Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 7 July 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
21st-Century Translation: What Has the Future Brought Us?
with Gabriella Page-Fort, Samantha Schnee, and Chad W. Post
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented 21st-Century Translation: What Has the Future Brought Us? livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 7 July 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
As technology has permeated every aspect of our lives, how has it affected literary translation? Hear from three of the most engaged industry professionals about the ways in which they have used data and technology to raise awareness and to determine what and who gets translated, as well as the promises and dangers that it represents for the future.
Gabriella Page-Fort is Editorial Director of Amazon Crossing, where she has worked since 2010. Her list includes award-winning authors from around the world, such as Oksana Zabuzhko, Dolores Redondo, Laura Restrepo, Johary Ravaloson, and Keiichiro Hirano. She was named Publishers Weekly Star Watch “Superstar” in 2017. In her spare time, she is a literary translator from French and Spanish and a musician.
Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders. From 2014-2017 she was a trustee of English PEN, where she chaired the Writers in Translation Committee, tasked with disbursing the PEN Translates and PEN Promotes grants. Her translation of Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft (Deep Vellum, 2014) was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize. She won the 2015 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation for her excerpt of Carmen Boullosa’s The Conspiracy of the Romantics and recently completed a translation of Boullosa’s latest novel, The Book of Anna.
Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to the Translation Database, the Best Translated Book Awards, and the Three Percent and Two Month Review podcasts. He is also the author of The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, and Quarterly Conversation, among others. In 2018, he received the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.
Allison Markin Powell: Hello and welcome. I'm Allison Markin Powell, Japanese literary translator and former co-chair of the PEN translation committee. And I'm here with my guest co-host Sean Bye, who translates from the Polish and who has been involved in organizing, Translating the Future, the conference you're now attending.
Sean Bye: Thank you, Allison. And thank you all for joining us for the ninth installment of our weekly program, 21st century translation. Today we'll hear from Gabriella Page-Fort, Samantha Schnee and Chad Post about the changes that technology has brought to literary translation. Gabriella is editorial director of Amazon Crossing, which reaches the most readers with books in translation of any press. Samantha is the founding editor of Words Without Borders, the first online magazine of international literature, and Chad is the director of Open Letter Books and the managing editor of 3%, which is the home to the translation database, which many of you have probably used as a resource at one time or another. You can read their full bios on the Center for the Humanities site. As many of us continue to examine the systemic racism that exists at every level of society, we are asking ourselves what needs to happen in the publishing industry and within literary translation. In a recent interview, the historian and author Kerri K. Greenidge said, "I tend to think being a historian, "that triumph over racial discrimination or racial bias "isn't like one person goes through "and then the floodgates open "and everyone goes in after them. "I don't particularly have any belief that this moment "is going to fundamentally change the industry. "I think that what that will take "is a fundamental change to all of the avenues "through which people produce work. "All of that has to change before publishing can change."
Allison: This series of weekly one hour conversations is the form that Translating the Future will continue to take throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conferences originally planned dates in late September, several larger scale events will happen. We'll be here every Tuesday until then, with conversations about the past, present and future of literary translation, and its place in the world where we find ourselves. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for the subtleties of subtitling, featuring Darcy Paquet, who subtitled this year's Oscar winner "Parasite". Linda Hoaglund, a filmmaker who has subtitled 250 Japanese films, including masterpieces by Kurosawa and Miyazaki and Xiaolu Guo, a novelist and filmmaker who has produced works in Chinese and English. Please check the Center for the Humanities site for future events.
Sean: Translating the Future is convened by PEN America's Translation Committee which advocates on behalf of literary translators working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Kyzer. For more information, look for email@example.com. Today's conversation will be followed by a Q&A. Please email your questions for Gabriella Page-Fort, Samantha Schnee and Chad Post to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymous unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name. And if you know anyone who was unable to join us for the live stream, a recording will be available afterwards on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites.
Allison: Before we turn it over to Gaby, Sam and Chad, we'd like to offer our sincere gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities, at the graduate center CUNY, the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and PEN America, and also to the masters of dark magic at HowlRound, you make this livestream possible.
Samantha Schnee: Hi, guys.
Chad W. Post: Hello.
Gabriella Page-Fort: Hi.
Sam: Welcome. So, let's just jump right in with our first question to discuss, we'll discuss four issues today. And the first is, how can the digitization of literary field support reader engagement with international literature and an expanded readership? Who wants to take that?
Chad: I feel like you Gaby.
Gaby: I think listening to what Sean shared with us at the beginning of this call, maybe is a nice connective tissue there. I think we have as a publishing industry, a great amount of work to do to rebuild the infrastructure that we use, to find books, to publish books, to sell books. And to think about that differently in light of Black Lives Matter but also in light of everything that we've learned within our career so far about what is and isn't possible with literature and translation. I think this group represents three very different ways of sharing translated literature with readers. And with Amazon Crossing, what we're really trying to do is reach mainstream audiences who might not know about international literature at all, and bring them things that they connect with, and that can sort of be the tipping point to make them into literature and translation fans. One of the things that I think is the most difficult for all of us in the book industry of publishing is comps and thinking about forecasting sales and convincing the 15 decision makers involved in any book's discovery and publication. How do we change that? Because if you've got a book and translation that you are comping to Ferrante, Chad is always very quick to help us remember that there's only gonna be one Ferrante and only one Knausgard or one Haruki Murakami at most each year. If we're lucky every year has a new sort of superstar in that translation space. But you can't comp every book that you publish to those bestsellers and expect that people will trust you, because it's not always going to be true. So thinking about how we can use the digital space to better understand what are and are not opportunities for the books that we're publishing. At Crossing one of the things that we're really trying to do is to show the path that's been forged by a book that may not actually be obviously similar. For example, I use "Between the World and Me" with my colleague Liza Darnton, to bring across "Amora" which is a Brazilian book of short stories about lesbian love by Natalia Borges Polesso, which translator Julia Sanchez brought to us. And we just thought this is like, this is Oprah material, this is Teen Vogue material, like this is a book for everyone. And so when we demonstrated it at the table, we weren't demonstrating like these are all the other Brazilian short stories that have been bestsellers, we weren't saying, okay, these are all the other queer short stories that have worked. We really tried to reach broader and to focus in on, well representation as part of the point, accessibility as part of the point, ease of reading. And we pointed to "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a pretty hard book to comp to. And it's not a very direct comp, if you were to show that to a customer and say, because you liked this book, we think you're gonna like this one, it might not work. But it did work in terms of the decision makers. And I think the digital space creates maybe more opportunities for us to identify those like patterns, instead of always identifying like books.
