Thursday, January 14, 2021

Decentering and centering | Thoughts

More musings: Anything I'm able to write up for my huge new project (#DailyWIT) is going to be biased because of what I'm able to access.

I wrote the other week about compiling this new list and some of the challenges involved. I know that the list will never be perfect and I am not aiming for perfection. I'm aiming for something that will contribute to raising the visibility of and awareness toward women writers in translation, even if only a little. I believe that any list would be able to achieve that, to be honest, which does mean that I have a few other ambitions tossed in. While I know it's impossible to really reflect the world in an exactly proportional way, I am also not very interested in doing so. Instead, I am trying to continue the legacy of my first ever big list of women in translation - the 2019 50 Day Countdown. Now, as then and certainly as in the 2020 50 Day Countdown, I want to make sure my list reaches corners of the world, cultures, backgrounds, and languages that maybe aren't always centered or heavily promoted. 

The problem is that I come with a bias that I cannot shake off - language.

Linguistic bias may seem like an obvious topic for a blog that has focused on international literature for the past eight or so years, but I'm not talking about bias from a place of which books I'm able to read. I'm talking about bias from a place of which authors I'm able to learn about. I am privileged enough to read (fluently) in two languages, passably in a third, and can understand the gist with the help of Google Translate in another few (across a few different alphabets). Which all together leaves me with what must surely be a wider range of resources than most, but certainly a smaller range of resources than I would like.

I cannot write about authors I cannot learn about.

This has been a problem in the past, but it feels even more obvious now that I'm trying to come up with 365 new women writers from around the world (after already having compiled a list of 100 in the past two years). 365 women writers from backgrounds, languages, and experiences that are already difficult to track. International literature is already so marginalized in English that finding anything can be difficult, but even more when seeking works by women writers and particularly women writers of different (i.e. non-European) backgrounds. I can stalk Wikipedia all I want (and I do! and I make incredible discoveries thanks to a pretty special talent for searching!), but when push comes to shove, I'm limited by whatever resources exist in English. And the more layers of marginalization an author faces, so to speak, the harder it is to find resources in languages I can access, if they even exist.

I often feel guilty for this. English-language bias and Anglo-centrism shape so many of my critiques at the core of this project, and yet they shape so much. (Hebrew, my other native language, unfortunately doesn't always have all that many more resources than English, though there are some and they often provide me with incredible insight that makes me wish I knew more languages!) The limitations of English end up defining most of the limitations of whatever projects I may want to embark on. It's inevitable, yes, but disappointing.

I dream of a day where that won't be the case. Where the women in translation project will truly exist across languages and borders and cultures. It already doesn't feel like so far-fetched a dream; WITMonth has been recognized in so many different countries and languages from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica, but I'll get those penguins or penguin scientists eventually!). But I still feel like I often need to remind people that just because I'm mostly framing myself and the project in English doesn't mean it is an English-language project - it's not. It cannot be. It must not be.  

My language barrier means that the #DailyWIT list will be biased, like almost all of my other work in this field. I'm one person (for now), there's no way around that fact. English will remain at the center of this blog and most of what I'm able to tweet about and share. But at the same time, I hope I can hold onto that decentering. I hope I can remind readers - bilingual or not! - that English should not be our only outlet for this conversation. And I hope, as ever, that I'm able to contribute something that will, somehow, manage to make up for whatever inevitable flaws come with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A product of its time, in unprecedented times

This is not a review. These are, in fact, extremely scattered thoughts following a rather disjointed and confused reading experience, that triggered within me a cascade of almost indescribable feelings. And yet I will try to explain them.

I finished reading The Emissary not three hours ago. I stopped trying to write critical reviews soon after completing a book years ago, realizing that I was never quite able to capture what the book meant to me and often ended up either overestimating how much a book would leave a mark on me or underestimating whatever undercurrent might constantly suck my thoughts back into a text weeks later. So suffice to say that writing a review mere hours after finishing the book is not something I'm really interested in doing. Again: This is not a review.

No, this is much more of a meditation of books as products of their time. It's a phrase I've used myself (quite often) to describe older texts that had literary value that seemed to expressly reside in the context of the time in which the book was published. Many stories do not translate well across generations and subsequent culture changes - a perfectly normal and acceptable phenomenon. But The Emissary is, of course, a fairly recent book. Yoko Tawada's slim dystopia was originally published in 2014 in Japanese, and translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018. I purchased it in 2019. Recent, recent, recent. So how could this book be a "product of its time" and why did that phrase continuously ring in my mind as I read it?

It starts in a public park, earlier this morning. The sun was shining, surprisingly warm for a winter day (sweater only), but of course it's been warm all week. I am sitting in a patch of sunshine and cracking open this novella, which I partially chose to take with me on my lockdown walk because it could fit in my coat pocket. And almost instantly, it strikes me that there is something absurd to the whole situation. Something that simply didn't work anymore.

The Emissary is a dystopia; it spends a good portion of its pages detailing the ways in which the world has fallen apart or changed. Its premise - like that of most dystopias - relies on hovering in the in-between space of being just slightly believable enough that it could become real, but still thoroughly unbelievable enough that it's not just fiction. Speculative fiction of this category has to walk a very fine line. 

When The Emissary was written (and translated into English), the idea of a country becoming wholly isolated from its surroundings fit in that in-between zone. When it was written, an environmental catastrophe that shapes and shrinks and wholly reshapes its main characters' world was speculative fiction. It could happen, but it hasn't. Except here I was on this too-warm Saturday morning in January (less than 1km from my home, per lockdown orders), reading this novel with a mask covering my nose and mouth, desperately trying to find a deserted patch of sunshine from which to read apart from the various families, couples, and individuals who had come out to enjoy the sunshine as I had. The dystopia I lived in seemed to mock the dystopia that Tawada had so carefully crafted. No, The Emissary does not remotely imagine a world like our current one, but to the contrary - the differences meant that her world no longer felt believable. Too many little references and ideas and world-building threads suddenly felt... dated. The book felt like something that had clearly been written in Before-times.

This is an exaggeration, of a sort. Tawada's work is, again, so distant from our current lives that it doesn't really change in response to whatever changes our world is going through. Rather, it was that I had changed. As a reader, I found myself approaching The Emissary with a jaded sadness that I'm sure I would not have had two years ago. Unlike straight-fiction which I've largely been able to read as before, the dystopian nature of The Emissary made me feel like its subtle misses and too-on-the-nose predictions placed it just out of reach, somehow. (Emotionally, that is.) I couldn't view this is an "irrepressibly funny, playfully joyous novel", as the back cover promises. At all. At all. The book seemed to drain me of all feeling and joy. It was interesting, yes, and there's a lot I appreciated about its writing, and if I ever write a real review there's a lot I can also discuss about its worldbuilding strengths, but I could not view it through an enjoyable lens. 

I imagine I will encounter more books like this in the future, that are reshaped by the experiences of this past year (these unprecedented times) and possibly by future events I cannot yet fathom (hopefully positive ones). It is inevitable that as the world barrels onward and history is made on an almost-daily basis, my relationship with fiction - its limits, its plausibility, its impact - will change accordingly. Perhaps I should have expected this sort of response to The Emissary and waited to read it, but I find myself rather grateful for the experience and the thought process it triggered. I am a changed reader after the past year - it's good to know that.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Lists, or, embarking on new projects

I occasionally like making lists. Not necessarily the hard work behind it, but the way a list looks when it's done. I like the way lists can organize thoughts or approaches. There's beauty to it, at the end of the day.

