7 Literary Translators on How They Became Translators

From Nepali to Icelandic, translators on preserving endangered languages, making a living, and pickling as a form of translation

Photo by Yiqun Tang on Unsplash

By now, our fandom of translators should be no secret. We’ve spoken to contemporary translators about the politics of grammar and how to render a slender neck from Arabic poetryabout imperialism and swearing in Tamil and before that, we chopped it up with others about translating slang and living in a two-translator household.  

We couldn’t stop chatting (and there are so many interesting characters!) so here is part four featuring seven translators, who work in heritage and non-heritage languages—Nepali, Spanish, Euskara/Basque, French, Indonesian, and Icelandic. Amongst the ways they began translating include telephone conversations with Nepalese aunties in Singapore, by living with ambient sounds of rapidly-changing conversion rates of the U.S. dollar in ’80s Buenos Aires, by falling in love with a language during a layover, and by re-imagining British children’s adventure novels in Indonesian. 

The expansiveness of our conversations and the pointed geekiness over comparative grammar points have been condensed for Internet consumption. Buy their books and comics and in one case, pickles!

Muna Gurung: Nepali to English 

Based in Kathmandu, Nepal, Muna Gurung’s translations include Night, book of poems by Sulochana Manandhar Dhital. A graduate of the Columbia MFA program, she has also published her own fiction and non-fiction. Gurung is currently working with a local organization called Srijanalaya to bring together Nepali writers and illustrators to create childrens’ books. She also interviews Nepalese writers for her column in the Nepali Times, Lightroom Conversations. In addition to these literary pursuits, Gurung runs ĀMĀKO, a pickle company with her mother, Bhimi Gurung. 

Learning Tamu kyi over phone calls: “I grew up in Singapore in a gated community of Nepalis where the men worked for the Singapore Police Force and the women, like my mother, raised children, cooked, cleaned, and took care of the family. As a young girl, I spent a lot of time with my mother and other women her age. Each family lived in small quarters in an area we called “The Camp”, and each living quarter was equipped with a landline.

I remember spending a lot of time on the phone talking to my mother’s girlfriends. I loved the idea of picking up a piece of plastic handle, pressing some buttons and hearing a familiar voice right in my ears! It was magic. This was in the late ’80s and I was five or six years old. And these women I telephoned were not related to me, but I called them chyama or aunty. I remember, I would talk to this one chyama in particular. She was a Gurung woman; so, in addition to the Nepali language, she also spoke Tamu kyi, which is the Gurung language. My parents spoke to each other in Tamu kyi at home and or when they received long distance calls from Nepal, but they always spoke to us in Nepali. So I could understand things for the most part, but I could not roll my tongue to sound out the words in Tamu kyi– I didn’t have any practice. But this chyama would speak to me in Tamu kyi over the phone asking me simple things like, “Did you eat? What did you eat? Where is your mother? Where are your brothers? Do you like to drink water or do you like to drink grape juice?” I remember spending so many afternoons calling her up just to speak to her in a language that was my parents’, and how strange that I learned it from a Gurung woman in Singapore and that too over the telephone!

In school, I struggled with English, but I also felt a lot of shame around not being able to speak or write in “pure” Nepali. I grew up in a household that didn’t speak Sanskritised Nepali—our verbs were never conjugated correctly: we sprinkled Malay and Chinese words we acquired while in Singapore; and we didn’t really use proper honorific terms when speaking with our elders, so we appeared “rude” or “straightforward”. The language—at least in the way that it was taught in schools, and what we were told literature is supposed to be—was not only boring, but also intimidating and very complicated.

What has been so refreshing to see for a while now is Nepali writers breaking away from writing in that “pure” Sanskritised way and instead owning the various kinds of Nepalis that are spoken and used throughout the country. Like any language, Nepali sits differently in different tongues—and the words, cadence, structure changes with the place, people, culture, and climate even. To capture that in English is extremely tricky.”