Sean: Interesting, so there's a couple things that, to respond to that or to add to that. If we're talking about like reaching audiences through digital means, there's like the very obvious thing of what you've done Samantha with Words Without Borders in which there's a proliferation of content. That nowadays like international literature is not quite as inaccessible as it was 30 years ago, because you have websites that are free like Words Without Borders, Asymptote, other places where you can find out about new authors and read some of their work. Whereas in the past, like you'd have to get a subscription to a journal, the journals weren't incentivized to be publishing international literature, there's like a real delay. Like there's a gap in the information and that just solely being able to get information quicker is a very positive aspect or should be a very positive aspect of the digital world. But then there's the flip side of it, in which we're talking about not just providing content, but connecting readers to that content. And this is where the digital world gets a little dicey for me and I'm the most like Luddite-ish person on this presentation, I'll guarantee it. Or the most suspicious I guess the most suspicious. Because like the promise of the internet and the promise of like being able for anyone to get on there is this democratic voice situation where anyone can be heard. So Open Letter can theoretically, we can believe that we can reach a much larger audience because we can reach people directly through things like Twitter, Instagram, emails, whatever, then we could win, there's so many gatekeepers. When it's the system of having to sell your book to one person at Barnes and Noble, who puts it into Barnes and Nobles throughout the country, and people have to physically go there, find it and read it. We have short cut that in theory, because everyone can be accessed digitally. The problem comes that when you go online, you're stripped immediately of your individuality and become essentially a series of data points, which ties into something that you were talking about a little bit there Gaby, we're looking at trends. And that's one of the things that's both good and complicated. When companies are basically trading in our personal data. And that's how that's fueling much of this economy and much of the systems that are being constructed out of it. They're not looking at you as a person, they're looking at you as a representative of a larger field. So if you're talking about like making comps, there's ways in which you can, which Goodreads can, Amazon can, other people can, like look at what people have liked, and figure out like a profile for them and know which products they would most like. Which takes away part of that freewill aspect, and certain aspect of book finding, and makes me sort of suspicious, because we've led in this world as we've gone down this digital route so hard. It's gotten to where like likes, tweets, number of web view clicks, that's all that matters. And once that all that, that's what matters, that's the metric, things can be quantified. Anytime things can start to be quantified, they can be evaluated in a quantifiable way, instead of in a qualitative way, or a book that can have a life changing impact doesn't seem to make it to the critical mass where it becomes able to have that impact. Because it's not hitting the right number of people, it's not quantifiable enough. And this leads to like listicles, endless amounts of listicles, because those are the quick hitting links and shares. There's a lot of stuff that I think gets stripped away from the individual serendipity of reading within this digital environment. And it's always made me a little bit wary.
Sam: I agree with that. I mean, I think the internet has done an interesting thing, right? And you track this with your translation database, because 15 years ago, when we launched Words Without Borders more than 15 years ago, the landscape for publishing translation was vastly different. And it's much more visible today, literature and translation than it was back in 2003. And at Words Without Borders, we think about this a lot in the context of how do we reach more readers? How do we expand readership for literature and translation along the lines of the bookstores who don't want to ghettoize or fetishize literature and translation per se and just include it along with all the other great writing that's out there. And one idea we had early on was to try to reach younger readers before they might fall prey to the conventional wisdom, which I don't think is conventional wisdom anymore, but it was that people are afraid of translations because there's a intermediary between them and the author. And maybe a translation is too intellectual or too difficult to understand even in your own language. So we launched this campus website, which is a sister website that contextualizes the literature and translation for teachers and provides lesson plans so that the teachers are able to incorporate it very easily into their curricula in a way that not only helps, I think, broaden the idea of, oh, this is what I like when I read, it's not just Harry Potter, it's not just vampires. And more importantly, for students who don't fit into the mainstream, to your point Gaby, they can see themselves often, particularly immigrant students can see themselves in this literature. We have a unit on Mexico, we have a unit on China and Japan, Iran and Russia and so forth. So there's, I think there's a lot of opportunity to try to equalize the playing field through the digital medium. And it's not just for readers who read on the page or on the screen either I have a dear friend who is dyslexic and loves to read, but she can't literally like it's too hard to do the reading, so she does audiobooks. And when we can share audio, and when we can share the original text. So you know like an on FOSS publication where you have your Spanish and your English side by side, there are a lot of different opportunities there. And we can also market internationally when we're working on a digital platform, right? So.