I'd been toying with the idea of daily tweets on my "Women in Translation" account for a while. It's not an original idea, of course, and I've made similar big threads in the past. But I wanted to try to stretch my boundaries a little this year. I want to make it impossible for readers to miss the incredible range of women writers from around the world. 2021 is going to be the year that I simply do not let up. I refuse to.

So here's what I'm doing: I'm making a list. A very long list, to be perfectly honest. For every day of 2021 (not necessarily posted every day, because, well, that won't be possible due to all sorts of factors...), I will be sharing a brief tidbit about one woman writer from around the world writing in a language other than English, living or dead, near or far, translated or not. I know that the list will be imperfect in a lot of ways, whether in terms of giving space to authors it will emerge I do not like (since I am not filtering author inclusion on whether I've read their works or not, at least not at this stage), or in terms of mistakes that may fall along the way in my assumptions or awareness of their works. I expect that the list will end up including authors that will frustrate some readers. Maybe that should even be part of the point, I'm not sure.

I decided to compile this list because I'm tired of the omissions. I'm tired of the fact that time and again, readers come away with the perception that women writers exist in English, and only in English. This simply isn't true. Yes, there are certain biases in place that seem to drive women to write in English over native languages, but more than that, there is a persistent unwillingness to create space for those women who do write in languages other than English. A brief run-through of sites like Words Without Borders and Asymptote Journal reveal that women are often wholly missing from "underrepresented" languages. And to be perfectly frank, these aren't actually languages with few speakers; Punjabi, for example, has over 100 million native speakers, and no translations of works by women... But this is just one example, and while I'm sure some languages have imbalances galore, I'm not convinced that there are simply no women writers.

So just as I've done in the past with the 50 Day Countdowns, I want to set the record straight. There are going to be all sorts of challenges involved in compiling this list, yes, especially since I refuse for it to be an overwhelmingly white, European list either and don't want to repeat authors previously included in the countdowns. There are challenges galore. But you know what? It'll be worth it, if I manage. It'll be worth it to come and say, flatly, "No. Women writers exist across the whole world, across all these languages, cultures, regions, and experiences." Women cannot be the afterthought when it comes to literary engagement or awareness. This new project is just my latest way to try to reset the record, even if only a little bit.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The shifting goalposts of disappointment

Longtime readers of this blog will know that disappointment is not a rare feeling around these parts. I am frequently disappointed by popular books, am disappointed by certain publishers who fail to live up to their own hype, am disappointed by awards and narratives and stories about stories... and yet when I found myself contemplating my recent reads, I realized that disappointment meant something different for me this past year. Ultimately, almost all of the "disappointing" books I read weren't even all that bad. The goalposts had shifted.

As a child, the concept of DNFing ("Did Not Finish") a book seemed unthinkable. And maybe at the time it really was, because books were that much shorter and that much easier to finish off even if I didn't particularly like them. I read a lot of books that I managed to thoroughly loathe up through my teenage years, and I do mean loathe. Books that I really, really could not stand. For years, I was certain that I couldn't just set aside a book that I didn't like. For a long time, I didn't; I kept the books hanging around for years and years, certain that eventually I would return to read them. Sometimes I did. Increasingly, I don't.

My reading has changed drastically over the past decade. To begin with, my life is now a lot busier than it ever was; this is the decade in which I became an independent adult, studying and working and managing my own life. It's much harder to find time to read through dull books when there's so much less time for reading, especially when reading is something that I wholly do for fun. As I've mentioned many times in the past, I don't like my reading to feel like an obligation. This has, thankfully, gradually extended to include my actual reading choices and behavior. I am now perfectly happy to give up reading books that bore or anger me. 

But... interestingly enough, this practically didn't happen this year.

It's not that there weren't books that I started and then set aside, there were. I started César Aira's The Hare a few months back and just haven't managed to sink my teeth in it, but I don't feel like I'm really ready to abandon it wholly. There have been a few others along those lines. There have also been books that I realized I didn't want to read anymore. That's all fine. But I haven't had those sorts of books that truly feel like torture or anger me in their disappointment. Last year, I had one major DNF - Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a book that I just could not enjoy no matter whatever else I thought about its technical prowess. (To be clear: I don't think it's actually very good on a technical level, I think it's written in a style that is meant to be difficult and those are very different things and I will maybe elaborate on this more in a separate post someday.) I also had a few thoroughly disappointing titles, like The Belly of Paris which was easily my least favorite Zola so far (bah!) or the whitewashed Last Train to Istanbul or the cringe-ness of The Nakano Thrift Shop (yeah, I said it!). There were similar patterns in years past.

Not so this year. This year, my most disappointing titles were books that were... fine. Not bad or terrible or even painfully boring, just... mediocre. And in some cases, good!-just-not-great-or-amazing. The Eighth Life ended up being one of the most "disappointing" titles I read this past year not because it's a bad book (it is not!), but because I expected to TOTALLY LOVE IT and instead just thought it was good. So too did N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became end up "disappointing" me by virtue of not quite being what I wanted/needed, nor being as stupendously mind-blowingly good as The Broken Earth trilogy. Or maybe a book really wasn't amazing, but it was fine - some good parts, some bad parts - like Inger Christensen's The Condition of Secrecy, which like It before it, I probably would have loved had I not completely shaped my view of Christensen's writing based on the astonishing alphabet.

Which leads me to wonder: Does disappointment inherently follow hype? Almost all of the books that disappointed me this year are those that came with the highest expectations and hype or followed previously beloved books by the same author: The Eighth Life, The City We Became, Beyond Babylon, Accommodations, The Condition of Secrecy... None of these are bad books by any stretch of the imagination, some of them are even good books, and all of them come with pretty significant merits on which I could easily recommend them to many readers, yet they managed to specifically evade something I wanted from them. Were those expectations unfair? Am I moving the goalposts too far?

I'm not sure I'll ever find an answer for this. I think there's something to be said for my goalposts changing once I'm filtering out a lot more books that I just don't like; I'm wasting a lot less time on authors or books that I don't expect will do it for me. Those books, inevitably, can't disappoint me. That leaves a lot more room to be disappointed by books that I still manage to like, possibly with greater space to also explore what disappointed me and why. That's a situation I can happily live with. 

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

End of the year lists, revisited

My frustration with "Best of Books of [x]" lists is not new. In fact, it's one of few topics from my early days of blogging that I still generally agree with. I still think that there's value in waiting to see how books actually impact readers (and the market!) before determining whether they're really the most influential or "best". I still think there's messiness in how individual readers might look back on reading years or decades (and goodness, I've been blogging long enough that I've seen two decade summaries go by, eep) especially in, say, a pandemic year, and I still very much feel that reading eras are typically separate from official years. And all of these fail to mention other observations I've made over the years: The power of individual publishers (whether large or simply very media-savvy indies) can make a huge impact in terms of the perceived "best" books simply because those are the ones the reviewers are offered and subsequently read, genre limitations and definitions often box out titles that don't quite fit in, and that at the end of the day these lists create a sort of driving force for marketing more than anything else.

I have a large-scale discomfort with these lists. Major media outlets almost always showcase the same books and cite the same reasons for highlighting these books, some of which seem understandable and some of which less. Diverse as the individual selections may be (and sometimes they are!), there is a homogeneity in terms of which books are even allowed this coveted spotlight. International literature (and literature in translation more specifically) is almost always absent from these sorts of lists, which reside in comfortably Anglo-centric worlds. Industry favorites dominate, with only the rare independently-published work getting due. Academic publishing is equally rare. Non-genre-specific lists will almost always be dominated by fiction works. The lists will usually end up mostly unsurprising to anyone who has followed literary news. Perhaps this is where I'm being unfair. Perhaps these lists aren't meant for me. But if they're meant for readers who are less in-tune with the literary landscape, these flaws are all the more damning. Readers deserve more, no?

