Reading in translation, a literary revolution

As we edge closer to Women in Translation month, we thought we'd prepare by inviting one of our favourite bloggers, Claire McAlpine of Word by Word for her thoughts and experiences on reading translated fiction.

'I have always been an avid and curious reader. We didn’t have a lot of books when I was a child, they were something of a little-indulged luxury expense for remote, rural families in New Zealand. However, every few months a Scholastic Books leaflet was distributed in the classroom, offering new books for children and I would pore over it looking for the one I really wanted and then trying to convince my parents how essential it was that they buy it. Sometimes I succeeded and would fill in the order form, give it back to the teacher and await the day the package was delivered to school and the books distributed to the fortunate few.

There wasn’t a library, but my grandparents lived near the city and always had a huge pile of books they regularly read and exchanged. My grandmother’s reading got me thinking about what it was I was drawn to in literature, as her reading preferences were so easy to find. Some years later, after my grandfather passed away, I’d accompany her to the library, to the aisle where all the books had a red dot on the spine. If there was a circle around page 21, put it back she said, if not, I’ll take it. Red dots were mysteries. I checked other colours to see if I could find my kind of book. Not so easy. I didn’t read an obvious genre and I didn’t really know how to describe what I read, I only knew when I found it, and I also knew they weren’t the kind of books my mother liked, despite trying to press them on her; too slow (carefully drawn out characters), too descriptive (lyrical, almost poetic prose), she preferred a good fast-paced thriller.

The books I wanted to read took me to places unknown, introduced me to people having transformational experiences, described inner landscapes that made me feel something cathartic and external environments that could both repel and entice. Some I could relate to, others provoked me to imagine things that challenged my way of seeing the world. Most of all they entertained while making me pause and think and want to discuss, they enriched my love of words, turn of phrase, metaphors, allowing me to enter the author’s parallel universe inspiring my imagination to construct vivid worlds as I saw them. Not Mystery, Magic.

I moved to London in the 1990’s and discovered my Aunt and Uncle were very widely read and had fabulous bookshelves I could lose hours perusing. I travelled throughout Europe and Asia swapping books with backpackers and sought out books written from within the country I visited, preferably not written from a Western perspective. I had no desire to read of Graham Greene’s Vietnam, not when I could learn so much more devouring Dương Thu Hương’s superb Paradise of the Blind (tr. Nina McPherson, Phan Huy Đường) and Bao Ninh’s heartbreaking The Sorrow of War (tr. Phan Thanh Hảo), books whose voices were unique, insightful, rarely heard and little known outside their own country at the time.

I began to become aware of how narrow the choices were in mainstream bookshops, how newspaper reviews often supported the same authors, tied to the English language, culture, education and way of life. Prize lists lost their appeal, their lack of diversity shamefully clear, their offerings too predictable. Even stories by authors with foreign sounding names, which always made me pick up a book (the promise of a story from elsewhere), often disguised an anglo-saxon education and point of view, the voices of second generation immigrants that had crossed over to become one of the accepted literary establishment. Nevertheless, I liked to read these novels, though soon they too became like a genre.

When I moved to France, I began to write about the books I read at Word by Word, my step by step journey of discovery to that holy grail of stories that light me up inside. I connected with others like me, reading ‘off piste’, no longer did we solely turn to bookstores or the newspaper review sections for guidance, we were part of a rich and wide ranging, global community of like-minded readers who liked to write about books and in my conversations with others, I became aware of publishers who specialised in bringing literature from outside the mainstream to the literary world, I discovered translated fiction.

I was already aware of Granta, who publish a journal of new writing from up and coming as well as established voices, extracts from novels, short stories, but when I heard about Peirene Press who publish 3 books a year, all translated novellas from around Europe, I decided to subscribe. Their byline read ‘two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’. A lucky dip of reading, placing your trust in the publisher to offer literature you would otherwise never find. Suddenly I was reading books from Finland, Germany (The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. by Jamie Bulloch), Kazakhstan (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. by Andrew Bromfield), Spain, Poland, Denmark, Libya.

I discovered Gallic Books were translating contemporary French literature into English and I became part of a community of readers who loved to write about translated works, a group who read women writers in translation during August #WITMonth and I developed a love of Caribbean literature, whether it was written in English or translated. I’d discovered something of my literary holy grail.

I’ve heard people are put off translations for various reasons, however I can’t say my reading experience has ever resonated with any of the problems. If anything I am intrigued by how phrases can be translated in different ways and accept that no translation can ever be 100% true to the experience of reading it in the original language, a luxury few of us can indulge, to read in another language. But what a gift, to be given an insight into another culture’s storytelling, another view of the world, whether it resonates or is completely different to that which we know. One of the most incredible collections I have read was the oral translation The Honey Thief by the Hazara author Najaf Mazari, as told to Robert Hillman, an astonishing insight into a culture and storytelling tradition.

