On Reading and Translating the World’s Stories: Catching Up with Ann Morgan

In 2012, Ann Morgan set off on a journey to read her way around the world. She documented her experience of reading books from 196 independent countries (plus one extra territory chosen by her readers) on her blog, A Year of Reading the World. Earlier this year, she published her book based on this journey, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer (also known as The World Between Two Covers in the US).

Ann’s kept busy, from promoting Reading the World, to writing another book — her novel, Beside Myself — to continuing her effort to read books from different countries and encouraging others to do the same. Here, she talks about connecting with readers around the world, the effort to translate into English more works that deserve a wider audience, and her unique blogger-to-author experience.

chatted with Ann in February when her book, Reading the World, was released in the UK.

How did A Year of Reading the World get started?

A comment someone left on a blog I wrote four years back, A Year of Reading Women, got me thinking about how little literature I read from countries other than the UK and US. The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that I would limit myself to such a small proportion of the world’s stories. The next year, 2012, was set to be a very international one for the UK, with the Olympics coming to London and plans for big celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, so I decided to read a novel, short story collection, or memoir from every UN-recognized country (plus a couple of extras) and blog about each book.

As I didn’t know what to choose or how to find books from some places, I asked the world’s book lovers to offer suggestions. Before long, I was inundated with recommendations and other offers of help.

When you had multiple books from a country to choose from, how did you decide on the title to read? How did you weigh your options?

India was perhaps the best example of a difficult decision. With more than 1.2 billion people and thousands of publishers, it has an almost unimaginable number of stories available.

This varied from place to place. Sometimes a book caught my imagination or sounded so tempting I had to read it. Other times, my readers made very convincing arguments as to why I had to go for certain titles. A few books got so many recommendations that they were obviously national favorites. And in the cases of countries with very little work in translation, I was often lucky to find even one option.

India was perhaps the best example of a difficult decision. With more than 1.2 billion people and thousands of publishers, it has an almost unimaginable number of stories available. I had so many recommendations for books that I couldn’t pick one — and everyone I asked for help suggested more books!

The US version of Ann's book, The World Between Two Covers.
Ann’s book, The World Between Two Covers, released in May 2015.

When I thought I would never solve the conundrum, a woman called Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by my blog. She was a journalist with the Indian newspaper The Hindu and had an observation about the books that people had recommended: she noticed that all the titles were books that had been written in English. To her mind, this was second-best to titles written in India’s 22 other official languages and hundreds of other dialects.

She suggested I try one of them and mentioned that one of her favorite authors was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She got me thinking, so I decided to follow her advice and found a translation of his novel Kaalam, which I enjoyed.

The nice thing about this story is that Suneetha and I have stayed in touch. She interviewed me for The Hindu and also contacted me to say she had been inspired by our discussion to launch a reading project of her own, highlighting India’s diverse literatures. We’re still in touch to this day.

In your blog FAQs, you write that some books were special simply because of the efforts people made to get them to you. What’s an example of a book that made a long journey to reach you?

One of the incredible things about the project was the generosity of book lovers all over the world, who went far beyond recommending titles to help me. The first indication of this came four days after I had written my original appeal for suggestions. A woman called Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur left a comment offering to go to her local English-language bookshop, choose my Malaysian book, and post it to me. It was such a kind thing to do for a stranger more than 6,000 miles away — it inspired me to embrace the project and give it my best effort.

Photo of the author by Robert Twigger.
Photo of the author by Robert Twigger.

Rafidah’s kindness proved to be the pattern throughout the year: time and again people I didn’t know did research for me, sent me unpublished translations of books that I wouldn’t have been able to read otherwise, and even wrote to me, suggesting something to read.

Probably the most amazing story, however, was to do with the book I read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Like many French- and Portuguese-speaking African nations, São Tomé and Príncipe has very little literature that has been translated into English. When I tried to find a book I could read, I drew a complete blank. There seemed to be nothing out there.