But the truth is, I have grown exhausted with the idea that we constantly need to be reading new books. We don't.

If I were to compile a "Best Books of 2020" list, it would overwhelmingly be comprised of books not originally published in 2020. Many are from 2019, it's true, but that delay is important in terms of why I ultimately chose the read the books and when (or, in one case, how long it took me). Meanwhile, many of the others are just... older. Because I only discovered the book this year. Because it took a long time for the book to be translated into a language I read in. For whatever reason, there was a delay. And to be clear: I too am increasingly becoming more contemporary in my reading due in part to pervasive public pressure! I'm reading fewer and fewer of my backlog titles and not buying nearly as many when compared to shiny new books. But I feel like this makes me a poorer reader.

In general, I've never been one for pressure in reading. I don't read on a schedule and I'm notoriously terrible at reviewing books at the "expected" timeframe (which is one reason I avoid requesting books for review). Not having the space to process books matters, especially given how much we shape each other's impressions and guide each other's reading. That question of time feels so present in properly assessing my favorite/"best" reads of any given year or era. I often feel as though looking back on older lists showcases how many of them flared brightly at a given moment and then faded from the public view. Does that mean they're not worthy books? Hardly! But some have not stood the test of time. Others may be recontextualized by a changing culture. And some may have simply been good books that were the products of effective marketing, but not much more... Ultimately, I am not a professional reviewer whose job it is to promote newly released books. I'm a reader! I'm someone who's trying to find books that are new and interesting to me. There is a lot to learn from older texts, whether as classics or just books that I missed the first time around. And there's a lot to learn in reading books without external pressure to interpret them a certain way. Maybe this is why I'm constantly finding myself at odds with most reviewers?

2020 is almost over. It was (for many of us...) a remarkably difficult and painful year. I cannot claim it to have been especially conducive for reading, in large part because I frequently found myself outside the right headspace for certain works. Trying to summarize such a year feels like it would miss out on so much, so I'm not going to. And I hope to spend 2021 taking a step back from immediacy and away from all the "best of" or "most anticipated" lists. While there are quite a few new releases I'm looking forward to reading, I want to take the time to explore writers I've left on the wayside for too long and take that step back. Reading isn't a competition or a performance; I'd like to simply read

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On the value and faults of adaptations

While it may be an odd statement to make on a dedicated book blog and as a person whose personality is often associated with books, I have to admit: I like stories. I like movies, I like television, I like theater (particularly musical theater, let's be real), I like graphic novels, I like campfire tales. I love the human capacity for storytelling and imaginative interpretations of different stories. After all, how many times have we reworked and played with the Hero's Journey? How many times have we played out romances and tragedies and sports victories and so on? It's a wondrous thing.

All of which is to say that I've long been a fan of the concept of adaptations. I find great value in the way that stories can be reworked in new contexts or using new mediums. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that film inherently elevates a text, but I think that any adaptation has the potential to add to the original, by casting it in a new light. And so a novelization of a movie might elevate that by having the space to fill in details or background that would have felt clunky in film. A film version of a comic book might manage to change the stakes and scope of the text by physically expanding them. And of course adaptations can also happen within the same medium - modernizations of classics are a particular favorite of mine, where the adaptation plays around with the actual story details to set them in a wholly different setting. Similarly, it can be argued that Shakespearean theater (and any theater that takes some liberties in direction and styling) is another form of endless reinterpretation and adaptation. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, whether in 16th century garb or in modern clothing and style (which is, perhaps, why Shakespeare remains so continually enjoyable to modern viewers!).

Yet for all my love of adaptations as a concept, I often struggle with the execution. I don't think these are unrelated, though, and in fact it was through my disappointment in various adaptations in recent months* that I've realized so much of what it is that makes a good adaptation good. 

It began with Wolf Hall, which I read (and loved) several years back. When a BBC adaptation of that work was announced, I was excited. How could I not be, with an adaptation in the works of some of my favorite books? So when the time came, I watched the first episode with excitement... and stopped. While meticulously crafted and staged, the show felt... dim. Lifeless. I forgot about it for several years, only coming back to it when I read The Mirror and the Light earlier this year. And so I watched the next two episodes (all that time later), and was again struck by a sort of blankness to the adaptation. Coming off of Mantel's writing, it felt even more apparent. Where were the film equivalents of Mantel's writerly quirks ("he, Cromwell")? Where was the depth and weight of Mantel's raw focus? "Wolf Hall" the miniseries was praised for being a faithful adaptation, but it seems to primarily adapt the story, not the work itself. Henry VIII's story is not unfamiliar, nor is Cromwell's by association. The value that Wolf Hall brought in "adapting" Cromwell's life was in how Mantel carried out her work, how she delved into Cromwell's character, and how she built the historical record into and around it. It's the life she introduced into an established historical story. In failing to capture some of Mantel's literary quirks and snarky eye, the "Wolf Hall" miniseries ends up feeling like a neat set-piece historical drama, not a particularly good adaptation.

A similar feeling has continued with the recent BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, another of my all-time favorite series. While generally more enjoyable and admirable in its attempts to flesh out the politics of Lyra's world (which are largely left vague in The Golden Compass, somewhat expanded upon in later books) and some bold (and welcome!) storytelling decisions in the overall series pacing, there is still something somewhat missing from the adaptation. Fantasy and sci-fi works are often difficult to translate to the screen, lest something of the actual imagination gets lost. "His Dark Materials" tries to play to its strengths (excellent acting), but it can't quite capture the magic of Pullman's world, mostly failing to really convey the otherness-yet-normalcy of daemons. Season 2 is improving on this a bit, but there's still the feeling that "His Dark Materials" just doesn't quite manage to build on the original. Its an adaptation that is enjoyable (and, again, improving in its expanded world-building, which is great), but not yet all there.

It's partly disappointing because I do think there are plenty of book-to-TV examples that manage to do a good job as adaptations and as stories in their own right, which I'm realizing is part of what I find so important (and engaging) with adaptations. The Babysitter's Club was never really high-quality literature, but its transition to the small screen is not only delightful as a tween-friendly series, it also manages to capture exactly what made the original Babysitter's Club books so successful - its leads and the sense of familiarity in the stories. Modernizing these 90s classics gives space to updating the tropes that each character represents, whether in portraying a character with a chronic illness in a wholly human way, integrating history into characters' backstories with a heavy dose of modern morality, or simply giving voice to underrepresented characters or character types. And it's obviously not alone. From Lord of the Rings to The Princess Bride to Clueless, I think that there are many cases of films exceeding the source material across many different metrics, ultimately carving out their own space as stories (not merely as adaptations) and also remaining true to the spirit of the original in at least some form.

Stories have value, and I am increasingly convinced that adaptations have value of their own and in their own right. An adaptation that merely follows the letter of the text can often come off as stilted and bland, as can those that fail to understand textual innovations (like with Wolf Hall). Sometimes this is only felt by those who have engaged with the original, but sometimes it bleeds into a general sense of a story that has nothing new to say. But it can also be about how you relate to a work, wrapped in how you value that medium. I, for instance, like sparseness in film much more than I do in books. This is how I ended up loving the film adaptation of Brooklyn (a book I otherwise did not particularly enjoy), finding myself enamored with its pacing and visual storytelling. (This is also part of why I loved the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, despite any other flaws it might have. I seriously loved the use of coloring as a frame device.) Meanwhile, I'm probably not going to be very interested in a horror-themed adaptation of a beloved story (sorry Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!). Like with all art, that doesn't mean that there isn't value in the work of art itself, nor does it mean that different people won't find value in different aspects. After all, "Wolf Hall" earned high praise as a miniseries, despite my own disappointment so far; I suppose I will always be contrary.

