PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.
Tilted Axis Press (TAP) is a nonprofit small press that publishes contemporary fiction and poetry from around the world, with a focus on the Asian continent. Founded in 2015, TAP has been at the forefront of innovating and diversifying the UK books industry through the translation of marginalised voices and literatures into English. We talked to managers Tice Cin, Theodora Danek and founder Deborah Smith, about their fascinating Translating Feminisms chapbooks series of poetry and essays translated from Korean, Nepalese, Tamil and Vietnamese. The second volume — which features women and nonbinary poets and essayists from Indonesia, the Philippines and Tibet — is currently being crowdfunded and soon to be released.
What first drew you to literature from the Asian continent and what do you think English readerships have to gain from accessing it?
Tice: I’m cautious of the way that capitalism has embedded the language of the transaction into so many languages — I feel that writers and translators from Asia (or anywhere) needn’t bargain with readers over what they might gain from reading something. Anton Hur has a great Tweet on that. All readers have unique and individual needs. My hope is that the literature that we publish might offer a home for literature that challenges readers’ assumptions of particular subject matters. I like how poets such as Itō Hiromi do this.
Deborah: For me, publishing Asian literatures in translation was a logical development from translating Korean literature. It was always about my own curiosity as a reader, wondering about all the forms and styles, the work and worlds I wasn’t able to access. Of course, that wasn’t and isn’t restricted to Asia — literatures from Africa, the Pacific Ocean, indigenous literatures from the Americas, the Arctic, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa; working class, immigrant, diaspora literatures everywhere, including in English, including in the UK… what is published in the UK is a tiny, narrow strand of this ecosystem. Having TAP focus on Asia was necessary, I thought, just to not get overwhelmed with the possibilities, and for logistics such as funding, though I’ve since worried that it makes ‘Asia’ seem overly homogenous, or disconnected from the rest of the majority world.
Tilted Axis Press is 100% independent, non-profit, and led by translators. What are some of the unique challenges and/or opportunities you face on a regular basis given the structure of your enterprise?
Tice: We work in about five different time zones and so miss that in-person contact, but we do have a fun Slack chat for the team where we all support one another and learn together. One of my favourite things about the independent nature of Tilted Axis is that we all are comfortable with sharing our individual opinions online and in general without corporate entities popping up with harumphs and hushes.
Theodora: Like any small press publishing translations, funding is a key issue for us. I’ve also been thinking a lot about consistency versus complacency. Questioning our processes to ensure that we’re not getting complacent is really important. That applies to everything from pay to timelines to admin to acquisitions. We’re a small team made up of freelancers, which makes us quite flexible, but I think we’re also all hyper-aware that the creative sector thrives because it is built on the exploitation of its workers, and we want to avoid those dynamics, including those of self-exploitation for a project we all feel passionate about.
How do you identify works to publish through Tilted AxisPress?
Deborah: Conversations with translators, mainly — friends, social media contacts, mentees, students. These groups all overlap. Some reach out to me, some I reach out to after having read an excerpt or seen someone’s bio that caught my attention in places like Words Without Borders or Asymptote, or on Twitter. [Also,] recommendations from authors and translators we already work with, catalogues of publishers based in Asia, mostly India. One thing I’ve noticed is how some people are more likely to reach out with a pitch, put themselves forward for things like competitions, think of themselves as even potentially ‘a translator’ — and others aren’t. So I try to make sure to contact and encourage those who might not have the confidence.
Being a famous woman writer accepted by certain literary communities doesn’t mean that marginalisation isn’t present in other ways. We think it’s important to have nuance here. In the UK where women and non-binary authors are paid so much less, presses who are publishing in translation need to make sure that publicity engagements are paid by those who approach the authors and translators they work with too to avoid this gender disparity.
— Tice Cin
In another interview, you noted how although women writers can be marginalised in their ‘source cultures’, that is not always the case, and as an example you offered how in South Korea there are more big-name writers who are women. With this in mind, my broad question is: how do you make sense of this gender disparity in the English-language publishing industry, i.e. the ‘target culture’?
Tice: I’d really like to explore that concept of ‘target culture’ through the lens of my work at Tilted Axis with my response to this question. When we present our work we try not to angle [or] pitch the work in ways that think of readers’ preferences, as readers are famously fickle. Instead, we explore what makes us most excited about what we’re releasing, and how to target readers who will respect and sit with those things. For example, we think it’s really important to work with events partners such as Gay’s the Word and Second Shelf who will already have it in mind to work with writers and translators who are creating literature outside of the gender binary.
