Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2021

2021 AALITRA Symposium

The AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation) symposium is always an interesting event for anyone interested in translation. When I attended previous events in 2017 and 2019, I enjoyed the buzz of conversation beforehand and chatting with the wonderful people who bring us books in other languages that we would otherwise be unable to read.  The nibbles are always excellent too. This year however, the nibbles are on my desk, and my drink is just a herbal tea, because the event is run by Zoom.

Proceedings began with a Welcome by Jacqueline Dutton president of AALITRA and as I was listening to what she had to say I was of course looking around to see who was there.  Along with the award winning Harry Aveling who I know from my days as president of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Association), I recognised some Australian translators of books I’ve enjoyed, including Penny Hueston, Alice Whitmore and Stephanie Smee.  The point was made again and again in this symposium that translators based in Australia do network around the world, and they are published internationally through publishers acquiring world rights to the titles they publish.  So today’s launch of the ‘AALITRA Online Database of Literary Translators’ will make it easier for translators and publishers to find each other.

The opening address was by Penny Hueston, publisher/ translator at Text Publishing.  Widely awarded and with a medal for excellence in translation, Penny spoke with real authority about the challenges and rewards of publishing translated books.  Who chooses and who publishes which texts is a complex issue, and it was clear that sometimes it’s a matter of serendipity.  Not being able to attend and network at the Frankfurt Book Fair because of the pandemic has made things difficult in what is a difficult time for Australian publishing anyway.  For translators, being at the fair can help with getting known, especially if they translate a less well-known language e.g. Albanian.  (Remember when Ismail Kadare won the Man Booker International, and English translations of his books were translations from the French because Albanian-to-English translators couldn’t be found?)

Penny talked about some of the translations published by Text (many of which are reviewed here on this blog), and about issues to do with purchasing the rights. Negotiating world rights makes it possible to share the translation costs with publishers in other countries, but it can impact on translation opportunities here in Australia.  Australia is the smallest English language market, so Australian publishers don’t always get to choose the translator that they want if they have a deal with a publisher in, for example, in the US.  Timing the publication matters too: the US and UK don’t want to be published after the Australian edition hits the shelves. (Other countries don’t mind so much, apparently.)

Many Australian writers are published in translation overseas and can be bestsellers, especially in commercial and genre fiction.  Crime always does well, and so do middle-grade fiction and graphic novels.  But, because of the pandemic, the book market has shrunk, and readers are apparently looking for local authors and local stories. So they are likely to be less interested in translations of overseas titles.  Profitability is always an issue and Text accesses grants from the Copyright Agency and sometimes from cultural institutions like the Goethe Institute.

Very little was said about reviewing in the symposium, which surprised me because it’s supposed to be so important for sales.  Penny noted that reviewing of translations is getting harder because local authors take up the space in the press.  There are various initiatives to support the development of literary criticism and a new generation of critics from different backgrounds. I was tempted to brag about how many reviews of translated fiction there are on this blog (375) and how over time I’ve improved the ratio of male to female writers in translation (see here) but then I remembered that the real heroes of TF are Stu at Winston’s Dad and Meytal Radzinski and I kept quiet.

The next session was called ‘Australian Writer/Translators: Publishing and research experiences’, and it was chaired by Lilit Thwaites, a translator of Spanish. Other panellists were:

  • Brigid Maher (Italian) who presented findings from her PhD ‘Literary Translation into English in Contemporary Australia: Voices, Variety and Visibility’
  • Tiffany Tsao (Indonesian)- publishing with Giramondo, Amazon Crossing, Axis, Audiobooks, and
  • Elizabeth Bryer (Spanish) – publishing with Giramondo, Godine, HarperVia, Picador

This was a terrific session and, truth be told, my favourite, because I heard about some books that were irresistible and just had to be ordered there and then.

Lilit’s translations and publications include

  • The Prince of the Skies by Antonio Iturbe
  • Australian Connection, (Madrid: AECID, 2019), a trilingual anthology of short works by 15 Spanish writers who visited Australia
  • The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe.

Brigid’s translations and publications include

    • The Mountain (Text, 2020) by Massimo Donati (which is already on my TBR);
    • Set Me Free: How Shakespeare Saved a Life (Text, 2017) by Salvatore Striano;
    • While the Shark is Sleeping (Saqi, 2014) by Milena Agus; and
    • The Countesses of Castello (Scribe, 2010) also by Milena Agus.

Tiffany Tsao’s books and translations include

  • Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Giramondo Publishing and Tilted Axis Press)
  • The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak (Amazon Crossing); and
  • Paper Boats by Dee Lestari (Amazon Crossing)

She has also written this very interesting article ‘Beyond the Binary’ on her blog.