In short, I remain a fan of adaptations as a concept, and frequently also in execution. Adaptations don't need to supplant an original story, rather to add to it. And as a fan of stories and over-analyzing stories, it's hard not to love the extra depth the mere act of adaptation introduces.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Classics versus YA" is a false debate

Over the past two days, numerous Twitter accounts, authors, academics, and educators have joined a fairly wide-reaching debate as to the merits of the so-called literary canon (which I will simplify as "classics"). To call this a "debate" is already a bit of a stretch - having read many different perspectives from all sorts of sides, it often feels as though there are two completely different conversations happening, with extraordinary animosity from different directions (even when some of the anger is fairly understandable). Troubling, however, is the prevalence of an especially vicious dismissiveness of young adult (YA) authors, particularly YA authors of color. Twitter being Twitter, it's increasingly difficult to track all of the different conversations happening in parallel, but one thing is sufficiently clear: There are pervasive, frankly snobbish views entrenched in the literary world, and there are pervasive problems with how these translate into pedagogy and there are pervasive problems with how people then turn these into opportunities to yell. I won't get into the individual arguments because a) I don't think I'm necessarily the best person to talk about it (being pretty far removed...), and b) I've mostly found myself thinking about that core misunderstanding and false debate over classics versus YA.

I started blogging in December of 2008, at the shy age of 17. I had been writing reviews for a few years by that point, and blogging was meant to be an opportunity to stretch my (likely falsely perceived) intellectual wings a little. I was just settling into a new reading era for myself, after having blitzed through a classics period at ages 13-15, followed by a YA renaissance at 15-16. Though I didn't know it at the time, at 17 I would begin to shift my focus to international literature on a far greater scale, and this would eventually lead me to the women in translation project. Classics were my first foray into reading like a "grown-up", and there was a time when I thought this meant that I needed to cut back my reading of YA. Once I started blogging, I also discovered that a lot of bloggers I interpreted as more "mature" (that is - not YA- or kidlit-specific) held deeply dismissive views of young adult literature as a concept, and that often spilled over into a dismissal of young adult readers. Suffice to say, I felt out of place from all directions, as a young reader who wanted to also have space to grow into the world of "adult" literature, but also still loved being able to read and engage with stories that seemed to be much more at "eye-level" for me. 

Why am I writing this? Because as this latest round of "classics versus YA" sprung up again, I felt as though I was rewatching something I've seen dozens of times over the past few years. There's not much new in the conversation (except, perhaps, the miscommunication, rage, and hurt that come with a social media platform like Twitter), which really all loops back to the fact that it's a problematic argument in the first place. Just as I didn't need to have to choose between my own reading, neither do young readers today.

To begin with: The "debate" was sparked by a few different threads that criticized different aspects of teaching classics in schools. This is a wholly legitimate concern. One YA author decided to thread classics she felt were bad or harmful in a K-12 school environment (often using somewhat dramatized modern tongue-in-cheek stylings), leading to a swift backlash. Except... it's legitimate to come and say "I don't think we should be forcing kids to read books that are boring or racist or sexist". And that does cover a lot of the classics taught in schools, at least in the US. Classics are often cultural touchstones, but their influence is also pretty context-dependent; books gain classics status by our elevation of them. So why elevate certain books simply because that's what's always been done?

Then there's the question of educational value. Is there educational value in controversial classics? In this, I find myself agreeing with all sides: Yes, but not on a universal scale, and not necessarily in every classroom. Literature serves different purposes at different ages and for different kids. There is certainly the question of teaching critical thinking, textual analysis, and literary interpretation, but those don't actually require "difficult" or controversial books. When most kids aren't reading in the first place, there is value in promoting works that are written with modern children in mind, and these works still leave space for exploring larger questions. Not to mention that modern YA is also infinitely more relevant to important cultural shifts happening now, whether in terms of conversations about race, whether in representing a wider range of sexual and gender identities, or whether just in terms of navigating a world that is constantly changing. To dismiss these works wholesale is to miss out on the extraordinary work being done within the field.

But I also find myself agreeing that there is still value in some of the traditional "classic"/canon-y titles, just not necessarily for the reasons that some have argued. I personally love many different older titles, some of which are firmly in the canon and others which are not necessarily, some of which are clearly problematic products of their times and others which transition reasonably well to a modern setting. I think young readers could learn a lot from Sei Shōnagon, for example, as an opportunity to contrast early diary writing with modern texting lingo, or Frederick Douglass, another "classic" author with immense value in the classroom that reaches beyond a single subject. Middlemarch, in my mind, is also a book that absolutely deserves a place in a classroom. And I even contemplate some of the more controversial, established titles: John Steinbeck absolutely has his issues and as an adult I'm able to parse through a lot more than I was as a child, but I still learned a lot from Of Mice and Men that's stayed with me for years. It's just that I don't think that these titles necessarily deserve space in place of titles that younger readers can relate with. We need to be able to separate two different goals of encouraging reading/a love of books versus challenging readers. Personally, I struggle with the idea that children - even teenagers - must be challenged with "difficult" books. I think that some will want it and seek that out, but it's much more important that kids learn critical thinking in a way that will make sense to them. 

For me, the problem with the whole debate hinges in part on this misunderstanding. On the one hand, you have educators focusing on getting kids to love reading. On the other hand, you have authors focusing on the challenging aspects of literature. But these aren't actually contradictory, nor must they be mutually exclusive. To take an example of a book that came out when I was a kid and is already reaching classics status, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a modern(ish) YA classic and one of the more innovative, powerful, and memorable books I've ever read. It's a book that forces the reader to contemplate numerous coexisting realities and an unreliable narrator, challenges expectations, and addresses pretty heavy topics, all through a brilliant script format that turns the story into a meta-commentary on narratives. And there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other kidlit/YA books that achieve those two goals as well, many of which actually are recent and geared toward the kids of today. Why not elevate these books?

The canon is not actually real or objective. It's eternally in flux, eternally changing, and endlessly relevant and irrelevant simultaneously. There is nothing set in stone that says one book deserves to belong to the canon while another is forgotten to history, there's just our choice to elevate one book over another. And it's okay to recognize that these things change. Writing changes and our culture changes and our perception of the canon changes with it. Clinging to the books of your past isn't actually about ensuring that modern kids have access to the classics - they do and they will. Nobody told me to read Tolstoy or Zola or the Brontës at 14, I chose to because I was already a passionate, devoted reader and I wanted to explore a new-to-me world. I was able to read through these outdated texts and try to see them in their own, shifted light. I'd like to believe that I learned from those beloved-by-me classics, just like I did from those classics I loathed (hello, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby!). I read these all for "pleasure", not in any classroom setting. There was a time when I was certain that I had lost something important for it, that I had fundamentally misunderstood the texts and that must be why I hated so many of them. But today I realize that... no. I simply didn't like them, and that's okay. And I simply loved others, and that's okay too. And there are some books that today I realize had additional layers and meta-contexts that I didn't understand as a child (Gone With the Wind is perhaps the starkest example...), and I'm okay with that as well.

I know that this argument will come back in a few years, or a few months. It inevitably always does. Its return is always heralded by the same dividing lines, where there are those speaking for modern texts (usually also reflecting the growing diversity of YA literature, which is very much not disconnected from the backlash the field faces, nor the dismissive attitudes and violent rage that these authors inspire.......) and there are those defending "the classics". I myself used to defend older texts as uniquely elevated, but no more; I just don't see any intrinsic value in classics as classics, nor in defending the canon as a fixed construct. Readers - and young readers in particular - deserve better than to be eternally fed this false dichotomy of enjoyable versus valuable, of "lower" works versus elevated classics. It simply isn't true and it does us all a disservice.