Chad: Can I add something to that? Because I was thinking about this last night a little bit and you just kind of tapped into it. One thing is we talk a lot about translation and we end up focusing then on the book itself and elevating the art of translation to an art in like that form of writing and written literature. But at the same time, the books in most of the instances are treated as like transmedia intellectual property. And this is kind of what you're saying about it can become an audio book, it could become video games, they could become like Netflix shows, we have this like "Four by Four" by Sara Mesa, that last week, we were doing the two month review where we read a section every week and go over it. And on one of the early episodes, this one guy was like if this were written in English, it would be a Netflix show hands down or a movie, it is written for that. And with translation, we haven't really tapped into that aspect of promotion, in the same way that other books written in English or other media that's written and created in English. I'm thinking also of like graphic novels, graphic novels are essentially storyboards for future movies or TV shows. And the international literature, maybe because we focus so much on the word aspect of it hasn't been getting it to do in that way that it could, which would greatly increase audiences, like "My Brilliant Friend" greatly increases the audience for Ferrante, even though Ferrante is already, everywhere .
Sam: Yeah, it's so true, but we don't need to talk about Ferrante anymore because she already gets enough attention. Let's move on to our next question. What are the risks as we put more of what we do in the digital public sphere? You want me to? I'll start out with that one, because we published a feature of poetry from Rojava Syria last year. And we were worried about denial of service attack or doxing, because we were attacked by a foreign cyber army back in 2015. And we went through a kind of, this digital security protocols review. And that's something that doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it can be very toxic and very damaging. You know another aspect of being in the digital sphere is, we worry that some of the assets or pieces that we put out there, what a programmer would think of as an asset could be used without permission, if you have a lot of content online. And we have no way of monitoring where our content ends up. So, those are two of the big scary ones for us. I think, mediating and monitoring the digital public sphere, you do reach more readers and when you reach more readers, some will say offensive things. And I think we need to come up with a protocol of how we respond and which posts we would take down or exclude that recognizes as freedom of expression and freedom of speech. And that can be very time consuming. As an organization, it can be very big time suck. And it can take away from creating your digital content. And ultimately, that's the most important thing is creating a great content. So we have this kind of always trying to balance, how much social media engagement to do, how much does that actually lead to convergence, to create new readers? Do they really end up reading the literature? Or is it just kind of staying in that social media realm? I don't know. What do you guys think?
Gaby: I think it stays in the realm and I think that one of the reasons Rupi Kaur is famous and popular as a poet, is that her poets fit inside an Instagram square. And so you can already know them like you already know the songs from the radio before you buy the book. And that creates that sort of perceived conformist unity with your friend group and your peers. But that can be used as a strength too and I think one of the things Twitter does is actually drive people to talking about what they've read. So you can sort of see pretty quickly in a popular thread who spins off and actually does read and come back and who doesn't. But I think another of the risks that you pointed out in terms of security as authors, a lot of our writers and a lot of the writers on Words Without Borders are not safe to write and to read and to be publicly seen where they live. We have a writer we discovered through Words Without Borders named Mortada Gzar from Iraq. And he and I decided to work together, but we couldn't figure out what to do because he thought his novels were so very Iraqi in terms of how they're written, that Americans wouldn't understand them. And what he wanted to do was write his personal memoir of his love story with an American soldier, an African-American soldier, and he fell in love in the tank when Mortada was his interpreter. And he can't publish this book in Arabic, he can't talk about this book on Arabic language news media, but every single thing we do to support the book is going to be visible everywhere and if we get a great Wall Street Journal review that exposes everything that's inside of the memoir, there's just no way that we could prevent that from being a security threat for the author. So he's really like saying out loud, like, I'm not going home, I'm not going back. And we, from a foreign rights perspective, we're not gonna sell Arabic foreign rights, and we're gonna try to be cautious and make sure any publisher we sell rights to in the Middle East or Africa has like some sort of understanding about the risks to the author and their distribution as well. But I think that's actually true of translators as well. And if you think about all of the diversity on Words Without Borders, and the number of writers writing from totalitarian places, and you watch what's happening with China and Hong Kong, you can have a safe haven and then it ends, and everyone who's been affiliated with that safe haven is already exposed. So that exposure aspect, I think also creates life threatening risk.
Chad: Yeah, I agree with all that. And to follow up on all this seriousness of all that, I'll just say, the worst thing I think about putting stuff digitally for myself, is that nobody will like it . If don't get enough of those hearts, it'll just be a grand disappointment. That's a real struggle.
Gaby: Happens all the time with translated books.
Chad: Constantly, man.
Sam: Yeah, I do, I wanna echo what you said, Gaby, because I think, we've been warned by local experts when we're dealing in certain territories with writers that, for example, North Korea, don't even try to contact your authors because if you even try, that could be very bad for them and for their families. And, that's part of the reason we've only done one North Korean issue. But it is, it's a little bit scary sometimes to be operating in the digital public sphere. And we all do have to, it's great when it's going well, and as everyone knows when it's not going well, it can be really, really scary and terrifying.
Gaby: We haven't talked about the risk of the echo chamber online, Chad sort of started to talk about it. But even in the translation community, I think there's like a groupthink that happens on Twitter, and that happens in every space that you see digital conversation going on around literature and translation. And I think it's really quick that we, as a group are making these, sort of huge shifts in thinking, and that is a very exclusive and sort of, it's just a new version of the ivory tower. And you think about how important it is for the books that we're talking about that they reach beyond that audience and beyond that community, but you also can see the power that community has in terms of, that's where the jurors are for all the important literary awards. They're often the reviewers who write reviews of literature and translation. And it's a popularity contest essentially. So is that rigging prizes in favor of things that were popular? Is it shifting the way that we perceive quality toward the group of the loudest voices in the simplest domain?
