Pitch Independent a fantastic success!

As one of the three co-ordinators for the New England Writers’ Centre’s big Pitch Independent program, I am happy to report that it was a brilliant success! The prep day two weeks ago went really well, with lots of people getting advice and practising their pitches in front of local publishing professionals. And last weekend, we hosted a fantastic lineup of some of Australia’s best small and independent book publishers and literary magazine editors, who participated in a lively and engaging symposium, heard lots of one-on-one pitches from writers in all genres as well as illustrators, and generally gave generously, and warmly, of their time, knowledge and expertise.

It was an inspiring, creative and fun weekend, and we are so grateful to all who participated–publishers, editors, pitchers, presenters, attendees, and University of New England staff and students. All of our participating publishers and editors came from a long way away, in some cases a very long way, from Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria as well as various locations in NSW, and we are so very appreciative that they were willing to travel to our region. Thanks very much to all the people who supported Pitch Independent by attending the symposium, and/or pitching their work–we know it takes courage and we salute you for it, hope you felt encouraged, and wish you the very best for your work, whatever the outcome of your pitch. Big thanks goes to UNE for their generous and major support of the event, financially, promotionally and with venues; to the Small Press Network for its kind support and encouragement–and to SPN Chair Michael Webster for making the long trek from Melbourne to speak at the Symposium–and to the Armidale Bowling Club for sponsoring the great  venue for Saturday’s big pitch day. And of course huge thanks to the New England Writers’ Centre and all my fellow Board members who supported the creation of this event in so many ways. And to my fellow co-ordinators, John C.Ryan and Catherine Wright–hurrah! We made it! And it worked so well, worth all the hard work and all that midnight oil we burned 🙂

Pitch Independent was a unique event–nothing like it, with its focus on bringing creators and small and independent press and literary magazines together–has ever, to or knowledge, been held in Australia before. And the response has been amazing, from all, publishers, editors, pitchers, and attendees alike. It was a massive amount of work, but I am so proud to have been involved in initiating an event that we think people will be speaking about for a long time, and which will have a significant impact. We intend to continue building on the fantastic momentum created by Pitch Independent–watch this space!

Cover reveal for Black Wings, my adult historical novel

I am thrilled to reveal the beautiful cover of Black Wings, my adult historical novel which will be published in October by The Greystones Press in the UK. Can’t wait! Here’s the basic blurb(there will also be a fabulous cover quote by the lovely Kate Forsyth, which will be revealed later!)

It’s 1788 in the Vendée in western France, and change is in the air. Reform 
is being talked of in the great world beyond, in Paris, and even the peaceful village inhabited by Jacques Verdun and his friends – aristocratic painter Edmond de Bellegarde, his beautiful cousin Flora, and young farmer Pierre Bardon – seems touched by new possibilities. But as events both in Paris and in the local community start to gather pace, as revolution breaks out and the traditions of centuries start to break down, friendships will be severely tested in the most unexpected of ways. And when pitiless civil war comes, who will be left to testify to old feelings, and old loyalties? 


UQP’s 70th birthday and my gratitude to them!

Just heard today that it’s UQP’s (University of Queensland Press)70th birthday this month–and wanted to celebrate this great achievement of a great publisher by thanking them for launching me on my career as a published author–in more ways than one!

My very first published book, The House in the Rainforest, an adult novel set on the North Coast of NSW in the 1970’s and ’80’s, was published by UQP in April 1990. I will never forget the day I got the letter of acceptance from the late and greatly missed UQP editor Roseanne Fitzgibbon! (It was an amazing year, because just a few weeks after hearing from UQP, I got a letter from the then publisher at Angus and Robertson, Brian Cook, accepting my first children’s novel, Fire in the Sky, a time slip novel which was published in June 1990)

UQP also published my very first young adult novel, Sooner or Later (1991), an event which came about after the then editor of UQP’s YA list, the wonderful Barbara Ker Wilson, had written to me whilst The House in the Rainforest was being edited, to ask if I had any ms suitable for that age group: she had really liked the voice of my main character Kate, who, when the book starts, is sixteen years old. Barbara felt it was a very authentic voice and she wondered if I had anything that might work. Well, I as it happens, I did have a ms which had grown out both of living at the time in a small Australian country town and also losing my beloved grandmother back in France. I was pretty excited at being actually encouraged to send it in! So I sent it, Barbara and the UQP team loved it, and it was published in 1991.

I had another two YA novels books published by UQP after that–A Blaze of Summer(1992), which unlike the other two was set in France, and had supernatural/fantastical elements; and The Sun is Rising(1996), a companion novel–though not, strictly speaking, a sequel–to Sooner or Later.

I went on to have books with quite a few other publishers after that–but I will never forget the debt I owe UQP. From a very grateful author: happy 70th birthday to a wonderful publishing house–and may there be at least another 70!

Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!

A unique book contract signing

L to R: Michelle, me, Peter

L to R: Michelle, me, Kathy







Yesterday I had the great pleasure of signing a new picture book contract in a lovely, unique and totally relevant venue: our fabulous local independent bookshop, Reader’s Companion. Kathy and Peter Creamer of locally-based children’s publisher Little Pink Dog Books suggested the venue for signing the contract for A House of Mud, a text inspired by our family experience of building our mudbrick house years ago, and which I have long dreamed might become a picture book one day: a dream which will become a reality next year! The book will be illustrated by Kathy herself, who is also illustrating another of my texts, See Monkey. It was a great occasion, with Michelle Wheatley of Reader’s Companion there as delighted witness to what is the first step in a process which will eventually see the book arrive on her shelves!

A House of Mud is told from a child’s perspective, based very much on the fact that our three children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis, enthusiastically took part in the experience of building, paddling in the mud and making small bricks themselves!



