New Imprint Looking to Translate Women’s Poetry, Redress Translation’s Gender Balance

Periscope is a new imprint from A Midsummer Night’s Press devoted to women’s poetry in translation. Publisher-translator-poet Lawrence Schimel answered questions (why women? why translation? how exactly will this work?) ahead of the house’s Nov. 1 launch:

ArabLit: Why a new imprint? What was its initial inspiration? (When exactly did it “officially” launch?)

Lawrence Schimel: Our official launch is November 1. Advance copies of the books are already available direct from us, but it takes time for them to make their way through the distribution channels, from printer to distributor to bookstores.

As for the inspiration behind the imprint: as a translator myself, I’m well aware of the resistance to work in translation from many publishers (not always the same as resistance from readers). A Midsummer Night’s Press had published one previous translation, in our Body Language imprint, and so I was aware of the difficulties faced by not having a poet in the US to promote the book with readings and attendance at events.

Therefore, I thought that by publishing a series of translated titles, they might be able to generate more momentum and attention, despite the lack of authors themselves being present, rather than just publishing an occasional translated title. Also, whereas many publishers publish poetry, and there are a growing number of small presses that are devoted to literature in translation, there was still an absence of imprints that were specifically devoted to poetry in translation.

Furthermore, while there has recently been a lot more attention given to the paucity of women’s voices being translated into English, this was something I was well aware of and was definitely something I hoped to be able to address (or redress). (Despite being a male-run press, before launching Periscope we’d published 11 books by women compared to 7 by men.) I had originally hoped to launch with more titles, but as often happens, the publishing process took longer than anticipated, and so decided to start with these three instead of delaying even further the launch of the series.

AL: What will Periscope do that other publishers don’t?

LS: I hope that we will achieve a cumulative effect of bringing women’s voices from different parts of the world to an English-reading audience.

Our small trim-size and low price points, combined with an attractive design, are aimed at making our books appealing to a broad range of readers, including people who might not otherwise think to pick up poetry.

As a very small, independent press we can be quite nimble in many regards.  Our small trim-size and low price points, combined with an attractive design, are aimed at making our books appealing to a broad range of readers, including people who might not otherwise think to pick up poetry. The books are not intimidating, given their size, even when they’re full-length collections; they’re mobile in many ways, not just transportable physically but trying to reach out to new rederships.

At the same time, we’re hampered by the usual problems facing independent presses: that is, we’re financed by what I can afford out of what I earn as a writer and a translator for other publishers (both in terms of cash and time) plus sales from the existing titles. Usually we’ve managed to publish 2-3 titles a year. It was ambitious for A Midsummer Night’s Press to launch Periscope with 3 titles after having already published 2 books in the spring, although we did get some support from Slovenia and Estonia for the translations (and I did the translation of the third title myself, so as not to have to pay the translator). At the same time, because of our small size, we don’t need for a project to earn back the investment made in it within a set period of time, the way corporate publishing works. As a freelance translator and author, I don’t have deep pockets to fund the press, so ideally everything will eventually earn back at least it’s own costs even if it doesn’t help toward funding future titles.

Because we can perhaps give a title a longer opportunity to earn back through sales, we are not as hampered as many other publishers might be. It is especially hard for individual poetry titles to get translated into English, as opposed to anthologies that are selections from a poet’s body of work. So that’s definitely one area I hope we’ll be able to distinguish ourselves. And also by translating some of the younger women’s voices that are exciting but maybe less canonical.

AL: Why does literary translation matter? In particular, translation of poetry?

LS: I think that the empathy that comes from reading is one of the best tools to overcome the culture of fear and mistrust that often seems so prevalent in the English-speaking world. Being moved by a work in translation helps people focus on what is similar instead of what is difference between us.

Besides, there is a lot of really good writing happening all over the world, and English-language readers are missing out on the opportunity to read so much of it.

AL: Why do you suppose there are fewer women’s works in translation? (The Open Book statistics suggest around a quarter, my counting of Arabic literature in particular counts something closer to twenty percent.)

LS: There is still so much sexism in the world, unfortunately, and this is often reflected in publishing and especially in criticism. A non-translation example: when Jennifer Egan won the National Book Award for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad and the LA Times headline was “Jonathan Franzen loses National Book Award.” So even when a female author won the award, the attention was being given to a male writer. Another example, when my first short story collection was published in Spain, the reviewer in El Pais wrote: “Crafted with skill and awareness of the genre, but it proves tiresome that all the characters are homosexual.” I’ve never seen a review that complained that all of the characters in a work were heterosexual. Unfortunately, many reviews also dismiss works written by women for dealing with “domestic” instead of “universal” themes (universality being determined by straight white males, of course).

When it comes to translation, there are so many hurdles or possible obstacles to overcome. Very few of the editors who publish in English read another language, so they depend on awards or review attention (and as we’ve just seen briefly above, these are often skewed). Likewise, there is often the same prejudice from the funding bodies that support the translation of literature into other languages (ie many more male authors are promoted and chosen for these programs than women). All of which contributes to the vicious circle.

AL: What other underrepresented voices are you interested in? Minority languages? How will you reach out to authors and translators?

LS: I think there is less difficulty in reaching out to authors and translators than in reaching out to readers, and establishing a reputation for producing quality and relevant books so that they will trust us and pick up a title by a writer they haven’t heard of from a country they may not previously have read anything from.

