CHARCO PRESS: Making Waves with Writers from Across the Pond

Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press, 2017)

Luis Sagasti, Fireflies, translated by Fionn Petch (Charco Press, 2017)

Margarita García Robayo, Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Combe (Charco Press, 2018)

By Isabel Adey

Despite Edinburgh’s status as an international hub and the preponderance of transient communities in the city, the Scottish capital is rarely mentioned in the same breath as translated fiction. But in a strange twist of circumstances, this fair windy city has become home to an ambitious and thoroughly international new project in the form of our very own Charco Press; an exciting addition to the UK publishing scene.

Charco means ‘puddle’ in Spanish, or more informally, ‘the Pond’, describing the vast body of water that separates these authors from their new readers. Founded in 2017, this new Edinburgh-based indie press has its sights set on changing the current UK publishing scene with a beautiful, intriguing array of books. All the titles in the collection have one thing in common: they were all originally penned in Latin America. Nevertheless, co-founders Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell are eager to stress that these imports should not simply be viewed under the banner of “translated fiction”. The small yet ambitious publisher sees no reason why Latin American fiction should stand in the shadow of the region’s former literary giants, nor why readers – and the wider publishing industry in general – should continue to classify writers from the region based on geography and literary tradition alone. These are writers with their own unique voices, influenced by authors and thought from both home and abroad.

Charco Press aims to serve as a cultural bridge across the Pond, making these brave new voices accessible to a wider audience. Although the emphasis is on the quality of the literature rather than on the books as works in translation, the indie press is committed to finding the right translator so that the English rendering is as informed as it is nuanced. Each work of translated literature in the catalogue has been crafted to stand up in its own right, reflecting the collective effort to produce the best possible rendering of the piece as it was written in the original language (Spanish and, in certain forthcoming titles, Portuguese). The founders are keen to champion emerging talent and want to keep things fresh, not only by choosing the most exciting new contemporary authors, but also by handpicking the most talented translators to serve as conduits for these ground-breaking voices.

In its first year of business, Charco Press released five titles from Orloff’s native Argentina: Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room (trans. Charlotte Coombe); Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (trans. Frances Riddle); Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies (trans. Fionn Petch); Jorge Consiglio’s Southerly (trans. Cherilyn Elstern); and last, but definitely by no means least, Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (trans. Carolina Orloff & Sarah Moses). Moving forward, the indie press is branching out to other Latin American countries beyond its Argentinian roots, with forthcoming titles from Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian and Uruguayan writers. Also joining the Charco network are two of the biggest, most respected names in the world of translation today: Daniel Hahn and Megan McDowell.

The titles in the Charco catalogue are as diverse as the Latin American literary scene itself. Certainly the publisher’s most high profile offering, Die, My Love is the game changer that put Charco on the map, earning this indie press a nomination for two highly competitive and well-respected awards earlier this year. Not only was the book longlisted for the Man Booker International 2018, but it was also shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018. Die, My Love is a collaborative translation by Charco Press’s founder, Dr Carolina Orloff, and Sarah Moses, a writer and translator from Toronto. Sarah Moses is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, and her stories, translations and interviews have appeared in various journals such as The Argentina Independent and Brick. The novel is Moses’s first book-length translation and demonstrates Charco Press’s commitment to investing in emerging translators. In an interview for the Man International Booker 2018, Moses said she was “in awe of the beauty and intensity of Ariana’s prose, of the way she plays with syntax and sound,” and relished translating certain “very visceral and visual” fragments of the text.[1] Carolina Orloff is an author and scholar whose connection to Scotland originally comes from her time as a PhD student and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She researches the literature, politics and culture of contemporary Argentina, with a focus on the work of Julio Cortázar. Born and raised in Argentina, Orloff’s passion for literature came from her family bookshop in Buenos Aires, and her first book of poems was published when she was just 13 years old. Orloff says what she enjoyed most about translating the novel was: “Being constantly challenged, at every possible level. Discovering the multidimensional depth of every single word, comma, space in the novel. Allowing myself to be pulled up and down in a roller-coaster of extreme emotions. Unravelling the mind of a talented writer and the essence of an extremely complex text.”[2]

Far removed from its author’s motherland, Die, My Love explores one woman’s battle with reluctant motherhood as she struggles with the boredom and loneliness of life in a supposedly idyllic setting of rural France. Written in rich, poetic prose, this heady, dense work of literature is already being adapted for the stage – quite fitting for a novel with moments the Guardian describes as tinged with “a touch of David Lynch”. An uncomfortable, violently poetic portrait of the female psyche, this unapologetically confrontational piece of writing is a clear statement of intent from both Harwicz and Charco Press: in the words of Samantha Schweblin, this dynamic undertaking is out to “blow the cobwebs off the literary world”.