An interlude to introduce the Juvenilia Press

I’m delighted to learn today that the Small Beginnings series on this blog is being featured on the Facebook page and linked to the website of a wonderful specialist press publishing out of the University of NSW, the Juvenilia Press, which focusses on the very early writings of authors, including classic authors like Jane Austen! Here’s something about them:

The Juvenilia Press promotes the study of literary juvenilia, a category of literature that has been largely neglected. Its editions are slim volumes of early writings by children and adolescents (up to the approximate age of twenty), including published and unpublished works of young authors – both those who achieved greatness as adults and those who did not become adult writers but whose writing is full of percipience and zest.

Founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the Press has since 2001 been based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and has an international team of contributing editors from Britain, Canada, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia.

The volumes are normally devoted to one author and are edited by an expert in the field, with the assistance of one or more students, usually postgraduates. Student involvement in the research and editorial process is an essential part of the pedagogic aim of the Juvenilia Press; and the illustrations, often executed by young aspiring artists or by the original young authors themselves, aim to capture the tone of the original productions. By contributing to the recovery, publication, and critical exploration of childhood writings, the Juvenilia Press actively promotes literary research and the professional development of students. At the same time, they endeavour to provide, for a wide audience, an insight into the creative energy of this rich and varied body of writing.

Do check them out on Facebook, and visit their website for more information: https://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia/


Double Act 7: Anna Solding of Midnight Sun

anna soldingToday,  I’m revisiting my ‘Double Act’ series of interviews with authors who are also publishers, and who started their own publishing houses.  And I’m interviewing Anna Solding of Midnight Sun Publishing, a small press that has gone from strength to strength since it started a few short years ago.

Anna, when and how did Midnight Sun start? What motivated you to start your own publishing company?

It started one day when I had lunch with a close friend who is an entrepreneur. Even though my novel manuscript The Hum of Concrete had been nominated for three awards for unpublished manuscripts, no publisher had picked it up. My friend thought this was a shame so he suggested: ‘Why don’t we start a publishing company?’ You know, as you do, over lunch, just like that. My, quite logical and heartfelt, reply was: ‘Because we are not crazy…’ Five years later, we are crazier than ever and MidnightSun is beginning to take off in a big way. My friend’s initial expertise and help was invaluable and I would never have contemplated starting a publishing company if he hadn’t come up with the idea. My novel The Hum of Concrete went on to be nominated for another three awards once it was published, including the Commonwealth Book Awards, which meant we were off to a promising start and we felt that perhaps we could keep doing this.

How did you initially persuade booksellers to stock your books?

I was lucky enough to convince Wakefield Press, another independent Adelaide publisher, to distribute our books nationwide. It’s not really what they normally do so they only did it to be kind and give me a break, which was very nice of them. For the last couple of years our books have been distributed by NewSouth Books, who do a terrific job, getting our books into bookshops (and occasionally even into discount departments stores) around Australia and New Zealand.

Have your aims and strategies as a publisher changed from the beginning? How?

Yes and no. The aim has always been to publish amazing books, both in terms of content and design; books that you can lose An-Ordinary-Epidemic-Amanda-Hickie-The-Clothesline-192x300yourself in, books that look stylish and feel good in your hand. That is still our main aim. On our website we say: ‘MidnightSun Publishing has grown out of a disenchantment with the established publishing houses in Australia. We know there are plenty of fabulous manuscripts about unusual topics floating around, but publishing new and unknown writers poses a big risk. MidnightSun is prepared to take that risk. We want our readers to be entertained. We want to challenge, excite, enrage and overwhelm.’

When we started, we were mainly focused on adult literary fiction but now we also publish a wide range of books for children, from picture books to YA. I have always said that I will only publish books that I love and I think that is a good strategy for a small publisher. Because we spend so much time with each book, we really need to be comfortable talking about all aspects of it to anyone who will listen. Originally, I thought we’d just publish one or two books to see how they went but as all our books have made a profit it has always been easy to keep moving on to the next project. The more well-known MidnightSun becomes, the more high quality manuscripts are sent our way and the more projects we take on. When we started publishing in 2012, we did two books per year, in 2017 we are planning to do five. To publish five or six books per year would secure a more regular cash flow situation, which is something MidnightSun is still struggling with. The more I learn about the business, the more confident I get about all the small steps that need to happen for each book, including the metadata, the AI sheet, different ways to promote the book and which festivals and media contacts to approach.

Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author–whether that be positive or negative?

Yes, I don’t think of myself as a writer first and foremost any more. Publishing has taken over my life, but I have let it happen and I love my job passionately so I’m certainly not complaining. I work with interesting people who all love books, so that has to count for something. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be awarded two writers’ retreat residencies, one month in Finland and one month in Perth, which were both fantastic months when I felt like a writer again. For years, I’ve been working on a ‘companion novel’ to The Hum of Concrete, also set in Sweden where I grew up, and it’s almost finished but I think I need one more retreat to get there. I would like to incorporate more writing into my everyday life, but when I can’t even get a Q&A like this one written until weeks after I should have delivered it, I’m not quite sure how to manage it.

What are the challenges and pleasures of small-press publishing, in your experience? Any memorable anecdotes?

IPLKS_cover love finding new talent and nurturing the writers from the beginning. Kim Lock, whose novel Peace, Love and Khaki Socks, was published by MidnightSun in 2013 has since evolved into being our regular designer. Her new novel has recently been published by big publisher Macmillan, which we think is fantastic. Last year, we published Amanda Hickie’s An Ordinary Epidemic and that book will come out with a new cover and new title (Before This Is Over) in the US next year. There are so many pleasures.

The challenges are plentiful, as they should be. It took almost a year to design the cover for Cameron Raynes’ First Person Shooter and we finally decided on one we all liked after rejecting about 30 others. Fortunately, we have a very patient designer. However, one of the biggest challenges for small publishers is to get noticed in the mainstream press. MidnightSun has a loyal following in Adelaide but it’s always a struggle to even get a tiny review in the larger newspapers, let alone a feature article. The other main challenge, at least for us, is to manage our cash flow. Because MidnightSun is doing really well, our first picture book One Step at a Time by Jane Jolly and Sally Heinrich has been nominated for several awards including the important CBCA award, we are in a position where we need to reprint the book but we have had to take out a loan to be able to do so.

