In his book The Genesis of Secrecy, Sir John Frank Kermode referred to translators as “border crossers” and likened them to the mythical figure of Hermes. Inspired by his idea, the following interview aims to cross the thin border between academic research and the contemporary book industry, connecting literary-minded graduate students (who may already cross-cultural and linguistic borders in their projects) with active professionals working in the field.
Alexandra Irimia, LTAC student member and PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Western University, interviews scholar, translator and author Carolina Orloff, co-founder of the Edinburgh-based Charco Press. Introducing graduate students with specialized literary knowledge and multilingual skills to the world of literary translation by interacting with a reputed professional, the discussion explores translation and publishing as alternative career paths outside of academia. The interview brings insights from Carolina’s experience as a translator and publisher, including challenges, tips and strategies for success. Her generous answers highlight ways in which Charco Press collaborates with established translators and encourages emerging ones, celebrating their work by publishing exclusively English translations of Latin-American fiction.
The interview below is an abridged transcript of a live Q&A session organized in July 2021 with support from ATTLC-LTAC, in collaboration with the Comparative Literature program in the Languages and Cultures Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Western University). Watch the interview in full here.
Alexandra Irimia (AI): There is a certain precarity in academic job prospects for graduates studying Languages and Literatures, so they are increasingly looking for career options outside the academia, although their highly specialized skills and training are often presented as hardly marketable. What would you advise the grad students in the audience, who once aimed for professorships, teaching, and doing research, and now have to consider other options? Would you recommend them to pursue careers in translation or publishing? And if so, what skills and experiences should they prioritize and cultivate to become successful in this field?
Carolina Orloff (CO): It’s a very important question and I feel a lot of responsibility answering. Of course, my answer is completely based on my own empirical knowledge – so maybe take it with a pinch of salt as an advice. I had not always though about jumping into a publishing career, it was more something I arrived at due to two big factors. One was frustration coming from unemployment. After my PhD, as a postdoctoral researcher, I spent almost two years looking for a job in academia in the UK, without getting anywhere. As you all know, there is the expectation to have a book, at least, and plenty of articles in your CV – and that expectation gets increasingly demanding. Once you’re in that frame of mind, you don’t realize – or maybe you do, but I didn’t realize – how crazy and unfair it is that you have to constantly produce knowledge, while worrying about the next source of funding. I spent almost two years in that kind of limbo, feeling the pressure to become more and more competitive while also feeling very frustrated that all the knowledge acquired in all the years of studying couldn’t be put anywhere apart from these academic publications. This was the other factor: an urge to feel that I was making an impact somewhere – which I think a lot of academics struggle with (at least in my experience, coming from the Humanities and from Languages). I’ll just refer to myself, but I did feel a doubt: is what I’m doing useful for anyone, for anything, for the world?
Those two factors combined, an economic one related to unemployment and lack of perspectives, and then the inner drive to place all that knowledge into something useful, made me and my partner consider something different. There had to be another place where all our knowledge could be put. I’m from Argentina and I’ve been living in the UK for more than half my life. That kind of coming and going of cultures, the understanding of both markets, if you want, or readerships, is something that I also have as an experience, so it filtered into the new idea. That’s a long-winded explanation to say that, one the one hand, translation is a very tricky circle to get into – and that’s something that we’re also trying to address at Charco – because I’ve always felt, just by going to the books of my Latin American authors, that their translators were always the same and had been the same for decades. I don’t want to give you an unrealistic impression: it’s a very hard circle to break into and then once you do, it’s a very unstable financial situation; you just earn your living with each project, there’s nothing reliably certain in that sense.
I think a career as a translator is possible, but it would take a long time to make a living just form being a literary translator. You can be a translator that specializes in literature, but that is something that you build on while maybe depending on something else for your salary, because it’s going to take time. As for publishing, I think it’s an interesting industry and the share dedicated to publishing literary translation is growing slowly but surely, in a very interesting way – this is also speaking from my very short, 5 years experience as a publisher. There are a lot of interesting opportunities emerging within this field in Canada, in the US, over here, but again, you have to get some experience within one field and then build your career from that. I certainly think it’s a growing field and it has the potential to offer interesting opportunities to today’s graduates.