Elizabeth Bryer (Spanish) had a special offer on her novel because she had expected this symposium to be f2f and so had multiple signed copies.  Visit her website here. Her publications include

These translators talked about pitching a book you love to a publisher, and the need to develop ‘a translation culture’ here.  It shouldn’t just be elsewhere.  It was noted that translators tend to be doing it part time.  Hardly anyone works at it full time because of low demand, and the pay and conditions are not great either.  It’s also essential to recognise that translators have to do what they can to promote the author’s book…when they are working with underrepresented languages, they need to do a whole lot more than just translate the book. Tiffany shared a slide about all the other things she does to help the book on its way, which made me realise the enormous often unpaid contribution that translators make to the books we love to read.

‘The Australian Multilingual Writing Project’ was presented by Nadia Niaz.  Nadia is a simultaneous trilingual whose first languages are English, French and Urdu. Other languages she grew up around, listed in the order in which she can understand them include Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, Nepali, Farsi, Turkish and Swiss German. She lived in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the USA as a child and moved to Australia in 2006, where she began her study of poetry and multilingualism.

Gabriella Munoz presented poems about motherhood, grief and loss.

Dženana Vucic presented multilingual poetry, bringing together Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.  Her poems reference the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege since WW2.  Dženana had to relearn her mother tongue after assimilating in Australia when she went to Bosnia to reconnect with family who didn’t speak English.

Dominique Hecq read her work in Belgian French and English.

All these readings were rather melancholy.

Then there was a publishers’ panel chaired by Elizabeth Bryer with Sophy Williams from BlackInc  and Ivor Indyk from Giramondo.  This was a bit of a reality check because both publishers talked about what made their imprints distinctive.  In one way or another, they were both interested in story and the translation was incidental.  Books have to sell, and they have to appeal to Australian audiences.  Sophy talked about The Godmother, (the sequel to which, The Inheritors, I have just read) and some forthcoming books which sound very interesting indeed.  Ivor Indyk talked about how Giramondo is an Italian word meaning means globetrotter or world traveller (Italian) and how his imprint was always intended to be a cosmopolitan publisher.  But, he says, he’s a conceptual publisher, the book has to be a creative work in its own right, with quality translation and cultural relevance.  This changes at different times, and it depends on associations and interests at the time.  (Giramondo’s Chinese titles, for example, arose from a university initiative to open dialogue with Chinese writers.) He says that titles derive from a network of intellectuals, translators and publishers, and that funding is critically important because translations involve a double cost.  Funding agencies are essential for publishing to go ahead.

I asked a question: Noting the importance of funding and grants, do you think there’s a role for the UN in funding translations from languages that don’t get funding from governments and philanthropical institutions in their own country?  The answer was yes, and so I’m looking for suggestions for a beaut hashtag to get the campaign going.

The symposium finished with a plenary session chaired by Tim Cummins.  I was tired by then (and The Spouse had made a Saturday Night Cocktail) but I did notice that Cummins said that all translators are booklovers!

Many thanks to Elaine Lewis for inviting me!


  1. Sounds like a fascinating symposium. I’ve heard so much about the poor pay translators get – I don’t know how they make a living!


    • Well, it appears that many of them do it part-time for that reason. That’s why translation needs government and philanthropic support, and UNESCO should contribute to the translation of literature in the less dominant languages.
      There was a brief exchange between one of the publishers and a translator of Rumanian, to the effect that as a publisher of cosmopolitan literary fiction he was more interested in the book’s intrinsic qualities than in its being Romanian. I am too, but I would like to read an interesting book from Romania. Given its past under Soviet Occupation, there’s every possibility that someone has written a great occupation novel and/or a transition to capitalism novel. But a memoir does not interest me at all.
      However, this exchange points to something else. Translators need to read widely in their language, to identify books that will appeal to the niche in which the publisher works. A publisher who does noir will be interested in noirish novels whatever language they’re written in; a publisher who’s interested in conceptual novels has that as his highest priority. The language is actually irrelevant.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was struck that the pandemic has made readers look for local stories – I’ve felt entirely differently, wanting to read about things very different from my own life when my daily world has shrunk so much. Admittedly this is my preference anyway, but it’s felt especially so because of what we’ve been living through.

    The graphic about all that translators do is fascinating – thank you Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, but I suspect it’s a statement that applies more to commercial fiction, and also that it has a lot more to do with supply lines than was acknowledged. Book deliveries from overseas have been compromised right from the start, with nothing coming in at all when the borders were shut tight, and long unpredictable delays even now because there are still not many flights. So local books are being heavily marketed which is not a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t make us insulated from the realities of the wider world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Did we speak of this recently, too, the fact that when it comes to translated works, many of them seem to be sorrow-soaked? Obvs there are exceptions, but so many! (PS I hope the quality of your nibbles compared favourably, in the end.)


    • The nibbles were excellent, and The Spouse supplemented proceedings with a Gin and Mint Green Chartreuse cocktail towards the end of it, so that was very nice!
      ‘Sorrow-soaked translations’? Indeed yes, but not just translations. It’s a Thing that seems to have taken over publishing. I personally am beyond tired of it, but I saw a headline today and (without reading the article) I gathered that it may be linked to the need for a cathartic cry. People feel sad, read a book to make themselves feel sadder, have a cry, and feel better? Who knows, I’m not a weeper so perhaps that explains my exhaustion with the prevalence of it.


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