Translator passion brings vibrant new voices to readers

By Katie King (Fairfax, VA)

It’s been 12 years since I left DC for London, and in the interim shifted my career from journalist and media executive to literary translator and translation scholar. Now I’m back in the greater DC area and thrilled to discover a vibrant community of translators and scholars.

Thanks to a tip-off from  Katherine E. Young, former Poet-Laureate of Arlington, VA and literary translator of Russian and Russophone writers, I was able to attend the Third Annual Day of Translation at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA yesterday (Sept. 25).

Co-sponsored by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco and the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center at George Mason, the event featured some of the top translators and publishers in the nation, including Jennifer Croft, co-winner of the 2018 International Booker Prize for her translation from  Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.

Two major themes of the day were voice and representation. Katherine Young queried members of the “Breaking Boundaries: Representation in Translation” panel on both topics. Pointing out that data shows the majority of authors translated into English are still European men, she asked: “What are my rights and responsibilities when I’m choosing a work to translate? How do you negotiate that question?”


Italian-to-English Translator Aaron Robertson and English-to-Spanish translator Ezio Neyra speaking on the “Breaking Boundaries: Representation in Translation” panel.

All three panelists – Ezio Neyra, Mui Poopoksakul and Aaron Robertson — said they were driven by a combination of their own personal interests and a desire to surface muted or forgotten voices.

Neyra translated James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room after realizing it had not been rendered into Spanish for some 40 years.

Poopoksakul is one of a handful of translators from  Thai to English. Her work, including the translation of the first woman Thai writer (Duanwad Pimwana) into English for international publication, is recognized for raising the global profile of Thai literature and culture. She told conference attendees that she selects authors and works that speak to her, though if all else were equal she would tend to choose the under-represented women’s voices. “It’s not for me to represent the Thai canon,” she said.

Robertson has embraced what he acknowledges is a “niche” voice in translation, but one that he is completely dedicated to: Afro-Italian women writers. His interest originated with his joint study of Italian language and African American Studies at Princeton. While studying in Rome he discovered the Afro-Italian writer Igiaba Scego and got her permission to translate her seminal work Beyond Babylon into English for his senior thesis at Princeton. The resulting work won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and an introduction to the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

“When I began to envision what I wanted for my career, I knew I just wanted to focus on African-Italian women translated into English. It’s a new field of scholarly interest. The work is good! It’s fun. Those who want to re-translate Dante, good luck. I want to translate authors who are transforming your view of literature,” Robertson said.

Four panels and a keynote speaker covered issues ranging from how to deal with mistakes of fact in the source text when translating non-fiction books to new trends in publishing translated books.

The whole event was free and open to the public. Bravo and thank you GMU and the Center for the Art of Literary Translation.

Singaporean translator Jeremy Tiang moderates the panel “Contemporary Literature from Asia,” with Jeffrey Angles, Mui Poopoksakul and Natascha Bruce. 

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