I was further motivated and quietly ashamed, by the knowledge that so many of my French friends were so much more widely read than I was. Whenever I spotted one of my adult students with a book, I’d ask what they were reading and nearly always it was an author I had never heard of, from a country I had never seen a book published before.  I mean here in France, the common reader is just as likely to be reading a novel by an author from Chile, Columbia or Russia, as they are French authors, in fact 45% of their fiction is translated. In the English speaking world, that figure is about 5%. A richness that we are sadly ignorant of.

In 2016, many of my favourite reads were translations, my absolute favourite read was The Bridge of Beyond by the Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart, a stunning novel translated from French into English, one that sits alongside other writers from the Caribbean whose works I’ve loved, Maryse Condé, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Cristina García. And the contrast of the work of Jean Rhys, born into that same world, but not of it, living in exile in England, a troubled soul, something that comes through in her work.

The lovely Claire McAlpine

The lovely Claire McAlpine

It was also the year I discovered the Korean author Han Kang, after Naomi at The Writes of Women wrote a post about attending a book reading at Foyles in London, where the author, in the company of her translator, Deborah Smith, spoke about what motivated her to write a book called Human Acts. Han Kang was an indirect witness to terrifying acts that implanted themselves in her mind at a young age and left her with unanswered questions and a paralysing fear of humanity. When I read her questions she asked herself, that motivated her to write Human Acts, I knew I had to read it. This was not a book that could have been written by anyone living in the society we know, it was a book that could only have been written by someone who had lived through the 1980 Gwangju massacre in South Korea, news that rarely makes it to our screens. It reminded me of the prose and humanity of Primo Levi, an author she was inspired by.

I love to read around the world and literature in translation adds authenticity and an alternative perspective to the range of literature that already exists in the English language written. It appears, that despite there having been such a small percentage of work translated, there is a steadily increasing demand for literature originating from elsewhere, from authors coming from cultures and ethnic groups that have been little represented up until now.'


Here is a selection of titles I highly recommend and bloggers writing about translated literature:

The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwartz Bart , tr. Barbra Bray (Guadeloupe)

Human Acts, Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (Sth Korea)

Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox (Guadeloupe)

If This is  a Man: A Truce, Primo Levi, tr. Stuart J. Woolf (Italy)

The Yellow Rain, Julio Llamazares, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)

Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi tr.Sherif Hetata (Egypt)

The Wall, Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside (Austria)

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, tr. Irene Ash (France)

The Whispering Muse, Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb (Iceland)

The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante, tr. Ann Goldstein

Agaat, Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns (South Africa)

Kamchatka, Marcelo Figueras tr. Frank Wynne (Argentina)

Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, tr. Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Spain)

The Dead Lake, Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield (Kazakhstan)

The Vatican Cellars, André Gide, tr. Julian Evans (France)

Eugene Onegin,  Alexander Pushkin, James E. Falen (Russia)

Brodeck’s Report, Philippe Claudel, tr. John Cullen (France)

Nada, Carmen Lafloret, tr. Edith Grossman (Spain)

The True Deceiver, Tove Jannson, tr. (Finland)

The Door, Magda Sazbo, tr. Len Rix (Hungary)


Favourite Bloggers Who Write About Translations

Jacqui Wine’s Journal - Classic British + Literary Translations especially Europe, Latin American & Japan, wine on the side

Dolce Belleza - reads literary & translated fiction, penchant for Japanese Literature

The Bookbinder’s Daughter - Latin & Ancient Greek teacher with a passion for classics, literary & historical fiction, translations, also contributes to literary journals

Vishy’s Blog - widely read, eclectic collection, beautiful soul, passionate about books and culture, leaves the best comments, the most supportive blogger!

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat - Passionate about reading, Bach Flower Remedies, cultural anthropology! Literary, fantasy, translations, German Literature Month, Literature & War ReadAlong

Tony’s Reading List - a prolific reader of translated fiction with a particular interest in Japanese and Korean Literature

Winston’s Dad - pure translated fiction, shadow panel of IFFP, now Man Booker International Prize

1stReading - Very widely read, a model reviewer of translated and literary fiction

Rough Ghosts - deep thinker, reader and contributor to literary journals on translated fiction

Messenger’s Booker - Tony Messy’s take on literary awards and translated fiction

To read more from Claire, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter here

Job Ad: Marketing & Publicity Manager

3 days / week

£9,720 (pegged to the Living Wage)

Location: Sheffield

A varied role involving marketing, public relations, event planning and social media, for a dynamic young press on a mission to shake up UK bookshelves with the very best in contemporary international literature.

