[Musings] Translators and Collective Action

  • onDecember 2, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byJason Grunebaum


I’ve just come back from the annual American Literary Translators Association conference, or ALTA, which this year was in Rochester, NY. It’s one of the highlights of my year, and I know I’m not alone. Part of what makes ALTA so special is seeing old friends who I only have a chance to catch up with in person once a year, and meeting new friends whose translations I’ve admired, or have yet to discover.

Other highlights include: the always glorious book exhibit, taking part in a lively panel on, say, footnotes, and enjoying the satisfying feeling that for three blissful days I can look around and say with great pride that these are my people.

I come back home each year heart full of love and enthusiasm for our art and for my fellow translators—and with more than a few ideas running around my head. This year I find myself thinking about literary translators and collective action.

As many have pointed out, translating, like any kind of writing, can be a pretty solitary and lonesome affair. But there are obvious mitigating factors we translators enjoy that other writers don’t, like the fact that, at a minimum, we’re in a relationship with someone else when we work: part of a literary dyad.

The not-translator part of this couple might be a hazy ghost from antiquity who may or may not have been a real person. Or, they might be a living, breathing author present in the flesh or via WhatsApp, ready to field questions about the tricky bits. And every possibility exists in between these two extremes. What’s certain is that all translation is collaborative.

And then translators do something else that other writers rarely do: they found and join collectives. I attended a panel at ALTA this year called “A Collective of Collectives.” It was comprised of members from six translators’ collectives: the Seattle-based Northwest Literary Collective, the Michigan- based Emerging Translators Collective, New York-based Cedilla & Co., London-based Starling Bureau, Rochester, NY-based Plüb, and the Korean- language-specific Smoking Tigers collective.

Each of these collectives operates a little differently. Some are open to new members and hold public meetings, while others have a fixed membership. One has its own publishing arm, and another emerged from the question of why it’s so hard for literary translators to find agents. Some help educate the public about literary translation. Most organize public readings.

What all of them have in common—including the Chicago-based Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC) I’m lucky to be a part of—is a sense of shared purpose and collaborative spirit prevalent among literary translators.

We workshop one another’s drafts. We help with each other’s pitches. We share professional contacts and celebrate accomplishments. We feel deep in our bones that every new book published in translation creates a new space for a new translation. Whatever the opposite of a zero-sum game is, that’s the one we play.

In 2015, I was fortunate to be part of our successful non-tenure-track faculty union campaign at the University of Chicago, and subsequent negotiations for our first collective bargaining agreement. Heroic organizing and great solidarity helped us win a strong contract that’s significantly improved our working conditions, and our students’ learning conditions.

Only after this year’s ALTA and thinking about translators and collective action did it dawn on me that translators are the adjunct faculty of the literary world. It’s a connection I should have made along ago, and one I’m sure others have already made. It was sitting in front of me the whole time, but it still felt like a revelation.

Like adjunct faculty, translators constantly struggle for visibility in a world that would rather pretend they don’t exist. Translators are often not considered “real writers” similar to how adjunct faculty are often seen as also- ran tenure-track professors. In a landscape of scarcity, most full-time translators, like adjunct faculty, have to hustle all the time, and live in a state of constant contingency, where being able to say no to work is a luxury. And how many literary translators are also adjuncts?

Despite all of this, why do they do it? Why do we do it? Another point of convergence: it’s a labor of love.

Even the greatest love is still hard work. Another shared belief among translators’ collectives is that this love ought not only be shared widely, but also compensated fairly.

Many countries and languages are very fortunate to have government- funded agencies to help foster, recognize, remunerate, and disseminate these labors of love: France, Germany, Israel, Poland, and South Korea are just a few.

In contrast, South Asia—the region I translate from—is unlikely to develop the same kind of institutional government support to bring non-English- language writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal to the rest of the world.

One out of five people on the planet speaks a South Asian language, but literary translations from South Asian languages represent less than half of one per cent of translations published in the US.

A better support system for literary translations from South Asian languages is needed, and a different kind of translators’ collective is called for: a DIY initiative that mirrors the work of government cultural institutions that foster literary translation. Instead of hewing to national borders, this initiative will have a regional focus on South Asia—imagine an agency for all Scandinavian literature, or Balkan countries, or Romance languages, but in a region where thirty languages have over a million speakers, and seven languages are among the twenty most spoken on earth.

This greater collective will help translators find writers and works to fall in love with and translate, while allowing editors and publishers to discover new voices for readers who are seeking different kinds of stories. Funders will have the opportunity to underwrite translations of authors who are virtually unknown beyond the subcontinent. 

We call this the South Asian Literature Translation Initiative (SALTI), and it represents yet another way that literary translators can work collectively to increase the visibility of writers, translators, and underrepresented literature of the world. Translators like Arunava Sinha, Daisy Rockwell, Shabnam Nadiya, Mahmud Rahman, Aftab Ahmed, and John Vater are involved, and writers including Vivek Shanbhag and Amit Chaudhuri have expressed support.

We’re still in the planning stages, but one short-term goal is to crowdfund a virtual space that connects all branches of the literary ecosystem necessary to bring good translations of South Asian literature to bookshelves beyond the Indian subcontinent. It won’t take a lot of money, and we suspect there are individuals in the South Asian diaspora eager to assist with this and more.

We also want to sponsor an annual short-story translation contest from all South Asian languages to encourage emerging translators, and hope to help subsidize US book tours with both authors and translators to tell stories, raise visibility, and educate.

It’s a collective response that can nourish the cycle where translations raise the visibility of the language and the writers in a language, who often then achieve a new level of validation as writers in their own languages, which then encourages more writers to write in that language.

Our collective spirit as translators can help pave the way for a literary future where artificial national and language boundaries are erased, and the conversation of literature is enlarged—a conversation that fully includes a fifth of humanity, with many stories to share.

By Jason Grunebaum



Jason Grunebaum is a writer and translator whose books include Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (2013), The Walls of Delhi (2016) and, with Ulrike Stark, Manzoor Ahtesham’s The Tale of the Missing Man (2018). His work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature, longlisted for the National Translation Award, and has been awarded the Global Humanities Translation Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Grant. He teaches both Hindi and literary translation the University of Chicago.