Monday, December 21, 2020

Just a reader

When I told the audience at the inaugural "Translating Women" conference in London last year that I am "just a reader", a chuckle went through the room and it became a bit of a joke. There was a sense that framing myself as a reader was a bit of self-dismissal or diminishing my status as WITMonth founder and WIT activist. It was nothing of the sort and in the year+ that's followed, I've found myself thinking a lot about this dissonance. I am just a reader, and I take a certain degree of pride in this. So where does the friction come from? Why does this come off as a joke?

I'm reminded of another incident, in 2015. I attended my first-ever literary conference in the form of ALTA, taking part in a panel discussion on the topic of "Women in Translation". I was honored to join that conversation and it was a remarkable experience for me, learning about a world that I had never before been a part of. In between one of the sessions, I found myself speaking with a group of translators. I honestly no longer remember who it was who said it, but someone turned to me and asked me what I had studied. I explained that I was finishing a degree in biophysics, that I actually wasn't coming from the field of literature at all. This translator snorted somewhat and said something along the lines of "Then why do you think you can come in and comment on translation?" It stung and the comment has lingered with me since.

It's true that I now have more confidence when it comes to the topic of women in translation. In 2015, the topic was still new and fresh; my own expertise was still new and fresh. Today, I will firmly and perhaps arrogantly count myself among the world experts in this field. I may be a biophysicist-now-biochemist, but I have spent seven years of my life devoted to understanding the imbalances women writers in translation face in English and other languages. I have - along with many, many others! - helped build a movement to promote works by women writers from around the world. I have sought to examine the topic from many different angles. I write reviews on occasion and I do promotional work on the side.

I am not an academic (in literature, at least). I am not in the publishing industry. I am not a translator. I am not uniquely trained or talented. I don't speak 17 different languages. I'm nothing more than a person sitting on her couch and looking up publicly available information off the internet, mostly through Wikipedia. I don't have access to research, studies, or perspectives that exist within the pages of literary academia and wouldn't know where to begin searching even if I did. I don't have any idea about the politics behind which books are chosen for translation by which publishers, beyond publicly shared information. I have no insights into how books are pitched by translators. I am, quite simply, a person who loves reading and is passionate about this project. I am just a reader.

But that phrase has a flip side to it too. I am just a reader as a sense of pride, but also occasional anger. Because let's be very clear about something: If I am able to do all of this work by myself with absolutely no background in the field or training, what could the publishing industry or academia be doing? How does it come to be that a PhD student in biochemistry from outside of the Anglosphere is a leading voice in the fight for women writers in translation? Why are more publishers not taking a stand in actually changing things? Why does the literary world continue to turn its back on this fight? Why do I - "just a reader" - "need" to be the one doing these things?

I don't mean for this to suggest that I don't want to continue my work, I do. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't care about it deeply. And frankly, I think that there's some value in coming from outside of the literary world, because I feel absolutely no shame in pointing out flaws at every level. I don't owe anyone anything. My life and career will continue just fine even if I do somehow anger everyone in the industry. I can come and point to publishers who are bad-faith supporters of WITMonth, I can come and point to editors with problematic views, I can come and point to breaks in a system on which so many others rely.

There is further power in readership. At the end of the day, my guiding principle when it comes to reading is not marketing or what books I receive from publicists (since I basically receive none... hooray to living in the international shipping dead zone?), but my own desire to read. This means that I'm able to visit books from across a wide range of genres and basically whenever/however I like. I read because reading gives me pleasure. I recommend books because it gives me pleasure. And I am also critical of books because it gives me... well, maybe not pleasure, but a certain degree of intellectual satisfaction. Being a reader has power in my freedom and my independence. For all my wish to belong in literary circles, to receive those same free books that everyone else gets, to have that sense of equal understanding and having read all the "right" books, I also like when I get to be the one randomly talking about some book that nobody's read, or going back twelve years into the archive to wade into a long-dormant debate.

I am just a reader. And there's nothing wrong with that.


  1. I'm very sorry to hear you ran into that reaction at the ALTA conference, Meytal. It's so wrong that anyone would say that. We all come at reading, translating, and other literary pursuits with our own individual backgrounds; that, I believe, is how it should be.

    I want to add that I think of you as (not necessarily in this order!) a scientist, an activist, and a a reader, without the just: every reader is important. No reader is "just" or "only" a reader since every reader is a person with a unique perspective and a right to use it. This makes me recall when I first met Mikhail Shishkin, at a book fair in 2011: he asked who I was and (since I'd barely started translating then) I told him about my blog. I must have also mentioned that I'd read some of his work because I remember him saying something like, "ah, then you're my reader." That seemed to make him happy.

    Thank you for all that you do!

    1. There's something so lovely and whole in being a reader. And I agree that the "just" is not quite necessary and you're absolutely right, but I view it as an odd sense of power when looking at a world that feels like so much more. And definitely in the face of people who have tried to strip me of that power. :)

      And thank you for your kind words! As snippy as this post may come off toward the industry (oops), I am honestly perpetually in awe of all translators and writers and publishers, you're all doing such amazing work and I am so lucky to live in a world where you bring this beautiful art to my life!


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