Emergence: Getting to know the TA First Translators

We caught up with five of the shortlistees from the inaugural TA First Translation Prize, which aims to recognise excellent work by debut translators, and reward the editors who take a chance on them. Our interviewees are Jeffrey Zuckerman, Mui Poopoksakul, Eliza Marciniak, Elisabeth Jaquette and Bela Shayevich.

The winner of the TA First Translation Prize will be announced at the Translation Prizes on 1 March. Book your ticket now.

When and how did you first get into translation?

Jeffrey Zuckerman: It was a happy accident. I happened to need an upper-level French course in university and so I decided, just for the fun of it, to take "Introduction to Literary Translation." In the years that followed, the professor, Alyson Waters, proved to be an incredible mentor. It was thanks to her that, after working in book publishing for a couple of years I tried to pursue translation as a career. Who could have guessed that a happy quirk in the course catalogue would set me on my current path?

Mui Poopoksakul: I used to be a tax lawyer, but after a lot of soul-searching, I went back to school in the fall of 2013 to do my M.A. in cultural translation at the American University of Paris. That really helped get me started. It gave me the courage to translate the book that became The Sad Part Was, since, if nothing else, it was going to be my thesis.

Eliza Marciniak: I had been interested in translated literature for many, many years before I realised I wanted to try my hand at literary translation. To test the waters, I attended a week-long translation summer school – a precursor to Translate in the City – and then was very fortunate to be mentored by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as part of the 2014 Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme organised by the British Centre for Literary Translation. It was a great experience, and it led to my first projects.

Elisabeth Jaquette: I first got into translation in 2013 in Cairo, after living in Egypt for five years. I ran a bilingual Arabic-English book club there, so I’d been engaged in conversations with readers of both languages about which books get translated, and how different the reading experiences can be across languages. I was finishing up CASA, an intensive Arabic fellowship program, and wanted to try my hand at translating literature, really just to see if I could and if I enjoyed it—and as it turns out, I do.

Bela Shayevich: As an immigrant, I have always translated. When I was a teenager, it was to share the Russian rock lyrics I loved, then, in my early twenties, it was the experimental poetry from the former Soviet Union that I thought would blow the minds of my peers. Eventually, this grew into an interest in translating texts written by Russian activists, which I thought could inspire the people around me and spur them to action.


What was the most challenging aspect of translating your first work? 

JZ: French is a strictly regimented language codified by the Académie Française, but the prose of Eve Out of Her Ruins reflects Mauritius's deeply rooted individuality. Ananda Devi penned this book long after putting down roots in mainland France – writing at such a remove that she interwove French translations of the Creole and English lines in her book – but she let both the island's idiosyncrasies (séga music, endemic flora and fauna) and her poetic style shine through. This left me scrambling to make sure that particular phrases or descriptions weren't local idioms – a surprisingly tricky yet charming endeavour!

MP: With Prabda Yoon, certainly the wordplay! To be honest, I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into. I had a book in mind from the start but I’d never gone through the process of translating anything. I ended up having fun (most of the time) with his puns. When you manage a good one, it’s so satisfying. Of course when you don’t, it can be pretty deflating.

EM: There were many things I worried about with regard to the translation itself as I was working on it, but one of the key challenges was time. Having a full-time job is not always conducive to high-quality creative work, and on top of that I realised that I translate quite slowly. I was really lucky to have had a generous deadline and extremely supportive editors; it would have been impossible otherwise.

EJ: The most challenging aspect of translating my first work was one I think many new translators face: learning to let go of a literal approach to translation and embrace a literary one. I’m incredibly grateful to Taylor Sperry and Zeljka Marosevic, my editors at Melville House who went above and beyond, turning this book into a really foundational learning experience for me as an emerging translator. I wouldn’t be where I am without it, and nor would my current work.

BS: Secondhand Time is a big fat brick of a book. I had to wear boxing gloves, I felt like an athlete figuring out my work rhythm. I was lucky, because I had some major failure under my belt, so I had good ideas about what not to do. The best thing I did for myself is I demanded a Russian-speaking proofreader go through the text because I didn't feel like I should be solely responsible for not making stupid mistakes, like omitting sentences and so on, especially when working on such a big text under such extreme pressure (she won the Nobel Prize three months before the final manuscript was due). But going through every draft was a crazy marathon. Sometimes, I'd only have 4 days to go through almost 700 pages. And then, obviously there's the intense emotional labor, the secondhand trauma, of working on first-person accounts of horrific violence and tragedy. Plus the pressure of knowing people were actually going to read this book.


What would be your dream translation project?