Chad: Exactly. It's like we're putting out these voices that we want to, we wanna put out diverse voices from all over the world and let these diverse viewpoints be heard. And at the same time, how much do we then start playing to that crowd because we know that there is really, that most of the books, and this is sort of the good bad again, of data, in particular, is that with the translation database, when we started that there were only 360 books that came out for the first time in translation of fiction and poetry for the whole year, which is so remarkably small. And of those 360, like probably 300 of them got no reviews, no attention, no mentions anywhere. And by making that data available, suddenly it shifted, the conversation shifted into producing more books and changing that actual number. So now there's so many more books, but because there's so many more books, but without the infrastructure of readership backing it up, it becomes like any other part of culture, especially in a digital sphere, where there's a couple big winners, and then a lot of non noticeable books. As you almost end up playing to that ideal, which could shift our aesthetics in ways that we are opposed to, in terms of our philosophy as publishers and as readers of diverse international literature.
Sam: I think it's always helpful to bear in mind too, that last time I checked, only about 20% of Americans are even on Twitter.
Chad: Thank God.
Sam: And you know, I think there's 13 million people in the UK who are on Twitter. So it's always helpful to me when things start to feel like they're getting a little bit out of control to remember that basic fact.
Gaby: But then that also is the importance of trying to think about all those other readers who you couldn't possibly reach with a social media marketing campaign and who are not gonna hear about the book because it's being buzzed about in the community that you're paying the most attention to. Of everything that's actually one of the things that Amazon has great strength at, is trying to figure out, well, how do we expose people who are otherwise completely unaware, and how do we expose them in a favorable way?
Sam: Okay. Let's do question number three. How can technology help the international literary field be more equitable?
Gaby: I mean, Words Without Borders is a huge part of this. I think as an editor, I used to only have submissions coming from agents I know, which is pretty much like why I speak French and Spanish, so everything from French and everything from Spanish, I have some way of knowing about. But even Latin America is like sort of excluded from the perspective of the publishing community when I started my career. So the difference between then and now is that I can find almost anything I'm curious about. And I'll find all sorts of things I didn't know I was curious about and discover languages I've never heard of, and actually identify that there's a translator working from that language. And that's thanks to websites like Words Without Borders and Asymptote, thanks to the 3% database, because you can actually very quickly search and say, well, I wanna do a book from Palestine, what other books have been done from Palestine? How did they do? And you can really dive in really quickly to understand realms of the publishing sector that you would otherwise have never even known they existed.
Chad: Yeah, this is one that actually, a point that I think is a positive in favor of the internet in general in terms of like, breaking down some of the class structures that are prevalent throughout publishing, which kind of goes back to what Sean was talking about at the beginning too, is that in terms of translations back in the day, it was like the editor or publisher taking a boat across the ocean to meet with other, white male Europeans at their martini lunches, to find out about Thomas Mann, and whatever else. And nowadays that that's definitely not the case, and you have a lot of younger editors who have different viewpoints, who are from different backgrounds, who are capable of making connections with people from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore wherever, and being able to find those books and uncover those voices, is equalizer. Like does it end up that way because of the structures that are placed in the publishing industry as a whole, probably they disrupt it too much. But at least there's a chance there, that a lot of these books, that would not have gotten heard, not have gotten published but it's simply because they weren't from a French publisher, they weren't translated in German, now there is a fighting chance for them. And I think that that's actually something we shouldn't devalue in any way.
Sam: Yeah, I think it bears just stating what a huge barrier to entry into the American Anglo publishing system it is to not write in English. And that was really why Words Without Borders was founded by Elaine Mason, because I think she realized that the internet had this great potential for being an equalizer. And we've seen through the years a number of our authors be picked up either by agents or by editors who otherwise might not have found their work. Because they just couldn't break in through the traditional modes of the publishing network. And that's in part, because you're an anomaly Gaby, like not a lot of American and British editors will be comfortable reading a novel in another language and then buying it on the basis of their original text, and relying on someone else's opinion for readers report is a little bit dicey. You know, it's not your own take on the book. So I think that that has, it has contributed to the trend that you've tracked on the translation database Chad, where more and more, I think editors are feeling more comfortable with something that might be out of their comfort zone, and taking a chance on it. And then you have these great successes like Ferrante or Knausgard and then people say, yeah, we know, let's try that again. So there's momentum for sure. I think it's also been really helpful to us to work with contributors, and even staff remotely. And it might be interesting to talk a little bit about how it's equalized the playing field for translators, I've noticed now it seems like there are more translators who are kind of going back and forth between US and UK publishing houses when world rights haven't been snapped up for World English, then you end up with often. Gaby, you work with translators in the UK, Chad, I know that Sara Mesa's book was translated by a woman who's based in Spain. And I think it's great for the translators to have that, the market open up so much more. It's not all based on the martini lunch, as you say Chad.
Chad: Yeah, exactly.
Gaby: It also increases the chances of the book selling in multiple countries too. So we buy world rights generally and if we have a Singapore based or Australia based translator, it actually significantly increases the buy in from retailers in those countries. And it increases our chances of selling digital books as well in that direction. You have someone who's working tirelessly to promote the book, in a marketplace where you may not have the PR connections that you have in the US. So actually, there's a real advantage to having an international team behind a book.
Chad: I was just gonna say this is one of the few panels that I think I've seen in which all three participants are not in New York City.
