What's the story?
He grew up in Portugal, translates from Portuguese and Spanish into English, and one of his roles is to look out for good stories.
Nara Vidal speaks to literary translator Victor Meadowcroft in an exclusive interview.
Nara Vidal - You grew up in Portugal and went to school there, always in a bilingual environment. Would it be fair to assume that languages and translation have always been part of your life? Could we say that working with translation was a natural career path for you?
Victor Meadowcroft - That’s a very interesting question. Although I spent sixteen years living in Portugal, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never considered myself fully bilingual. There were lots of Portuguese and Brazilian kids at my school, but all our classes were taught in English and almost everyone communicated in English. Sometimes there would be conversations where a classmate spoke to me in Portuguese and I responded in English, which, I suppose, demonstrates that a form of translation was going on inside my mind. However, I feel I got my first real taste of the joys and frustrations of translation when I went traveling in Ecuador after finishing university and, having picked up Spanish very quickly thanks to my Portuguese, was able to act as an interpreter between my fellow travelers and the Ecuadoreans we met. Still, I never really envisioned myself as a literary translator until a friend challenged me to try translating something – suddenly it felt as though many of the different skills I’d been developing in a fairly aimless way up to that point converged in this one activity. So, in that sense, maybe you could say it was the most natural professional path for me, but I can only really recognise that in hindsight – it was never a conscious plan!
NV - What came first: your interest in literature or translation? Were you aware of this distinction as you were growing up, surrounded by two languages?
VM - For me, literature definitely came first. As a child, the only translated literature I remember reading was Alexandre Dumas, and I’m sure I never gave any thought to the fact that the books had originally been written in a language other than the one I was reading them in. I trace the moment I first became aware of translated literature to some short introductions to great authors my mother gave me when I moved to England for university; I can’t remember all of them, but I know there was a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and another by Gabriel García Márquez, and that both of these blew me away. When I left university, I started working at a bookshop where they had a massive ‘translated literature’ table in the centre of the store, and I quickly realised that all the most interesting books ended up on this table. I began reading Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Mario Vargas Llosa, Umberto Eco and, of course, José Saramago (it would be a couple more years before I dared to try any of his books in Portuguese!). Still, although I became almost obsessed with reading and promoting fiction in translation, it wasn’t until about seven years later, and my friend’s challenge, that I even considered that literary translation might be something I could do.
Some earlier influences: Borges, García Marques and Dumas
NV - One of your roles involves the difficult task of recommending titles to publishers for publication in England. Given that Portuguese and Spanish boast such rich and varied literary landscapes, how is it possible to assure that great authors, even if lesser-known, have the chance to be read in English, and how do you make this selection?
VM - This is a great question, and it’s something I think about a lot. There are so many wonderful books out there written in Portuguese and Spanish – you can find authors who write in these languages on almost every continent of the globe. I would love to be able to help bring as many of these voices as possible over into English, but the reality is that there are a limited number of books published in translation every year and, of those, the number translated from Spanish and, in particular, Portuguese is even smaller. The small independent presses in the UK do wonderful work publishing translations, but they again can only publish a limited number of books each year, and have editors who curate their selections based largely on their own tastes and literary backgrounds. It’s very tempting (especially as a former bookseller) to try and predict the market and get a feel for the kinds of books that would sell at a particular moment, but, at the same time, it’s very difficult to go through all the stages required to get the attention of a publisher – writing reports, translating samples, contacting agents – unless you are really passionate about a book. So, in the end, I think it has to come down to personal taste, to books you’re passionate about. Of course, translators should be learning about the literary scenes in the countries where the languages they translate from are spoken, finding out which writers are highly regarded, who is winning prizes. But, at the same time, I am very conscious of the fact that if I approach a publisher with a book that I don’t personally believe in, or that doesn’t suit their list, that publisher might not be willing to listen to me next time I recommend something, and this would be another tiny avenue closed to the publication of Portuguese- or Spanish-language literature. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I completely dismiss a book just because it doesn’t move me personally as a reader – if I can see a book’s merits, I will always explain to a publisher what these are and recommend they give the book to another reader, who might have a stronger connection to the text. As for discovering those ‘hidden gems’ by emerging or lesser-known authors, I think the only way to come across those is by word of mouth, which is why I’m always asking Portuguese- and Spanish-speakers I know to tell me about the books that have most recently impressed them. I’m aware that all this may make me sound as though I’m some kind of gatekeeper, but I am by no means the only one recommending books – there are lots of translators out there doing exactly the same thing I am, and we all have different literary backgrounds and tastes, so when a really wonderful book is written in Portuguese or Spanish, I’m always hopeful that one of us will find it and get it into the hands of the appropriate publisher.
NV - Do you think that the publishing sector in the UK is becoming more welcoming of literature written in Latin America? I ask this based on the interest in recent works by writers such as Julián Fuks, Ariana Harwicz, Mariana Enriquez and others.
VM - Yes, definitely! Again, I think that in the UK the rise of small independent presses has played an important role in this. When And Other Stories started up a decade ago, they introduced
English-language readers to Latin American authors like Carlos Gamerro, Iosi Havilio, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Cristina Rivera Garza and Paulo Scott, not to mention César Aira and Norah Lange. Then, three years ago, Charco Press was founded, an independent that publishes only works from Latin America. They’ve been instrumental in raising the profile of Latin American literature here, especially as a number of their books, such as Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, have been shortlisted for big translation prizes. To date, Julián Fuks is the only Brazilian writer to have been published by Charco, so it would be great to see them publish a few more (although I know their expertise lies mostly in Hispanic literature). Other UK independents who regularly publish literature from Latin America are Granta and Fitzcarraldo, while the US boasts the likes of Coffee House Press, New Directions, Seven Stories Press and the Feminist Press, to name just a few. Hopefully this momentum will continue to build, and we’ll see more and more books from Latin America appearing in English.