As much as there are plenty of challenges for small publishers, the pleasures of seeing a project through from manuscript form to the final product, a beautiful and thought-provoking book, clearly outweigh the challenges. The buzz of opening a box from the printer to see a new book for the first time is very special and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that feeling.

Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Go for it! If you are passionate about books and have some sense of business, publishing might be the perfect place for you. I’m not going to pretend that it is easy, because it certainly isn’t, but if you surround yourself people who can help you with aspect that you might be less familiar with, it could be worth giving publishing a go. I have had a bookkeeper and a designer from the start as those were two aspect of the business that I didn’t know that much about. Other than that, you have to learn to wear many different hats; as editor, publicist, sales director, head of marketing and the one who is ultimately responsible – whether things go fabulously or the complete opposite.

Distribution is extremely important and it’s very hard to find a distributor so it’s worth doing some research on this before you take the plunge. Dennis Jones distributes many small publishers. Talk to other small publishers, research printers, become a member of Small Press Network, learn the terminology (what is metadata? AI sheets? ISBN?), subscribe to the daily newsletter from Books+Publishing and, most importantly, find amazing manuscripts to publish. Without intriguing content One-Stepand stunning production your books won’t be noticed. MidnightSun started in 2011 and we published our first book a year later, which felt right as that is how long it took to learn a bit about how the business works. The longer you have to prepare for a book, with marketing material, review copies, interviews, the better. Now that we are more established, we often work on a book for two years before publication. But don’t be scared, if publishing is your passion, just go for it!

Anna Solding

P.S. Metadata is the information that is put into search engines so that it will be easy to find. AI sheets are advance information sheets about the book, which often contain the cover image, a blurb, an author bio and photo, size, price, publication date and the all-important ISBN. The ISBN is the 13 digit number that is under the barcode, which is used by booksellers to identify the book.

The translator’s art: an interview with Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee portraitTranslation is an art both precise and subtle, and the work of distinguished Australian translator Stephanie Smee has those qualities in abundance. Stephanie has translated several works of French literature into English, and I first met her some years ago, after the publication of her translations of classic French children’s titles by the Countess de Ségur. We got talking about other French classics, and I happened to talk to her about one of my favourite books growing up as a French-speaking child: Michel Strogoff, a great adventure novel by the legendary author Jules Verne.

Well, that conversation has led to today, and the publication by Eagle Books of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. This is the first English translation of this wonderful book in over a hundred years, and as one of the publishing team at Eagle Books, I worked closely with Stephanie on the project, impressed as ever by her great attention to detail and her thoughtful and perceptive understanding of the literary work she was translating. And so today, to celebrate the release of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, I talk to Stephanie about translating the book–and the art of translation in general.

Stephanie, translating Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff was a massive and painstaking undertaking. How did you prepare for it initially?
Like many Anglophone readers, I was really only familiar with those books of Jules Verne that have always been popular with English readers… Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I confess it had been many years since I had read those tales.
So, when discussing with you possible ideas to pitch to English language publishers, your enthusiasm for this historical adventure tale took me a little unawares. However, after getting my hands on an original French edition, and spending some considerable time researching, I realised how enduringly popular Michel Strogoff has been with its French readers. And I became increasingly nonplussed as to how it had slipped from the catalogue of Verne’s other, perennially popular tales which had been translated into English.
How does one prepare for a translation task such as this? A number of readings of the text, of course, which serves to allow your mind to “relax” into the rhythm of the text, but then the close readings are required, and the true breadth of Verne’s rich vocabulary and sentence structure sinks in. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to “dive in”!
 What challenges came up for you as you worked on the book?
mikhail strogoff finished 1 front coverVerne’s vocabulary is encyclopaedic, and one can almost sense the glee with which he displays his research into the historical, geographical and cultural specificities of his setting. I was very fortunate to have been given some magnificent 19th century French/French and French/English dictionaries by my father-in-law, Jim Schoff, and there is no doubt these proved very useful in grappling with some of the more obscure terms that came up from time to time. I also found some of the 19th century maps of Russia, Siberia and “Independent Tartary” (again, supplied by my father-in-law) absolutely invaluable. One editorial challenge, with which you were very helpful, was determining the appropriate transliteration of place names. Of course, Verne had transliterated place names from the Russian cyrillic into 19th century French. We then had to settle upon the appropriate way of spelling all of these names for our 21st century Anglophone readership while remaining authentic to the historical setting of the novel. As readers will be aware, customs surrounding the spelling of Russian names can be a moveable feast and often differ from one current newspaper or novel to another, depending on the editorial decisions made. The historical maps I had at my disposal were certainly useful, but again, it was customary in the 19th century for many mapmakers to use French spelling of Russian place names, as it was assumed that educated readers and scholars would have French at their fingertips and unfortunately, we can’t make such assumptions for our readership anymore!  
I did often wonder how translators used to manage before the internet allowed us access to so many superb resources, including to such things as 19th century accounts of travellers making their way through the same or similar parts of the world as our hero, Mikhail Strogoff! Images of Tartar battle dress or Siberian towns which I was able to access through Google books often allowed me to create a mental picture of the word-image I was trying to paint with my translation of Verne’s detailed text.
Verne’s narrative is quite straightforward but his style is richly laced with idiomatic and other flourishes. How did you capture that very particular spirit?