Gaby: Which is another great, it's a great thing about the kind of pandemic circumstances that I've been able to attend events like the British Library Sebald lecture last week, to see David Bellos give his lecture about translation. For me, that was the highlight of my week. This is great.
Chad: Here’s a question to follow up. I know that we have another question you have on your list, but related to that. So we've talked a lot about like kind of where we are and what the internet has done in terms of providing access but also like it's sort of double-edged sword ideas of kind of limiting popular . I just think now that we're in this quarantine initially when March 15th happened and the world started really shutting down, everyone was on Zoom, everyone's talking, everything's there, all the events are there, everyone's like putting everything there. And now like some months have passed, and some of that has sort of died out, some of it is has reformed has become very strong. This series has been one of strong series that continues on to make sense. How do you guys see this progressing over the next like, couple years? Like, is there gonna be a Zoom fatigue? Is it gonna be that we figured out that this is a very viable way to make international literature accessible to a much broader audience? We did have the same guy that was on, that was talking about "Four by Four" in two months review. He lives in a small town in North Carolina. And he's like, I've never been able to see events with like, international authors or translators, they don't come to like North Carolina to do events. So now he has this access. There is that, but I'm just curious like how you think that will evolve as we continue living with this virus for the time being, but also like a sort of just general, a new form of dread that keeps us like, in this space instead of in a crowded space.
Gaby: I fear it's gonna be just like what our hopes were for the internet at first, where it was like, oh, it's like an encyclopedia, you can learn anything, you can connect with anyone anywhere about things you're interested in. We're all gonna be so much smarter and better connected. And then flash forward six months and somebody's figured out how to make money off of it, and there's no way to do anything cool anymore. I think Zoom is like actually like doing a pretty good job of not taking too much advantage of the moment. But I think that the decentralization like just moving, I mean, we talk about decentering the US being a hot priority for all of us and that all of us are maybe like completely ill qualified to attempt to do. Decentering New York, we should be able to do though. I mean, that seems like duh. I mean, America is not New York. And if you think about how much New York publishing has sort of been criticized, and has not evolved, seeing Deep Vellum pop up seeing, there's so many cool small presses that are in other cities, Graywolf has turned like Minneapolis into just the coolest book city that exists. There's some opportunity there. But there's also so little money, and there's so few that guarantees that a lot of that growth and a lot of that excitement is temporary. And I sort of see this series I keep asking Esther and Alison to become Oprah because if this existed every Tuesday for the rest of my life, I would have support and like a safe space to come to learn things. And it would be so good for me. But I don't know that the capitalist infrastructure that we all exist within has a space for free open dialogue.
Sam: Yeah, I don’t…
Chad: This is true. It is one of the things as a, I'm sorry, as a nonprofit side of things, like there's always been the problem with raising money for nonprofit publishing because it doesn't have a physical location. It's like you can raise money from people who wanna donate to the opera or to theatre because they can see what their impact is, they can go to a space and say, this is what I helped put on, or is gonna come see this play because I helped make this possible. But with books, it's like, yeah, your funding allowed you to get your book into, get this book printed and put into a store throughout the country. And that's a very, like, non-tangible sort of feeling. And with this sort of decentralization and Zoom world that we've entered into, it's kind of a world of illusion, it could either reinforce that or upend it. And I think that it's still, the jury's still out on that. Like, in some sense now, you can see what we're doing. And we're creating like educational content that's very, very tangible, but in the sense that they, digital is tangible or the internet is tangible. But at the same time like we aren't, like are we connected to Rochester? Like no, now we're, like now we are only existing online in a way that we can't do like an event here and be like we brought Sara Mesa from Spain to Rochester, look what we did, we are good for our community, help donate make us make this possible. Now it's like we can go online and do that for anyone. But at the same time, they might not feel the personal benefit in their immediate life. So I think it's gonna be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next like year.
Sam: Absolutely. It'll be interesting to see what happens in New York too, the extent of change that the big parts of the infrastructure commit to. Yeah, I feel like in my own work life, I've gotten a lot busier because now I have access to stuff that I wouldn't have had access to before because I had to be there physically. So that's, that's a plus. But I also think, speaking as a translator I have to kind of guard my time as well. Because if I don't make time for the translation, I could spend all day every day surfing around and attending different cool events with writers I admire and translators I admire, and just educating myself about the landscape. So, it's hard to find balance. I think we have seen a huge explosion in the use of the campus website since schools shut down in March. And that's really exciting. Because, well, first, I think, as a mother of a son, a 14 year old who's trying to do distance learning, which is deadly boring. It's exciting to have more dynamic content as a teacher that you can offer your students where you've got interviews with the author that you can play, or that they can watch and then come into class and discuss kind of Khan Academy style. So that's exciting and I think the potential for growing readership of literature and translation or maybe, dare I say, readership in general. People have more alone time. So are people reading more? I don't know, I haven't seen any studies about that yet. But I would like to, I would be very interested. I think one other thing, I just got a survey about this yesterday about what impact prizes and awards will have. And that's a double-edged sword, right? Because they can carry so much weight but in an atmosphere where you can't go to your local bookstore and ask your favorite bookseller, hey, what are you reading this month? What's at the top of your list? You know what I like, so tell me something that you think I wanna read. I worry a little bit that the big prizes will eat up a lot of oxygen in the room, which you know, is good for those books. But it's not great for all the other 450 books or you know how many?
Chad: Yeah, it really comes back to the idea of like, does like the one success rise the tide or whatever that phrase is, I can never keep, I screw up
Sam: ”A rising tide raises all boats."
Chad: Lifts all boats, yeah.
