As a translator, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to African writing. What began for practical and even opportunistic reasons – seeking works where other translators were not; attracting publishers with grant possibilities – quickly became pure interest and enthusiasm, because the books I came across were so refreshing and intriguing.
Dedalus had been publishing books under its Dedalus Africa seal sporadically: three titles, all translator-led and Lusophone. The third of them was pitched and translated by me – The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila – and when Dedalus told me they wanted to turn the imprint into something more substantial, I volunteered to manage the list.
The ‘detective’ side of being a translator is something I’ve always loved: following leads, tracking down obscure titles, uncovering hidden gems. I got the bug when seeking a work from Equatorial Guinea for Words Without Borders. I came across By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and had never read anything like it. And Other Stories agreed to publish it and so began my African reading odyssey. When I later became aware, via Ann Morgan’s Year of Reading the World project, that no fiction from Guinea-Bissau was available in English, I set out to right that wrong, eventually encountering Sila’s wonderful novel.
The Ultimate Tragedy has met with considerable interest, reviewers and bloggers appreciating its ‘non-conventional’ narrative and its window onto an unknown world. There is a yearning for authenticity in modern times as people wise-up to marketing trends and tire of being told what to consume. In book terms, readers have begun to seek writers from faraway places who are not influenced by publishing trends; writers who write because they have things to say and tell stories on their own terms. These are the books we want to publish at Dedalus Africa.
We will focus on translation and endeavour to bring fresh voices to English readers, ‘fresh’ in one of a number of ways: they speak of remote communities and experiences English readers know nothing about; they chronicle life in a modern, urban Africa that is generally overlooked by Western publishers drawn to clichéd notions of village tribes and wars. (That’s not to say we won’t publish books about village tribes and wars: we will, but we will seek balance.) We will encourage marginalised, suppressed and outspoken writers and we will promote work from countries and languages that have not previously had books published in English. We will concentrate our efforts on fiction, but we will be on the look out for narrative non-fiction too.
This is all easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to gain such books exposure and they make unlikely bestsellers. Besides, there are additional costs to publishing in translation – rights must be bought, translators properly rewarded – and although English PEN does a brilliant job supporting literary diversity, its resources only stretch so far. So we’ll be exploring membership schemes and seeking sponsors and philanthropists.
I’m a translator of Spanish and Portuguese and I know lots of other translators of European languages, but we are mostly British or American. I don’t know many African or Africa-based translators, whether of Indo-European or mother tongue languages, but I’d like to, not only to commission translations, but for recommendations: translators make the best literary scouts.
So if you’re a translator interested in African literature, an individual or organisation able to sponsor a book, an African writer or a reader who knows a great book that simply must be translated, I’d like to hear from you.
Editor of Dedalus Africa