Pickling as a form of translation: “Pickles and translation most certainly go hand in hand! Ama, my mother, felt like she had no knowledge within her. She thought knowledge was something one acquired at school and as someone who didn’t go to school, it always bugged her that she was “uneducated.” As I write in the essay, we set up the company after Ama shared with me her deep fear of how no one was going to remember her after her death; that she had come into this world and had cooked three meals a day, fed her family, and that was all. We set up the company as a way to say, “Well, that is not all.” That these jars of achar, as they are called in Nepali, is her knowledge translated.

The company has now begun to employ other mothers (“ama” in Nepali means mother; “amako” means “mother’s”) and include their recipes as an act of both translation and preservation of knowledge. You should also check out our labels: we illustrate the source plant of each ingredient that goes into an achar, so the label of each type of achar is different and one can “read” the labels by looking at the images without having to read the words. It’s an act of translation, an act of reaching out towards people like my mother who may not have gone to school, but knows what a turmeric plant looks like, while those of us who have gone to school may not know the difference between ginger and turmeric.”

Megan Matich: Icelandic, German to English

Raised on a pine tree farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Megan Matich came to Icelandic on an extended layover in the country on route to Germany to meet a poet she was translating. She struck up a conversation with a woman at a bookstore who told her about Icelandic’s system of inflection, which sounded to Matich a lot like Russian. “Enthralled by the prospect of complication,” Matich, who had already studied German, Russian, and Spanish, ran to the poetry section and discovered of Magnús Sigurðsson’s Tími kaldra mána (Cold Moons). She spent the next year working with Sigurðsson and translating the volume’s poems, slowly learning Icelandic, before taking a formal course in 2013. Matich has since moved to Iceland and hopes to become a citizen.

Working in a “lesser-known” language and Iceland’s Artist Salary Fund: “I think it’s important to steer the conversation toward what can be done, rather than what can’t. As an affluent nation that’s very proud of its language, Iceland has put an astonishing amount of money into the arts and disseminating Icelandic writing because the country views literature as a valuable export.

When I speak with translators of other languages, I often find that they’re surprised by the minimum rates that the Icelandic Writer’s Union (of which I am a member) sets for translation. That’s one example. Another is Iceland’s competitive Artist’s Salary Fund which, although it has problems of its own, supports many artists’ projects, offering about US$3,250 per month across artistic disciplines. Iceland injects money into the arts rather than curtailing what can be made, and that (e)valuation of art as more than a leisure occupation fuels creation and translation.

Almost every work I’ve translated has received funding from the Icelandic Literature Centre, even though novels and books of poetry don’t fit within the tidy schematics of a global economy that’s biased toward STEM. I suspect that this isn’t unrelated to the number of speakers of Icelandic and the limited number of translators; it’s a small country with an enormous, complex, surprising, joyful language and an unwavering belief in the possibilities of literature.”

A primer on contemporary Icelandic literature: “Gerður Kristný is an otherworldly and dexterous poet whom I deeply admire. The third work in her poetry trilogy (all translated by Rory McTurk), Reykjavik Requiem, gives voice to the bewildering story of a woman who died before she could tell her story of abuse, and leads us to question the limitations and permissions that we/sociopolitical forces place on storytelling and, by extension, language. Kristnýuses the form of the saga, I think, to reclaim and comment on the nature of articulation, the nature of literature.

Magma, my most recent translation, aligns quite closely with some of my own experiences. In episodic vignettes, author Þóra Hjörleifsdóttir explores escalating partner violence against a young woman while highlighting the progressive harm caused by even the most subtle of aggressions. I believe that this novel will help young women who may not understand, or even recognize, what has happened to them, to give voice to their experiences inside of a deeply fragmented culture, and by extension empower them to put it into words, to see it for what it is, to identify it, to talk about how bad things really are, and to take action, to change them. Magma is itself an “infinitive marker”—the percussive to, to, to that situates infinite action.

I’d also like to call out Steinunn G. Helgadóttir, who Larissa Kyzer is translating. Steinunn writes polyphonic novels-in-stories that infuse everyday family life with literal magic. A poet and visual artist, she turned to prose with her instant classic, Voices from the Radio Operator’s House. Her latest novel, The Strongest Woman in the World, stars Gunnhildur, a funeral beautician and Houdini-esque escape artist who not only possesses superhuman strength but can also speak to the dead.