Chad: So like if there's one, does the Ferrante make all translation rise? Or does the Ferrante be an outlier and all the other translations sink because nobody else is buying any other book or hearing about them? I don't think that that metaphor works either but I'm gonna leave it there for now.
Gaby: They’re also corrupt. So we're like seeing with the National Book Critics Circle Award, that these organizations are just as screwed as all of our other organizations and systems of power. So I'm pretty interested to see what the community grassroot's solution is to literary recognition. I don't think we've seen it yet and I'm expecting it.
Chad: Yeah, and that's where, I mean it could really serve a purpose. I mean, this is again drawing like a bad, a red line between two dots. But like the TikTok thing related to Trump's rally is really impressive, that there's a group of people that are able to like, just straight up troll Donald Trump in an interesting way. That's not necessarily a literary thing, but these people are thinking different and doing things that aren't being told from like a top down. And that's always been like the grassroot's case in the way that it is. But we're more noble now than I think in the past. And so like, there's ways that that, that I think you're right, that the groups of people are gonna create something that's better than the system saying, I am gonna deem this book the best.
Gaby: The blackout bestseller list movement, I mean, that was grassroots and it didn't exactly like create a multiplicity of types of books that people are buying and reading, but it certainly shifted corporate attention. And I'm sure I'm not the only editor in the publishing world who had a lot of conversations and a sudden new openness with our board of decision makers. So I think the power of something like that, it's like, well, it's not just because this is an anti-racist book list, and these are the types of books that people are gonna read from now on. That's not what it says. It says, there is an enormous audience that is waiting to be led, and if you lead them toward how to be an anti-racist, they will choose that one. And if it's good, and you add books into the stream, that might be the rising tide that lifts all boats, is that sense that actually, as a community, we can reject some of the norms.
Chad: Yeah, you know what it is, in my opinion, that ties into that you almost said the exact thing I was going to, is that, we do have people that hack the algorithm. Like everything's being dictated by algorithms, we talked about the echo chamber, everything's in this sort of stream. I mean, we joked about it, because there's, I saw this Instagram post where someone's like, oh, I'm gonna describe the rug I want out loud, so Alexa will send me a very targeted ad for that rug. probably that happened to you, happened to me the other day, complaining about my Bose Bluetooth speaker when it worked, and so Amazon said, you might be interested in these products and it was a series of like outdoor Bluetooth speakers. So I just bought one. Like we are in that algorithm is dictating so much in like chew up and that, to allow for more diversity of voice in a intellectual ideas and whatnot, we're gonna need people that hack that algorithm. And like take back your data and take back your power in this dynamic, away from these structures that are like capable of using mass amounts of data to sort of predict. And this is like now we're like, jumping into Westworld territory. But it's not that far removed, like they are predicting what we want. And like I believe Amazon even had a program that would like send you things before you ordered them. Upending that will be a key to like the digital future for I think all arts.
Gaby: So BTS for all-powerful… [laughs] Kpop solves the problems for all of us.
Sam: Let’s end on a futuristic note, and I apologize for my phone ringing over here. What is holding us back from seizing technology to advance our cause?
Chad: I don't think most of us that are in this industry know the intricacies of the technologies and their impact in the way that the people do that are working on those technologies. So we're at like a real weird technical disadvantage at this point in time. And there's that uptake of like programs for humanities, or for like, digital humanities and digital humanity initiatives to try and blend, like the humanities with this more technologically savvy focus. And I don't know how successful that's been with raising a new generation of readers, but I feel like for publishing people, we're still operating under this great humanistic principles. And we will always, I think will, and that leaves us sort of vulnerable to the people who know how to take those humanistic impulses and like, and quantify them and do things with them and use them to an advantage to make more money for not the players on the ground, not the author's, not the translators, not the, even the editors, but the middleman. And that's the part where I think that we're the most disadvantaged.
Gaby: It’s also the books are a safe space that are not digital. So just the sheer fact that we offer an alternative to the onslaught of attention grabbing emojis that streams through our days, and that we suggest, like, if you wanna know what Sean Bye has been doing lately, you can just sit and read this book. You don't need anything else, you don't need to talk to anyone about it, you don't need to have a plan for what you're gonna do afterward. It's entirely private. And you think about that private head space and the idea of having ambition that is only yours and that is not on a path somewhere. I think people are going to rebel against digital by reading books.
Chad: Essentially, like if the goal of sheer pure capitalism is that you're spending money 24 seven in one way or another either by providing data or actually physically spending money, disconnecting from that and reading a book is the most revolutionary act you could have. Because you're getting out of that capitalism, you're not spending any money during that, you're wasting in a capitalist term, like dozens of hours just sitting there with one product. Like, maybe come on, TikTok, get off of the TikTok. Or whatever, I don't know, spread the right word.
Sam: They might be banning to talk now. I read in my PEN America freedom of expression bulletin today that it's been proposed, they're gonna, because you know, China, so they're gonna. And then the election is definitely not gonna look good. Although all those 12 and 13 year olds can't vote, so maybe it will have no impact whatsoever. I think maybe we should open it up to questions now. I'll just say that I think at Words Without Borders, we don't have the expertise that you're talking about Chad. And maybe Gabriella, you have it at Amazon, you have colleagues who can kind of tap you into that, but, we really need to reach out to consultants who have that expertise and extensive digital marketing experience to be able to take advantage of it. We can't afford to have that person on staff on our tiny nonprofit shoestring budget. So, we have to pay for consultants and that definitely does hold us back, in a maybe meaningful way, I don't know, time will tell. But in the meantime we're gonna keep on keeping on and see if we can get more writers from around the world launched in the US market. Okay, now what happens, how do we get the questions?
