What’s new in the translation sector? What have we achieved, apart, together? As I think about this, I am sitting in the back of Conway Hall in London, at English PEN’s annual International Translation Day conference for literary translation professionals. I’m tuning in to conversations about reading habits during the pandemic (more international, anecdotally—the idea being that readers have increasingly chosen to “travel through reading”); the big shift to online programming since 2020; the publisher/ translator relationship (money, recognition, transparency); and more. The room is not full—a hangover of these pandemic years; attracting in-person audiences is still proving tricky for event organizers. But the quality and intensity of the discourse are as high as always, and it feels good to be in a room together.
So what is new? One thing that strikes me is that because most of us have been online so much more since 2020, there is increased visibility in the virtual sphere both for translators themselves and for the, often passionate, debates around the craft and politics of translation itself.
Even those distant from the world of translation would have been aware of the 2021 controversy around the German and Catalan translations of a book by the American poet Amanda Gorman—the story made major broadsheets around the world. Conversations around who gets to translate, how, where the publishing industry’s blind spots are, whose name is on the cover, feel more mainstream than they did a few years ago, which can only be a good thing. I would recommend seeking out Violent Phenomena, a recent collection of essays on “decolonizing translation” edited by Dr Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang and published by dynamic independent press Tilted Axis Press.
Another recommendation is the Translators Aloud YouTube channel, set up during the pandemic by Tina Kover and Charlotte Coombes. It offers literary translators a platform to read their work aloud, a simple concept which has taken off, with more than 400 videos made to date and partnerships with publishers and cultural institutes already under its belt. Like many good ideas, this one looks to have seamlessly become part of the publishing landscape, helping to normalize the translators’ role as artists and advocates for international literature (and as assets for marketing departments).
Translation as a vital act seems to have been in or near the news for much of the past year. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it was amazing to see the flowering of translation activity and activism around especially poetry from Ukraine. It was also interesting to watch the debates which sprang up about the differing treatment of Ukrainian and e.g. Syrian and Afghan refugees, with the language barrier being one of the oft-cited issues.
The Booker International Prize continues to have a strong influence on the market. In May, the prize was awarded to Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis (who are having a great year). It is the first book originally written in any Indian language to win the prize. The announcement was met with a flurry of press attention, and the book sold 35,000 copies in a single week. U.S. rights have now been acquired by HarperCollins. There definitely seems to be more excitement around acquiring South Asian authors as a result of this success.
Speaking of prizes, the Poetry Translation Centre’s own Sarah Maguire Prize shortlist was announced in September. This biennial prize, set up in honor of PTC founder Sarah Maguire, highlights the best collections of poetry in translation by non-European poets, and aims to boost sales and visibility for poets, translators and publishers. The shortlist is being celebrated with a raft of social media and events leading up to the winner announcement on November 1. And here’s another date for your diaries: submissions for the 2024 Sarah Maguire Prize will open in May 2023, and are welcome from publishers based anywhere in the world.
The Poetry Translation Center is a publisher and an advocacy organization in London, Engliand.