Monday, August 31, 2020

WITMonth Day 31 | The end is, as always, just the beginning

For all my love for August 1st, I have to admit that some years I find myself looking forward to August 31st just a bit more. The beginning of WITMonth symbolizes so much hope for how the month will unfold, but the end demonstrates just how far we've come. The end of August is a full, beautiful display of all of the books and reviews and short stories and poems and photos and recommendations and engagement that WITMonth has borne. 

This year especially - a year that has been remarkably difficult in many ways - I find myself full of love as I contemplate the different ways in which readers took part in WITMonth. There are always new readers discovering the project, with responses ranging from righteous anger over the imbalances and biases to excitement over new books to committed fervor in continuing to read works by women writers in translation. There are countless book recommendations shared, literally too many to count. Readers span six continents (to the best of my knowledge, nobody on Antarctica has yet participated in WITMonth, but maybe someday!) and dozens of different native languages, reading works from backgrounds just as varied. Some works are as-of-yet unpublished (whether in translation to English or in another language!), while others are established, canonic classics. There are books and works and poems that cross genres and reader designations. 

WITMonth is, ultimately, one of the easiest reading or "challenge" months, since there's only one real requirement: Engage with the topic of women writers in translation. No matter your reading tastes, you are likely to find at least one book by a woman writer from around the world that will suit you (though finding two or more may be a bit trickier for some genres...).  Women in Translation Month - for all the misnomers - is meant to be there for everyone. And it shows, with passionate and diverse and fascinating engagement across the internet. Importantly, not all of this engagement is necessarily full of praise - readers also include their critiques of certain works or certain WIT-adjacent topics (though the latter is a genre that I think is mostly comprised of my own writing...). There are meaningful conversations about what WITMonth means to different readers, to translators, to publishers. There are conversations about what WITMonth should mean (beyond my own definitions), and these are all good and healthy things. There is just so much and it is wonderful.

So another year has passed, and as always I find myself wanting to remind readers that this is only the beginning. WITMonth may end with August, but the women in translation movement lives year-round. I always have specific goals that roll over from August to the rest of the year (even if it occasionally takes another full year before I manage to publish them...) and I don't think that the efforts we make should be limited to one month. On the contrary! Every reader who has laughed that their TBR has grown too much as a result of WITMonth? Excellent! You now have reading material for the whole year. Enjoy it

There is more work, as well. As I posted yesterday, there is so much room to expand the women in translation movement worldwide, where it was always meant to be. For this, we non-English speakers will need to ask ourselves how things look within our own native languages and try to figure out how to address unique imbalances we may find. We must continue fighting against cultural/linguistic biases in translation, as well as falling into limited patterns in the stories we choose to center. The women in translation movement must also become a normalized conversation within the larger feminist movement, rather than something on its outskirts. There remain publishers and gatekeepers who do not see value in setting aside space for women writers in translation, but we readers can do so much ourselves. We can stand up and make clear just how important women's voices are, whether as reflections of our own experiences, windows into new ones, or doorways that bring the two together. We can make a point to center writers - famous and untranslated - who represent different parts of the world. We can seek to rework the canon to reflect the broader world and find the joy in literature that exists worldwide. We can do all of this while addressing structural accessibility problems, as well as subsequent genre imbalances.

WITMonth, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, is an opportunity, not an obligation - an opportunity to discover new books, new writers, and new perspectives. It's also our opportunity to do a lot of this work, but it's not an exclusive setup. We can (and must!) continue this effort throughout the year, and I am certain there are so many more topics and issues that we have yet to fully explore. August ends as it always does, but the movement lives on.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

WITMonth Day 30 | WIT worldwide | Brief thoughts

This isn't the post where I'll talk about what women in translation and WITMonth specifically look like worldwide. While I posted my stats and analysis for Israeli publications in the context of WIT last week (in Hebrew), it will likely take a few more weeks before I'm able to publish an English-language summary of the data. While it may seem somewhat boring to non-Israelis, the fact is that there's quite a bit buried within that data that has implications worldwide. And that's what I want to touch on today.

WITMonth has been celebrated across different countries since its very inception and there have been multilingual (non-translator!) readers from the beginning. Year after year, more readers have joined from various countries, some predominantly reading in non-English languages, others reading in their non-native English. The conversation, however, has remained in English. As I've pointed out before, there is English-language bias/centering embedded in the fact that this blog is in English. The @read_WIT Twitter account is in English. The Women in Translation project, as a whole, is carried out in English. Yet I don't want it to be exclusively English. How does that work?

I look at this movement and I do want to see more work being done in other countries, in other languages. I make a point of sharing #WITMonth tweets that are relevant to WIT even when in languages I don't speak (often utilizing friends or Google Translate to help me out), and it's actually one of my very favorite parts of WITMonth. WIT shouldn't be English-only. It can't. It may end up meaning different things in different countries and different languages, but the core, I think, remains in acknowledging how little literary attention is given to women writers from backgrounds beyond the "accepted" US/UK Anglosphere, just as it is in our English-language conversation. If for some regions/cultures/languages this means that English-language women writers from Africa are highlighted, I think I can understand it, even if it goes against the original intent of the project. If for some languages it means promoting works by women within the language and not actually "in translation", I definitely understand it (I myself have been doing this since the beginning). 

WIT is in its nature a worldwide effort, despite its current perception suggesting an English-only focus. I wish I spoke a dozen more languages so I could make this point to a wider, multilingual audience - WIT is for all of us! - but I am also willing to see you, o fellow international readers, spreading that message instead. There's so much more to discuss in terms of what the Women in Translation movement looks like outside of English and outside of the Anglosphere, whether in terms of publication stats across the world or in terms of different literary cultures. 

I intend to begin these conversations more loudly, in both English and Hebrew, and I would love to see other multilingual readers doing the same worldwide.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

WITMonth Day 29 | Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano | Review

There's a lot of meta to unpack before I can write about Léonora Miano's Dark Heart of the Night, translated from French by Tamsin Black. Miano, after all, is credited with disliking the University of Nebraska Press edition of Dark Heart of the Night even on her own Wikipedia page, having publicly critiqued the book's foreword (which I assume has been removed from subsequent print runs, since my edition has none) and much of the book's paratext (cover and title). A little digging reveals that Miano had serious concerns about how the University of Nebraska Press ultimately framed the book, from the foreword that was "full of lies" to changing the book's original title to resemble Heart of Darkness (a comparison that is also mirrored in the back cover description). I thus came into Dark Heart of the Night knowing that Miano had critiques, but not quite remembering what they were, instead reading into it more after reading the book. And I have to say - her critiques are valid from all sorts of perspectives and also point to a pivotal reading of the novella itself.


I'll start with my conclusion: Dark Heart of the Night is a bit of a brutal, unpleasant read, but one that is uncompromising and fascinating. It's a book that batters its reader again and again from all sorts of perspectives and doesn't seem particularly concerned with expectations of how the story is supposed to advance or fall into place. Its pacing is steady, its plot scattered without a single fixed peak, and its emotional impact a sort of pulsing, constant effect. Miano packs an extensive critique of different forms of violence and community life in the short novel, with a sense that there is much more that she could say on either topic (as well as many others). Dark Heart of the Night does a lot, almost all of it efficiently and effectively, and the end result makes for a book that is hard to set aside but also... not entirely enjoyable.

