Trials and Tribulations of Translated Literature from the Margins

Rafa Lombardino

During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Trials and Tribulations of Translated Literature from the Margins.” The presenters were Vivan Steemers, associate professor of French at Western Michigan University who has published Le (néo)colonialisme littéraire, a book about sub-Saharan Francophone literature translated into English, and Faiza Sultan, Arabic and Kurdish interpreter and translator and founder of DarSafi, a publishing house that specialized in translating and publishing literary and creative works.

Vivan started the presentation by saying that, for sub-Saharan authors, the very act of writing is an act of translation because, instead of writing in their native language, they write in French―the language of their former colonizer―in order to have more exposure.

She highlighted that, despite the fact that publication of sub-Saharan authors continues to be modest, the number of sub-Saharan books translated into English has increased since the 1950s. Two of the main books to start this wave were Camara Laye’s “The African Child”―which had originally been published as “The Dark Child”―and Mongo Beti’s “Cruel City.”

According to her, this increase is especially true thanks to the African Writer Series published by Heinemann Educational Books between 1962 and 2000 and, more recently, the creation of smaller, independent publishing houses. Still, “cynical, commercial publishers” in France act as “gatekeepers of ideas,” for they aren’t as aware of these authors writing in French and may not push for their translation into English. “These writers are left at the tender mercies of the Paris literary establishment,” Vivan wrote in her book.

Next, Faiza Sultan talked about another group of authors living on the margins, more specifically those producing Arabic literature about the Kurdish people, and how few of them are translated into English.

She emphasized the fact that publishers in Iraq aren’t authorized to publish anything before getting the approval of the Iraqi government. “They called it editing, I called it censoring,” she added.

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Likewise, Iraqi readers don’t have access to some books coming from different parts of the world, which are banned for political, cultural, social, and moral reasons―and those who smuggle books face government persecution, even execution. Due to this censorship, Faiza explains it’s much easier for expats to get published and, consequently, most of the works written about the Kurdish people are in Arabic and Persian.

Faiza then talked about her own initiative to establish a small publisher to bridge the gap between East and West and tell untold stories about her people. The title she introduced to the audience was Salam Ibrahim’s In the Depths of Hell, the touching story of a man who survived chemical warfare in Iraq.


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RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.