The longevity of Verne’s popularity, in my opinion, derives from his masterful skills as a storyteller. His tales are built on a driving narrative force that reveals itself to the reader – and thus, to the translator – as we turn the pages. Verne is a great “scene-setter”. And so, he interlaces his chapters with scene-setting descriptions, often packed with information, followed by “lighter” chapters of spirited dialogue. There is nothing staid about his evocative descriptions. Rather, he successfully evokes a landscape which will then be the setting for the following dialogue between his characters, all of whom are very brightly drawn, from the main protagonists, Mikhail Strogoff and Nadia, to the testy muzhik responsible for leading them across the Urals, and to the jocular journalists who act as the entertaining Greek chorus to events as they unfold. All of this to say that the

Strogoff 6

Illustration by David Allan

translator’s task really has to be to imagine herself into the landscape, listen to the rhythm of the descriptions and the dialogue and try to render that same rhythm into English. Where there is a particular urgency to the events unfolding on the page, I’d like to think that a good translator will be able to reflect that same urgency – whether it’s as simple as adhering to similar sentence length, or perhaps through a choice of words that will help make the narrative pop and crackle with that same sense of urgency. Of course, 19th century literature often uses tenses  and moods that are rarely employed in modern literature and ideally, those grammatical nuances will be reflected in the English too, although there is a fine line to be drawn sometimes when translating tenses which would perhaps seem “clunky” or awkward to a modern reader’s ear. As for the dialogue, there is no doubt Verne’s own skill in drawing his characters rendered it a joy to translate their dialogue as it meant I had little difficulty imagining myself into their conversations and under their skins.

At this point, I should also underline my gratitude, not only to my editor and publisher–yourself!–but also to my father, Michael Smee, whose assistance in proof-reading – offering second and third pairs of eyes and ears to “hear” the rhythm of the text – were quite invaluable.
How different was it working on this translation as opposed to those you have worked on before, such as the Countess de Ségur’s classic children’s books?
The translation of Mikhail Strogoff was indeed quite an undertaking, and in this respect, it really felt quite different to sitting down to translate the Countess de Ségur’s books, which although quite lengthy for their genre, have a considerably younger target audience to that of Strogoff. (That said, I just received a very enthusiastic message from my 11 year old nephew telling me how much he loved this Mikhail Strogoff finished 2 back coverlatest translation, but that while he had been waiting for his copy to arrive in Boston, he had eagerly revisited all of my translations of the Countess’s books, so there is obviously a little bit of audience cross-over!) In attacking a work like Strogoff, there is a different level of stamina required both in respect of the novel‘slength and the complexity of its vocabulary. Julie Rose’s masterful translation of Les Misérables of course takes that degree of difficulty to a different place altogether! Verne and the Countess de Ségur did at least share some similarities of the epoch in which they were written, being works penned in the 19th century.
Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament Francais, has his narrator say ‘the translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation? 
I can quite understand narrator’s standpoint in Makine’s novel. It suggests a degree of “freedom” that perhaps a translator of poetry might enjoy, compared to the prose translator. But I’m not sure I agree entirely.
While the quote from Makine acknowledges the “originality” of the poet/translator’s new work, I disagree with the suggestion that the translator of prose is in any way more the novelist’s slave, to use that same imagery.  The rules relating to the translation of the ‘form work’ and ‘scaffolding’ of prose might be different to that of a work of poetry but at the end of the day, translators of prose and poetry are both working creatively and originally, both limited by a desire to remain as faithful as possible, not only to the original text, but to its emotion and rhythm. In many ways, as illuminated by the comments below of John Edmunds, renowned translator of the verse-dramas of the likes of Racine and Corneille, translators of poetry might feel more “enslaved” by the need to adhere to the particular poetic structure and rhythm of the original work.
As a translator, I stand most in awe of those who translate poetry but are they the original poet’s “rival”? A good translator of poetry is truly not just any ordinary linguist – they must hear the poetic rhythm in the source language and be able to recreate that beauty, that mystery, that imagery in the target language. It requires decisions about meters, rhyming – whether it is best to try to retain those rhythms in the target translation or stray a little from the source language in order to recreate a rhythm that somehow best captures the original imagery and magic of the poetry.
I recently read John Edmunds’ notes on his extraordinary translations of the plays of Corneille, Racine and Molière (Penguin Classics, 2013). They are illuminating, and in fact suggest that the translator of these “verse-dramas” are, in a way, just as much these play-wright/poet’s slave as their rival. He says:
A translation intended for performance not only must be immediately intelligible to the listening ear, but ideally, I have always thought, should be capable of delivery by a putative bilingual cast in precisely the same way in either version. Like musical scores these verse-dramas have their crescendos, staccatos and rallentandos: in the new medium they need to be preserved. This can be achieved only by maintaining the sentence-structure so that the actor’s breathing-pattern is reproduced, because the pulsation of the performer’s vocal energy is the life of the play. And, clearly, the action has to flow at the same pace as the original. This necessitates a line-by-line rendering.
A play written in verse is truly recreated in another language only when it has the formality of disciplined verse-structure. Which form to employ?
And Edmunds then goes on to discuss his choice of Shakespearian blank verse “which has a driving impetus and the rhythm of colloquial speech” over the English alexandrine which, he suggests, is “too stately for drama; and the rhythmic beat of our heavily stressed language does not need rhyme to create form.” He also comments that rhyming couplets can sound jokey, at least to British theatre goers “reared on pantomime.” Ultimately, he says, the translator can only do his best with the tools available to him in his own language in reverence to the “supremely gifted authors” one has the privilege of translating.
My own “philosophy” of translating? Many scholars and practitioners have penned many thoughts on this topic and I’m not sure I should be so bold as to add my own. I do know, like John Edmunds, that I feel an enormous sense of privilege to be working as a literary translator, particularly translating the work of a literary figure such as Jules Verne. And even though I am not a translator of poetry, I also know that beautiful prose, too, has its own rhythm, its own fluidity, its own internal mysteries which any good translator must try to encompass in their work. So, if a translator can recreate that original sense of wonder and excitement generated by any good piece of literature, whether it be a work for children or the most fiendishly obscure piece of poetry, then perhaps the translator has succeeded in her task.
It’s been said that there aren’t enough novels from non-anglophone countries translated into English. Would you agree? And why do you think that is? 
Yes, indeed I do agree – as both an avid reader of translated literature and as a literary translator! Although I hasten to add that I have been very, very fortunate to have a number of my translations published beautifully by both Simon & Schuster (Aust) and of course, Eagle Books. That said, Linda Jaivin, in her essay Found in Translation published in the Quarterly Essay (issue #52, 2013), referred to statistics that are enough to make any literary translator cry.
 “[H]alf of all books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6 percent are translated into English. The rest are translations between non-English languages… In 1950, American publishers produced 11,022 books, of which 563 were translations. In 2010, the number of books published there climbed past 200,000, but only 341 were originally in other languages. … In 2012, according to Bloomberg, American publishers bought translation rights to only 453 foreign titles; figures in the UK are said to be similar.”
And, she goes on to say, there is no reason to believe the situation is any better in Australia – in fact, she says, it’s probably more dire.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons, but most of them come down to the fact that English has become the “default” language of the world. And at the same time as the rest of the world has adopted an educational approach that emphasises the need to learn English, largely for trade reasons, the number of people who still learn foreign languages in English speaking countries is plummeting. This can only lead to serious cultural insularity and, while learning a foreign language is not an easy task, as Jaivin acknowledges, “a sensible corrective is access to a rich body of global literature in translation.” Yet we are failing on that front, too. Monolingual publishers/editors make it difficult for foreign language publishers to sell their works into the English language market, as they are forced to rely on potted descriptions, quickly translated excerpts, and, only if they’re lucky, some healthy sales figures or reviews in the original language market. The same difficulties confront literary translators trying to pitch ideas to Anglophone publishers. Even when books have earned their stripes in sales and reviews in their native market, I have often been met with the response: “translations are very hard to find space for in the market”.
Why  they are any harder to find space for than untested English language books is quite mysterious to this literary translator. Sales in Anglophone markets of Pippi Longstocking and Asterix would, I’m sure, rival sales in their own market, due to their very skilled translators and to the fact that they are quite wonderful books! Yet I do know why. In a market where publishers are being forced to tighten their belts, there is little cash to spare to pay for English language publishing rights, as well as a skilled translator. And I can only assume also that sales and marketing teams must know there is an inherent reluctance or suspicion on the part of readers when it comes to foreign literature. Fortunately, at the same time as so many of the large publishing houses are publishing fewer and fewer works in translation, there are increasing numbers of independent publishers, like Eagle Books, who recognise the need to take a stand against the cultural hegemony of the Anglophone publishing industry and who are making it their business to publish works in translation.
Our wonderfully cosmopolitan and plural society deserves no less, particularly if we mean to engage in a meaningful, reciprocal and generous way with the billions of people on this planet for whom English is not their mother tongue. We need to be able to hear everybody’s stories!
What are you looking at translating next? 
I’ve in fact embarked on a terribly entertaining translation project with my Swedish mother. We are translating some very well-known (in the Swedish market) children’s stories by Gösta Knutsson about a little cat called Pelle whose tail was bitten off by a rat when he was a kitten. They were first published in Sweden in the late 1930’s-1940’s and Knutsson continued to write for many decades. They’ve been enormously popular in Sweden since they were first published.  The first three in the series are to be published next year by Piccolo Nero, the children’s imprint of Black Inc publishers.
I’m also working on some submissions involving the translation of some modern French novellas and short stories which I’m very excited about. They’re written in very different language to the 19th century text of Jules Verne, but I’m loving the challenge. They’re wry and erudite, fanciful and yet thoroughly modern… works that are very much for and of our time.

