Where I respond to FAQs about the ‘We Are All Translators’ (WAAT) newsletter, especially for new readers.
Over thirteen months of the ‘We Are All Translators‘ newsletter, I’ve received some lovely notes and questions from readers and subscribers. This past week, with my announcement of closing Desi Books down, a lot of new folks have joined the WAAT community. So by way of introduction, I’m sharing some of the conversations I’ve had with others about this newsletter’s whys and wherefores, hows and whats, and whither and whether. We’ll get to the links roundup next week, for sure.
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Who is the WAAT newsletter for, really? Readers, writers, or translators?
Ha. Well, all of the above, really. Aren’t all readers also translators? And aren’t all writers also translators? If you haven’t had a chance to read my 2020 essay at Poets & Writers about how ‘We Are All Translators‘, please take a look? That is how the name of this newsletter came about as well.
So I hope that WAAT is for anyone who loves to read, write, or translate. Sometimes, I might get more technical with topical craft-specific deep dives than the average reader might care for. But even those newsletter editions are filled with examples from books, which will be of interest to readers too. For writers who aren’t translators, I hope these newsletters will introduce them to world literature through translation. And, for translators, I hope WAAT will be one of the resources in their craft toolkit.
Since 2000 or so, I’ve typically had at least one blog, newsletter, or online magazine running. Sometimes, more than one. My primary goals have always remained the same: sharing my learning in organized, structured ways and supporting or building small digital communities. WAAT began in January 2022 with those same goals. Through trial and error, I’ve tried various approaches (many were behind the scenes and not visible to readers/subscribers.) My thoughts below are certainly likely to evolve yet. But, for now, these are my guiding principles.
Why do you run it from your website like a blog instead of via a newsletter service provider?
For the first half of 2022, I used a popular newsletter service provider, Mailerlite. It had some nice bells and whistles behind the scenes. The ones I wanted, however, were either not free or didn’t exist. As a for-profit business, they have to make money too. I get that.
What about Substack? Everyone’s there now.
I’ve explored Substack extensively. I get plenty of Substacks in my inbox from writers I respect. That said, the user interface (UI) is a bit too minimalistic for me. I like my custom taxonomy structures, bespoke design formats, indexable archives, etc. And I want to own my work and back it up when and how I prefer. Substack does have a very large and growing ecosystem. They’re doing some interesting things to help more readers discover and subscribe to writers. For me, all those vanity metrics with likes, counts, etc., would be just as distracting as social media (more on that below.) That’s not why WAAT exists.
As a former techie, I have a lot of thoughts about what Substack is doing by straddling or combining multiple spaces: newsletters, blogs, digital publishing, and social media. They want to be the one-stop shop for all of these. There have been disruptors in each of these individual spaces over the last few decades but not necessarily someone who took them all on at once. Until now.
That said, Substack seems to be taking the most popular aspects of each and amping them up. This is not necessarily a good thing because of how it alters not just the ways that we read and write but even our deeper cognitive processes and social behaviors. Also, to accomplish what they’ve set out to do, they are collecting a whole lot of personal data from all their users: the writers and the readers themselves. All of it reminds me of Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I’ll leave it there but, if you haven’t read that book, I encourage you to do so.
For now, keeping things on my website—and I’ve used the WordPress platform since 2007—is easier and more convenient. Even though it costs me more than the above two options in terms of both money and time. Even freedom comes at a price in our world today.
Wait. Aren’t social media and platforms like Substack good for marginalized writers or translators in terms of increasing discoverability?
Yes and no. Discoverability, for all of us who work in the margins, has always suffered when a major social media platform changes algorithms or modus operandi for its own economic survival or growth. We’ve seen this happen with Facebook, where authors rushed to create their pages only to find that Facebook pushed them way lower in personal feeds and wanted authors to pay for advertising to bring their pageviews up. Instagram is going all out with prioritizing reels and videos in their algorithms and, if you’re a writer who’s not as comfortable with the visual medium as with the textual one, that’s not going to help. TikTok is very similar to Instagram except it has a different demographic that has led to the growth of BookTok. And who knows what’s going to happen with Twitter in the Musk regime.
No mass media platform that expects to make profits off its users can remain the same forever. You know that 1973 short by Richard Serra that goes viral every few months? About how, with mass media platforms (he was talking about television and advertising then), when a product is free, the consumer is the one being consumed? We are the end product being delivered en masse to advertisers, who are the real customers and who then consume us. And, in the end, it’s all soft propaganda meant to control society and maintain the status quo. The wins via social media (and I’ve had those too for my writing and translating work) are not sustainable long-term. Today’s viral post/tweet may bring a thousand more followers or a possibility of a good byline but the algorithm monster has to be constantly fed.
I resisted social media for the longest time. I created my accounts ages ago but only started being active in 2017 because I was a nobody without any of the expected literary credentials and looking for agents/publishers for my story collection. But do you know how I found my publisher? Through a Longreads essay that went viral. Social media has helped me get the word out about my writing and translating work. Has it helped me sell more copies of my books? I don’t believe so. For that, we still need traditional news media with reviews and interviews. Stuff that’s going to live out there forever and, if written well by a credible source, will show up in keyword searches.
And, again, I urge you to read Lanier’s book above. You can also read or listen to this terrific interview with him: ‘If you can quit social media, but don’t, then you’re part of the problem.‘
But why publish the WAAT newsletter for free? Are you planning to charge subscribers down the road?
I write WAAT for myself as much as for my readers. It’s a way to think deeper and organize those thoughts about certain translation-related topics. I find it better than doing social media posts and then going through the highs and lows of the vanity metrics. I have intentionally not installed any of them on my website.