One of my impressions while reading Dark Heart of the Night was the Miano sought to create a sort of generic form of violence in the face of war and chaos. Miano's descriptions of village life as a contrast to city life all felt a little purposely blurred, with fictional names designed to place her story across a wide range of regions. Nationalism does not feature in regards to this specific country, exactly, rather the story's core violence stems from a place of a flawed and despotic perception of African identity. Perhaps I should have, but I did not assign too much importance to this on a deeper level; can Miano not critique violence in the same way that any other novelist might write of in the world? 

The brutality of violence that Miano introduces feels like a contrast to the individual identity subplot that centers now-village-outsider Ayané who has returned to her home village following her mother's death, yet the two narratives intertwine in defining identity, community, and belonging. Dark Heart of the Night is not just its most violent moments, but also their aftermath, their effects, and the way these fit into larger political balances. It seems important to remember that the novel continues past what can be viewed as its darkest moments, with that unrelenting continued bluntness. 

It's hard to write about Dark Heart of the Night without getting into details, and I think that any details take away from the book's power. It is a powerful novel, in many of its different threads. It's true that they occasionally muddle and the writing style sometimes feel out of place for the different subplots, but the book on the whole is depressingly effective. 

It's also - to loop back to my introduction - a lot more nuanced and complex than its paratext would suggest. To begin with, the back cover description centers Ayané in a way that frankly seems to emphasize one of the novel's themes over others. While Ayané is very much the novel's main character, she is often counterbalanced within the story and her experience contrasted. These contrasts feel important in how Miano builds a larger narrative regarding that blurry African identity. Furthermore, the casting of the novel through the lens of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (a work that has roundly been criticized for its racist, generalizing portrayal of Africa, though I have not read it myself...) also seems to strip away some of the weight of Miano's vague placement of her story. I can't imagine how the original foreword also attempted to alter Miano's experiences and identity herself in order to fit a narrative regarding African literature. Why can Dark Heart of the Night not simply be allowed to stand on its own?

I'm not sure that my own review doesn't fall into similar, problematic patterns in terms of what I'm mistakenly focusing on. I feel as though I walked into the novel mostly unaware of the controversies and thankfully unaware of the actual plot. (For once, I can at least be grateful for the book's vague and vaguely inaccurate back cover for not creating false expectations.) I read the book with little external context and without feeling like I knew enough to place Dark Heart of the Night's plot in any one specific place. My ignorance, it seems, ultimately matches Miano's own intentions. But is my sense that Miano is deeply involved with questions of identity something that follows from the retrospective reading of her critiques of the original foreword? Am I misreading her response to it? Was there something else in reading this novella that I was supposed to take away? Knowing what I now know in terms of Miano's own sense of her work, I find myself wishing for a deeper, detailed analysis that views Miano's work as part of a larger whole. Individual debut work as it may be, Miano clearly has had more to say, having published several books over the past decade. Would we as readers not benefit from reading those works as well? (Yes, we would.)

I did not struggle with reading Dark Heart of the Night, though the book saddened, angered, and disheartened me in many ways, as I believe it intended. The writing is brisk and clean, and again, the pacing is remarkably steady for a book that contains several different gut-punch peaks. It is far from a pleasant book, but it is definitely a good one, perhaps even a great one. It is certainly a work worth reading. I also think there is some value in the questions it forces us to grapple with regarding how works by African writers in translation (and perhaps African women writers more specifically?) are packaged for English-speaking audiences. Miano's critiques may be presented as a surprising bit of anger from an author over how her writing is sold in translation ("drama"), but ultimately it's worth noting two things: 1. The original foreword no longer appears in print, and 2. Miano's critiques end up providing a much better context for what Dark Heart of the Night is trying to do than the book's remaining paratext itself. I suppose some good comes of bad as well...

Friday, August 28, 2020

WITMonth Day 28 | Joy | Brief thoughts

I've been thinking a lot about pain and joy lately. The world is going through a lot. We are going through a lot. And in these tough times, readers often find themselves seeking shelter in literature, whether as an educational experience or a comforting one. WITMonth has often been the former for me, but finding joy in world literature is surprisingly difficult. So few books are translated, after all, that there is often too little room left for books that fall into genres that are considered "less serious". Joyous books are a rarity among books written by women in translation.

Where is adventure? Where is love? Where is happiness? Where is joy?

I think about the books I've read lately. Many are truly wonderful books, but they delve into particularly heavy topics - war, violence, sexism, racism, tragedy. And even when the books themselves are full of love (like Island of Shattered Dreams), there is still a tragic core, or the books that are uplifting come from a place of sadness.

I find myself seeking more of that. Women - particularly women writers from underrepresented backgrounds in English translation - deserve to share stories that reflect all of life, not just the tragedies or difficulties or struggles. We are allowed to simply have women's love, happiness, adventure, and optimism without tragedy as its base. Along with all my hopes for more translations of works by women writers from around the world, I would like more joy.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

WITMonth Day 27 | Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen | Review

You know what's one of the most frustrating trends in the literary world? Different titles for the same book. This phenomenon is understandably more common with literature in translation than books in their original language, though those too will occasionally pop up with a new name in the weirdest way. Why do books need vastly different titles across different countries? The book had a title - translate it and leave it be!

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen (tr. into English, to my knowledge, from Korneliussen's translation into Danish, by Anna Halager) is another example of this extraordinarily annoying phenomenon. The UK edition is marketed as Crimson, and both editions are marketed very different from translations into other (European) languages. Go figure! Marketing is weird, right? But then there are folks like me who don't pay attention and do some of their bookshopping from UK stores and some from US and almost buy the same book twice. At least this time I didn't, but you know. Keep an eye out.

I actually read Last Night in Nuuk last year. Somehow, I forgot to add it to my reading list and it quickly felt like a book I had read long ago, not a recent read. A year later, I find myself with a similar overall impression. It feels like a book I've always known, somehow. It's a book that's always been in my memory, even though I can vividly recall reading it.

There is a decently high chance you will not like Last Night in Nuuk. The things about the book that make it good and interesting are not necessarily things that will appeal to all readers. For instance, I really liked just how quick the book is - Last Night in Nuuk moves at an extraordinarily brisk pace - but it's the sort of overly fast pacing that makes a book always feel like it's existed in the past. Many readers have not enjoyed that aspect as I did.

The writing is similarly divisive. The immediacy of the first-person present tense isn't for everyone. I often don't love it myself, but it made perfect sense for a book that's as contemporary as Last Night in Nuuk is supposed to feel. Everything about the book feels designed to capture an instant moment for a very specific group of young people (i.e. millennials, and specifically queer millennials) and it really only works within that context and understanding. Even the use of text messages embedded into the story is something that would probably ring false for some readers, but I felt fine with. To mix metaphors, the book seemed flow at just the right register.

So what's Last Night in Nuuk about? In short, it's about the muddled and messy lives of a group of young, queer Greenlanders just trying to figure it out. For some, it's about a sense of identity. For others, it's their actual relationships and the way these shape their lives. The characters cross narratives frequently, their stories and lives overlapping. This ultimately also contributes to the retrospective feeling that the book was always a memory in my mind, since I can't fully extricate the story of each character from the others (with one exception, where an especially sloppy bit of writing left its mark). It also feeds into the feeling that the book is vaguely timeless, despite its strong millennial root. The texting and style date the novel, but the overall story vibe feels disconnected from all of this.

I ended up liking Last Night in Nuuk a lot more than other readers, I think. I've thought about the book's unique style a lot over the past year and tried to understand what it was about the novel that worked for me when it didn't for other readers. It's a book that's tough to recommend (especially without knowing someone's reading tastes!), but I think readers who are willing to let their books get a little weird and rough around the edges, Last Night in Nuuk pays off by having well defined characters that dig their way into your mind and feel uniquely alive in a very particular moment. Whatever else, it's a fairly different book, and if you're open to that sort of difference (bearing in mind that the style really might not work for you!), I think it's worth reading.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

WITMonth Day 26 | The 100 Best WIT, one year later

On this day last year, I published the final list of the 100 Best WIT.

