I have to declare my biases up-front: since I first published Deborah Smith in The Quarterly Conversation in 2013 I’ve felt that she was going to make an impact in the world of translated literature. I did not expect, however, that just 3 years later she’d walk away with one of the biggest prizes in world literature, the International Booker Prize, which she shared with author Han Kang, whose novel The Vegetarian she translated into English and which has become a best-seller.
When I traveled to London in the spring of 2015 for the London Book Fair I had the chance to meet with Deborah in person and hear more about the translation press that she was then putting together. Called Tilted Axis, it launched earlier this year and is debuting with three titles in 2016.
I corresponded with Deborah to hear more about how she put the press together, what it stands for, and what its plans are for the future. I wholeheartedly recommend Deborah’s work to you and hope that you’ll give Tilted Axis a closer look.
So first of all, why start a press? You’re already a successful and sought-after translator, so I can’t imagine it’s for lack of things to do. What do you want to add to the international publishing scene, and what are your goals?
I was in the third year of my PhD when I first had the idea—I’d recently started working as a translator, which meant firstly that I was hearing about amazing-sounding books from other translators, and also that I was getting enough of an insider’s view of the publishing industry to be aware of all the implicit biases that made it so difficult for these books to ever get published, especially if they weren’t from European languages (harder to discover, editors can’t read the original, lack of funding programmes, authors who don’t speak English). Plus, publishing’s inherent conservatism means that what little did get through was weighted towards the commercial end of the scale, which is not the kind of writing that excites me.
This and the small sample size inevitably leads to stereotypes–sweeping family sagas from India, “lush” colonial romances from South-East Asia. And even if something more exciting does manage to sneak through, it gets the same insultingly clichéd cover slapped on it anyway, so no one will ever know.
So the aim for the press was a mixture of things: to publish under-represented writing, which is an intersection of original language, style, content, and often its author’s gender. To publish it properly, in a way that makes it clear that this is art, not anthropology. To spotlight the importance of translation in making cultures less dully homogeneous. To push for better rates and recognition for translators themselves. And to improve access to the UK publishing industry–we recently hired our first intern, the wonderful Sabeena, who we’re proud to be paying a proper wage. Not only are unpaid internships exploitative, they’re one of the main forces keeping UK publishing a primarily white middle-class industry, which has a direct knock-on effect on what gets published and how.
What’s it like starting a translation-focused press in London right now? What advantages/disadvantages are there to being in London?
Funny you should ask this, as I’m about to move to Sheffield! For a mix of personal and professional reasons: literary translation just does not cover London rent (I can’t afford to pay myself for my work as a publisher yet) and now my PhD is done I no longer have the safety net of student funding. Around Brexit, there were a lot of articles about the divide between London and the rest of the country, the brain drain from the provinces (people like me who leave their poor, post-industrial northern towns as soon as they can and never look back) and the need for decentralisation, all of which I absolutely agree with.
I don’t at all regret my 6 years in London, but London is already an international city. Having a large, ready-made network of like-minded people and organisations is a double-edged sword: the support is invaluable when you’re starting out, but there’s a danger that it can function as a Twitter-style echo chamber. Non-profit translation publishers are constantly writing funding applications explaining how we’re providing alternative narratives, acting as cultural bridges etc, and I always get simultaneously fired up about the idea of doing this and worried that all I’m actually doing is preaching to the choir.
In places like Sheffield, the lack of government funding and support, while reprehensible in itself, has encouraged a lot of grassroots work, creative start-ups, and a real sense of community. It seems the ideal place to try and build a press that is simultaneously local and global–to support local communities in forging global connections and taking part in international conversations which might otherwise be closed to them. That’s always been important; post-Brexit, it feels imperative. And if I can get my accent back, even better.
Can you talk a little about how you got started in literature, basically how you got your first jobs and acquired the knowledge and connections to make it to the point where you could found a press?
My first job in publishing was head of Tilted Axis, so it’s fair to say the interview was a walk-over. But translation was what got me the connections, and my first gig as a translator was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian–essentially a combination of being lucky, persistent, and niche (I was the UK’s only Korean-to-English literary translator). After that, it all happened very quickly. Translators, translation publishers, and related organisations are such an incredibly supportive community–it was them sharing their knowledge and connections, and being so encouraging, that made Tilted Axis a reality (i.e. convinced the UK Arts Council that it would not be completely mad to fund someone with zero publishing experience). Plus the wonderful Simon, Sarah, and Soraya agreeing to come on board–they all do have experience, so they’re the ones who actually know what they’re doing.
