Julia Sanches translates literature from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan and has recently written about the intricacies and obstacles of literary translation for Words Without Borders and Granta. Some of her recent book-length translation projects include The Sun on My Head by Brazilian writer Geovani Martins and Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Portuguese writer Susana Moreira Marques. Now based in Providence, Rhode Island, Sanches was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has spent extended periods of time in the New York, Mexico, Switzerland, Scotland, and Catalonia, giving her an intimate knowledge of the languages and cultures in which she works.
Sanches is also is a founding member of Cedilla & Co, a translators’ collective dedicated to bringing great literature from across the world to English while also supporting and advocating for the community of literary translators. The group consists of translators Sean Gasper Bye (Polish), Heather Cleary (Spanish), Jeremy Tiang (Chinese), Alex Zucker (Czech), Allison Markin Powell (Japanese), Alta Price (Italian and German), Elisabeth Jaquette (Arabic), and Jeffrey Zuckerman (French).
Literary translation is a lonely undertaking, without much formalized support in the US and UK for recognizing, compensating, and championing literary translation. But Cedilla & Co. represents an effort to change all of that. I wrote to Julia Sanches to ask her about Cedilla & Co. and her own translation work.
NATHAN SCOTT MCNAMARA: Can you tell me about how Cedilla & Co. came together? Why would literary translators form a collective? How do the members of Cedilla & Co. collaborate to support and promote translated literature?
JULIA SANCHES: Cedilla & Co. was born out of a conversation Sean Bye and I had one weekend afternoon a few years back at a café in Brooklyn as we co-worked on our respective translation projects. We wanted to figure out how to systematize or formalize a lot of the unpaid labor we as translators do — much of which is commonly under the purview of agents and scouts — with the aim of lessening that burden. Sean knew of a collective agenting model in the UK for actors and had the idea that we could try a similar model for literary translators. By working collaboratively, we thought, we might be able to extend our reach.
One of my personal motivations for trying this model was to democratize how translations were submitted and therefore, hopefully, published; making sure editors across publishing houses had the opportunity to judge a project on its literary merit rather than ruling them out ahead of time because said publisher doesn’t usually publish translations. The idea was to target editors outside the usual suspects across a wide range of publishing house, which is how agents approach the submission process.
Full-time literary translators (i.e. those of us who aren’t in a PhD program and don’t have other full-time employment) spend most of our time alone. In the US, we’re spread across an enormous body of land. Access to one another and to information — what editors are reading and publishing, how translators are paid and the terms they receive, etc. — is spotty. In forming a collective, we force each other to get out of our pajamas and into the world. It also formalizes a means of information sharing that already takes place informally.
As a collective, the members of Cedilla & Co. support one another and promote each other’s translation work, which is part of the eco-system of “translated literature.” We also try to support emerging translators by participating in at least one informational panel a year at ALTA, on contracts, or the business of literary translation, or etc. Nearly all of us are full-time, which means we are acutely familiar with the pros and cons of attempting full-time professional literary translation.
Where is the collective based and how do you work together?
Two-thirds of us are based in New York; Lissie Jaquette is based in Tucson, where she is the Director of the ALTA; Alta Price is based in Chicago, where she is also part of the Third Coast Translators Collective; and I’m based in Providence, as you know, where I also work very part-time at the superlative bookstore and bar, Riffraff. We meet once a month over Skype or in person to catch up and discuss the ways in which we’d like to see literary translation as a profession change in the United States and figure out how we can address that as a collective.
How do you support each other in terms of your individual translation projects?
We share one another’s contracts for review, share terms we’ve received from similar publishers so that we have bargaining power, send samples around for an extra pair of eyes, share publishing intel — who’s moved where, what x editor is currently into, what journals are reading submissions, etc. — and generally cheer each other on. Which is easy since we’re all immensely fond of one another.
Do you find reasons to feel encouraged in terms of increased attention to translated literature in the US over the past five years? (Or reasons to feel discouraged?)
Every so often I hold my breath and hope to [insert here appropriate deity, or no] that the uptick in literary translations and the attention being given to translation and translators is not a trend. This said, in the US and in the UK (I can’t speak for other English-speaking countries) we still have work to do to provide readers with a consistently diverse and balanced literary offering. If you walk around a bookstore in Spain or in Brazil, you’ll find that almost half of what is on display is in translation, which reflects what’s being published. The number bandied about for the US is 3%, though I’m not sure if we’ve moved on from there.
There’s still a lot of navel-gazing in US publishing; most discussions about diversity tend to be about diversity within the US, which, though extraordinarily important, neglects the rest of the world. There’s also a lot of ghettoization and tokenization of literature from other languages and cultures. Attitudes such as: we can’t consider x book because we already have an author from the Czech Republic or a book about Cuba, as though other authors from those cultures couldn’t possibly offer a different perspective. When I’m not feeling lazy, I try to avoid the term “translated literature” or “literature in translation,” which, perhaps due to its concision, is often viewed as a genre. Like “world music.” Which, just, no.
To end on a positive note, though: there’s definitely a groundswell and my hope is that in a few years this groundswell will turn into the new normal. Chad Post of Open Letter Books writes with a lot of knowledge and information about translated literature within the US publishing ecosystem, and even created a database of books in translation that is now being hosted by Publishers Weekly. Worth giving him a read.