From publisher to author: an interview with Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson headshotToday, I’m interviewing Michael Johnson, publisher turned author.
Michael Johnson has lived in Bundeena for the last eighteen years. He graduated M.A. (Law Tripos) Trinity College Cambridge followed by four tumultuous, exciting years in Nigeria with British American Tobacco followed by then thirty years in book publishing & book selling in the U.K, Asia and Australia after moving to  Sydney in 1968 with his wife and three children. Retirement has seen him assume a variety of interests including book reviewer, slush pile reader, columnist with the late lamented Village Noise and now a published novelist, with a second novel in progress.
Michael, your first novel, Noah’s Park, has just been published. Can you tell us about it?
The trigger for Noah’s Park was a drive past a Circus setting up the Big Top. It looked bedraggled. The posters showing lions, tigers, and horses were plastered on every telegraph pole. Returning home through the National Park I started to muse about the feasibility of transporting those animals at night and releasing them. The ammunition was my twenty years living in a quiet seaside village at the heart of Australia’s oldest National Park. The lives, feuds, passions, friendships, pecadillos were a powerful incentive to create what one kind friend called ‘a beautiful example of magic realism…comparable with The Life Of Pi’. A faithful fan group know it as ‘That dirty book about Bundeena’! Perhaps due to some fairly explicit lesbian sex scenes, which caused several people to query my research. My many gay women friends are far more understanding. I stress that it is fiction, of my imagining. I pursue the effect of the Circus animals on the village, the Park Rangers, the State Government and the wider public. It is a light brush I use, gentle satire, hopefully perceptive of the human condition.
What was the journey to publication like? What challenges and discoveries did you make along the way? And what have the reactions of readers been like?
It took about a year to write. An agent showed interest but finally felt ‘it was not commercial enough’. Experienced in the use of the notorious ‘slush pile’ I made a decision to go the eBooks route, the Fifty Shades of Grey highway. My artist friend Garry Shead offered cover artwork and we settled on Rosie the elephant, the heroine of the plot.
 It was a good decision. Sales on Amazon and iBooks are steady. Friends of Bundeena Library launched Noah’s Park and more than 100 people seemed to enjoy the evening, listening to my stories about the book and my publishing/bookselling life. There may be a paperback edition on the horizon.noahs-park-cover
Before becoming a published novelist, you’ve had a long career in the book industry, as a publisher. Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do? Or something you have only recently been inspired to take up? And how does it feel, being on ‘the other side of the fence’, as it were?
I have always loved to write. In the 1970’s I wrote a cover story for Richard Walsh’s Nation Review, under a pseudonym. Titled The Sensuous Politician, modelled on the bestseller The Sensuous Woman. My piece is still scarily relevant today. I reviewed books for SMH, ABR, Herald Sun and had a regular ABR column. In retirement I, with like minds, ran a newspaper The Village Noise

There are no fences. For me publishing, bookselling, authors, readers, should be a seamless holistic experience.

