Starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic is not something many people would find enviable, though I was obviously delighted for the opportunity as so many others were being furloughed. When I began working for BookBlast in West London, it was in the context of not knowing what the weeks and months ahead had in store. I was meant to be starting an internship at Bloomsbury in April, which was postponed indefinitely due to Covid-19. With the prospect of an endless stretch of time ahead with no work, and any notions of career progression firmly on hold, I had a sinking sense of dread about the rest of 2020.
During the lockdown in Stoke Newington, I had managed some small accomplishments alongside part-time work for C&W agency. Along with millions of others I learned how to make sourdough bread, having been gifted that all important starter from a friend. Yearning for more mental stimulation and structure, I also completed an online Harvard course, Judaism Through its Scriptures, and ambitiously set about translating Phillipe Delerm’s La Première Gorgée de Biere from French to English. (If you’ve not read it, do; it’s wonderfully soul-soothing and astute.) Still, not being able to browse in my local bookshops or go to talks, plays or galleries was a dispiriting prospect.
So the possibility and then reality of working for BookBlast providing social media and PR support for their forthcoming podcast series, Bridging the Divide: Translation and the Art of Empathy, has been a welcome addition to this strange time. My main roles have largely been to write copy for BookBlast’s Twitter and Instagram accounts, brainstorm and implement a publicity plan, and to review three of the books featured in the podcast series. The reviewing has been a real treat. Heaven by Manual Vilas, The Great Homecoming by Anna Kim and The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting are all superb reads and markedly different from each other. To get back into a critical thinking headspace and write with purpose has been a joy.
It has been an unexpected pleasure to find myself immersed once again in the world of translation and translated fiction. I studied French and English Literature for my undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and did my Erasmus year in Montpellier. After graduating I spent a year in Lyon teaching for the British Council, desperate to get back to the French lifestyle that I felt I had only scratched the surface of in the Languedoc. So the French focus of BookBlast has suited me and my interests surprisingly well. Since then I have completed a masters in English Literature, during which I did a very small amount of translation work, and briefly flirted with theatre before returning to the world of books. Although I’m not actually translating myself, to be reading, writing and thinking about the benefits and importance of reading translated literature feels uplifting.
In The Great Homecoming by South Korean author Anna Kim, (originally written in German), a story of friendship set against the backdrop of the Korean War, there’s a moment when a character describes Britain’s shameful refusal to accept or acknowledge its colonial past and history as being linked to the false perception it has of itself as a nation that simply loves animals and can’t talk about feelings. Discovering this new interpretation of an embarrassingly grim aspect of country I was born in, all thanks to the experiences of the central characters in a novel about a nation that was once oppressed and colonised, renewed my sense of how important is it to read and engage with translated literature.
It opens your eyes both to other ways of life and to new ways of seeing your own culture, shining a light on the flaws and failings that aren’t always discussed in the echo-chambers of one’s homeland. It exposes you to different interpretations and versions of events, history, countries and people, and forces you to critically reassess, interrogate and reflect on what you consider to be true. This isn’t to say that you never get this from reading books written in English from English speaking countries; of course you do. But there is something special that comes with reading a work that is rooted in and written out of the experience of an entirely different language, outlook and way of life. It opens you up to other perspectives that, without knowledge of the language, might otherwise remain undiscovered. Now more than ever, cultivating a sense of global empathy and understanding, which I believe reading literature in translation can do, feels achingly important.
My usual book clubs, in which we read everything from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah to Naoise Dolan’s recent debut Exciting Times, are now, like everything else, happening online. As literary conversations shift to all manner of digital platforms, reading has become not just a solitary act of solidarity, but a lifeline in a time of isolation as people connect and share; from the Galley Beggar Press Live Chat Book Club, set up to help those who’d like a few friends as they navigate their way through Lucy Ellmann’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport, to the Granta Magazine Podcast, Lockdown LitFest and Society of Authors’ @Home Festival . . . and, of course, the BookBlast Podcast.
Thanks to the BookBlast podcast series, Bridging the Divide: Translation and the Art of Empathy, I feel I have had gained real insight into the world of publishing. There are a great many podcasts with authors, but interesting podcasts with publishers are rare. It is unusual to get a publisher and a translator, or an author and a translator, talking together in one interview. Years from now, I’ll be able to look back and know that my time with BookBlast has been perfectly unusual for an imperfectly unusual time.
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