50. WAAT Session: Nick Glastonbury on elevating translations from underrepresented languages/cultures

NOVEMBER 21, 2022: The WAAT Sessions is a new series of video conversations about literary translation. In WAAT Session 02, Nick Glastonbury, a translator of Turkish and Kurdish literature, discusses the whys and wherefores of elevating translations from underrepresented languages/cultures, his award-winning translation of Sema Kaygusuz’s Every Fire You Tend, being a jury member and then jury chair for the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, his recent favorite translated works, and more.

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Dear Reader,

It is my pleasure to share the second conversation in the monthly (or thereabouts) WAAT Sessions series. I met Nick Glastonbury virtually when I joined the jury for this year’s PEN/Heim translation grants. He was the jury chair. That said, I’d read his terrific 2021 essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books, ‘Translating Against World Literature‘, which everyone should read, whether you’re a translator or not.

The PEN/Heim grant winners were just announced last week and, in this conversation with Nick, I asked him how/whether things have changed (since the above-mentioned essay) within the publishing ecosystem for translations from underrepresented languages/cultures. And I particularly appreciated the provocation he put forward for publishers. You can read a text excerpt of that below but I encourage you to listen to the entire conversation because Nick puts it all into context as well.

(Note: I’m still getting these video templates systematized so I’m hoping to be able to add full transcripts and closed-captioning down the road as well. Please bear with me. Also, these conversations will be monthly as they take time to prepare, edit, and publish.)

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About Nick Glastonbury

Nicholas Glastonbury is a translator of Turkish and Kurdish literature. His translation of Sema Kaygusuz’s Every Fire You Tend won the 2020 TA First Translation Prize from The Society of Authors. He is a co-editor of the e-zine Jadaliyya and a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center, where he is writing his dissertation on Soviet Kurdish radio, the Cold War, and the politics of sound.

About Every Fire You Tend

Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz (tr. Nicholas Glastonbury) is a haunting novel about inherited trauma and violence. In 1938, in the remote Dersim region of Eastern Anatolia, the Turkish Republic launched an operation to erase an entire community of Zaza-speaking Alevi Kurds. Inspired by those brutal events, and the survival of Kaygusuz’s own grandmother, this densely lyrical and allusive novel grapples with the various inheritances of genocide, gendered violence, and historical memory as they reverberate across time and place from within the unnamed protagonist’s home in contemporary Istanbul. Kaygusuz imagines a narrative anchored by the weight of anguish and silence, fuelled by mysticism, wisdom, and beauty. This is a powerful exploration of a still-taboo subject, deeply significant to the fault lines of modern-day Turkey.

Let’s leap out of this desolate time in which people aspire to perfection outside themselves, and into a time in which they attained perfection within.

[…]

Even the work of carvings gems from rock cannot compare with the journey that shame takes to reach language. Because the tongue gets tied. Because children like you, born into the silence that remains after catastrophe, are born unable to cry out. Even if misery comes undone in language, even if wistfulness gives you pleasure, even if grief makes you feel you matter, still, shame will always settle like a stone in your gut. The sheer horror in the scene of a massacre, in the killing of one person by another, can never be contained in a photograph.

So forgive me, I can’t speak like everyone else. I can’t form long winding sentences that can explain away the historic trajectory of all the emotion I carry. All I can do is beseech with sighs, lament with wails, freeze up in bewilderment. I can speak in metaphorical language about the hollow left when human dignity is torn from its roots.

Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz, translated by Nicholas Glastonbury

Watch or Listen to the Session with Nick Glastonbury

Edited Conversation Excerpts

Jenny Bhatt: [In the 2021 LARB essay] you talked about the journey of getting Every Fire You Tend—the difficult journey of getting it published. And one of the reasons is how it doesn’t play into the predominant idea of Turkish literature that the world market or everybody expected, where they were hoping for themes like “tradition versus modernity” and “East versus West.” By the way, it resonated with me because it’s very similar to what people think of South Asian literature too. They want to read about British colonization, or they want to read about slums, or terrorism now. Well, there are certain tropes, as we say, right? And the question that you asked—which, I think we’re all asking—how are the works, like the one you’ve translated and like the ones that are not meeting that dominant worldview, how are they supposed to find their readers? If publishers are going to keep going to the same shallow pool, if you like. And so, a year after that essay, do you feel the needle has moved at all? Or do you think the world is still a bit broken [as you said in a Words Without Borders interview later]?