I believe that over your many years in publishing, you met some extraordinary people. Can you tell us about some of them, and about some of your experiences over that time?
My memories?
*Being interviewed by Allen Lane, founder, with his brothers, of Penguin Books. I still have his signed letter of appointment to the Management Group in the U.K in 1964. ‘ 2000 pounds sterling p.a and an interest free loan to purchase a car’!

 I was entranced by the Albert Tucker painting on his wall which was the cover of The Lucky Country. He seemed intrigued by my sales technique in Nigeria with British American Tobacco, which involved standing on the roof of my Landrover, in some remote village market, blowing a hunting horn!

*My first appointment at Penguin as Export Manager for the World outside Europe.

*Setting up Granada Publishing here in Sydney.

* Key memories from this time include buying paperback rights for Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory from Sphere and capitalising on the ABC TV series. Those unforgettable lunches with Frank


the-female-eunuch1In 1970 we published the Paladin edition with the iconic John Holmes cover of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.  The promotional tour I set up included events in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide (she taught me to love oysters), and I witnessed her literally change womens’ lives.

*Don Chipp phoning to tell me that he was releasing our Henry Miller titles from the prohibited import list. Griffin Press started printing two days later.

*Selling 500 copies of the hardback edition of Robert Ludlum’s first book The Scarlatti Inheritance firm sale to Hedley Jefferies at A&R.

*The great booksellers. Hedley, Ron & Eve Abbey, Jim Thorburn, Norma Chapman, Nan Jacka, Wattie Thompson, Cedric Pearce, Charley Dickens, Mark Rubbo, David Gaunt, Peter Milne, and those long lunches.

Do you think publishing has changed over the time you were a publisher, till now? In what way? How do you see the book industry at the moment–both from a publisher’s and an author’s points of view?
Publishing, bookselling, authors are a fluid formula in times of constant change and challenge. Existing models of distribution, retailing and the shibboleth of ‘sale or return’ need forensic examination. If, with honourable exceptions, the acceptance of a manuscript is wholly dependent on how many copies Big W is likely to take then a disruptive approach to the art, science and soul of publishing, that indescribable ‘gut’ feel, the awareness of the reader (o.k consumer), the awareness of a global revolution in the carriage of the written word become mandatory. In this the author should be an equal partner, dovetailing with his or her publisher in a symbiotic relationship. My daughter Lou Johnson, co-founder of The Author People is one face of this new thinking.
TAP_logo_pos (small)(ED Note: An interview with Lou was published on this blog a few months ago.)
What are you working on now?

I am writing another novel drawing on my experiences in Nigeria, linking the conquest and imposition of fundamental Islam in Northern Nigeria 200 years ago and the terrorism of today’s Boko Haram. It’s an ambitious project and I have dedicated 2016 to it.

Double Act 6: Raghid Nahhas

raghid picI first met writer, publisher, editor and translator Dr Raghid Nahhas some years ago when he was editor and publisher of a bilingual Arabic/English literary magazine, Kalimat. But publishing a magazine certainly isn’t the full extent of Raghid’s work, as readers will discover from this very interesting interview.

Raghid, for a number of years, you were the publisher and editor of a unique literary magazine, Kalimat, a bilingual Arabic/English production. Can you tell us how it started, what your aims for it were, and whether you felt those aims were achieved? And how was the magazine received, both in Australia and Lebanon? What are some of the scenes, that stand out, for you, in the time Kalimat was published?

I come originally from Syria, born to a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother. About 1998, a group of enthusiastic well-educated Australian-Syrians wanted me to group them in some sort of an organisation where they would feel useful to society. However, I was more inclined to reject any sort of another “ethnic” organisation added to the multitude of societies and even “political party groups” that are irrelevant to Australia (there are tens of such groups that carry the names of militias and political parties that have been active in the Lebanese civil war and its consequences. I find this very odd). I mentioned to those people that I would be interested in presiding over such a group if I had something meaningful to offer to Australian society at large, and that the group should be inclusive of any Australian who shares our aspirations.

Two years later, I felt I could realise an idea that was with me since I arrived in Australia in 1988. Back then, my scientific career and my occupation with supporting my family did not leave me much time for literary activities.

Perhaps the best answer to your question about the “aims” can be found in my first editorial titled Kalimat:Creativity, the Joy of the Word and Cultural Access (Kalimat 1, March 2000). Here are some excerpts:


Kalimat’ is the Arabic for ‘words’. It is the plural of ‘kalima’. We believe in the power and the beauty of words. We believe that the word is the gate of cultural heritage, and that writing is the key to its permanence. This is what the Arabic words on the back cover of this issue say.

Kalimat seeks to expose the beauty of words and explore their creative dimensions in poetry and prose, in any form or style. Kalimat will seek quality, without being too academic.

Kalimat, an Australian-Arabic Literary Quarterly, is produced alternately in English and Arabic. It seeks creativity in both languages, and fosters access between English-speaking and Arabic-speaking individuals and the worlds and cultures they represent. In doing so, Kalimat aims at providing direct enjoyment of the written word in either languages, or in both for those who are bilingual. Those who have one of the languages only, can have access to other ideas through translations and commentary. Kalimat’s mission is to provide a medium for cultural access and enhanced creative communications between writers from diverse communities, who are united by their quest to have their words read, heard and felt by everyone.