Other writers to keep an eye out for: award-winning Auður Jónsdóttir, who explores the physical and reciprocal relationship between body, pain, and trauma in her work of autofiction Quake, which is forthcoming in my translation from Dottir Press. The novel follows Saga, who suffers from a series of epileptic seizures that silence significant parts of her memory (she doesn‘t remember, for example, that she is divorced). As she struggles to reclaim her agency, she finds that her repression has deep roots—that, as Bessel van der Kolk puts it, “the body keeps the score“. 

I‘ve been on a bit of a hiatus from poetry while I‘ve been working on novels, but let‘s talk about poets to look out for! Elías Knörr, a queer poet of Galician origin writing in Icelandic, is at the top of my list, and will hopefully have work out in English next year (fingers crossed!). He is a funambulist of etymology and imagination. A number of poets were published in Words Without Borders, translated by me and Larissa Kyzer—including Kári Tulinius, Haukur Ingvarsson, and Bergrún Anna. Haukur explores climate change in his most recent work, Ecostentialism. Over the past few years, I’ve returned time and again to Gýrðir Elíasson’s ecopoetry, which demands environmental responsibility and the ethical treatment of both animals and the wider world.”

Amaia Gabantxo: Euskara/Basque to English

Amaia Gabantxo is the world’s foremost translator of Basque literature. She is also a flamenco singer and released the album KANTUZ: 1931. She is currently at work on three titles: Old Dogs and Old Bones by Unai Elorriaga, Burning Bones by Miren Agur Meabe, and, an anthology of Basque female poets—which she is editing as well as translating. She has crafted a set of hybrid pieces (fiction, memoir, literary translation and essay writing) in The Massachusetts Review.

On language erasure and speaking an endangered language as a form of rebellion: “There was the way in which my fishing village’s songs would switch between Basque and Spanish for humorous effect—always at the expense of Spanish. It made me realize the beautiful possibilities of playing with languages, of hiding revolt within lyrics, of the subversive power that could be exercised through the use of a language deemed “useless,” “less-than.” The power resided in the inversion of power that took place in the songs, the “less-than” language having a laugh at the “superior” language in plain sight. It turned the mere act of listening and understanding into an act of rebellion. I internalized that there was something very powerful in being able to navigate languages—especially endangered ones like ours. 

I grew up speaking Euskara—it was my mother tongue—and acquired Spanish when I started to go to school. The use of Basque had been forbidden throughout the years of Franco’s dictatorship, we lost a lot of speakers. Children were punished at school when they were caught speaking Euskara. With the arrival of democracy in Spain, eventually (it took a few years), laws were put in place that allowed schooling in the other languages of the state: Basque, Catalan and Galician (there are more, like Asturian or Valencian or Aragonese, but those haven’t been recognized with “official” status and as a result aren’t afforded the same protections and governamental investment, which leads us to a whole other conversation about how key it is for endangered languages to have official status). For the first time, too, we had radio and TV stations broadcasting in Basque, Catalan, and Galician, and newspapers in those languages. 

So when the time came to switch from primary to secondary school, I made the decision to continue my schooling in Basque—since it had become possible. My primary schooling had been carried out entirely in Spanish, and switching to Basque would mean Math in Basque, Chemistry in Basque, learning Latin and Greek in Basque, Philosophy in Basque. My teachers thought I was crazy and tried to dissuade me; my parents were worried too, thinking my grades would tank. But I felt a burning need to do this for my mother tongue. It rankled with me that I was a very good writer in Spanish, but didn’t have the same literary dexterity in Basque. I only had oral knowledge of my language, and a very basic knowledge of the grammar rules of the newly minted standard Basque, Euskara Batua. I owed a debt to my language, and I was going to pay it. Thinking back now, it almost feels as if something in me knew I needed this for my future, and I’m thankful to 13 year-old me for being so headstrong and undissuadable. 