Nick Glastonbury: That’s a great question. That essay has been part of a lot of other ongoing conversations about how to shift the needle, I’m not so optimistic at this point. I don’t feel quite like the needle has shifted. Earlier this week, I was going through the translations database maintained by Publishers Weekly. And I was looking at the percentage of different languages that were represented and how that has changed over time. And in fact, over the past four years, the share of translated literature that comes from French, German, Spanish, and Italian has only increased in relation to the prior decade. And to me, it feels like an interesting phenomenon when we’re also having these conversations about the risks of monopolies and consolidation of publishing houses, and how that affects the entire ecosystem. Smaller publishers are less willing to take risks on new or strange or interesting works, works that might require a bit of bravery. It seems that the increasing market share of these four languages is happening in tandem with this consolidation of markets, this sort of turning away from risky business moves, the transformation of publishing decisions into pure actuarial science where the only books that can be published are ones that are assured to make money. And so I don’t feel optimistic about how the landscape has shifted.

But there is a sort of groundswell of energy among translators, right? We saw this during the PEN/Heim deliberations: translators who are interested in doing strange, interesting, new projects from many languages beyond Europe, many underrepresented languages. I think it will take this groundswell effort to really shift the dynamics at play in the publishing landscape.


Nick Glastonbury: You know, I’ve come to this kind of opinion very recently—and it’s a very polemical opinion, so I want to offer it with a grain of salt—but I think there should be a sort of embargo on literature from French German, Italian, Spanish.

Jenny Bhatt: Yeah, well, not only is there so much of it, but then there are also retranslations.

Nick Glastonbury: Right. Yeah. It’s only increasing their share of the translation market, which is already roughly 3%. And so less than 1% of that 3% is supposed to account for the thousands of languages and thousands of literatures that are out there. So I compare the things that I translate to things that I see coming out from presses, and it’s so much easier to get a French book out there than it is to get a Turkish book out there, to get a Gujarati book out there. I think that the one thing that would move the needle is if, for a year, editors didn’t read submissions from French, German, Italian. And when I say French, I mean, French French, right? So French from Senegal is going to be a different story.

Jenny Bhatt: What you just said, reminds me of—I think it was in 2015—when Kamila Shamsie issued a provocation. She wrote an essay in The Guardian. And basically, it was a provocation for publishers to not publish anything by men for one year. Because, back then, that was also a difficult thing: to publish (more) women authors. The numbers were bad. Obviously, she wasn’t thinking about translations. It’s even worse for translations. But she was talking in general because somebody had done this analysis and said that women writers were not winning awards. They were not getting longlisted, shortlisted. Things are better today. But what you’re saying reminded me of that. And there’s no reason why we couldn’t say: alright, here’s a provocation for the publishing ecosystem. Don’t publish these languages for one year. Let’s see what happens?

Nick Glastonbury: Well, the thing too is that maybe this is unfair for emerging translators or something. But most of the French translators or the German translators I know have four projects lined up. So it’s not going to affect them. Really. They’ve already got their year full, you know.

Nick Glastonbury’s Recent Favorite Books in Translation

1) The Trio by Johanna Hedman, translated from the Swedish by Kira Josefsson

2) Panics by Barbara Molinard, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

3) Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Jordan Stumpf


WAAT Turns 50 and Other News

A milestone birthday for WAAT. When I began this newsletter on January 7th, 2022, it was a personal discipline and practice to focus on my own learning process and share that learning with others. I’m grateful to all of you who’ve joined me on this journey and shared your thoughts and opinions throughout via social media, email, or in the discussion area here. At the end of the year, I’ll do a roundup of popular topics and transfer some more of the earlier PDF archives into more reader-friendly versions here.

I was recently interviewed by the lovely Joyce Sáenz Harris for our local paper, The Dallas Morning News. We discussed translation work too, of course.

And World Literature Today included The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu (my translation) in a feature titled ‘Making the Old New‘.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. The best way to show appreciation is to buy/review my books, hire me for literary events, or share this newsletter with others who might enjoy it.

Until next week.

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Jenny Bhatt

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