finding and cultivating necessary talent like Yamashita and bringing it to the book-loving world. Somewhat like Graywolf, they seem to have hit a particular stride of late with authors like Valeria Luiselli who have gotten a major amount of attention. This is of course a wonderful thing, but the top-level successes should not keep you from digging in to the deeper recesses of their catalog, which is great all the way through and is full of a lot of things you really should read.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli (tr. Bill Johnston) — Archipelago Books

Archipelago Books has of course attained notoriety for bringing the English-speaking world Karl Ove Knausgaard, which is a major achievement that everyone should recognize, but I like to them of them as the home of authors like Magdalena Tulli, writers who are doing truly out-there, crazy stuff but who are almost mathematically proven to never get the attention they deserve. Tulli is sometimes compared to Calvino, and if that comparison (whatever its actual merits) does anything at all to get you piqued, do check her out, and see what else Archipelago has to offer—they’ve done an amazing diversity of things in their 15+ years.

Torpor by Chris Kraus — Semiotext(e)

This is kind of an “obvious” one, now that Chris Kraus has gotten to the point of having tons of media attention and an Amazon series made out of her book I Love Dick, but all that success should obscure the fact that for a long, long time she was laboring as a largely unknown, underappreciated author—as well as an unknown, underappreciated publisher, as part of the team at Semiotext(e). if you’re someone who digs French theory, or feminist authors like Chris Kraus, you owe a big debt to the press, possibly without realizing it. They are the leading edge of a lot of this kind of writing in America, and even though much of their aesthetics have now become mainstream, they’re still doing leading-edge work that you should check out. And let me also toss in a recommendation for my first-ever Semiotext(e) title, bound direct from the Small Press Distribution warehouse many years ago, The Ecstasy of Communication by Jean Baudrillard.

Trace by Laurent SavoyCounterpoint Press

Counterpoint Press does things like The Guy Davenport Reader—books that are of immense value to the culture but that are just never going to be sexy in that Buzzfeed listicle kind of way. On the Buzzfeed listicle scale of sexiness, Trace probably ranks higher than The Guy Davenport Reader, but not nearly as high as it should. If an author like Rebecca Solnit is your dream-read, then please do yourself a favor and check out this book now.

Little Island Press

Little Island Press is new, so new that I can’t really pick a single book to recommend to you. But I trust that they’re doing good things and will continue to do great things, and I think they’re worthy of your support.

Civil Coping Mechanisms

This is one of my publishers, and I’m friends with a number of their authors, so I’m a little hesitant to go too hard for them lest it look like a conflict of interest, but they are really good books (in my obviously biased opinion) and you should give them a look. If you need a point of entry, try my friend Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue.

NYRB Classics and New Directions Publishing

I can’t believe that anyone who regularly visits this site doesn’t know and love these presses. These catalogs are just so deep, and so ever-growing with incredible stuff, that it’s really hard to recommend just one thing. So I dunno, go read Bakkhai by Anne Carson, or Marina Tsvetaeva’s diaries (seriously? who even comes up with these things?), or Inger Christensen, or Silvina Ocampo.

AnimalInside by László Krasznahorkaithe Cahiers Series

The Cahiers is a series of little chapbook-like pamphlets from many of the best writers on Earth. i seriously mean that—the likes of László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías, Lydia Davis, and Anne Carson have authored Cahiers, not to mention so many others. They tend to have a distinct translation and art angle to them, and each one is beautifully produced—an incredible item to have an hold. I’m choosing Krasznahorkai’s AnimalInside because it was my first, and because its combination of an extraordinary text and absolutely beautiful art, working in sync, is what the Cahiers are all about. And also because this little item did so much for Krasznahorkai’s reputation in the English-speaking world, showing just what kind of an effect the right work can have.

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia — Restless Books

This is an incredibly major book (the first of a trilogy covering Piglia’s whole life) by one of the great Latin American talents of the 20th century. A testament to publisher Ilan Stavans and the rest of the Restless team for making it happen. And they have so many other great books in translation.

Other presses to check out: This list is getting rather lengthy, but there’s still so much more to say. So in lieu of listing any more books and descriptions, I’m just going to point you toward these places, many of which you can find more information about elsewhere on this website. Give them all a try: Tilted Axis Press, And Other Stories Publishing, Transit Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Timeless, Infinite Light, Other Press, Melville House Books, Seagull Books, Tin House Books


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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