Aaron Robertson talks about the need for more publicity around translated fiction and what AI means for the future of literary translation 

Aaron Robertson is a writer, editor and translator from Italian. Robertson’s translation of Igiaba Scego’s novel, Beyond Babylon (Two Lines Press, 2019), was shortlisted for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize and the National Translation Award. In 2021 he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support his translation of Giulia Caminito’s The Big A. He has served on the board of the American Literary Translators Association and is currently an advisory editor for The Paris Review. His writing has received support from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University and the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.

Publication date and time: Published

Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters, and what’s special or unique about it?   

The IBP creates a red-carpet moment for literature translated into English, much of which comes from small, independent presses. Historically, for many of the authors and translators nominated for the prize, this is their first major introduction to readers in the Anglophone world. The prestige of the award is useful insofar as it encourages readers who might not otherwise notice these books to pick them up. Anecdotally, a couple of people outside the publishing world have told me explicitly that they pay attention to the International Booker Prize winner more than any other! 

Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?   

In recent years, I’ve been reading more nonfiction than anything else – largely because I was working on a book of my own that required a lot of research. That process has indelibly shaped my reading preferences, I think. I love a perfect wedding of political or social history and intimate dramas. Give me a glut of details over abstractions, a strain of hope over complete cynicism. Bring me into a character’s mind and have a little fun with formal conventions. Although reading for this prize has often surprised me, I have a soft spot for historical fiction and work that brings me into real but little-known locales or historical turning points.  

Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?   

It’s a bit hazy to me now, but I was a voracious reader as a child. I have vague memories of my mother taking me to the children’s section of a Borders bookstore in Michigan and reading Dr. Seuss stories to me. Mostly I think she took me there to introduce me to that environment – a place where reading was the cool thing to do. More concretely, though, I remember my fourth-grade teacher handing me a copy of Jack London’s White Fang. He and I both recognized that moment as my inauguration as a ‘real’ reader. A few years later, my grandmother got tired of me playing video games and watching TV all summer, so she dropped me off at the nearest library in Detroit and wasn’t going to let me leave without a book. That’s how I discovered D.J. MacHale’s fantastic sci-fi and fantasy YA series, Pendragon: Journal of an Adventure Through Time and Space. Thinking about those books makes me emotional even now, and it’s a good reminder that I need to rescue them from a box in my mother’s garage. 

Portrait of Aaron Robertson

What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize? Has anything surprised you so far?  

It was an honour to receive the invitation to be a judge. Ridiculous, really. I saw it as a rare, focused opportunity to see what kinds of books make it into English-language translation in the US and UK. I am a translator of Italian literature, so you could call it a bit of information-gathering. I also wanted to learn about emerging and established writers who are admired in their home countries. What is appealing about these writers today? Who is translating these books? Getting a chance to discuss these questions with a panel of brilliant people was seductive. I seem to have very similar tastes as two of my fellow judges, in particular – William Kentridge and Eleanor Wachtel. In our meetings, we’ve remarked on these strange coincidences. “I didn’t think anyone else would like this as much as I did!” one of us will say. 

What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the International Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?   

One of the qualities I don’t respond particularly well to in literature is unremitting violence without any kind of salve. We know that the world is full of suffering. Plenty of incredible stories contain violence without becoming torture porn. I suspect the longlist will reflect some of the concerns of our present world – and, of course, violence is a central part of that. Equally important, though, are the ways that individuals and communities try to care for one another despite injuries to our bodies and spirits.  

What role do you think translated fiction plays in promoting a more inclusive and diverse literary canon, and how can we encourage more people to read it? 

I have gone on spiels about this before. Educators and publishers probably have the largest influence on whether readers, today and tomorrow, will give translated literature the time of day. I believe that a person’s curiosity about a wide range of experiences and perspectives starts at home, so to speak, but U.S. publishers (those that are well-resourced, especially) should invest more in the marketing and publicity support of translated works. Why publish a translation at all if you are hesitant to promote it? I do hope that younger editors especially will feel more empowered in the coming years to take more chances and think about creative ways to target readers who are eager for unfamiliar stories. 