Die, My Love (Charco Press) Not to read (Fitzcarraldo Editions) I don't expect anyone to believe me (And other Stories)
NV - With all your interest and expertise in books and literature, have you considered setting up your own press and publishing whoever you like?
VM - I’ve actually been asked this question a couple of times, by friends and acquaintances, but I feel that to set up a publisher you need to have a very clear idea of the niche you would occupy in the literary market. The independent publishers I’ve just mentioned are all excellent examples of this – all of them identified a type of book or section of the literary market that was being overlooked by other publishers, particularly mainstream ones, and set themselves up to occupy this niche. While I think there may be a space in the market for a publisher focusing entirely on Brazilian literature, or even perhaps on Lusophone literature, I don’t feel I currently have the experience or depth of knowledge to justify the investment of time and energy (not to mention money!) that would be required to set this up. For the moment, my sole aim is to get as many of these books as possible into the hands of the excellent publishers we already have in this country.
NV - Name on the cover? A share of the royalties? What is more important towards literary translators being given their deserved recognition?
VM - I would like to see both of these things! However, as long as the translator is clearly acknowledged somewhere in the book, it’s probably more important for translators to be properly paid than for their names to appear on the cover. It’s alarming how poorly paid literary translators are in relation to the number of hours they put into any given project, and I think this creates a huge barrier to those attempting to move into this profession, who may take time to build up a steady stream of work. I believe everything we do, whether acknowledging the translator on the cover of a book, mentioning them in reviews or giving them a share of prize money, should be aimed at recognizing that a translator plays an active role in the creation of the text in a new language – they are not just interchangeable and, therefore, disposable language automatons. Within the UK translation community, we are encouraged never to take work that pays below a recommended minimum, and I believe this is crucial to getting those in the publishing industry to attribute
proper value to the work that goes into translations. So yes, again, I would like to see both things, as I feel they go hand in hand.
NV - What would you say to anyone considering studying or setting out on a career in Literary Translation, particularly from Portuguese and Spanish?
VM – The first thing would be: good luck! I don’t have too much to say about the study of literary translation – although I spent a wonderful year at the University of East Anglia, doing an MA in Literary Translation, my focus was always on establishing myself as a practising translator rather than embarking upon a career in academia. As for those hoping to make inroads into the world of professional literary translation, my words of caution would be: it’s hard, and doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve just had a look back at one of my earliest translations, and the file says it was created in 2014. Since the idea of becoming a literary translator first popped into my head, I’ve spent six years trying to find ways to break into the profession, doing the aforementioned MA, as well as attending translation summer schools like the BCLT and Warwick (formerly Translate in the City), visiting book fairs in London, Lisbon and Guadalajara, working on co-translations with established translators and pitching my own translations to publishers. One of the biggest challenges has been finding the will to keep going in spite of rejections, failures and setbacks. I’m not just saying all this in order to put off potential future competition, but because I think it’s important for budding translators to know what they’re getting themselves into, and also because what has proven most useful to me in overcoming difficult periods is hearing established translators, who I respect and admire, open up about things like impostor syndrome, doubts over their mastery of the language(s) they translate from, doubts over their mastery of English and even the fear of being inferior writers to their peers … These are all things I have struggled with personally, and hearing others confess to having experienced these same feelings has been a real source of strength for me. By its nature, literary translation is a very introspective activity, and can easily give rise to feelings of unworthiness and despair. But, if you truly love the act of translating a literary text and are determined to have a go at turning it into a profession, my advice would be to surround yourself with others engaged in this same daily struggle and form a kind of support network to help you overcome the difficult periods. Also, take regular coffee breaks!
NV - What have you been working on recently and what are your plans for the future?
VM - As always, I have a number of different plates spinning at the moment, but there are two main projects occupying my time. The first is a project that sprang up out of nowhere about six weeks ago. Author Gabriela Ruivo Trindade contacted me to tell me that a group of 40 Portuguese-language writers had started writing a serial novel together while Portugal was under lockdown, and asked if I might be able to help translate some of the chapters. Together, we had the idea of contacting as many different translators as possible, in order to spread the workload and create a sense of solidarity among the translation community. The project worked out better than either of us could have hoped, and we now have 46 translators translating 46 texts (a few more authors came on board), generating plenty of media interest in Portugal, the UK, and even places as far away as Romania and Chile. We’re hoping to be able to put together some kind of book at the end of this process, but just seeing the incredible results that can be achieved in a short space of time when we all join forces has already been a reward in itself.
The second project is a novel called Toño Ciruelo by Colombian author Evelio Rosero, which I am translating with Anne McLean. Anne has translated a number of Rosero’s earlier novels, including The Armies, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, and when she found out I was a huge fan of his work, and had even made an attempt at translating one of his early novellas before I knew a single thing about translation, she invited me to co-translate both the novella and Rosero’s latest novel with her. It has been such a privilege to be able to work on both of these books with Anne and (hopefully!) learn from her wealth of experience. Rosero’s books have never shied away from exploring the darker facets of human nature, and Toño Ciruelo takes this to the extreme – however, so far it hasn’t given me any nightmares. Virus permitting, the book is due to be published by New Directions sometime in 2021.