What are the most serious obstacles for the practice of literary translation and what could be done to improve them?
Money. Money. Money.
I know it’s impolite to talk about money, but unless we improve labor conditions for translators, that space is going to continue to be overwhelmingly white, privileged, and American (or British as the case may be), with palatably Anglo names, and what we produce, meaning what we translate, will be less diverse than it should be. This is a publishing-wide problem, though, and there are plenty of people working to change that from the inside. For example, I recently found out about the Representation Matters mentor program, which I know very little about but sounds like a wonderful initiative.
And to state a few more obvious solutions: we need more work, meaning we need editors to acquire more literature from other languages so that we don’t have to constantly hustle for our next project; we need more readers; we need more thoughtful reviews in major media outlets; we need more allies in the existing community of writers in the US and UK (more people like Garth Greenwell and Monique Truong and Hari Kunzru and Patti Smith, and like you, Nate) to help draw readers of their work outside their comfort zones.
I think a lot of the time you noted on social media that Amazon was selling your translation of The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins (a just-released brand new beautiful hard cover book, that you had spent an immense amount of time translating) for an offensively priced five dollars. Cover price for that book was $22. How does Amazon get away with this and how might readers help stop it?
Oh, man. Can we hand this question over to Tom and Emma?
I’m going to address this as a layperson; I don’t know enough about agreements between Amazon and publishers to speak knowledgeably about why Amazon can discount as heavily as they do in the US (and the UK?) market. I assume it’s because Amazon has a stranglehold on book retail, though I can’t say for sure. Amazon in Germany isn’t allowed to sell books below list price, and I don’t actually know why things are different there than they are here. Above all, I think Amazon can do what they do because they’re criminally convenient, and we’ve been taught to prize convenience above all else.
What can we as readers do? Stop buying books on Amazon, and instead buy them from local indie bookstores. If you live dreadfully far from an indie bookstore, you can order direct from the publisher. Or go to the library. There are options, even if they require more effort and patience on our part.
Amazon is part of a larger problem, though. I think we as a society have to, as we say in Spanish, cambiar el chip, we’ve got to reconfigure how we think about how we consume things and how we approach our day to day. In the wise words of my fellow Cedilla Jeremy Tiang: there is no way to live ethically under capitalism, and all we can do is make what appear to us to be the least bad choices.
You also do some work as a literary scout for publishers (and sometimes other literary translators do this too). Can you tell me what that this work looks like?
My not-so-generous description of literary scouts is that they’re the professional gossips of a by nature gossip-ridden industry. More accurately, though, literary scouts are kept on retainers by publishers to inform them of “hot” books before other publishers; they have to know what people are reading in other territories, what’s selling well and widely, what people are overlooking but might be a perfect for x house. I guess they’re like totally above-board industry spies.
My day-to-day of scouting looks like: harass a bunch of agents and foreign rights managers ahead of the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs until they tell me what they’re most excited about on their list, then read and write a brief report on it. It’s exciting because I get to read the books that will be published two or three years on in English. It’s exciting because I get paid to read. It’s done horrors to how I read, though.
What were your primary influences in becoming a literary translator?
I’ve been trilingual since I was eight. I was born in Brazil and my entire family is Brazilian, so we’ve always spoken Portuguese at home. I grew up in the United States, Mexico, and Switzerland, and as a consequence learned Spanish, Portuguese, and French (my French is pish now) by the age of 14. Conversations at home were often a potpourri of Romance languages plus English. My mom, dad, and brother are the only people I ever get to express the full extent of my word-salad thoughts with. Growing up multilingual has meant that the only place I feel truly at home is in between languages. To me, living monolingually sort of feels like being in a place where you have access to mangos, papayas, and passionfruit and deliberately choosing to only eat apples — no offense to apples — or going swimming with combat boots on when you could be wearing slippers.
Bad metaphors aside, I’ve always read voraciously and have always enjoyed writing. But at some point I realized I had nothing to say that anyone should be forced to read. So I put my creative energy into writing the words of others into English. It’s immensely comforting to building onto an existing framework. Conjuring that framework from nothing nearly always send me into a panic.
What translation projects have you been working on most recently?
I’ve gotten to translate so many great books this year! In order of upcoming publication, there’s Amora by Brazilian author Natalia Borges Polesso, a collection of queer short stories that are fun, weird and very tongue in cheek, one of which was published in Electric Literature earlier this year. Out on the same day in August is Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández about a woman’s struggle to help her daughters get ahead in the postwar of a nameless Latin American country (an excerpt was published here by WWB) and Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera, which follows a group of friends reunited after the death of the unspoken leader of their college countercultural friend group; but it’s also about human relationships, sexuality, and artistic creation in the digital age, and about scientific development under capitalism. Then, there’s Eartheater by Dolores Reyes, which follows a young woman who can see people who are dead or in danger whenever she eats earth, and is a commentary on femicide. Finally, there’s my first translation from Catalan, Permafrost by the poet Eva Baltasar, about a lesbian in Barcelona who wants only to live intensely, tries repeatedly to commit suicide and is consistently thwarted. What I love most about Permafrost is how Baltasar writes about female bodies and sexuality; it’s very unconventional, refreshing, and alluring.
Photo by Dagan Farancz.