How Latina Writers Are Breaking Into the U.S. Scene

Brenda Navarro Latina Writers BeLatina Latinx
Brenda Navarro. Photo courtesy of elpais.com

Only about 3% of all books published in the United States are translated works. Compared to countries like Spain, this percentage is derisory. If we also think that a fraction of these titles receives enough publicity from the mainstream media to be on the radar of U.S. readers, we can laugh even more.

Getting a U.S. publisher to commit to a book in a foreign language is arguably a challenging task. Commercial publishers use a calculated business model that decides which book goes to market. 

However, more alternative publishers are taking a gamble. Many of them have managed to get their hands on a good catalog of Latin American or Latina writers in the United States. From Feminist Press to Katakana Editores, some of the independent publishers in the U.S. market bet on female and non-binary Latin American voices. 

Whether or not to enter the Anglo or North American market

Omar Villasana, the editor of Katakana Editores, confirms that Latina writers need spaces to publish because “since the beginning of time, women have been the ones who have transmitted stories and traditions orally in the family.” 

For him, it is no coincidence that it is a woman in ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ who narrates a story that has “survived centuries.” He also confirms that the market is one of the female readers since “women also represent a large percentage of the public who seek to find themselves through reading.”

Mexican writer Brenda Navarro, author of ‘Casas Vacías’ and winner of the 2020 Tigre Juan Award, has been translated into English for the British territory. However, it has not yet entered the United States. “The U.S. market is very large and vast. Of course, Latina writers should have the opportunity to access a market that can generate sales of their books.” 

With a particular impression or pointing out the obviousness of the problem, the author comments that during the coronavirus lockdown, the North American literary market had a higher demand, so more books needed to be sold, which confirms to the author that the market cannot only live from local production. 

Possibly the problem is the rights contracting conditions for Latin American authors, “most of whom receive very modest offers as advances, which means publishers themselves expect them to sell very little, and this is sad because when you compare what happens with many new Anglo-Saxon authors, who receive ten thousand dollars as an advance for their first books, that’s where you see the big difference in the market and the valuation of Latin American literature,” explains the Mexican writer.

For Navarro, this is an important difference in the market and where it is clear that “Latina writers do not live off what they write.” Translation and editing as a gateway to another world.

Maria Fernanda Ampuero BeLatina Latinx
María Fernanda Ampuero. Photo courtesy of La Andariega.

Latina Writers and The Miracle of Translation

For Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero —who edited “Cockfight” in the United States with Feminist Press— her work’s translation process could be complicated since she does not have a neutral Spanish. Words like ‘Mujercita’ or ‘Ñaño’ were very interesting when proposing the translation because how were the “atmospheres that were going to be built” in the narrative going to be translated if they were “in a completely different linguistic space.” 

“You speak to people in different ways depending on who they are, their social class if they are children, if they are adults. My translator discovered all these nuances and asked about them. For Ampuero, there is something significant in translation, “because you are not translating a word but a narrative universe,” so the characters who create a story “have a backpack of words that give them a place in the world.”

Possibly the point that the Ecuadorian author highlights has to do with the importance of and respect for the figure of the translator since his place of evocation is not English, and it is the translator who will make visible all the possible points with which the North American or English-speaking reader can connect or understand his story.

Perhaps this function of the translator for Ampuero implies that we would not be what we are without translations. We would not know the Bible, Sappho, Oedipus, or the Popol Vuh. “Translation is a miracle,” it is done all the time. It seems very normal to go to the bookstore and buy ‘Madame Bovary’ without thinking that behind it there was someone who said, “this is worth it to be in another language, and in that sense, it is exciting that my book is in a bookstore, not only in the United States but as English is the lingua franca of the world that means for me to be able to talk to friends who are elsewhere and who speak in a language that we can understand each other.” For the author, the translation into the language was more important than the market itself.

In the case of Miami-based Cuban author Kelly Martinez, the theme of her collection of poems was the translator’s drive. “Margaret Randall — her translator — believed that the English-speaking public should approach the experience on which the book is centered, the emigration of Latinos told by  Latina writers, so making it accessible to that reader became a mutual work,” says the poet. 

As Ampuero points out, for Martinez, “translation is also a form of emigration since language has to adapt to a new environment.” Her book entitled ‘Zugunruhe,’ a term that denotes the anxiety of migratory animals, reveals this quest to go beyond that literature in general has. “It makes sense that the book is bilingual. It is also a book very much related to the experience of being a migrant in the United States.”

Editing and resisting

For Katakana publisher Omar Villasana, the U.S. and Anglo markets are incredibly inbred, and he says that including Latina writers in his catalog is intended to enrich the reading offer. “I think that as an editor, my function is to take readers to other worlds that take them out of their comfort zones or topics to which they are accustomed, publishing both authors who live in the U.S. who will give a different vision of their environment and their migratory experience, but also including authors who live abroad and whose work has had resonance in their countries of origin.”

Kelly Martinez, who has been edited by Katakana, believes that the translation or not of certain Latino stories may depend on the North American reading market’s reception. 

“There is a certain sector of the population that is simply not interested in otherness, people who see us as barbarian invaders and do not want us here,” Martinez explained.

However, the author qualifies and believes that there is another sector that, “in appearance, is interested in us and I say in appearance because we do it also to the extent that we can fill their stereotypes about what a Latin American should be and about what Latin America is,” even in more liberal and informed sectors that continue “also having a colonialist vision.” 

The Latina writer affirms that “if we do not fit into the molds, they simply do not understand and do not make an effort to understand, because this is also a taxonomic culture and it is difficult for them to understand what comes out of the label. I think few want to approach us with the desire to listen and learn.”

Perhaps this desire to open up the market and break stereotypes is what has made the Katakana editions bilingual, since, as its editor, Omar Villasana, says, “it is the gateway to learn a new language, to practice it if you have already mastered it, to communicate beyond the basic needs of greetings or commercial.