Book cover of Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation edited by Jeremy Tiang and Kavita Bhanot

It was an honour to receive the invitation to be a judge. Ridiculous, really. I saw it as a rare, focused opportunity to see what kinds of books make it into English-language translation in the US and UK

— Aaron Robertson, International Booker Prize 2024 judge, on reading for the prize

A 2023 report commissioned by the Booker Prizes showed that, in the UK, under-35-year-olds account for almost 50% of all translated fiction sales. What do you think draws this younger readership to fiction from around the world?   

The age aspect of that report was only one of the interesting factoids, and the data point that got the most media attention. There were other noteworthy details, too, which suggest that the most typical reader of translated fiction in the UK is a young woman, probably with a full-time job and undergraduate degree, who is generally open to reading a wide variety of books (e.g. nonfiction as well as fiction, work that is conceptually challenging, etc.). And even though men are less likely to read fiction than women, many men that do read fiction are drawn to translations. I would love to see even more data points in a survey conducted on US readers, but this information tells me that young, informed readers who are generally curious about other people’s experiences are drawn to translated literature. I’m sure there are many, many reasons for this. The border-blurring effects of social media, for one, and, in the UK, increasingly liberal social views that centre on racial equality, immigration, sexual identity, etc. 

In recent years, translators and their working relationships with authors have become more visible. Why do you think it is important to shine a spotlight on this role?   

In 2021, there were a slew of articles and debates about the American poet Amanda Gorman and her foreign translators. People were asking different questions: Who was given the opportunity to translate this prominent Black author’s work? Did it matter whether Gorman’s translators were Black or not? These two questions have very different concerns, but ugly misunderstandings arose. Wires were getting crossed, and people were talking past one another. A debate that probably should have centred more on invisible labour, economic disparity (and its intersection with race and gender identities), and educational pipelines got lost in an uproar about race essentialism. The question of who gets the opportunity to translate and publish a book and why is actually not an easy one to answer. Do you have a foothold in the publishing world or academia, or not? Have you networked with the right magazine editors or publishers? Have you been given the information to know how to do this? Where? What brought you to these advantaged spaces? A recent Authors Guild survey of working conditions for U.S.-based translators (in 2022) suggests that the economic prospects for translators have generally deteriorated. It’s important for us to understand why. 

What does the future look like for translators with the broader trend of AI and machine-led alternatives displacing workers? Could a bot ever replace a human translator of fiction?   

This is an area for real concern, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t ring every alarm bell just yet. Publishers that don’t want to embarrass themselves will continue to employ actual people, though AI is capable of producing effective translations with the proper guidance. Human translators will still be necessary to parse cultural subtleties and contextual clues that AI might not pick up on at this point (e.g., dialect, unusual words, proper nouns, etc.). Artificial intelligence is, I suspect, generally unable to produce book-length literary translations that are both free of error and aesthetically cohesive without human input. The Goethe-Institut UK has a wonderful series on AI and literary translation which suggests that some language pairs that are put through neural machine translation software produce shoddier translations than others. It might be easier, for example, for AI to generate a relatively clean Spanish-to-English translation than a Russian-to-English translation. I think it is probably more helpful to think about the ways the human translator will work with or alongside AI. Neither is going away. 

Finally, what are your top three favourite works of fiction in translation that you would recommend to readers of the Booker Prizes, and how have they influenced you? 

Excluding some of the wonderful books under consideration for this year’s IBP, a few translations loom large for me. Jennifer Croft’s translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights still enchants me with its brilliant, freewheeling riffs on movement, migrations, and flights of fancy. There is a short section in the novel about plastic bags that is totally surprising and makes me feel like I should be able to do anything in a book. I read Allison Markin Powell’s translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Nishino while on vacation in 2018. It’s a book about various women’s encounters with the titular womaniser. It wasn’t the first story I’d read in which you learn about a central figure through peripheral characters, but this book centred those peripheral characters in a refreshing way. It was doing something interesting with form and it wasn’t showy. My favourite translation ever is probably Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov’s translation of Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau. I generally can’t read books multiple times and experience a recurring sense of surprise or wonder. Texaco is one of a few exceptions. It is a mystery story, a folktale, the saga of a town, and a lyrical drama about slavery and urban development on the outskirts of Fort-de-France in Martinique. It is a perfect translation and a perfect book.