Women in Translation Month: Q&A with translator Margaret Carson

As part of our continuing series celebrating Women in Translation month, we bring you this interview with translator Margaret Carson. Carson specializes in Latin American and Spanish literature and has translated works by Sergio Chejfec, Mercedes Roffé, José Tomás de Cuéllar and Griselda Gambaro. She also runs the Women in Translation Tumblr. When she stopped in to Book Culture the other day, we knew we had to ask her some questions about Women in Translation month and her work as a translator; here are her responses. 

1. We're celebrating Women in Translation month this August to draw attention to the fact that fewer than 30% of translated books published in the U.S. each year are written by women. Why do you think it's important that we read books by women in translation?

Because they’re thought-provoking, they’re subversive, they’re funny. They’re page-turners. They’re badass. They’re full of ideas. They speak to the universal human condition. In other words, they’re just like books by men in translation. Or books by men, period. But in the US, books by women in translation (just like books by women) are much less likely to be published. Much less likely to be reviewed. On the Women in Translation (WiT) Tumblr I run with Alta L. Price, I recently looked at books in translation reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review over a twenty-month period. Of the 92 books in translation reviewed, only 23 (25%) were by women authors. So you have to seek them out. You don’t always hear about them through conventional channels.

2. Tell us about how the Women in Translation Tumblr came to be. 

The Tumblr was born after a panel Alta and I did at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival on the lack of women’s voices in translation. (We’re not the first to spotlight the problem, but the PEN WV panel gave us a great platform.) We had a stellar line-up: Susan Bernofsky, Rob Spillman, Véronique Tadjo, a writer from Côte d’Ivoire, and the poet Jen Fitzgerald. Jen had worked on several VIDA Counts, and she and her brother helped us put together an extensive set of powerfully illuminating bar graphs and charts that we projected during the panel, based on the Translation Database kept by Open Letter publisher Chad Post and on our own research into prize-winners over the years for books in translation. We initially set up the Tumblr to showcase these visuals, but then we quickly found lots of new material to add—it’s really been a breakout year for Women in Translation!— and we’ve kept it going ever since. In honor of Women in Translation Month we recently came up with a WiT Flash Quiz: Who was the first female author you remember reading in English translation? Who was the first female translator you remember reading? What book written or translated by a woman is on your nightstand right now? Answers have started to arrive, and we’ll be posting them over the next few days.

3. What drew you to literary translation, and how did you get involved in the field?

I love to read and write and as a teenager became obsessed with speaking Spanish like a native. I lived in Spain for a few years and when I came back, I started taking workshops in literary translation at the 92nd St. Y and at City College. More established translators generously suggested a few magazines to me that often needed Spanish-English literary translations. I got my start that way.

4. I know you're working on a translation of Remedios Varo's work right now. Most of us know Varo as a visual artist--what got you interested in her writing?

I probably first heard about Remedios Varo when I was living in Spain over twenty years ago. And then later, on a visit to Mexico City (where she moved in 1941 as a refugee and lived the rest of her life), I discovered her Cartas, sueños y otros textos at Librería Gandhi, a fabulous bookstore in Coyoacán. I had no idea she’d ever written anything. The writings are from her notebooks, mostly fragments and short sketches, and except for one piece, nothing was published during her lifetime. It’s all wickedly subversive and fun. I’m now immersed in the translation and am truly on a Remedios Varo high! Wakefield Press, a small indie in Cambridge, MA that specializes in literary oddities in translation, will be publishing it.

5. Give us some recommendations! Who are some of your favorite female authors in translation?

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, in Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s translation.

Elena Ferrante. I've caught the wave, in Ann Goldstein's translations.

Clarice Lispector, her novels, short stories, essays, by several different translators.

6. Finally, given the paltry number of books by women in translation that get published, I know there must be many great female authors out there who haven't been translated. Who ought to be translated, but hasn't yet?

From Argentina: Matilde Sánchez and Aurora Venturini. I don’t believe any book-length translations into English have been published yet.


Thank you, Margaret! Check out our other posts in the Women in Translation month series: our staff picks for books by women in translation and an interview with translator Susan Bernofsky.


Margaret Carson is a longtime translator of Latin American and Spanish literature. She has translated work by Sergio Chejfec, Mercedes Roffé, José Tomás de Cuéllar and Griselda Gambaro, among others. She was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her translation of Sergio Chejfec's My Two Worlds. From 2014 to 2015 she served as cochair of the PEN Translation Committee. She teaches at City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. 

Author photo © Louis Chan

The Second Sex Cover Image
By Simone de Beauvoir, Constance Borde (Translated by), Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780307277787
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title to See Location Inventory.
Published: Vintage - May 3rd, 2011

Staff Pick Logo
My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One Cover Image
By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781609450786
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title to See Location Inventory.
Published: Europa Editions - September 25th, 2012

Staff Pick Logo
The Complete Stories Cover Image
By Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser (Editor), Katrina Dodson (Translator)
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ISBN: 9780811219631
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: New Directions Publishing Corporation - August 25th, 2015

My Two Worlds Cover Image
By Sergio Chejfec, Margaret Carson (Translator), Enrique Vila-Matas (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781934824283
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title to See Location Inventory.
Published: Open Letter - August 16th, 2011