Allison: This is how you get the questions.
Allison: All you have to do is ask, it's very simple. This is amazing, so fascinating to hear you guys talk about all of this.
Sean: And thank you for the shameless plug Gaby, I appreciate it .
Allison: All right, so we've had some great questions so far. And we're gonna go with the first one from our, my regular co-host who of course cannot stay away Esther Allen, she sends in a question, all of you represent organizations that have become highly respected and influential institutions, but that didn't exist 20 years ago, and might even have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. What would you like to see happen in the next 20 years in the global literary translation sphere, that hasn't happened yet?
Gaby: Can I start?
Sam: Yes, go.
Gaby: I’m hopeful that we have students in the audience. One of the things that I learned recently that I want to see change is that, monolingualism is the minority. I wanna see more bilingual kids who become translators and who understand the power that they were born with and that they can nurture. I wanna see our education institutions find a path for them. And I want to see the infrastructure of literature and translation, whether it be online short format, or books or subtitles and all of the other streams that exist, audiobooks, I wanna see it grow enough that there is sustainability so that Chad and Samantha are not constantly fundraising to see if tomorrow can be. And so that all of the for profit companies like my own, have like just a rock solid foundation that they're always growing from and never any sense that this might erode.
Chad: I’m gonna say something radical. I don't know that there's this, I'm just trying to think of like what can we not envision that could be like really different. And we're still stuck within the thinking of like, how a traditional publishing company is set up. Like Open Letter is not radical in our like construction, we're part of a university in a special way that other people aren't, but that's still like, we're still pretty traditional. What if publishing becomes more like bit to bit internationally especially, that it's not so much that we need to create these structures that last over decades by creating access capital and being able to perform the functions that a publisher does, but rather like a translator slash author, and like a promoter can take a book and make that book available and make a success out of that without having to go through, not in a sense of like self-publishing, a little bit different than that, but like some sort of more less structured and more amorphous sort of organizations that come about to create art and to create literary arts that don't have to rely upon these old hierarchical, and very mediated things that we do in our life. Like the way that our books come to be and all the pens that they pass through, is not the most advantageous for profit for us. And I wonder if like the next generation of kids that are interested in this, are gonna figure out ways to be doing those books that we can't do because we couldn't get funding or sales to sustain them. But they figure out a new way by saying like, your system's dumb anyways, like your system's old, like we have a new way of figuring out how to get this book into this language and into the hands of all these readers, that doesn't involve your way.
Sam: Okay, I'm a little bit of a luddite and as you're talking Chad, I'm thinking about print on demand and digital readers. And I first wanna say, I hope that the physical book, the paper, the smell, will never go away. And that, I am hopeful having observed my own children, that will, it will survive. But what I would like to see is a greater interconnectedness. So you're building not a national readership, but you're building a global readership. And we saw a little glimpse of this when we did our launch of our query issue last month, and we had 100 different, approximately 100 different viewers from around the world. And literally, I mean the Philippines, Georgia, the country not the state, and the US, the UK, Romania, to have that community to build that sense of community around literature, I think provides one of the most valuable functions of literature, which is not only do you, you build empathy, we know that from brain studies, but you can also build real meaningful connections between people and, call me like a dreamer, but that seems to me to be one of the best antidotes to rising nationalism and xenophobia. That you just keep connecting people and let them build personal relationships, and help combat. I mean, it's on the rise all around the world, Sean, you've seen it in Poland. I mean, it's really a dangerous time in many countries. So, when you can connect with your tribe, I'm not advocating tribalism. But when you can connect with people who you have that in common with, I think that same kind of groundswell of something potentially powerful could happen.
Sean: We have another question from a viewer. Now that the digital age has collapsed distance making it possible to engage with writers and translators without standing face to face with martini in hand. You have so much stuff available to you as editors that it must be paralyzing to even try to consider it all, how do you even proceed? What advice do you have for translators hoping to have their authors stand out? Do you like to hear comps in our pitches? And I'll add one related question I have which is, how far are we from a computer reading those submissions and filtering them before they go to an editor.
Gaby: It’s not gonna be my job to set the filters. Hopefully. Right now everybody's looking for Black writers, so send all of your submissions that are Black writers. It’s so short term though, so there's like every moment in the trends that changes is gonna, the editor is thinking through so many different layers of filter. And I hate saying no, because six months later, I always am like, oh, man, I should have said yes to Black phones six months ago, instead of waiting around, and now everyone else knows about it. But editors in literature and translation are really rich, because there is not as much competition as there is for a debut writer writing in English. I think there are a number of signals that catch my attention if an author is popular at home or in other translations if an author has a big platform and is doing a lot to spread the word about their work. Digital is a huge path for that and even if you don't have an English language, Twitter presence or Facebook presence actually having proof that you've built a fan base and you're maintaining that and interacting with that is very interesting. And I think prioritizing which submissions I read in which order, is actually the thing I get the sickest about at my job. It's like, do I just like Sean so much that I read what he sends me literally the moment he sends it to me, and I just ignore everything Samantha's sending. Like, that's not fair. But for me, a lot of it is diversity based. It's a lot of thinking about the list as a whole. We've got a lot of European writers already for next year, we've got Asian writers already for next year, we have a gap with the Global South. I wanna find as many submissions as I can from the Global South, what does that mean? Who do I know? So actually, the things that are at the top of my list are often the things that I've solicited. And the translators who I've reached out to and said like I know you know more about this than I do, can you fill me in. But there isn't a fair way to fix this. And it's email that we're all using as our sort of attention grabber. So it's a wildly subjective and difficult to change system, that I don't even know how to write down what the system is.