After secondary school, I did a BA in English and Irish Literature at Ulster University, in Northern Ireland. How I ended up doing that is a whole other mad story that also feels very fated now. In my last year, I had the incredible luck of having Robert (Bob) Welch as a mentor after I joined his Modern Irish Literature class. He took an interest in this Basque alien from outer space who had landed on his class (I was the only foreigner in my year) and, while supervising my thesis, planted into my head the idea that I could become a translator of Basque literature (he had translated extensively from Gaelic himself, and authored works in Gaelic as well as in English). This hadn’t occurred to me, but seemed incredibly obvious when he suggested it. It felt like everything in my life until then had led up to that decision: my primary schooling in Spanish, my secondary schooling in Basque, and my higher education in English, added to a lifetime reading literature in all three languages, and a realization, while writing my thesis with Bob Welch, that no one was translating Basque literature directly into English. That every translation that existed had been carried out using a bridge language, Spanish or French: the very languages that had oppressed and almost disappeared Euskara. There seemed to be a deep injustice in that fact that I could try to remedy. So I leaped. And here I am.”

Seeing the big picture: “One beautiful difference about Basque is that as a language, it organizes its perception of reality in an inverse order to all other languages I know. Euskara pans in, whereas most other languages pan out. In English you’d go from the concrete to the general: there’s a bird on a branch of that oak tree at the bottom of the hill. It’s the same in Spanish or all other Romance languages. In Euskara, you’d start with the big picture and progressively zoom in: there’s a hill and on its bottom there’s an oak tree and in the oak tree there’s a branch and on the branch there’s a bird.

A couple of years ago I gave a talk at the Chicago Planetarium after they projected the film Arrival. They’d hired me as the closest thing they could find to a speaker of an alien language, I suspect. They’d asked me to talk about linguistic determinism, about how the language you speak influences the way you see the world, which is the theory—the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—underpinning the narrative of the film. Does it matter, the order in which your language leads you to perceive reality? I asked my audience, as I told them about the Basque case. I don’t know, ultimately, whether it does or not, but I do sometimes wonder if the Basque language and the Basque people have survived the odds for such a long time, precisely because we have this built-in ability to see the big picture, which comes to us through Euskara. Because, through our language, we’ve learnt to consider the whole before we focus on the detail. And maybe, just maybe, this is the key to our survival.”

Eliza Vitri Handayani: Indonesian to English 

Eliza Vitri Handayani learned English from popular songs, starting around age six, and learned spelling by watching the texts in karaoke versions. She began her study of Norwegian when she moved to Oslo with her Norwegian husband. She began translating with her own writing in order to submit to American publications.

In 2012, she founded InterSastra, a platform that publishes stories and poems in Indonesian with English translations as well as producing “collaborative art events and performances, and programs for creatives and marginalized individuals to develop their voice and capacity for self-expression.” She launched a new art initiative called Eliza Vitri & Infinity, which offers which offers workshops with marginalized groups. She works with transwomen in Jakarta for the storytelling project CERITRANS.

On her alter ago Alyssa: “Throughout elementary school I was reading the Famous Five and Three Investigators series, but I would superimpose my own original characters and settings over the books’. Period books to me were like portals to escape my own life and enter a more exciting one where I was free to go places and outsmart grown-ups. I was still choosing my own adventures, translating Eliza into Alyssa—my alter ego who was tough and sharp, and had blue eyes and long blond hair.

Was I already fleeing myself, by projecting myself not only as the heroine of stories, as children often do, but as someone from another race? Was it because I was fed up with the people around me and their fear of anything slightly out of the ordinary? Or was it because the stories took place abroad that I had to transform myself into someone from abroad?

Even though I altered the characters, I didn’t localize the settings. I invented new settings in made-up places that looked similar to those I’d seen in American TV shows or movies. I can understand if I had thought crime-solving children could only exist in make-believe cities, but why did I insist that those cities had to be foreign? The Indonesian stories I’d read never had any characters that went on great adventures overcoming slick criminals and created their own secret high-tech underground base camp, instead they obediently went to school or to the market, and played and fought with other children. I didn’t want that everyday life, I wanted to be one of the adventurers. Thus, I identified with the children in the translated books—foreign in origin, but closer to my desires. Or perhaps I didn’t think Indonesians could be leading characters in books? As my father used to say, “Don’t get your head up in the clouds, we’re just sand on the shore.”

