Translated Fiction by Translators of Colour
By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollet and Amy Strong
In recent years, there have been conversations about white translators translating work by authors of colour and whether it is appropriate. There have been instances where translators have withdrawn from translations, or their translations have not been used because of this. Translators of colour are heavily underrepresented in the publishing industry. Last year, translators in the UK released a statement calling for racial equality in literary translation.
Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego, translated by Aaron Robertson. Published by Two Lines Press in 2019
Having previously written for prominent publications such as The New York Times, The National and Foreign Policy, Aaron Robertson is currently a writer, translator and editor at Spiegel & Grau and has a non-fiction book coming out in 2023: The Black Utopians.
Robertson began learning Italian at Princeton University and spent time studying abroad in Bologna, which was where he first came across the novel that would later earn him huge critical acclaim in the translation world: Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego. Sprawling across nations, languages and generations – from Argentina to Somalia, Italian to Arabic, mother to daughter – this book is an exploration of what defines and shapes us: race, gender, country, politics, family, trauma, secrets.
He embarked on a translation of the novel for his senior thesis. Despite the fact that by the winter holidays he had only translated the first eighty pages, he not only managed to finish his translation, but also won numerous prestigious awards for his work, including the 2020 PEN Translation Prize. His translation has been described by International Booker Prize-winning translator Jennifer Croft as “entrancing and pitch-perfect,” whilst Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri has stated that Robertson’s translation demonstrates “remarkable sensitivity, precision and elegance.”
When asked how his various literary roles overlap, Robertson replied that his involvement in translation has encouraged him as a writer and editor to avoid monotony and sameness. He explains, “when you read stories outside your national context, it encourages you to break outside of certain conventions.”
Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hirst, translated by John Keene. Published by New Directions in 2015
Many readers of this article may be familiar with John Keene through his excellent collection of stories, Counternarratives, published by New Directions in 2015. As an intricate, detailed work of remarkable scope, it should not be a surprise that John Keene takes on similarly complex challenges as a translator.
Hilda Hirst was an avant-garde Brazilian author, whose works employed fractured and disruptive narratives – see Com Os Meus Olhos de Cão (With My Dog Eyes) for an example of just how distorted syntax and language can be in a Hilda Hirst book. Letters from a Seducer is no different, but John Keene approaches the text with a level of care and precision that allows the complexity and beauty of the original work to thrive.
Letters from a Seducer follows the story of Karl, a man who answers the big questions of life through the most important act that any human takes part in: sex. The book, however, is not read through Karl, but through the perspective of Stamatius, who finds his letters to Cordelia, Karl’s sister, who is his opposite. Hilda Hirst regularly explores the sexuality of women in the 20th century, and this work is the ultimate example of this.
Despite the linguistic and formal experimentation within the work, the novel remains entirely fascinating, with jaw-dropping twists and engaging characters, all elevated in English by John Keene’s exceptional translation.
Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson (translator from French and Spanish into English)
Renowned Jamaican translator, Elizabeth Wilson has been translating works from the Caribbean canon for over thirty years. From 1987’s celebrated novel Juletane by Guadeloupean writer Myriam Warner-Vieyra, to lauded Haitian author Yanick Lahens and her latest translation of Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz.
In an interview with Southern World Art News, Wilson stated she’s, “bilingual in Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Creole but, unfortunately, I do not speak French Creole fluently.” What a fascinating advantage for a Jamaican translator that perhaps renders her ear more sensitive to the tiers inherent in most creole-based Caribbean dialects, ranging from the acrolect (a local variety of English/French/Spanish spoken by educated speakers with high socio-economic status) to the basilectal (this creole is likely used by rather uneducated low-status speakers). Throughout Wilson’s career she’s addressed the so-called language “divides” at play in the Caribbean literary scene. There are several ways Wilson sees that have the efficacy to open the “silos” of imagining an English, French, Spanish or Caribbean literature. Whether through the promotion of more texts in translation on school curricula, or through more 'foreign' film festivals [that] have done a lot to promote the literatures of other countries. Literary festivals like Calabash in Jamaica have also introduced and promoted writers who do not write in English.”