Chad: Something I wanna say. Maybe this is more of a Luddite as to or something, some sort of throwback. But I do value the personal connections with either the author, the agent or the translator. And that that is a influence, and I don't find it to be a bad one. Because a lot of this industry, is like if we based all of our decision making on what's most likely to sell, which would be what you as a translator could be like, I know X, Y and Z, this will sell a lot of copies, because of these things. The odds of that working are pretty low, like a lot of books in translation don't break even, or don't make money, they just don't. So if you're basing your decisions on that, you're probably gonna fail a lot. So there is something about like the joy of it and the joy of it comes from the personal connections, be it with the author, translator, agent, readers, booksellers, whomever it is. I kind of do, it sucks, but i think that that matters, I think that means a lot. And I think that's gonna be one of these tricky things about this time period is that we're getting a lot of more submissions from people because they have more time, but they're coming in a way that's just like an email. They're flat. It's not like we're at a conference, we're not at Bread Loaf talking about things and like, just someone says something and it lands or you talk to that person and you're like, oh, this person reads the way I read or like they're into reading the sort of books that I am, and I want to support that. That's not really happening right now. And that's a little tricky I think. I still think that that's a very important thing.
Sam: I think, at Words Without Borders, we're in a slightly different situation. Because we decided a couple of years ago not to accept unsolicited submissions anymore. When we're trying to cover the globe and cover hundreds of countries and 100 plus languages, it becomes impossible to do with a four and a half person staff without selecting very carefully guest editors who are experts in a specific literature and can say this is the most exciting work that's going on in my country or in my language right now. And, we're still not all the way there, we're eliminating more languages every year. But since we're using those guest editors to help share their expertise to direct us, what we do would not be possible without our amazing guest editors. But I think we will, we'll shift from that older model of what we had a kind of monthly issue, to a more modern, kind of this decade model, where you have every day a couple of different pieces showing up. So it's not just one launch a month and then everyone goes away and forgets about it. That seems to be how people are reading these days. And I think the one constant will be what both Gaby and Chad have alluded to, which is there's always someone whose literary sensibility you have confidence in and you trust, and, when push comes to shove, those are the things that I would probably read first because you know that you're simpatico with that person. Just like when I go down to Brazos bookstore, to go and buy a book, there is a bookseller who I wanna see and ask, what should I read today? Same with book clubs, when you get recommendations from a pal about what to read.
Gaby: It’s a dangerous thing, though. You know, my colleagues and I have been talking a lot about our own bias and trying to understand what makes us like something and what makes us dislike something.
Gaby: And I don't know yet the answer to that question. I think that that's just as long as we keep asking it, at least increases the chances. But until you have a more representative group of people reading the submissions, you're gonna be stuck with the tastes and opinions of the handful of readers you have engaged.
Allison: Well, I have my own question about awareness and using data to raise awareness. And I guess from like my own experience, it was sort of when the Women in Translation was gaining ground, or becoming a groundswell. I mean, I was able, like, I remember having conversations with some of my fellow Japanese translators about Japanese women writers, and I went to the translation database to actually, to confirm what the numbers were. And I mean, I was actually, I was appalled by the dearth of women writers, how many more male writers were being published. And so for that, like, that was a very concrete example of technology, raising awareness and I mean of it like Women in Translation right there you have that but I'm wondering about how technology might help to raise awareness in other ways? I don't know if you've given any thought to it or had an experience like that?
Gaby: You know Crossing got credit for being, publishing the most Women in Translation. And I was like, well, I'm a woman and my whole team are feminists. So that's not like an accident, but it's also not a strategy, it's just the truth. And I think I would really love to see the database track race or track something that will help us to identify who is writing as the descendant of the colonizer and who is writing as the descendant of the colonized. Because I think actually, when you think about our diversity metrics in the US, they don't fit for international writers. But you can definitely break it down to say, well, are you writing from a perspective of oppression in the language that you're in? And I would love to be able to track that in the same way that women in translation are tracked so that I can take it to my decision makers and the people who fund our business and say, this is a problem we can help with, this is what it will cost, this is how we track our progress.
Chad: Yeah, I agree. I think that data like that is very useful. But there's a fine line, like I don't wanna be gathering. I think personally I can't add that to the database man, I can barely keep my head above water. It is tough. It is a single person activity. But there's also like, the more data you start gathering, where does that slope become too slippery? Where is too far? Like we had enough questions about putting the gender of the author and translator on there, and like being able to make sure that it could be non-specified because it's, and that we're just going by whatever pronouns are, but nevertheless, like that still like feels, like I don't feel entirely comfortable with it. Like I'm not, because I'm entering that and making that decision for this individual based on a bio that someone put together that I found online or like a PW reference that refers to the author as a she. Like, that's a little bit, that's already a little bit weird. I don't know where, the more that it goes down into other categories it would be more uncomfortable, I think I personally would feel putting in their information.
Sam: Labor of love, is what I will call the translation database Chad. And I mean, I can't thank you, enough.
Allison: Well, I'm so sad that we're out of time. But this was an amazing conversation. Thank all of you so much and thank you to my guest co-host Sean as well. Once again, we'd like to thank our partners, HowlRound, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the graduate center CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and the Martin E. Segal Theater Center. Thank you and we hope to see you next.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
About HowlRound TV
HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by the nonprofit HowlRound. HowlRound TV is a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world's performing arts and cultural fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Participate in a community of peer organizations revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field by becoming a producer and co-producing with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, email email@example.com, or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.