FWF Q&A: Alice Whitmore

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Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Alice Whitmore: a Melbourne-based writer and academic, the translator of Guillermo Fadanelli and Mariana Dimópulos, and an editor at Cordite Poetry Review.



What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me is a collective spirit of love and strength. Feminism means empathy, compassion, ferocity, resistance. It means owning our bodies. It means treating others with dignity and respect, and demanding that in return. It means checking our privilege, and being allies to one another.

Editors are often described as midwives – how would you characterise translators?

At the risk of labouring the analogy, I’d venture that translators are a bit like surrogate mothers. The DNA of the work is provided, but we do the difficult work of gestation, we nourish the work from our own bodies, and, ultimately, we give life to it. Without us, the text could not exist in its new form. The process of ‘birthing’ a translation is also emotionally and ethically fraught – I often feel a sense of ownership over my translations, but of course that ownership only extends so far. In the end, translation, like surrogacy, is a transaction. It’s a tricky business, and one that works best if there is trust and respect on both sides.

How does your work as a writer and poet influence your work in translation?

I see literary translation as a process of re-writing, so the ‘writing’ part is absolutely integral to the work I do as a translator. Every work of translated literature is a unique artefact. I think of it in terms of embodiment, which is to say that a translation produced by my body (my mind, my hands, my language, the sum of my life’s experiences) will inevitably be different from the translation produced by someone else’s body. I think exactly the same thing happens when we write our own work, or express ourselves through poetry. The only difference, in my view, is the starting point: as a translator I have a more concrete frame to contain my work within, whereas writing for myself is a freer process, less bounded. I feel that my writing and my translation work complement each other – translation serves as practice, in a way, for my writing, and vice versa. I almost can’t imagine the one without the other.

Mariana Dimópulos’ work is resolutely woman-centred. Was this a factor in your choosing to translate her?

Yes, absolutely! I identified very strongly with the narrators of both All My Goodbyes and Imminence. I immediately heard their words in English, in my head; they spoke to me clearly and naturally. In a witchy kind of way, it almost felt like I was channelling them. As a translator it is my job to empathise, to jump into the skins of characters and writers, but that job becomes much easier when those characters, or the author, or both, are women whose lives I can readily relate to.

Do you think your lived experience helped interpret and translate her work fully?

I think so. As a young woman, there were a lot of places where I went: “Ah! I know that feeling!” And I also recognised a lot of the supporting characters, in the sense that I was able to project their personalities and traits onto people I knew. It’s almost like staging a play using elements from your own life. Of course, it’s impossible to know what you don’t see, and whenever we read a work of literature we are limited by our own experiences – our minds are constantly evolving, but we can’t expect them to assimilate seamlessly with someone else’s work. Especially when a text has travelled across cultures and oceans, there are always parts that don’t compute, or that are difficult to interpret. That’s part of the challenge of translation.

What do you think feminist readers here in Australia (or the English-speaking world) can learn from her writing?

It is always enlightening to read women from other parts of the world, and I think in a very broad sense it helps to strengthen a sense of international feminist solidarity. Sometimes, as English-speaking readers (that is, as members of the ‘dominant’ group), we are tricked into a feeling of self-sufficiency, and we become a little self-involved, and I think it’s important and refreshing to inject our reading lives with new perspectives. To give you a more specific answer, though, I think Mariana’s newest novel, Imminence, offers something really valuable: a raw and honest look at what it means to be a new mother who struggles to feel the transcendent maternal love and devotion that is expected of her. The novel is really an interrogation of womanhood, and motherhood, and friendship, and conjugality, and I think it offers a lot of material for feminist readers to muse on, or critique. 

Translators are often the carriers and champions of new works into new countries and languages. Do you feel that this has been accentuated in more recent times to include a focus on feminist writing? A gendered intervention of sorts?

Fantastic new feminist writing in translation is emerging all over the world, and I am so excited by this. I think translators are certainly playing a role in this shift. As recognition and respect for translation grows, and as the collective strength of women grows, we are seeing exactly what we would expect to see: women empowering women, women amplifying each other’s voices. It’s heartening to see. There is a real sense of community and solidarity. And translation is only one aspect of this – a true ‘gendered intervention’ must involve the publishing industry, the independent bookselling scene, the worlds of academia and reviewing, the media, the literary festival scene. The more space and power women occupy in all of these areas, the stronger feminist writing becomes. I do think the literary world is evolving, and women are claiming their space within it. Women’s stories are now seen as legitimate, and important, and intellectual, and challenging, which means there is more work out there for translators to champion. 

Can you recommend any books in translation?

There is so much great Latin American literature in translation, but I’ll limit myself to two recently translated works by Argentine writers: the short story collection Mouthful of Birds, written by Samanta Schweblin and translated by Megan McDowell, and the non-fiction title False Calm, written by Maria Sonia Cristoff and translated by Katherine Silver. I can’t not mention my favourite writer, the late great Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose Complete Stories have been breathtakingly translated by Katrina Dodson. Straying somewhat from my comfort zone, I also highly recommend two novels by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish winner of the 2018 International Man Booker prize: Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 

Any feminist must-reads?

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties had a huge impact on me. Right now I’m reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays, and it’s blowing me away – it’s kind of a modern intersectional feminist masterpiece. 

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