August is Women in Translation Month, an annual celebration of the women writers from all over the globe who are working in languages other than English. This month is a moment to recognize the gender disparity in non-English language literature and to call for all women to have equal opportunities to share their voices, stories, and perspectives with the world.
In honor of this month, we asked the editorial team at Grove Atlantic to reflect on their work publishing writers from underrepresented languages or countries, especially women writers, and the importance of reading works in translation.
Answers from Grove VP, Deputy Publisher Peter Blackstock, with contributions from VP, Executive Editor and Rights Director Amy Hundley and Senior Editor Katie Raissian
Could you share some of the history of literature in translation at Grove Atlantic?
Grove Press was founded on Grove Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1947, but its true beginning came in 1951 when Barney Rosset, Jr., purchased the fledgling press and turned it into one of the most influential publishers of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Under Rosset’s guidance, and together with editors Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver, among others, Grove Press developed a particular strength in publishing literature in translation.
Fiction writers in translation published by the Grove Press of this era include Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Translated nonfiction classics include The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary. It’s also worth mentioning that Grove’s drama list in translation is unrivaled, with playwrights including Bertolt Brecht, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett.
Grove Atlantic, which was founded in 1993 as merger between Atlantic Monthly Press and Grove Press, continued the strong tradition of publishing translated works, and Kenzaburo Oe’s Nobel Prize win and Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen kicking off “Bananamania” in the States made them two of the press’s most important authors. Other notable Grove Atlantic translations include Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav; The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, translated by Adriana Hunter; and Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers.
Translated writers make up a relatively high percentage of the current Grove list of house authors, including Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated from the French by Frank Wynne; Niviaq Korneliussen, translated from her own Danish translation of her Greenlandic original by Anna Halager; Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas; Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers; Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori; Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman and Aniruddhan Vasudevan; Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon; Kenzaburo Oe, translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm, among others; Johanna Sinisalo, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers; and Silje Ulstein, translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough.
Do you have a specific mission or goal that drives your work publishing writers from underrepresented languages or countries? Is there an ethos that unites your literature in translation?
As a mid-sized independent, Grove Atlantic is always excited to find books of literary quality that we feel we can help reach a good number of readers in English. We have staff who can read languages including Bulgarian, French, German, Russian, and Spanish, and recently had in-house readers in Korean and Italian. Our translated list crosses genres, from literary fiction to crime fiction to nonfiction, and we also work with English-language writers who center parts of the world outside of the dominant Anglophone spheres of the US and UK in their writing. We believe that publishing works in translation is a key to our success in finding opportunities that are overlooked by larger houses and also to our identity as a publisher where English-language writers feel like part of a truly global list.
What is a recent work by a woman in translation that you’ve published? How did it come to you, and what drew you to the project?
Grove is thrilled to be the American publisher of Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Grove Deputy Publisher Peter Blackstock first heard about her work from an editor at a German publishing house who had just acquired Convenience Store Woman. This July we published Murata’s newest book, Life Ceremony, a short story collection which is her first collection to be published in English. At times it feels like a report from another world and yet Murata’s deadpan style makes us reflect on just how uncanny our own world is. Murata’s Convenience Store Woman can be read on so many levels, whether as a particular portrait of normative ideas toward women in Japan, to a critique of capitalism, to an existential exploration of how we are all misfits in different ways, and it is exciting to see more of her work reach readers in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s wonderful translation, which works hard to replicate the effects of the original but which never cuts too close nor strays too far.
In 2019 Grove published Niviaq Korneliussen’s Last Night in Nuuk, which is a powerful short novel by a young Greenlandic writer about the queer community in the capital city, Nuuk. VP, Executive Editor and Rights Director Amy Hundley originally heard about it from a short piece in the New Yorker about a queer writer who was upending what tended to be the very tradition-bound, respectable face of Greenlandic literature, and when she learned the book didn’t have an English-language publisher she went after it. Besides the quality, pathos, and humor of the book, what appealed to Hundley about it was the way it was very much its own Greenlandic self, in conversation with a global youth and queer culture. If women are translated too seldom, it is even rarer that queer literature is!
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced finding and publishing literature in translation—either in general or by women writers in particular? How have you (or are you) navigating them?
The challenges of publishing literature in translation mirror the broader challenges of literary publishing. It may well be harder for women writers to get as significant attention as male writers, but at Grove the majority of our most successful books in translation in recent decades have been by women writers, Sofi Oksanen, Catherine Millet, and Sayaka Murata, for instance. We have always enjoyed when our translated writers have been able to visit New York and do events where they can meet their American public (often funded by a cultural institution, for which we are always grateful). The financial challenge of paying for a translation fee as well as an advance to the author is significant, but at Grove we understand that making a profit from each individual title is not the sole purpose of book publishing.
Why should people be reading more translated stories?
Translated stories are so many of the stories we hold closest as cultural touchstones in the English-speaking world, from religious texts to ancient epics to nineteenth- and twentieth-century classics by writers from Flaubert to Dostoevsky to Kafka to Fanon that are still hugely beloved and influential today. If you’re not reading translations, you’re not reading. One translated woman writer we feel particularly excited to be publishing is Kira Yarmysh, press secretary to Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Her novel The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait and forthcoming in February, is a truly extraordinary book, both authentic testimony and highly imaginative story, following a woman in Moscow who is sentenced to a ten-day prison sentence after participating in a protest. It’s a powerful story about sexuality, oppression, and daily life in Russia, as well as a hugely suspenseful and surprising novel that made us think of Stephen King at times. Publishing this work is of great importance not just culturally but socially, and we feel very proud to be bringing this book to readers in English. It’s the kind of work that just couldn’t have originated in English, only in another language, and yet is a hugely important book that is published or forthcoming in ten languages, and deserves to reach readers around the world.
Can you share some upcoming projects from Grove that feature women writers in translation?
This December, we have a magical new novel about a family of midwives, Animal Life, from Icelandic house author, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon and published in Black Cat, our paperback original imprint where we often feature translated writers. Ólafsdóttir’s last book, Miss Iceland, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize (the most esteemed prize in the Nordic region), the Icelandic Literary Prize (the equivalent of our NBA), the Prix Médicis in France, and the Icelandic Bookseller’s Prize, and it is always a privilege to publish her work. Set in the run-up to Christmas, Animal Life follows Dómhildur, a young midwife who has just delivered her 1,922nd baby. Dómhildur is living in her deceased grandaunt’s clutter-filled apartment and finally decides to get her space in order. When she does, she discovers a box of manuscripts containing drafts of her grandaunt’s book on life, midwifery, and light. As Dómhildur immerses herself in the manuscripts, a harsh storm approaches, and in the old apartment in which the lights are faulty, Dómhildur finds another form of illumination in her work and life. It’s a really special novel—one that is smart, affirming, and atmospheric. Senior Editor Katie Raissian, who has published several books by Ólafsdóttir, worked on it in tandem with UK publisher Pushkin Press. We are very excited to be publishing this gem in time for the holidays.