Kalimat will focus on Australian-Arab access by being representative of the widest possible contemporary writings in each culture. It will also attempt to promote Australian and Arabic writings throughout the migrant communities around the World.

We have already begun establishing links with major literary bodies and individuals in the Middle East and among migrant communities. The fruits of these contacts will start appearing in subsequent issues, ripe for everyone to enjoy.

We are very clear about what access means. A very dear friend who comes from a different background, holds some contrasting views to mine. We both believe that ‘boundaries’ are inevitable, or at least necessary or healthy. We believe that we are such good and close friends because we recognise each other’s boundaries. We are also able to cross those boundaries, move freely, enjoy their essence and move out again without undermining the integrity of the core.

The overwhelming response we have received indicates a great interest in the goal Kalimat is pursuing. It also indicates that there is a need for a new outlet for all those talents.

We would like to see more spontaneous, creative and emerging talents knocking on our door. To this end, we say that Kalimat is your words. And my word! Without you and your contributions to this exercise, it becomes null and void.



kalimat last issue

The last issue of Kalimat, in 2006

I would say that the aims were partially achieved, because they were limited to an elite group. This is due to two reasons in my opinion. One is the quality of the magazine. Another is our inability to market it on a wider scale. The latter was mainly due to severe financial difficulties at an era when digital printing was non-existent, making it costly to print. You see, my real aspiration was to make such a magazine popular without compromising its standards. In this way, I was hoping to engage the common reader with material of a more literary value than the one this reader was used to. I felt there was a need to make creative writing more accessible. I don’t think that we succeeded in that.

The magazine was received well in Australia, Canada, USA and England. It was also received well in some European countries, mainly by organisations and individuals with links to Arabic.

In the Middle East, it was received well by individuals and by one organisation in Syria that has links with Syrian migrants abroad. The Ministry for Culture in Syria subscribed to the magazine. Major Arab well-funded literary organisations never bothered to answer my mail despite sending them full sets and despite that some of their employees had material published in Kalimat.

I was interviewed by TV and radio whenever I visited Syria and Lebanon and the reception was excellent, but this was based on some individual initiatives by prominent people who appreciated the work.

Kalimat was published between 2000 and 2006. These years, and indeed the decade, will be remembered in history as truly fundamental in laying the foundation for a different world.

The year 2000 was prominent as the start of the 21st Century. It was preceded by a lot of anxiety about the “Millennium Bug” and the usual superstitions associated with “landmarks”. The real anxieties during that year were related to more real-world issues, mainly matters related to al-Qaeda and to Iraq. Between 2001 and 2006, the situation worsened with USA leading the war on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush became president, a blast in Bali killed many Australians, the USA invaded Iraq with devastating consequence for years to come, a tsunami in south east Asia killed thousands of people, terrorism struck the heart of London, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon and the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated, Saddam Hussein was executed, Islamists captured the Somalian capital and Hamas won the elections in Gaza.

There were some bright moments. For example, the euro started circulation and a European spacecraft landed on Titan (a moon of Saturn). Add to this scientific discoveries and literary achievements, many of which might go unnoticed.

You are an author as well as a publisher. Tell us something about that. How did you start writing? What genres do you write in? And is your work mainly in Arabic or English?

raghid dew and sparks

Dew and Sparks, a collection of writing by Raghid Nahhas


My main literary work is mainly in Arabic, but with Kalimat my English writings had a boost. I started writing at a very young age and I was known at school for my abilities in Arabic and English, despite my scientific choice of courses. I contributed to the school magazine in Damascus when I was in primary school and afterwards. Our school had a distinguished publication that was taken seriously. My first article in a leading Lebanese magazine was published in the sixties when I was fourteen. In England, whilst I was undertaking my PhD in Experimental Zoology, I met another Syrian who was undertaking a PhD in English literature. We became close friends and he showed me an issue of al-Adaab, the leading literary magazine in the Arab world at that time, with a short story of his published in it. This encouraged me to show him a short story I had written. He dismissed it as unpublishable by that magazine. Nevertheless, I did send it for publication and it was accepted. Ironically, it was my friend who broke the news to me, because he was a subscriber to the magazine.

I write short stories, prose, essays and socio-political articles. My work is full of social critique, sarcasm, humour and some dramatic sad stories from the start of the civil war in Lebanon where I lived for a while and escaped tragic circumstances on a few occasions. There is also a lot of happiness and love stories from Beirut between 1970 and 1975, a period during which I considered Beirut my darling city and the best place on earth.

In any piece I write, I mostly tend to include all the above elements. Although some of my work is a complete fiction, it is based on real experiences or understanding of real events. I believe in an integral approach to life: things are more related to each other than we think.

You come from a  well-read family, I believe. As a child, and a young person growing up, what books and writers inspired you? And what books and writers inspire you now?

My maternal grandfather was a distinguished journalist and a pioneer reformist in south Lebanon for the first half of the twentieth century until his death in 1960. Interestingly, my paternal grandfather was a business man and so was my father. My father, who only finished year five at school, was a devoted reader. I remember when TV was introduced to our household about 1960, the whole family would spend every evening watching, except for my father who would retire to bed and read for hours. We had many books, but mostly classical and traditional material and definitely nothing progressive, leftist or atheist. These I had to pursue myself. No one stopped me from doing that.raghid translation 2

My mother had a collection of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Arabic. I read it all with fascination, particularly “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I read translations of works by most of the renowned Russian novelists. War & Peace by Tolstoy comes to mind. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo was greatly admired by almost everyone. I loved it! I read Mariana Pineda by Federico Garcia Lorca.