Founded in 2015, Tilted Axis is a nonprofit press focusing on cult, contemporary fiction from all over Asia, mainly by women. Our list includes the Bengali author dubbed “India's Ferrante”, rising stars from South Korea, and the UK's first-ever contemporary translations from Thai and Uzbek. Reviewed in the likes of the Guardian and the FT, stocked in Waterstones and indies nationwide, our books have already made a splash; now, having relocated from London to Sheffield, we're looking for an enthusiastic, pro-active book lover to help take us to the next level.

You'll need to keep abreast of what's happening in the industry, with a constant eye out for new opportunities – organisations to collaborate with, advertising spots in print & online, time-specific happenings for tie-in events & promotions. You'll also need to be creative, with original ideas for getting the most out of a small budget and helping Tilted Axis stand out from the crowd.


  • planning & delivering campaigns

  • organising, publicising & reporting on events

  • commissioning & editing web content, drafting newsletters & press releases

  • giving interviews to media outlets, public speaking & direct bookselling


  • excellent copywriting skills

  • pro-active and able to work on own initiative

  • experience in / exceptional aptitude for at least one of: marketing, PR, event planning

  • good at developing relationships & liaising with multiple organisations


  • Strong knowledge of the current literary scene, particularly translated fiction

  • Basic digital skills – InDesign, social media advertising, cropping & collaging images etc

  • Working knowledge of any Asian languages


As part of a small, friendly team, you'll be included in every discussion, giving you the opportunity to shape the direction and identity of the press. You'll get to work with some of the very best authors active today, and make a real difference both to the global appreciation of their work and to the UK's literary culture, ensuring that great writing from all over the world is accessible and attractive to a readership that's diverse in all senses of the word.

Currently 3 days per week, for the right candidate there will be the opportunity to transition to full-time. Flexibility around distribution of hours, training and work-shadowing are all possible.

Accessibility and inclusivity is at the heart of what we do. We especially encourage applications from those whose background is under-represented in UK publishing.

To apply, please send a 1-page CV & cover letter to by July 9th

BAME breaking into publishing series: Yen Yen Lu

In this short blog series, we ask BAME creatives working within the industry to share their paths into publishing. Today we are joined by Freelancer Yen-Yen Lu.

'My first job working with books, technically, was a very brief period at a small bookshop while I was at university. After a few weeks working there, the manager sat me down and told me that they were letting me go, with the reason being that I “didn’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”. I don’t know for sure what part of my “look” wasn’t right, whether it was my ethnicity, age, or gender and whether my thoughts and feelings about this were even justified (it could have just been a coincidence that the majority of staff were older white men, right?), but of course this comment bothered me. A lot.

A couple of years later, I was graduating university and starting an internship in book sales and marketing. The problem was not with me and my “look” after all.

I studied Creative Writing at university which, yes, is a real course that people can study at university and no, does not consist of making up stories all day. Before my third year had even started properly, I was starting to worry about finding a job after graduating. I knew I wanted to work in publishing but I also knew that it was very competitive. I started applying for all kinds of publishing jobs, work experience, and internships, paid or unpaid, and got very few responses, let alone actual interviews. Then, just after my graduation ceremony, I got an interview for a paid internship at Inpress, a sales and marketing agency for independent publishers based in Newcastle.   

I spent eight months in Newcastle working as an intern at Inpress and also getting a lot of colds. It was a small company but very close-knit and welcoming, and I feel that I learned a lot more at this internship than I would have in a large publishing house, where I probably would have easily faded into the background.

I applied for the internship through Creative Access, an organisation focused on opportunities for BAME people in creative industries. All of their internships are paid, which is rare but extremely important and it was a factor that definitely impacted my decision to apply for an internship with them. Creative Access believe in the importance of inclusivity in creative sectors – “how can the media reflect society, if society is not reflected in the media?” My thoughts on organisations like Creative Access have varied in the past: on one hand, organisations who take affirmative action are creating some really great opportunities aimed directly at people who find it more difficult otherwise to enter into certain industries; on the other hand, I’ve had so many people say to me that it’s no more than “special treatment” to the point that I start to believe it too. At the moment, however, my feeling is that until there is clear inclusivity and diversity in industries like publishing, until there is no majority of only one type of person in these industries, then of course there will be importance for organisations like Creative Access. 