The idea behind the 100 Best WIT started, originally, as a response to the erasure of women writers in translation from the book The 100 Best Novels in Translation. While I would personally never claim to having enough experience, expertise, or understanding to write my own definitive top-100 list, I thought that a crowd-sourced list would be a great way to see what readers around the world feel are the worthiest books. As I wrote last year, it was never going to be the 100 "best" books, but the 100 most "popular", and even that assessment was heavily skewed by my audience and the folks who even engaged with the project.

There are a lot of things I would do differently today, if I were to repeat the project. To begin with, I would try to reach a much wider audience - the couple hundred or so readers who participated are without a doubt a remarkably diverse and widely-read bunch, but the overwhelming majority came from within the same online translated literature community. This, I think, contributed in part to the heavy contemporary tilt of the final list, since these were the books that were fresh in readers' minds, and many reflected recent literary trends within this particular community. 

I would want to better define the scope of the project and separate between translated-into-English versus untranslated works. Ultimately, while many readers did submit works that have not yet been translated into English, there was no real way these had a fighting chance to make it to the final list, given that the overwhelming majority of submissions were through the English-language lens. I would love to compile a truly international list that includes works that have never been translated into any other language (but deserve to!), but that would look very, very different and would require a completely different perspective. Maybe someday.

And ultimately I would probably want to have a stronger editorial influence. The biases that are entrenched in this complicated world of literary translations mean that the list itself reflects some of those biases, most notably a strong European slant. As difficult as it would be to crowd-source a list while also giving myself (or some sort of editorial team) unique powers, I think there is something to be said about limiting books from similar backgrounds or from the same authors. In terms of nominations, some authors had almost all of their books individually nominated in such a way that I feel shut out many other writers. 

Similarly, had the tallies been public, would readers have nominated the same books? On multiple occasions, readers told me that they wanted to nominate book "X", but decided that it must be in the top spot so instead they nominated "Y", and book "X" was nowhere on the list. Would people have chosen differently if they knew which books were leading? Which books had already been nominated? Which authors were already guaranteed a slot (or two) and didn't need more votes for their third-fourth-whatever book?

I'm still so extraordinarily proud of what we did with the 100 Best WIT. I think it's a list quite unlike any other out there in the world, and as I wrote earlier this month, I think there's what to learn from it in terms of how to build a future canon. And as a reading list, I've found it to be interesting and diverse (even with its flaws). One year later, I am happy to keep revisiting the list and think about what it meant... and what we can continue to learn from it for the future. Should we start planning a more streamlined version for WITMonth 2021...?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

נשים בתרגום

 (NOTE: An English summary of this data will be shared in a separate post.)


"חודש נשים בתרגום"


"נשים בתרגום" זה לא מושג מוכר בישראל, ואפשר להבין למה.


מה משמעות המושג הזה? למה הכוונה? האם מתייחס לנשים בתוכן הסיפור? סופרות? מתרגמות? ומה עם סופרות א-בינריות? 


"נשים בתרגום" מתאר ספרות מתורגמת שנכתבה במקור על ידי נשים. המושג מגיע מאנגלית, Women in Translation, בעקבות מחקרים שנעשו על תרגומים ספרותיים שהראו כי נשים מהוות רק כ-30% מכלל התרגומים החדשים לאנגלית של ספרות יפה ושירה. כשמוסיפים תרגומי ספרי עיון, קלאסיקות, וספרות ילדים/נוער, אחוז הסופרות יורד לכ-25%. אך המושג "נשים בתרגום" אינו משקף את כל הסיפור. 


קודם כל, בהמשך לטעות הנפוצה: ״נשים בתרגום״ מתייחס לסופרות, לא למתרגמות. עבודת התרגום היא אכן עבודה מאתגרת במיוחד, אך כוונת הפרויקט היא למשוך את תשומת הלב לקולן של הסופרות וסיפוריהן.


בנוסף, לא מדובר רק בנשים! "נשים בתרגום" גם מעודד ומפרסם ספרות מאת סופרים/ות א-בינאריים/ות או סופרים טרנסים שבוחרים להכלל. 


ולבסוף, כשאנחנו מדברים על ״נשים בתרגום״ בהקשר הישראלי, אנחנו לא באמת מדברים על תרגומים מכל השפות באופן שווה. כי בעצם - הכוונה היא דווקא לספרות שמתורגמת משפות שאינן אנגלית.


אז מהו בעצם חודש נשים בתרגום? כל שנה במהלך חודש אוגוסט אנחנו מכירים, מפרסמים וחוגגים את הספרות הנפלאה הזו.


(הערת אגב: אמנם אני יזמתי את הפרויקט בראשיתו, ואני כמובן דוברת עברית, אך המושג ״נשים בתרגום״ ראה אור לראשונה בעברית בבלוגים ספרותיים שהגיעו לפרויקט דרך קהילת הספרות דוברת האנגלית, לא דרכי!)


בשנה שעברה, התראיינתי אצל דפנה לוי במוסף הספרותי "המוסך". זו הייתה בעיניי אחת השיחות המעניינות ביותר בנושא נשים בתרגום שהשתתפתי בהן, ולא רק כי סוף סוף הייתה לי הזדמנות לדבר גם על נושאים הקשורים לישראל באופן ספציפי, אלא שהכתבה מהווה מבוא מקיף ומעמיק לכל פרויקט ״נשים בתרגום״ בשנים האחרונות.


עכשיו הגיע הזמן לדבר על המצב בישראל. 


אנשים בארץ בדרך כלל מצביעים על הצלחתן של מספר מצומצם של סופרות דוברות אנגלית כסימן לכך שפרויקט "נשים בתרגום" חסר משמעות. "תראי עד כמה ג'יי קיי רולינג מוצלחת! מה פתאום צריך חודש נשים בתרגום?" (וכן, זו תמיד הדוגמא...) אמירות כאלה מפספסות את מהות הפרויקט.


נחזור רגע להגדרת נשים בתרגום בהקשר של ספרות מתורגמת לאנגלית. אצל קוראים דוברי אנגלית ישנה נטייה לקרוא מעט מאוד ספרות מתורגמת, והמעט שיוצא לאור אינו זוכה לקהל רחב. אבל בהקשר העברי, ערבי, לטבי, סיני, אינדונזי, מלאיאלאם, לא-משנה-באיזה-שפה-מדברים-חוץ-מאנגלית, יש פער עצום כשבוחנים את שפת המקור של הספרות המתורגמת. נכון, בעברית יש מלא תרגומים... אך כמעט כולם מאנגלית. 


בהחלט צריך להתייחס לפערים מגדריים ותרבותיים בספרות שמתורגמת מאנגלית. לא סתם קיימים באנגלית ארגונים שלמים לקידום סופרות (למשל, VIDA או ReadWomen) וכמובן שיש גם פערים אחרים, למשל בקידום סופרים/ות שחורים/ות, ספרות מהגרים, ספרות עמים ילידים, ספרות מעמד פועלים, ספרות קווירית וכו'. ובכל זאת.


כמה ספרות מתורגמת באמת קיימת בעברית?


בשנה שעברה, אספתי מידע לגבי כל הפרסומים של מספר הוצאות לאור בישראל: עם עובד, הספרייה החדשה, תשע נשמות, אחוזת בית, עליית גג, בבל, ו-כנרת, זמורה-ביתן, דביר.