AI: Thank you for this realistic, but also encouraging response! You are active on a global level in the book industry: you work with Latin American authors, while being based in the UK and selling books internationally. It has always been a difficult environment for independent presses; all the more so for those publishing only fiction, as you do, and perhaps the most difficult of all for those specialized in translations. There is this well-known statistic about how small a market share translations have, amounting only to about 3% of what gets published in the US, for example. You are mentioning some emerging developments: have you noticed any new trend in particular? Maybe during the past year, as I imagine that the pandemic has changed a lot in this field as well?
CO: The field of literature in translation is still quite dire, in the sense that very little gets to be published. There are a lot of very good, eager, passionate translators out there, that also work very hard to push new voices into the English-speaking world – which is the world I can speak of as a publisher – but they just don’t manage to get the interest of publishers. That is changing, albeit very slowly. Too slowly for my linking, but at least it is changing. I’d love to know how it is in Canada, but my understanding here in the UK is that people seem to be quite intimidated, to an extent, by all the things that have been translated. In films, for example, if they’re subtitled, there is a misconception that, because there is an intervention, some of the original quality has been lost. Or, and I get this a lot, that because something has been translated, it means that it’s harder, more difficult, niche, or darker… There are many stunning misconceptions about things that have been translated and that’s our everyday challenge, to break through these underlying assumptions. Our selling point is that we do contemporary Latin American literature but at the same time we are pressured to keep very quiet on the fact that our books are translations. We want to bring to the readers, and to the English-speaking world in general, the idea that what we’re offering is a variety of very interesting voices, very good novels or short stories that need to be on the shelves. We’re trying not to push people to buy them, but we feel there’s been a lack of this variety for too long – in general, not just from Latin America. And, generally speaking, this variety cannot be achieved without translated fiction. The options need to be there. Not just on the bookshelves, but also in the bibliographies of academic courses, in the libraries… I think that, little by little people, are daring to have diversity as a goal. I can sense that even in the last five years readers have become more open to trying new things.
AI: What do you wish you’d had known five years ago, when you co-founded the press, and you know now, as an experienced publisher?
CO: I don’t know, actually. There are still many things I don’t know. Five years ago, when we started, I knew I didn’t know anything and that was maybe a blessing, because we just did it from scratch. We were very lucky to be based here in Scotland, as opposed to London or maybe New York even, because it’s a very small literary community and within it there is a lot of support. We have been lucky to become known very quickly here, in Scotland’s literary community, and then in the UK. We grew a lot quicker than I had anticipated, in terms of getting to people in the industry. I’m diverting here, but maybe I wish I’d known on the outset how much work was involved. I don’t feel I’ve stopped in five years, but that is not a complaint. There’s so much work to do, so much materials to hand out there, so many translators to work with, and so many new ideas to try to get the literature out there – it’s never ending. So I didn’t know that. But yes, in a nutshell, the trend is changing in a good way.
AI: The work publishers like you do is particularly important for us who study Comparative Literature. Our research projects often follow “bibliomigrancy” (a term coined by prof. Venkat Mani), namely the international circulation of literary works and themes and, without an up-to-date repository of translated literature, including contemporary titles, our work would be severely limited to creations of a rather remote past. I was thrilled to discover that you have collaborated with LTAC members before, having co-translated with Sarah Moses a book called Die, My Love by Argentine writer Ariana Harwicz. It gained a lot of critical acclaim in 2017 and it was longlisted for Man Booker International in 2018. The circumstances in which we first met a few months ago also speak of the international prestige of Charco Press: it was an Asymptote Book Club virtual event around a title you recently published: the wonderful short story collection A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, translated by Jennifer Croft, who is “superstar” in the world of literary translation and an International Booker Prize award winner. The title was associated from the start with two names that are very reputed in their field. When such high levels of prestige aren’t obvious from the beginning of a project, how do you decide what gets translated and what doesn’t? How do you choose your titles, your authors, and your translators at Charco?