One of the very first Arabic novels I read was Dua’ al-Karawan (The Call of the Curlew), by Taha Hussein, considered the most important literary figure in Arabic literature. He was not a novelist. His writings, however, are of a great literary integrity. Later (still a teenager) I read all of Naguib Mahfouz’ novels. One day, after class, a group of my classmates and I (four of us who were the best achievers) were discussing various issues as we always did during recess. I remember telling them that Naguib Mahfouz was soon going to get the Nobel Prize. Little had I known that politics would delay him the honour for twenty-five years!

Although I am not a poet, my main reading interest was poetry. I read a lot of the classical Arab poets, but I was more attracted to the modern ones, particularly Nizar Qabbany, a Damascene like me. I was born in the same locality where he was and in an architecturally Arabic house similar to his. I am very familiar with the Environment where he lived as a child and adult. Like him, I also lived in Beirut for a while.

In my twenties and until now, my major readings have been focused on science and philosophy. Examples of thinkers I admired over the years are (at no particular order): Rachel Carson, Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin, Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Adunis, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Simone de Beauvoir, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, AC Grayling, Paul Davies, David Attenborough, Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

raghid translation 3My favourite person in history is Hypatia of Alexandria (died 415 AD), a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. She was an advocate of the value of science and stood for her principles. She paid for this with her life when a Christian mob, including monks, tore her to death.

What’s the publishing scene like, not only in Lebanon but other Arabic-speaking countries?

Before the Lebanese civil war that started in 1975, Beirut had been the cultural centre of the Arab world due to the freedom of press and the relative democracy enjoyed. Many Arab intellectuals used Beirut to publish and some prominent ones moved there and established their own publishing houses, such as Nizar Qabbani and Ghada Samman.

Beirut still enjoys a lot of freedom in that respect, but it no longer occupies the same status as before. Dealing with publishers there would now cost you an arm and a leg. Not only do they want to sell you the number of copies you require, but also they force you to buy some 1000 copies and to forfeit any rights for a period of five years. I wanted to publish my recent Arabic books there (a logical thing to do), but aside from the few who never respond to you, some leading ones were difficult to deal with. I can see now why even some of the greatest of Arab writers opted to self-publish.

raghid verses across tasman

Verses across the Tasman, contemporary poetry from Australia and New Zealand, translated by Raghid Nahhas, 2015

raghid translation 5

I don’t feel that the situation in other Arabic-speaking countries would be any different, but I am no expert on that except to say that some of the Gulf states have managed to publish literary magazines of a very high quality and they ought to be congratulated on their efforts. One example is the monthly Arrafid (published by the government of Sharjah, UAE). With every issue there are three extra little books, and each deals with a certain genre. The problem, of course, is whether they will be open minded about publishing material that does not meet their values. The problem I have with them is that so far I was not able to deal with them, because they don’t answer my emails or letters.

You have translated many works, from English to Arabic and vice versa. How do you view translation? What are its challenges and pleasures?

Unlike other literary translators who feel that once they put the work into the target language they possess it and it becomes their creative work, I consider myself a “trustee” of the work. The work is not mine and it can or should never be mine. I believe that a translation is a responsibility.

Integrity and honesty mean that a true translation should reflect the original work and never be better or worse. In the literary word, an accurate translation does not mean “a true copy of the original”. However, it should be a true reflection of the spirit of the original and as much as possible of the original style. This can never be achieved, particularly in poetry where the metre and musicality are very much dictated by how each language is established.

Creativity in translations is thus limited to how the translator is able to adapt the target language in order to meaningfully and structurally express the original work. Translators should remember that the most vital part of any piece is the ideas. Everything else is the “clothing”, and of course it can be as important as the ideas in creative terms. However, translators should not unnecessarily devise a different garment simply to stretch their linguistic muscle. What they should be doing, to re-introduce the original work, is to find equivalent phrases from the target language that match – in meaning – those of the original. I am stressing this because it is wrong to assume that the lexical meaning of a raghid translationword is going to convey the actual meaning of a phrase. This is a major issue in translations and a trap translators fall into very easily. As a simple example, in English you can say to someone you love, ‘You are my cup of tea!’ You can’t say the same in Arabic to convey the same meaning. You could say, ‘You are as tasty as a cup of tea!’ This, however, diminishes the power of the English phrase in my opinion. In Arabic, I would use something like, ‘You are my flower!’ Another example is one verse in Arabic I had to translate. It starts by ‘A citizen whose profession is to write…’ The Arabic version sounds great and seems acceptable, possibly because of its musicality. Left as it is, it sounds bizarre in English. It should simply be ‘A writer…’

As well as your work as a publisher, editor, author and translator, you also worked as a scientist for many years. Do you think all of these strands complemented each other, or did you have to struggle to fit them all together?

I don’t believe it is a question of “fitting together” or “complementing each other”. Some people, like me, have varied interests. As such, the “struggle” is to find time to achieve in every case. No, I did not have to struggle, because for twenty-five years my involvement was with research and consulting. It did not leave me much time to consider my other main hobby in writing. This remained dormant and I was happy doing what I was doing. As soon as I had the opportunity, I embarked on a more serious literary path by publishing Kalimat.

raghid thirty four tales

Thirty-four tales from Australia, translated by Raghid Nahhas, published 2015

My philosophy in life is very much dominated by “integration of disciplines”. I believe that we can specialise in certain fields and this is necessary for achieving specific goals and targets. Specialists, however, must not lose sight of the total picture if they want their achievements to be better and more accessible. For example, a geneticist must be conversed in the ethics associated with the consequences of genetic engineering.

What are your current publishing and writing projects?

This year I published three translation works: two into Arabic (short stories, poetry) and one into English (poetry). From now on, I hope to have the time to complete two novels, one in English and one in Arabic.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to express my appreciation of a number of writers, poets and academics who stood by me when I published Kalimat. This was the best reward I received, because it meant that those people appreciated the value of what I was doing. I am saddened, however, by the fact that since Kalimat ceased publication, only a handful kept in touch.