MP: So far, I’ve pitched everything myself, so there are no non-dream projects really, for better or for worse. I am especially excited, though, to be translating two very, very different authors from Thailand.

EJ: In many ways, The Queue was my dream translation project. I chose the book myself, knew the author, and the subject matter was really important to me. I had just lived through the 2011 revolution in Egypt, and so this story was one I urgently wanted to bring into English.


What is the most pressing issue faced by emerging translators today?

JZ: Translators are often asked to create samples for free and to translate books for a fraction of what English-language authors are paid for their books. Such practices create a monoculture of well-off practitioners and deter less-privileged newcomers from bringing their essential viewpoints and backgrounds to the industry. (The fact that I write these words as a white male is not lost on me; it is why I champion authors outside the status quo whenever I can.) The easiest way to solve this would be for publishers to pay their contractors fairly, and to actively diversity their stable of freelancers.

MP: For me, translating from Thai, I’m worried about funding. We don’t have any governmental or cultural institutions that support literary translation in any organized manner. I think this makes it hard to build up a critical mass of translators for our literature.

BS: Whether book publishing is viable, and whether and how translation could or could not be a viable career. It's a specialized skill, a craft you have to put a lot of work into to understand, you have to give a lot of your life to it, but literary translation is not something that can provide you with a consistent income. You have to commit to intense financial instability being a constant feature in your life, or pursue another career alongside it. In short, the most pressing issue facing translators is whether and how to find the time and resources to pursue translation.


What is the relationship between author and translator like, and how is your work impacted when you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive?

JZ: Each author I've had the pleasure of working with is absolutely singular. I'm especially lucky that a couple of "my" authors – Ananda included – are fluent in English; in those cases, I have the chance to weigh up specific word choices with them and to debate finer points that sometimes even my editors might not consider. For authors who feel less at home in English, working with them is a rare opportunity to give them a voice they otherwise might never have had. It is always a tremendous privilege and I never stop feeling grateful.

MP: I’ve gotten to know Prabda and Duanwad Pimwana, the other author I’m translating, quite well, and we meet up when I’m in Thailand. It’s nice because I’m not nervous anymore about sending them long lists of questions. I’ve been very lucky in this regard. (I’ve worked only with living authors so far.)

EJ: Every author relationship is different: some aren’t at all interested in engaging with the translation process, and others are eager to rewrite whole sections in English. My favorite type of working relationship is the kind I have with Basma: with an author who is eager to shed insight on why she is making certain choices, and then trusts me to recreate that in English. When I begin translating something Basma has written, I know we’re going to have thought-provoking conversations about cultural and political references, and the making of meaning in Arabic and English.


What do the Translation Prizes and groups like the Translators Association mean to you?

JZ: Many translation prizes reward both the quality of a book not originally written in English and the work of the translator bringing it into English. The special value of the TA First Translation Prize is that it intentionally spurs editors to take a chance on up-and-coming translators and rewards those translators for taking their first steps in giving books dear to their heart a new life in English. In an industry that always benefits from new voices and perspectives, this prize is one of the best ways possible to encourage such diversity.

MP: Being a translator can be quite solitary, so being able to trade notes with other translators is so helpful, and prizes do wonders in terms of encouragement, especially when you’re starting off.

EM: I think translation prizes are extremely useful in drawing attention to well-translated literature and in promoting the work both of authors writing in other languages and of translators. There are certainly many books I’ve discovered myself by encountering them on a longlist or a shortlist. As for the Translators Association, I joined as soon as I was eligible. It’s important to me as a professional to be part of an organisation that facilitates the sharing of experiences and knowledge and that advocates on behalf of translators.

EJ: I’ve been a member of the Translators Association since I was offered my first book contract, and always highly recommend membership to emerging and established translators alike. For translators living within travel distance to London, the TA offers a wealth of professional development opportunities. Now, even though I’m based in the US, I regularly make use of the Society of Authors contract vetting services, and always eagerly await a new copy of In Other Words. Translation can be such a solitary profession, and organizations like the SoA are essential in developing industry knowledge, and more importantly, building community.

BS: Having my work acknowledged by my peers is extremely valuable because they are the ones who can best appreciate it.

The TA First Translation Prize was founded in 2017 by Daniel Hahn with his share of the winnings from the International Dublin Literary Award. The aim of the prize is to recognise new talent in the translation profession – an arena which Hahn said at the time ‘remains a difficult one for newcomers to break into’. It is also designed to reward editors who take a chance on a debut translator and then work with them to make them better.

The winner of the TA First Translation Prize will be announced at the Translation Prizes on 1 March. Book your ticket now.