CO: I had read Ariana Harwicz prior to starting Charco and I was very drawn by her style, she’s got a very unusual style of writing. It’s a bit like a roller coaster, her rhythm really takes you up and down, through a lot of emotions. All her work makes for a very intense reading experience. I wanted to publish her because I thought it was great and I wanted to share it with others. I didn’t think many readers would actually like the book. We did a very small print run for it because I thought it was particularly challenging, and I was proven completely wrong very quickly. That also gave me, as a publishing editor, a lot of hope, because I thought that maybe I’d been underestimating the readership. Even though there’s a shyness towards literature in translation, a lot of readers out there are ready for new experiences. So that was a surprise for us: it did much better than expected. Indeed, it was longlisted for the Booker International, which is a huge deal, not just in terms of publicity or visibility; even if it was just longlisted, for a small publisher the increase in sales in obvious. I didn’t know that before it happened. If you’re a very big corporate publisher, you might not even notice the impact but for us, who are always trying to get funding and struggling, this kind of showcasing has a huge impact. For the authors and the translators as well: Sarah Moses got a lot of projects to work on after that listing, which makes me very happy.
When I’m thinking of what to publish and who is going to be the translator, I am inspired by an idea that comes from my university years: to try and break the canon. It’s very stifling to know that the same authors will be studied over and over again, exclusively, and in the same framing as always. I don’t expect our books to form alternative canons, but I do like the idea that the canon needs to be at least questioned. For me, that also has to do with translators. I felt it was very suspicious that the two or three translators that got spoken about in relation to Latin American literature were always the same ones. We try to work with emerging translators, to give them the first chance to work on a book and maybe work with the “superstars,” like Jennifer Croft, Meghan McDowell, or Daniel Han. It’s great to be talking about superstar translators – I didn’t think about it in these terms, but they are very well known, they can be called that. When we work with a reputed translator, I always try to pair them up with an emerging translator as a copy editor. We tend to work with translators when it comes to copy editing, for correcting a book. We’re very meticulous and we always compare the translation back to the original, something that I don’t believe happens a lot with other publishers – most of them just read the translation, make sure it reads well in English, and that’s it. But we always go back to the original and make sure we didn’t miss anything, or check the humor is transposed properly. It’s an endless task, of course, but we do our best to check. We try and promote that kind of learning experience for emerging translators. In the case of Jennifer Croft, we chose Ellen Jones, who was just starting. She was initially intimidated: “No way, no, I can’t possibly, I’ll have nothing to say to Jennifer Croft.” But Jennifer said that it was one of her best experiences ever, she had never worked with a copy editor that was so brilliant. I think that’s wonderful, and at the end of the day it shows in the book that you read. It all goes into the final translation.
As for how I choose the books, it’s a very fluid process. I am reading all the time: not just books, but also the newspapers – I’ve always done that – and I read about what authors that interest me are reading. I read about literature festivals and who gets invited, why, and what they’ve published. I love that kind of intricacies in terms of impact, of what a book actually does. Why are people talking about a certain book or a certain author? What is a certain author talking about? It’s a long winded and sometimes a very intuitive journey for me.
AI: The mentorship model you’ve just described, pairing more experienced translators with emerging ones, is a wonderful thing! You mentioned Daniel Han and I know that he’s held a translation diary in early 2021, while translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire (Jamás el fuego nunca). The diary can be read on Charco Press’s website. It covers with humor and wit all the usual stages of a translation, from the signing of the contract to the manuscript submission. And it made me really look forward to reading the final version of the text! I also think it’s very instructive for aspiring translators, who can get a glimpse into the actual process and can make a more informed career decision before undertaking a project of their own. That’s why I really appreciated the generosity of the press in offering this kind of visibility to the translator and highlighting part of the invisible effort that goes into the translation of a novel. Also, at the end of A Perfect Cemetery, you publish Jennifer Croft’s translator’s note – a beautifully-crafted mini-essay in which she explains not just her choice of certain words but uses that pretext to convey a more profound approach to literary translation. It’s rare to find presses that offer so much space and visibility to their translators. What motivates you to do it and how do you plan to continue doing it in the future?