פרסומים לפי שפה, 2018


הדבר הראשון שבולט לעין: לא חסרים תרגומים מאנגלית. להפך - תרגומים מאנגלית שולטים בשוק הישראלי. סך הכל, 41% מהספרים שיצאו לאור ב-2018 בהוצאות אלו נכתבו במקור בעברית, 41% נכתבו במקור באנגלית, ו-18% מכל שאר שפות העולם (כאשר ספר אחד - שנכתב במקור בקוריאנית - בעצם תורגם מהתרגום לאנגלית, לא מקוריאנית באופן ישיר). אם נתייחס לספרות מתורגמת כקבוצה עצמאית, אנגלית מייצגת 69% מכלל הספרות המתורגמת לעברית.


חשוב לציין כי במידה מסוימת בחרתי במוציאים לאור האלה כי ידעתי שהם מפרסמים "יותר" ספרות בינ"ל ולא רק תרגומים מאנגלית. בהוצאה הגדולה ביותר שבדקתי, שגם מאוד מייצגת את ה"מיינסטרים" הישראלי (כנרת, זמורה-ביתן, דביר), האחוזים דווקא נטו עוד יותר לכיוון תרגומים מאנגלית, כאשר 48% מכלל הספרים שיצאו לאור ב-2018 היו תרגומים מאנגלית, 44% ספרות מקור מעברית, ו-8% משאר שפות העולם.


הדומיננטיות של אנגלית בהקשר של תרגומים לעברית לא מפתיעה אך כן מאכזבת. ספרות אמורה לחשוף אותנו להשקפות עולם שונות, למצבים שונים, לסיפורים שונים. איך אנחנו אמורים להבין את העולם אם אנחנו כל הזמן נחשפים רק לארה"ב ואנגליה?


מה ההבדלים המגדריים?


נתחיל מהשאלה: כמה ספרים מאת נשים או גברים יוצאים לאור בישראל בכל שנה? מתוך מבחר המו"לים שבדקתי, ב-2018 מדובר בפער מפתיע: כ-57% מכל הספרים שיצאו לאור נכתבו על ידי גברים, 41% על ידי נשים, ו-2% ספרים שנכתבו על ידי גברים ונשים ביחד ("משולב"). לא ציפיתי להבדל כזה גדול - בעבר התרשמתי שהמצב בישראל מאוד שוויוני בין סופרות לסופרים. מאיפה הפער מגיע?


בחרתי לחלק את הנתונים לקבוצות. קודם כל, הסתכלתי אך ורק על ספרים שנכתבו במקור בעברית - שם הפער קטן יותר, כאשר 54% סופרים, 44% סופרות, ו-2% משולב. אחוזי התרגומים מאנגלית הם לפי אותה עקומה - 56% סופרים, 41% סופרות, 3% משולב. תרגומים מכל שאר השפות שאינן אנגלית נראו לגמרי אחרת. כאן, רק שליש (33%) מהספרים נכתבו על ידי נשים, כאשר 65% נכתבו על ידי גברים ו-2% משולב.

 

ספרות מקור + מתורגמת


ספרות מתורגמת (כולל אנגלית)




ספרות מתורגמת (ללא אנגלית)


פערים קיימים גם בחתכים אחרים, כמו ז'אנר. הגדרתי כמה ז'אנרים כלליים כדי לנסות להבין אם יש פערים בין נושאים מסוימים... ואכן יש. ז'אנרים כמו ספרות ילדים, ספרות נוער, וסיפורת/ספרות יפה לרוב כללו אחוז גבוה יותר של סופרות (לדוגמא, נוער) או אחוזים מאוד דומים של סופרים וסופרות (ילדים וסיפורת), לפחות בעברית. כלומר מכיוון שרוב הספרים שיוצאים לאור בישראל שייכים לז'אנר ספרות יפה/סיפורת, לא מפתיע שתמיד חשתי שהמצב בעברית די שוויוני - 51% מסיפורת מקור נכתבה על ידי נשים.


אחוז סופרות מתוך פרסומים בעברית (מקור)


אבל כן חשוב לשים לב לז'אנרים החריגים מבחינת פערים מגדריים, ספציפית עיון ושירה. שני הז'אנרים האלה מהווים עולם ומלואו בספרות מקור וספרות מתורגמת. בשירה למשל, רק 17% מהפרסומים הם מאת נשים (פירושו של דבר - ספר בודד); איך ייתכן כי ב-2018 נתון כזה מייצג את כל ספרי השירה מאת נשים ממבחר מו"לים מובילים בישראל? בעיון - הז'אנר השני בגודלו בישראל - רק 27% מהספרים נכתבו על ידי נשים. האמנם נשים באמת לא כותבות בז'אנרים האלה? או שאולי סתם פספסתי משהו? אלו שאלות להמשך.


אותה מגמה נראית גם בתרגומים מאנגלית, שם שוב קיים פער עצום בעיון (רק 16% סופרות, מתוך 25 ספרים סה״כ). בהתחשב במעמד של ספרי עיון (ביוגרפיה, היסטוריה, מדע פופולרי, ועוד), יש חשיבות חברתית מקיפה לפער המגדרי. המשמעות של צמצום פרסום סופרות היא שקוראים ישראלים אינם נחשפים להשקפות עולם שונות (שלא נדבר על זה שכמעט כל הספרים נכתבו על ידי גברים לבנים ולא משקפים את העולם דובר האנגלית בשום פנים ואופן).  


מעודד לראות שלמרות המחסומים העומדים בפני סופרות דוברות אנגלית, הן דווקא מתורגמות לעברית במידה שוויונית. בהחלט דבר שצריך להתגאות בו. בנוסף, מעניין אך לא מפתיע לראות כי מעט ספרי הרומנטיקה שפורסמו נכתבו על ידי נשים. מצד שני, לא ברור למה כולם נכתבו במקור באנגלית.


אחוז סופרות מתוך תרגומים מאנגלית


המצב נהיה מעט הזוי כשמנתחים את הנתונים של שאר שפות העולם. למרות שקיימים ספרים מתורגמים בסוגי ז'אנרים שונים (כמו מתח, עיון, ושירה), ייצוג סופרות בז'אנרים אלה פשוט לא קיים. כפי שניתן לראות בטבלה בהמשך, יש מעט ספרים מתורגמים בסך הכל, אבל בכל זאת מדובר בפערים בולטים ובלתי נתפסים. והפער בז'אנר המוביל בתרגומים בינ"ל הוא לא פחות מרגיז - רק 35% מסיפורת מתורגמת מכלל שפות העולם שאינן אנגלית, נכתבו על ידי נשים. 


אחוז סופרות מתוך תרגומים (ללא אנגלית)



פירוט מגדרי של כלל התרגומים משפות שאינן אנגלית


הנתונים אולי שונים מעט בקרב מו"לים אחרים או בשנה האחרונה. אבל לאור העובדה שהנתונים שאספתי דומים מאוד לאלה משנת 2017 (שלא פרסמתי כאן), סביר להניח שהמגמות שציינתי לעיל מייצגות די טוב את עולם הספרות הישראלי ככלל.

אני מאוד מקווה שנוכל ללמוד מהממצאים הנ"ל לגבי הפערים - גם מבחינת תרגומים משפות שונות וגם מבחינת מגדר - במטרה להרחיב את מגוון הספרים שיוצאים לאור בישראל מדי שנה. בסופו של דבר, נרצה שהנוף הספרותי שלנו ישקף את העולם שבו אנו חיים. יש כל כך הרבה ספרים מכל העולם, ובוודאי שגם המון, המון סופרות מוכשרות, מעניינות ומרגשות. העולם עצום ומדהים - למה שלא נחשף לכולו גם בעברית?