Someday, yes, I would like for subscribers to pay for some of the value they get from this newsletter. But there are other ways to do that without giving platforms like Substack and their payment service provider(s) a hefty cut and becoming their “product”, as I said earlier. I’m also not big enough like Roxane Gay or George Saunders that Substack will give me a big advance to publish via their platform. And that’s not likely to happen because literary translation is still a niche topic.
Speaking of such things, a friend (thanks, Annie!) just told me this weekend that Ko-fi does not take fees from payees or payers for one-off donations (they do have a tiered pricing model for subscriptions but it’s not as bad as Substack’s.) So, you know, if you’d like to show your appreciation for my writing, here’s the tip jar. You could buy me a virtual coffee if you’ve been enjoying either of my newsletters.
Last week, you announced that you were closing down Desi Books, your other platform. Will you be doing that with WAAT too in the foreseeable future?
Desi Books was the first such initiative for me. In 2020, when the global pandemic began, I had two books launching in two different countries. Who knew that we would all be forced to sit at home and not be able to get out there to find our readers? Then, in the US, we had major political events that dominated media feeds. And, finally, as per usual, book critics everywhere decided that there were only one or two South Asian works worth paying attention to. The rest got little to no oxygen at all.
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
This was really bad for a lot of small/independent press books or translations—like both of my 2020 books. Now, I could have just put my head down and started on my next book, as they always tell you. But I had a lot of anxious energy that I needed to channel somewhere positively. So I thought: why not see if I can work to raise the overall tide of South Asian literature with whatever personal resources I could muster? A rising tide lifts all boats, not just mine. And that’s why I began doing that unpaid work.
That said, it grew way beyond my own imagination. I had thought I’d do a monthly or biweekly podcast. But the requests came pouring in to help feature/promote debut writers, small press books, etc. And I kept adding channels besides audio interviews to do so. It had gotten to where I was spending several hours a day, seven days a week, just doing that work. On my own time and dime.
Over the last year, writing these WAAT newsletters has reminded me of why I gave up my well-paying Silicon Valley job in 2012. As I said in my end-of-year review, the word for 2023 is “reinvent.” That reinvention has to begin with me.
A long answer to say: it was time for me to move on from Desi Books because staying on would have required more of my time and energy, not less. My mission to keep raising the tide of South Asian literature, though, remains strong as ever. I will be doing so in other ways.
With WAAT, on the other hand, I’m definitely a solo creator and not depending on others to help me do the work. More importantly, I don’t have others depending on me to help them along. And that’s a huge relief, I must confess.
So you’ll be keeping this to a newsletter format? No podcasts, video channels, events, etc.?
Ha. Never say never. Look, I have certain tech skills, given my former career. And communication and literary citizenship can be done in so many different ways now. In fact, I did start a modest video channel with WAAT last year, called ‘WAAT Sessions‘.
Desi Books was a steep learning curve for me. I taught myself a lot more new tools and tricks. I’ll certainly leverage some of those here. But I also learned that, sometimes, it’s okay to just take a leisurely walk; there’s no need to run like hell to get nowhere in a hurry.
WAAT will remain primarily a text-format newsletter. Video conversations will happen but not to some regular schedule.
Why did you start another newsletter this year?
‘Historical Fiction Craft Notes’ goes out monthly for now. I teach a regular six-week workshop on this genre. So this newsletter is really about taking a lot of the questions that come up in these workshops to think them through at a deeper level. And, again, to share book recommendations and craft resources with those interested in this genre.
My hope, with this newsletter, is to hone my own skills in the genre. I write and translate historical fiction. I read it and teach it. Why not write about it too?
Alright. So what are you “reinventing” with WAAT this year?
So one thing I’ve learned for sure about myself is that shallow-water treading (e.g. social media) doesn’t work for me. Deep dives (e.g. these newsletters) are better because they take a different kind of energy and help you make smarter connections versus just the same ones that everyone else is making because of how social media algorithms promote the same things to all of us. Working from within an echo chamber is never a good thing for any writer.
Yes, there might be some instant gratification with the 24/7 visibility those platforms give us. But, for the cognitive overload it creates, the intellectual and emotional payoffs just aren’t there. As I’ve said a few times now, it’s less social media and more performance media. I’d rather channel that energy into my practice, of which this newsletter is a key element.
Look, I’m not going to “reinvent” the entire wheel here. I’m simply looking to reinvent what I’ve created in this tiny corner of the digiverse. There are membership organizations, large media venues, and universities already out there filled with experts. I’m not looking to or can feasibly aim to fill those spaces. One thing I have that those organizations/venues don’t, however, is agility and flexibility as a solo creator.
Right now, my meta-goals with WAAT are to keep refining and fine-tuning the craft of the newsletter, if you will. With the proliferation of Substack, it is becoming even more clear to me that there is a craft to newsletter-writing. I’d like to keep increasing the value of WAAT for readers and myself. For example, you can see topic-based and language-based searchable archives now. Those will get incremental improvements so they become a useful go-to resource to the WAAT community and for myself.
On a personal level, though, I need to focus on whatever pays the bills first. The rest will be organized around the latter.
Are you planning a book version of WAAT someday?
I’m not there yet. I’d like to get a few more translations done first. But this newsletter is a way for me to work through some of the gnarly issues I encounter in the translation work. So it’s all good.
Someday, though, it would be nice to put together an edited version of these newsletters. But that’s a project in itself if it’s to be done right. Not happening this year, for sure.
The discussion area below is open for any more questions if you have them. As always, I will respond.
Before I leave you, I had an interview published at Words Without Borders this week as part of the Gujarati Literature in Translation collection that I’ve been guest-editing there. It was a fascinating conversation with Dr. Tridip Suhrud, a Gandhi scholar and a translator. And probably one of the greatest living Gujarati translators. If you read the interview, you’ll see why. And if you enjoy reading it, please share it on?