CO: At the beginning of our activity, we were recommended that we don’t specify that a book has been translated, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. But translation is an art, and the translators’ community is also changing and growing, naturally gaining visibility. We can now speak of superstar translators, and international prizes are recognizing their work by splitting the prize half and half with the authors. I think it’s fantastic. I could not not work towards that, too. I could not not give visibility and promote our translators, because without them literature would not travel. It all seems contradictory, though, because I get very frustrated at this concept of “literature in translation.” When I grew up in Argentina, it was just literature, right? When you went to the bookshop maybe you had a section on Argentine literature, but the rest was just mixed in alphabetical order, or maybe according to genres. There was no distinction between literature on the one hand, and literature that had been translated, on the other. I grew up with that all-encompassing concept of literature. To me, making that distinction is very against what I think literature is and should be, or how a reader should enter that world of fiction. That stands, perhaps, in contradiction with the fact that you need to give visibility to the translators. I think we need to give visibility to the fact that there are a lot of good books, good authors, and good translators out there. The problem, I think, lies elsewhere. The problem is not so much that the author is often more visible, but the way in which literature is thought about in general, starting at a very early age. It’s a way of thinking about the world. But the idea you mentioned, the “bibliomigrancy” – the books traveling, the ideas travelling, and culture travelling – for me, that’s what it’s all about. Not about whether a book has been translated or not, and its being placed accordingly in a certain side of the bookshop or library, where certain people are never going to go because they have a certain mindset. Those misconceptions about translation need to be broken. I know that sounds very idealistic, and translators are at the forefront of this ideal. They are what drives us and our will to change, to bring a culture into another culture, to ferment and promote that exchange. So, as much as I can, I will always grant the translators all the visibility they can get on the book, on our website, on the events we do. Even before the pandemic, oftentimes we couldn’t bring our authors over to the UK and we did the launch events with the translator. And the translator is usually surprised by the invitation because some of them have never spoken to readers before. It’s a changing experience for them, as it is for me. We are very much promoters of the idea of giving visibility to translators and to everybody involved in making a book happen.
AI: Thank you, Carolina, that’s a very interesting response to Lawrence Venuti’s well-known theory around “the invisibility of the translator” but in the interest of time I won’t go into that now. Instead, I will open the floor to questions from the audience.
Victoria Jara (VJ): In the magazine Lengua by Random House, you were speaking about the questionable idea of a new Latin American boom by women authors. Could you please speak more about that, and whether you just look for recent gems to get translated, or are you also looking for hidden gems in the past that may not have had the publicity or the translation that you think they deserve?
CO: It’s a great question and my answer is “both.” I feel very limited, very constrained by the economic production side. We only publish six to seven books a year. I wish we could do about fifty, because there is so much out there that is “hidden” or, rather, has gone unrecognized on many different levels, starting from national constraints. For example, one of our forthcoming authors from Peru found it extremely hard to break through so many hurdles, just because she was a young woman in Peru, where the publishing industry is still very small and male-dominated. There are hidden gems like that, this is only one contemporary example – I’m talking about Katya Adaui. She made it, she got someone’s attention and got published, but there are many more facing these difficulties and hopefully they’ll make it too, although it might take longer for them to publish. That’s why I don’t just sit and wait to see what gets published, what gets critical acclaim or awards. I try to go back to the previous steps or to explore a bit on the side, because the prizes are sometimes completely arbitrary, there are many factors involved. Also, I’m very enthusiastic about swimming back into the ocean, as it were, and bringing back those authors that haven’t been translated into English, for so many different reasons. One of the books we’re about to publish in October or November is Ida Vitale, who is one of the internationally recognized authors in the Spanish speaking world. She’s from Uruguay, she’s 97. Mostly a poet, she has also written prose and there have been a couple of very small anthologies of her work published in English, but nothing else. So we’re bringing some of her prose into English. Again, Diamela Eltit got the Premio Nacional de Literatura in Chile, she is an iconic figure. A couple of her books have been translated by small university publishers that don’t have the same interest as we would to promote her work as much as possible. That’s an interest we have – not only for reasons that have to do with marketing, but also, as I was saying earlier, out of a desire to put it out there, to make it available to the readers.