Your first three titles are all by authors originally from Asia, they are all short works, and they are all by women. An upcoming author of yours, Prabda Yoon, would also hold to this general aesthetic (except for being male). Can you tell me a bit about your editorial aesthetic and how you how to shape your list going forward?
With such a small list, I wanted to have a tight focus. So we publish exclusively fiction that is translated from an Asian language, contemporary, and innovative. In other words, the kind of books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting to us.
Asian languages, because that’s what we’re lacking, and because it would be so much easier to publish, say, Singaporean writing in English, or Mauritian writing in French. That’s the stuff that will be brought to you without you having to go and look for it. We don’t take submissions–I’ve scouted all of our books myself.
By “innovative” I mean that we’re not really into straight, realist, chronologically-ordered writing–it has to be stylistically and/or formally distinctive. Partly this is personal taste, but it also helps us to push against this idea of reading Asian literature as more anthropology than art. A lot of our books also have a radical social edge, which is again something we’re passionate about. There are so many fantastic books out there, why not do the ones that also have something to rage against, like the violence of forced gentrification (One Hundred Shadows), ableism (Indigenous Species), or male proscriptions on female sexuality (Panty)?
Aims for the future are to stick to this while expanding our range of languages. So far we have Bengali, Korean and Indonesian, with Thai, Uzbek and Japanese in the pipeline.
And yes, we publish a lot of women.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about gender disparities in terms of who gets published, who gets read, and who reviews these books. These disparities are especially stark in translated literature. What contribution do you hope for Tilted Axis to make to these issues?
I said from the beginning that at least 50% of our list would be by women, and when Kamila Shamsie called for a Year of Publishing Women I was excited to sign us up. Her caution that “the YPW doesn’t end up looking like the year of publishing young, straight, white, middle-class, metropolitan women” was spot on. It’s a reminder that if the publishing industry is serious about improving diversity, we need to take an intersectional perspective.
The most important thing we want to make clear is that this isn’t some dreaded worthy cause. Actively seeking work from under-represented groups is one of the most effective ways of giving publishing a much-needed shot in the arm. Establishments are conservative, and conservatism means more of the same; women writers’ outsider status can make for thrillingly original work.
Tell us a little about your three 2016 titles.
Our first-year list is Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha; One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon; and Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka.
Sangeeta is a stylistically daring writer in love with surrealism, credited with being “the woman who reintroduced hardcore sexuality to Bengali literature.” But though the (male) establishment used this label of erotica to dismiss her work, the sex scenes have exactly the same transgressive function as her use of chronology and narrative voice.
Hwang Jungeun is one of the brightest stars of the new South Korean generation–she’s Han Kang’s favourite, and One Hundred Shadows scooped the prestigious Bookseller’s Award, for critically acclaimed fiction that also has a wide popular appeal. She stands out for her focus on social minorities–her protagonists are slum inhabitants, trans women, orphans–and for the way she melds this hard-edged social critique with obliquely fantastical elements and offbeat dialogue.
Khairani Barokka is a writer, spoken-word poet, visual artist and performer whose work has a strong vein of activism, particularly around disability, but also how this intersects with, for example, issues of gender–she’s campaigned for reproductive rights in her native Indonesian, and is currently studying for a PhD in disability and visual cultures at Goldsmiths. Indigenous Species is a feminist, environmentalist narrative poem, with tactile artwork and a Braille translation.
The press’s name and logo are very distinctive. Can you tell me a little about where they come from and what they signify?
“Tilting the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins allows us to challenge that very division.” That’s our official line! And the logo is supposed to look like a T and an A, but also an appropriately tilted (globe) axis. I liked it so much I got a tattoo of it.
If readers want to support Tilted Axis and its work, what should they do?
Subscribe! Our subscriptions are very reasonable, and at the moment they’re the only way we can afford to ship to the US. And spread the word–word of mouth is crucial for small presses who don’t have the budget for advertising. But don’t just read our books–read Archipelago Press’s translations by African women, Deep Vellum’s wonderful Indonesian, Mauritian and Korean titles, read Can Xue and Uday Prakash. Buy from your local indie bookstore, #namethetranslator, join in with #WITMonth.