Eventually, my husband Steve suggested that I try to get people to translate something for me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to give up so much time to do that, but a week after I tweeted my request I had more volunteers than I could use. They included leading translator Margaret Jull Costa, who was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her services to literature by the Queen last year. The volunteers, who were spread across Europe and the US, all undertook to translate different short stories from a collection by the writer Olinda Beja. They all kept to their word and, within six weeks, I had a translation of the entire book to read.

You gave a talk at TEDGlobal>London in the fall about your reading quest. It’s been fun following your journey from blog to book to talks and events. What’s it been like to see this idea take on a life of its own, and to grow this project into something bigger?

It’s been an amazing experience — something I could never have predicted when I first set up my blog over four years ago. It’s led to some wonderful opportunities, from appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and on radio and television, to giving a talk at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), part of the University of London. And of course, the TED talk was a wonderful experience. I had no idea how much preparation goes into them. I’m also delighted by how many other blogs and initiatives the project has inspired. I often get contacted by teachers who tell me they are using what I did to encourage their students to read further, which is lovely.

Ann Morgan at TEDGlobal>London.
Photo of Ann Morgan at TEDGlobal>London, courtesy of TED.

All the same, it can be hard to keep pace with people’s expectations. I’ve had people telling me I should launch charities, publishing companies, literary agencies, and all kinds of other massive projects to help promote translation. But while blogging gives you many things, it doesn’t give you superpowers, so I just continue in the best way I can, selecting one new book to write about each month, and posting about news in the translation and international-literature communities. In this way, I hope the blog will continue to be a signpost and a launchpad for other people’s literary explorations — a source of encouragement for those interested in reading widely, and a place were people can pick up recommendations and share ideas.

I hope the blog will continue to be a signpost and a launchpad for other people’s literary explorations…

You’ve been involved with PEN Translates for several years. Can you talk about this program, which funds translations of works into English? What trends do you see in translation?

This is a funding program run by English PEN (PEN America offers a similar scheme). Publishers apply for money to pay for the translation of books they want to release in English. Deciding who gets a grant is quite a complex process because each application has to be assessed by someone who can read the original book and then give their recommendation. The recommendations and applications are then considered by a panel of writers, publishers, translators and booksellers. The best projects get funding.

English PEN invited me to be part of the panel because of A Year of Reading the World. Over the time I’ve been involved, it’s been great to see an increasingly diverse array of applications come through. More and more, we are seeing publishers applying for money to support books from minority languages like Occitan, Basque, and Nynorsk, which is very encouraging. Excitingly, in the most recent round, we were able to support an equal number of books by female and male writers — the first time this has happened in the history of the program. As women are still underrepresented in publishing, particularly when it comes to translated books, this was very good news.

Excitingly, in the most recent round, we were able to support an equal number of books by female and male writers — the first time this has happened in the history of the program.

It’s great to see your blog evolve into a space where likeminded people, from readers to translators, can connect and find ways to bring the world’s literature to a wider audience. What should your readers expect from you (and the blog) in 2016?

Thank you. It’s been a great privilege and a life-changing experience. I’m grateful to WordPress.com for providing an affordable and user-friendly platform for individuals to launch projects and be heard in this way. The blog will continue with posts about the world-literature and freedom-of-expression events and initiatives I get involved in, and news about the writers and translators I’ve met along the way. And I’ll continue to select a Book of the Month from the many excellent reading suggestions people send me every day.

Photo by Steve Lennon.
Photo by Steve Lennon.

There’s another project on the horizon, which I’m excited about. In January, my first novel, Beside Myself, will be published worldwide in English by Bloomsbury. It’s a literary psychological drama about identical twins who swap places in a childhood game and get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to swap back.

In many ways, A Year of Reading the World played a big part in this book because I would never have developed my creative writing in the way I have if it hadn’t been for all the mind-expanding and inventive translated literature I’ve read during and since 2012. And much like its author, Beside Myself is set for some international adventures of its own. Publishers in France, China, and Thailand have already bought the rights, meaning that the world (or part of it at least) will soon be able to read me, too!

You can find Ann Morgan on WordPress.com at her blog, A Year of Reading the World, and on Facebook (A Year of Reading the World) and Twitter (@A_B_Morgan).

December 14, 2015Books, Interviews, Reading