Emilio Calderón Reyes (ECR): The work you do requires a dual understanding of the field – from a business perspective, as well as from a cultural, or literary perspective. My question is related to the business aspect. I found very interesting the idea of book bundles: you bundle together different books that have something in common and sell them as a pack, under a common title, just to tease the readers and offer them a perspective from which these books can be read while also enticing them to discover something new. I would like to know more about the challenges you encounter and your own strategies for navigating the complex scenarios that emerge from having to reconcile the business side with the cultural and literary work.
CO: My first response goes back to the limitation I was mentioning earlier, namely the amount of books we can produce per year. Because we’re so small, our production work is tiny. We do everything here in our office home, we also print in the UK, we try to keep everything locally as much as possible. That has an impact on cost and is reflected in the amount of books we can produce a year. I make it sound as a disadvantage because there’s so much material to be put out there, but in fact it is also one of our major advantages because it allows us to work closely with each book. We’re very meticulous with the translation process, the correction, and the design of the book. We feel a lot of responsibility as well, because often the authors we bring out have never been published into English before and English still opens the door to other languages. This is another thing I learned in my short experience as a publisher. I thought Spanish was an autonomous language, in the sense that if you come from the Arabic publishing industry, or the Chinese, you would go straight into Spanish, but that’s not the case. I know editors from China, or Egypt, for example, who just wait for the books to be translated into English and see what happens to those books in English before they notice anything. That brings a lot of responsibility. I take it as our responsibility to make sure that the voice we’re going to publish for the first time in English is as true as it can be to the original, so that the journey can then happen as fair as possible to that author and to the universe that author wants to present. So the business model is small, but very close to the book. We’re very on top of each project. I don’t know if you can tell that I’m not from a business background, but we even lost money in the process when a translation we commissioned hasn’t been right. We’ve started again, twice already, while learning. That’s probably not a good step from a business perspective, but in the long run I think it was worth it and that it is going to show in the quality of the things we produce consistently.
ECR: Just a small follow up regarding the local scale of your business – that is really interesting, and it makes a lot of sense. I also noticed that you also have distributors all around the world, even in Australia, and you offer to cover some part of the shipping costs. I found that very unique, but perhaps it makes sense for you to assume those costs to ensure a wider reach. Could you please talk about that a little, and maybe also about how you’re able to reach and get feedback from an audience that is a perhaps a niche, but a niche scattered all around the world?
CO: We started distributing our books in the US and Canada not so long ago. We think that when you publish a book in English in the 21st century, with all the platforms out there that facilitate access to a book, it makes sense to make that book available anywhere within this English-speaking world, if possible. This is starting to change, but it still happens that a lot of the agents who try to sell the rights for a book to be translated into English want to break the territory. So they would give to a publisher US and Canada, to a different publisher the UK, and the rest of the Commonwealth countries to someone else. They want to split the market. When we started, we realized that this model no longer makes any sense. From the onset, we tried to stick to our guns and buy World English rights. Many agents still don’t want to do that, but we feel it’s the way to go. Being consistent with that idea, we started distributing our books in North America and we ship our books from here, because it’s actually cheaper to produce them in the UK, as it turns out. Since we make the entire print run of an edition, we also get to check the quality of each book. We print them in Cornwall, and they get shipped to the US and Canada, where they get distributed by our distributors there. The same with Australia and New Zealand – a smaller market, but it works in the same way. Regarding the other part of your question: that’s also changing very rapidly. Our books reach their scattered public mostly by word of mouth. When we started, we were testing every strategy we could, paying the little money we could afford to a PR to get the books to the broadsheets. That’s still important, but it’s not where things always happen. We pay attention to bloggers, Instagramers, Youtubers, and reviewers that take different ways to talk about a book. That’s one of the advantages of the current moment: we can send an e-book to Sri Lanka and it gets read at the same time as it does in Canada, so conversations happen. We’ve had a lot of support from readers through that kind of platforms. Try that and don’t wait for a broadsheet review.