Whereas there were no discussions in our home, in Western movies and TV shows characters were pouring out their hearts and having intimate conversations, which I first understood by subtitles. I especially loved films and TV shows whose main characters were oddballs or underdogs, yet they turned out to be heroes in the end. I used to feel lonely, but Matilda showed me how to be my own friend; “Tomorrow is another day” played in my ear whenever I was feeling discouraged; a Jackson Five biopic made me see how one could become a diamond even though born as sand on the shore. What’s more, they showed me that there were places and people who could understand me, and someday I could find those places, those people.

Nevertheless, I managed to grow up insulated in a provincialism of the big city—my cultural environment was limited to Western popular culture. Our family never went to the theater, concerts, or dances, let alone literary events. We watched television and saw blockbuster movies.

Now that I know where to look, I would come across an Indonesian book or film that made me think, “If only I had discovered this while I was growing up, I would not have felt so lonely, so out of place, all the time.” I lived in Indonesia until I was 18, but I had given up on Indonesians long before that. Based on what I encountered in my family, relatives, and schools I’d concluded that all Indonesians were the same. I stopped reading the news (“politics were all a sham and the media were full of lies”), the magazines (“the stories were all about boring moral lessons”), and stopped watching Indonesian films and TV shows (“the quality was so bad anyway”). I barricaded myself inside my own misery.

While I doubted that great societal change could happen around me, I did believe that individuals could achieve great things. That was why the setting of the books remained far away, but the characters became me and my two friends from school. To take part in adventures we had to be translated. Someone who pretended he was someone else to take part in adventures—wasn’t that Don Quixote? Whoever he had been before, he became Don Quixote, and as Don Quixote he was himself, and he was free.”

The gracefulness of Indonesian: “Indonesian is a very supple and poetic language—sometimes the translated version can use words or sentences that literally mean something completely different, yet as a whole both versions still have the same meaning, more or less. If you’re used to the gendered and time-based grammar of English, it may take you some time to fully appreciate the gracefulness of Indonesian. Some examples of the poetic-ness of Indonesian:to learn = menimba ilmu (drawing knowledge from a well) and thank you = terima kasih (I/we accept your love/caring).”

Edward Gauvin: French to English 

Edward Gauvin has translated over 400 graphic novels from French. The contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders, Gauvin has translated literary fiction, but has become known, in his words, as “the comics guy” likely due to this intense output. In the works are a Uyghur memoir and a Baudelaire comic. The range of Gauvin’s translation subjects is equally impressive—mountain climbing, the events of Tiananmen Square, a cat called Rascal, and a graphic history of wine, amongst many others. In 2021, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Choosing French as a first-generation Asian American: “I have enough Mandarin for home life, but not for reading a menu, much less a newspaper. What predisposed me to choose French—returning to or preferring it several times over, at different junctures—and what that means for a literary-minded first-generation Asian American with a middle-class upbringing (as opposed to the mainland Chinese person I am by default mistaken for in France), bringing into play the very separate histories of American francophilia vs. the longstanding affinities of France and China (declining cultural power, communist sympathies)… these are things I’ve been pondering a lot lately. My middle school offered your stock American menu of the Western European trinity. German was for masochists and iconoclasts. Spanish promised the lyrics to “La Bamba” (which should date me rather precisely). French tendered sophistication, cultural insiderhood, and pain au chocolat: aspirational, for an immigrant child too suburban at the time to detect the whiff of faded empire.

Later, I suppose I wanted a France to call my own—not that of oenophiles, or the Lost Generation, but a France that had not been staked out, even if that meant Americans might not recognize it as France. And found it, I suppose, in comics and in the intersection of Surrealism and speculative fiction. But there’s always enough to go around.”

The misconception of comics as a genre only for kids: “People tend to think translating comics means dealing with more wordplay and humor, and in a lower register. This misconception may be rooted in conceiving of comics as a genre (for kids!) and not a medium (in which any number of genres can be expressed).

One thing that has emerged for me only over time, and partly because the Francophone comics in translation scene has so greatly diversified, is that working in comics has allowed me to translate across more genres—westerns, epic fantasy, science fiction, biography, reportage, memoir, chick lit, children’s, war, noir—than I might have encountered in prose, simply because the selection of French prose we get to see here lacks the same breadth.