I think the key thing is to openly share what has come before, if a woman writer is a big name already in the country of her source culture, then we will say so. Also, being a famous woman writer accepted by certain literary communities doesn’t mean that marginalisation isn’t present in other ways. We think it’s important to have nuance here. In the UK where women and non-binary authors are paid so much less, presses who are publishing in translation need to make sure that publicity engagements are paid by those who approach the authors and translators they work with too to avoid this gender disparity.
We chose ‘feminisms’ rather than ‘women’ to avoid biological essentialism. #Womenintranslation works as a hashtag — “gendered discrimination in translation,” not so much. ‘Feminisms’ I thought might do two things: one, put the focus on positive, creative resources, rather than oppression or victimisation; two, contest and expand that definition, because it’s often seen as imported from the west.
Can you talk a little about the amazing Translating Feminisms chapbooks, i.e. how the idea came about and developed? Is there any chance it will continue to be an ongoing series?
Deborah: We’re currently crowdfunding for the second set – DEVIANT DISCIPLES, from Indonesian, and PA-LIWANAG, from various languages of the Philippines, are already fully funded, so we’ve added a Tibetan chapbook as a stretch goal. Probably the most significant thing about the series is that it’s curated, edited, and translated by people who are of these countries and communities, not by us. So for PA-LIWANAG, for example, I reached out to Gantala, a feminist press in Manila, and essentially asked for a sampler of their work. In other words, not only the writing itself but the translation, editing, curating, has all been done with a Philippine readership in mind. Publishers like Gantala are aware of their own positionality with respect to that of their writers, and of the ethics of curation, as we also try to be. And while our own subjectivity and expectations are minimised, we still make choices — the cover design, how we talk about the books on social media, the fact of its being a series, and above all that Translating Feminisms tag – that affect reception, so we try to discuss all of these with our writers and editors too.
Gender will be useful to address as long as it continues to be a factor in access – for example, Tenzin Dickie has talked about the reasons only 4 of the 16 authors in her recent landmark anthology OLD DEMONS, NEW DEITIES were women. One potent intersection with gender is that of class, which brings confidence and connections as well as capital.
We chose ‘feminisms’ rather than ‘women’ to avoid biological essentialism. #Womenintranslation works as a hashtag — “gendered discrimination in translation,” not so much. ‘Feminisms’ I thought might do two things: one, put the focus on positive, creative resources, rather than oppression or victimisation; two, contest and expand that definition, because it’s often seen as imported from the west. What are the feminisms that are not the white middle-class feminism that often co-opts the whole term? How will this writing be read and received? What can we do to make it less likely to reinforce a narrative of the imperial centre, or white women, doing Asian women a favour by publishing or reading their work in English? Evolving contexts shape reception, so our thoughts evolve too. We invoke these categories – women, feminism, literature – precisely to contest and expand them, but doesn’t it also reinforce them?
Now and in the future, I want TAP to work with more small publishers and writing groups, producing samplers of their work; where such groups or presses don’t yet exist, perhaps our advances can act as seed funding. Alongside more chapbooks, I want to fund and platform translations between these languages, and publish them with all the conversations, contestations, coalitions, these processes generate; to produce anthologies and collaborations that cut across the categories of the chapbooks.
I think there’s still an unwillingness in mainstream literary culture to embrace the international component of intersectional feminism, and a tendency towards exotification and tokenisation that we have to keep working against, where one country’s literary culture is inexplicably seen as “interesting” while another one isn’t.
— Theodora Danek
Have you identified any progress either in public perception or structurally within the wider publishing ecosystem since Tilted Axis Press launched in 2016?
Theodora: So many other great new presses have launched since 2016, and many presses have been doing important work since before we even started. The public perception has definitely shifted to greater awareness, thanks to activism by individuals and small presses. But there is still a lot of work to do, and there is a difference between what’s going on on social media and real change. In terms of women in translation, it is not enough to celebrate women in translation when these women are overwhelmingly white European. The number of books submitted to the WiT Prize is higher than ever before, but how many of these books are by writers writing in non-European languages? How many translations are made possible through financial grants that only exist in a minority of — mostly European — countries?
I tend to think about money — funding, grants, prize money — as a tangible indicator of real change, but other aspects of change are less immediately tangible: taste, reviews, trends. I think there’s still an unwillingness in mainstream literary culture to embrace the international component of intersectional feminism, and a tendency towards exotification and tokenisation that we have to keep working against, where one country’s literary culture is inexplicably seen as “interesting” while another one isn’t. I suppose what I’m saying is that we can never be satisfied with the progress that has already happened. Progress is a motion-word; we’re hopefully constantly moving to a better place.
Interview by Salwa Benaissa