Miguel Antonio Chávez Balladares (MACB): I was told in a seminar that a native Spanish speaker should only translate from English to Spanish, not the other way around (both because of language and culture knowledge). I understand you’re Argentinian, how is your experience dealing with translating Spanish to English?
CO: They told me that as well when I was studying translation. I think every translator has a baggage of experience that varies a lot from person to person. Many experience languages in ways that escape axioms like that. In my own experience translating from Spanish to English, I would never feel I could do justice to a voice into English if I don’t co-translate. That’s why I co-translated a few of our books, but I couldn’t live with myself if I’d just leave it at my English. I think it’s worked very well in the books I’ve done with Sarah Moses, Annie McDermott and Fionn Petch, because they’ve all been works of Argentinian authors, whose voices I think I can certainly bring into the draft of the translation. Co-translation is, as you know, a topic in itself. But the way we’ve done it is that I bring into my draft of the English version everything that I can extract from the Argentinian. That’s something Jennifer Croft also talks about: the idea that herself, when she translates from Spanish, only translates from the Argentinian, because she’s lived there and it’s the only variant of Spanish she would feel confident translating. It’s a very controversial concept, I think, but one I share in regard to Spanish, and it’s like that with any language that gets spoken in many countries and regions. There are so many levels of differences, nuances, ways of saying something that can be rude in one place and funny in another place. I can bring those regional specificities from Argentinian Spanish into my English, and then the core translator, whose mother tongue is English, can work through that. That’s how we produce something that we can call a translation, but I wouldn’t feel confident, or I wouldn’t feel I’m doing a full job, to just translate into English. I guess I’m sticking to the rule.
MAC: Comparing to a mainstream, multinational publishing house, what would the main differences be when an indie publishing house goes into the process of translating a novel, from the contract details to the timelines?
CO: I wouldn’t know because I’ve never worked in a corporate press. What I know comes from authors who have had books published in corporations and then come to work with us. Because large publishers have a lot of money, publishing with them can be very tempting when you’re signing a contract with an author. Especially in Latin America, where authors are not generally recognized as full time workers. Their writing just happens in between three or four different jobs. I’m sure we can generalize that to a lot of societies. In the UK, authors are better looked after, which is not the case in Latin America. So when a big offer comes in with a big cheque for a novel, from a corporate publisher, it’s understandable that they accept – but then nothing happens to the book. This is of course generalizing. A lot of times a corporation would want to hog a name and get their entire work, their five books. They get promised publication not only in the entire Latin America, but also in Spain. And then, say you’re from Mexico and you send your little “spies” out to check different bookshops in Santiago, Chile, or in Madrid, the books are never there. The big difference I know of is that a corporation might give you a big check for your book and maybe launch a big marketing campaign in one sector or one region, which we could never afford, but then, the process that accompanies the production of the work is less careful. What I mean is really making sure that, for instance, the cover of the book replicates something that the author wants to see there. Or, if the author wants to add an author’s note, they can do that. A matter of approachability, I guess. All this long explanation to say that, in my understanding – and this is not only in the world of literature – in a corporation it’s very hard to talk to someone in particular who would hold themselves accountable for what they’re going to do with your information. Whereas with an independent publisher, at least speaking from my experience, the authors and the translators can communicate directly. They come to me and we just try to solve the problems or fulfill their wishes together. We want the book to do well. We want our company to get the book out there not just as a product, but also as an object that can make an impact somewhere. I guess the level of passion is not always the same with larger publishers.
Dr. Carolina Orloff is an author, translator and scholar who has been working on research projects studying the literature, politics and culture of contemporary Argentina. At the end of 2016, together with Sam McDowell, Carolina co-founded CHARCO PRESS, an independent publishing house focused on the translation into English of contemporary Latin American literature. Carolina acts as director and main editor at CHARCO PRESS.
Alexandra Irimia is a LTAC student member in the last year of her PhD program in Comparative Literature at Western University.