The late translator, teacher, and benefactor Michael Henry Heim said that you’re ready to start translating when you can tell what the language is doing (convention) from what the author is doing with it (idiolect). To this I’d add, from what the genre is doing with it. Genre has been defined, usually on a more narrative level, as a set of expectations and rules that govern both author and audience; I’d argue that these expectations extend to language (lexicon, register) and that more market categories than those we regularly recognize as genres (science fiction, thriller) have such expectations. That is, the language we’d expect to encounter in work labeled ‘literary’ is similarly if perhaps more tacitly circumscribed by expectation, especially when contextualized in period.”

Kaiama L. Glover: French to English 

Kaiama L. Glover began with French in high school and then continued with the language during her undergraduate study. She came to it through “the somewhat clichéd experience of studying the Harlem Renaissance and discovering the connections between so many of the African American writers and artists I admired and the city of Paris.” But then she became more interested in complicating that very narrative by considering the French language in a broader context. 

Her translations include Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst, Marie Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano, René Depestre’s Hadriana in All My Dreams, and Françoise Vergès’s The Wombs of Women: Capitalism, Racialization, Feminism. A professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard, Glover is the founding co-editor of archipelagos | a journal of Caribbean digital praxis and founding co-director of In the Same Boats: Toward an Afro-Atlantic Intellectual Cartography.

Translating Haitian French: “I’ve written about the difficulty of cultural translation, especially when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of Haitian culture. Specifically, the matter of Vodou and attendant phenomena like zombification require delicacy and care when rendering the Franco-Caribbean context into the Anglosphere, because non-Haitian audiences have been so primed by global popular and news media to associate Haitian spiritual practices with savagery, primitivity, and other racist tropes. For example, even though the term “voodoo” has been challenged, and the religion it supposedly references carefully studied and theorized by scholars, the term persists in many English language translations—this despite the fact is that “voodoo” is not the translation of “Vodou” into English, nor is it merely the “US American” spelling of Vodou. On the contrary, it is a troubling insistence on a stereotype that dates back to the US marine occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934. Stereotypes like this one leave Haiti not just lost in but victimized by translation.”

Lesson of translation: “I think more than anything else translation has taught me to read more slowly, to savor the choices writers make in deciding on the words required to best tell their stories. As someone who reads a lot “professionally”—that is, for research and teaching, translating is a crucial reminder for me to savor literature in a different kind of way.”

Ezequiel Zaidenwerg: English to Spanish 

Brooklyn-based Argentine poet and translator Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s most recent book is 50 estados: 13 poetas contemporáneos de Estados Unidos, a genre-promiscuous book, which zigzags between the expanses of fiction and reality, and presents an experimental complication of the idea of America. It includes interviews with American poets and “Declaration of Independence,” a piece with words from the original document reconstituted by Zaidenwerg (in English and translated by Mexican writer and translator Hernán Bravo Varela).

Zaidenwerg is currently working on a book of “original” poems called Rimas. Of which he says: “I’m trying to use rhyme in less traditional ways, including some phonetic explorations, i.e. coming up with choreographies for the mouth.” He also translates American poets (translations include works by Mary Oliver, Yoko Ono, and Victoria Chang) to Spanish every day on his site.

Money and language as powerful tools for the creation of value: “I was born in Argentina in 1981, at the early stages of neoliberalization, and was raised in a tacitly bimonetary system where US dollars were seen as an amulet or fetish that protected people’s savings from the inescapable devaluation of the local currency. In hindsight, I think that learning dramatically shifting conversion rates from a very early age prepared and equipped me for becoming a translator: money and language are indeed two very powerful tools for the creation of value.”

Rendering the idea of America through 50 estados: “There are more than enough American cultural products in circulation, and that creates an illusion of higher quality or merit that is actually only backed by political, institutional and market logics. It will take even more discipline, but I’d like to find ways to translate mostly works from less hegemonic parts of the world. 50 estados—being a fictional, novelized anthology, with American authors and artists role-playing the interviews based on the poems I wrote— is more an attempt to destabilize the idea of “American poetry” than a way to peddle it. I was trying to play with the fascination we all have for American cultural products, which we’ve acquired through geopolitical and cultural training, to actually undermine it.”

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