After I moved back to London, I applied for a lot of jobs at larger publishing companies but I didn’t get past the interview stage. It was still a very competitive industry even though I now had a bit more experience. I kept in touch with some of the publishers from Inpress and one day, I had an email from Banipal, who publish a magazine dedicated to English translations of Arabic writings, to say that they were looking to hire someone on a freelance basis to work on marketing. I started working with them for a few days a week and found that I enjoyed freelancing – there was more freedom and flexibility to work on different areas of publishing with different publishers if I wanted to, as well as free time to work on my own projects as well, writing, proofreading, copyediting, and trying to catch a Dragonite on Pokemon Go. This year, I started working with The Emma Press as well, an independent publisher based in Birmingham who are also represented by Inpress.

I hadn’t given freelancing any serious consideration before I worked with Banipal – I thought that I would have to be much more established in the publishing world, know all the important people, join some secret societies and win a dance-off or two – but it has been a lot easier than I anticipated. The only big secret, I realised, is simply to talk to people. Most people I know in publishing are very friendly and lovely to talk to (a revelation that would have shocked nineteen year-old Yen-Yen) but I know now that if anyone says that I “don’t look like the kind of person people would buy books from”, they’re probably not people I want to work with anyway.'

The lovely Yen-Yen

The lovely Yen-Yen

Yen-Yen Lu is from London. She studied Creative Writing at Roehampton University and now works as a freelancer in publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @CastleFeather for rants about Gilmore Girls.


"Indigenous Feminisms", ablenormativity, & women who escape

Indigenous Species is narrated by an abducted young woman taken on a riverboat. Amongst what we glean of her, we know she is indigenous to Indonesia, a vastly diverse country with hundreds of languages and cultures, but altogether being decimated environmentally. Anger, resistance, and mourning are voiced by the anonymous narrator, along with the urge to protect nature and cultures, and this is deeply intertwined with the power she is denied and trying to reclaim as a captive.
    Indigenous Species shows that feminisms are not equal--the lipstick in Iowa made of Indonesian rainforest, on one page, shows how femininity and women's empowerment in one part of the world often comes unthinkingly at great cost to women elsewhere, and how the global supply chain encourages this lack of awareness. As an art book, further, it shows that sighted feminisms in particular are privileged over non-sighted feminisms, as the absence of Braille is noted on every left-hand page, with the word “Braille” in that language. Indeed, calling one version of the book—the one without Braille—“the sighted version” was very intentional, as we sighted people so rarely recognise ourselves as such.
    I’d like to think the book also subtly questions what "indigenous feminisms" mean, focussing not on labels but on the affective experience of emotional response to environmental loss, and the ability for that emotion to contain within it any number of feminisms (always plural). What makes someone “indigenous”? In what contexts do we use the word—in Britain, is it used to exclude “migrant women” and refugees from the right to human dignity? Is it used to denote “native” in a way that’s derogatory? Is it all about how you feel about where you come from, and the different meanings of “coming from” a place?

    The journey of Indigenous Species’ narrator, on a river, parallels the existential crises we all face as humans living in the anthropocene, where the very survival of our planet and our species is under threat from climate change, and we are all on a river we didn’t sign up for, hoping for an ending that provides a landing place for future generations. Amidst all this, women, LGBTQI, religious minorities and other communities, especially from the Global South, are trying to emphasise that no one can say they are speaking on behalf of us as “voiceless”—we have always existed and always stated our claims. The issue is who gets a platform in the fight for gender parity as indelibly linked to environmental survival. The decimation of women’s lands and indigenous women’s knowledge matters, and it’s a crisis with many struggling to protect rainforests, coral reefs, and innumerable habitats for humanity’s sake. When countless natural medicines from the rainforests are decimated, destroying the possibility of widespread cures for illness, it is humanity's crisis. When mines cause widespread mercury poisoning, affecting communities across riverine lands, it’s humanity’s crisis. When girls can’t go to school because of forest fire haze, that killed over 100,000 people in Indonesia alone last year, it is humanity’s crisis.
    In my writing and artwork, I tend to mess with the notion of endings. Once asked, ”Why do the women in your stories always have happy endings?”, I’ve wondered if isn't it more realistic to portray brutal ends, society as it is for women, society as it ends women’s narratives prematurely and often violently. For years, I’ve been grappling with this notion of “escape”, of feminist narratives where safety ends up uncertain, or taken away. We can’t escape what’s happening to our one and only planet. We need to build narratives and a sense of urgency, to recognise that we too are on a river, that there is a dire need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems and ecosystems, and that as with the heroine on a precarious boat, it is up to us to save ourselves.

by Khairani Barokka