I have also been planning a series of gay and lesbian voices in translation, although I will probably do that within the existing Body Language series. I considered perhaps cross-listing the titles, to thereby indicate to both an audience interested in poetry in translation and in LGBT literature that these are books that might be of interest to them, but I think we will stick to the focus on women writers for Periscope and to publish the LGBT titles in translation in Body Language. (Since we try and make the books in each series easily identifiable, cross-listing would also be a design nightmare!)

AL: What sort of books are you looking for? What’s your ideal poetry collection? I’d recommend Iman Mersal’s latest collection, for instance, but it looks like you want poets who haven’t yet been translated into English? Should they be contemporary? Does that matter?

LS: I hope I don’t have a single ideal, although I do like for the books we do to hold together as a collection (even if drawn from multiple books by the author) rather than just a collection of poems arranged chronologically, say.

In terms of the criteria for Periscope, the guiding principal were women writers who had published at least two books (one of the first three authors has over forty, although not all poetry) but who has not yet published a volume in English. That is, someone who is already establishing herself in her home country/language, but who is not yet known to an English-speaking audience in book format, so Periscope could help introduce them.

And, yes, we are focusing on contemporary voices, writers who are an active part in the poetry of their countries right now–not just voices that have the weight of history supporting them (which are usually the few writers who do get translated).

AL: What sort of translators are you looking for? Are there any shared characteristics you could use to describe the translations you think are most successful? Any guiding lights you use when you translate?

LS: While I definitely listen to recommendations from translators, for this series the poets and their work came first. I was fortunate to have met all the writers, usually at various poetry festivals or events, and so had been able to read some of their work before. (While Jana Putrle, for instance, had had a few poems translated into English, a collection of her work had been published in Argentina, so I was able to read her in Spanish translation.)

And in this case, the poets from Slovenia and Estonia already had translators they were working with, and that relationship is, I think, important. There should be an affinity with the work. It’s hard sometimes as a freelancer, where most of my income that goes to paying the mortgage (or supporting A Midsummer Night’s Press) comes from translating, to say no to a project, if it’s not a good match. (I recently tried to turn down an excerpt from a novel about soccer, for instance, although the publisher begged me to do it anyway, even despite my protests to it not being an area I had an affinity for, because they wanted the sample ASAP to bring to the Frankfurt Bookfair with them. Obviously, not an ideal situation–literary translation should not be rushed–but also one where I agreed in the end since what I produced was a sample, which I did as best I could, given the limitations of time and affinity. Hopefully, if they sell the project, the publisher who buys it will be able to match the book to a translator who loves it.)

In general, for literary translations, I always aim to recreate the reading experience in the original language.

AL: Once you’ve translated & published the works, how will you make the connection between texts and readers?

LS: A Midsummer Night’s Press is a very small endeavor, perhaps a very idiosyncratic one. As such, my own tastes are very strongly reflected in what we publish. And at the same time, the poets I publish become part of my extended family.

This also happens to the poets I translate (and then try and place in magazines and with other publishers) as well. The translator becomes, in a way, their voice or representative in English.

As such, I’m always promoting the authors we publish, just as I do with my own work. Therefore, at the Frankfurt Bookfair a few weeks ago, I was showing new projects of my own to publishers but also giving away copies of the new Periscope titles to key industry people. And one of the poets has already been invited to a new literary festival in Egypt as a result of Frankfurt!

At the same time, I think it is often problematic the way a lot of publishing in translation into English relies very heavily on authors being able to make appearances, which prioritizes those who speak English well enough to do such events as well as those who can afford to travel (or whose publishers can afford to fly them in or they receive institutional support of some kind).

It is great to be able to hear an author in person. Especially to hear them read in their own language and then to hear the same poem translated into your language, to compare the difference in the music.

At the same time, I think it is often problematic the way a lot of publishing in translation into English relies very heavily on authors being able to make appearances, which prioritizes those who speak English well enough to do such events as well as those who can afford to travel (or whose publishers can afford to fly them in or they receive institutional support of some kind). In some cases, the translators will do events, as the English-language voice of these poets, but even still…

Connecting with readers, and distribution in general, is the biggest obstacle in publishing, especially in today’s day and age, with rapidly shrinking brick-and-mortar stores (and fewer stores being interested in stocking poetry these days). We’ve found that readers are excited when they find our books, although we’ve noticed over the past few years that while we’ve maintained our overall sales volume we’re losing traction in terms of sales to bookstores, directly or through or distributor, which has been compensated by higher sales volume at bookfairs where we take a table, like at two we attended in September: the Brooklyn Book Festival and the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London, or at the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference which was in Seattle this year and will be in Minneapolis next year. (That said, we do get and are grateful for the support we get from indie bookstores, and it does make such a difference; earlier this week, another interviewer remarked how excited she was to stumble across one of our titles by chance while browsing at McNally Jackson in New York City.)

My hope is that Periscope can manage to find and create an audience of readers, who will take a chance on our books because something appeals to them about them (the package, these voices they haven’t otherwise had access to, etc.) and learn to trust us to deliver quality, relevant, moving poetry, and that they’ll come back to see what else and who else we’re publishing, even without the authors being present.

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