Sagasti’s Fireflies, published earlier this year, makes for an equally uneasy yet satisfying reading experience. An original, inspired work that cannot, and should not, be pigeonholed into any one genre, Fireflies is a succinct, fantastical history of the world in the form of eight strangely connected essays. Author Sagasti brings together an eclectic assortment of personalities from modern history and pop culture as he embarks on his quest to find meaning in literature and life. With equal parts intellect and mischievously shrewd humour, the charmingly enigmatic and highly observant voice of the narrator begins to unravel the huge, interminable “skein of yarn” that is the world. Sagasti challenges the reader to reconsider the reliability of the narrator, urging his audience to contemplate how events and history become myths, like in ‘Haikus’ – my personal favourite essay from the collection – when the Stuka plane piloted by Joseph Beuys is shot down in the skies above Crimea.

The book was translated by Fionn Petch; a man who clearly isn’t afraid of a challenge and describes translators as “walkers-between-worlds”[3]. Originally from Scotland, Petch lived in Mexico City for twelve years, and is now based in Berlin. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National University of Mexico (UNAM), on the concept of persuasion in early Greek thought. Fionn Petch translates fiction, poetry and plays from Spanish and French, also specialising in books on art and architecture. Fireflies is his first full-length literary translation. At the launch with Charco Press at Golden Hare Books back in January, Fionn Petch said the book was difficult to encapsulate and far from straightforward to translate, admitting that it required a lot of “collective head-scratching” to reproduce in English. The effort definitely paid off, and the end result is a short, concise gem that weaves a web of apparently disparate people and places, forming unlikely connections over time and space. The fireflies themselves are integral to our understanding of the book, serving as a metaphor for what Charco Press describes as certain “twinkling fragments of history” and the passing of time: “They remind us that events do not always disappear neatly into the darkness, but rather remain, floating in the air, lighting up the night sky for years to come.” Quite lovely.

As Sagasti’s Fireflies took flight in January, Charco Press also launched Southerly, a striking collection of seven short stories by Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Consiglio. Despite having received international acclaim for his previous work, this is the first of the author’s books to make it into English, finally allowing this stylistically singular writing to be savoured by a whole new audience. As thematically unrelated as these tales may seem, they are all linked by a certain rhythm and a unique blend of the real and the surreal, with glimmers of perversion and violence in tales that defy categorisation. Consiglio’s characters meander through life with direction but no real destination as they deal with the changes that befall them. The key is in the details and the process, hence the distinct lack of causality and the author’s general aversion to arriving at clear conclusions. Consiglio homes in on the theme of space, exploring what happens when human beings occupy certain spaces at certain points in time. He invites readers to indulge their inquisitive side as he resists any temptation to tie up loose ends.

The book was translated by Cherilyn Elston, an academic, translator and editor specialising in Latin American history, culture and politics. Elston lectures in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Reading and is the managing editor of Palabras Errantes, an online project dedicated to publishing contemporary Latin American and Spanish literature in translation. She has a degree in Modern History and English from the University of Oxford and an MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge. When dealing with the challenges of translating this complex prose, translator Cherilyn Elston says she felt the only way to set about replicating the features of Consiglio’s writing in English was “to treat the prose as if it were poetry, paying particular attention to syntax and sound and working through the imagery and sensations evoked by the stories.”[4]

The first tale in the collection, entitled ‘Southerly’, is inspired by Borges’ ‘The South’, a short story that also influenced Julio Cortázar’s ‘The Night Face Up’. However, rather than imitating his predecessors, Consiglio completely updates the setting and adds new elements as he narrates the events leading up to this character’s strangely climactic outburst of road rage. ‘Jessica Galver’, the longest story in the collection, revolves around a morbidly obese woman and her caregivers at a private weight loss clinic. A detached tale of bodily possession, this inspired tale is a deft study of changes in perspectives and unlikely obsessions. Other stories in the collection explore themes such as marginality, intimacy, history, immigration, abandoned houses and gruesome discoveries. Consiglio reveals the hidden connections in life as he weaves these tales around a constant yet occasionally listless sense of motion.

The writer tries to filter the essence of life’s uncontrollability, as characterised by his decision to eschew logical sequences in favour of navigating the sometimes brutal details of his version of reality. Consiglio’s poetic leanings shine through in bursts of prowess that punctuate the author’s otherwise staccato narrative, which is scattered with sharp observations and clipped, succinct descriptions: “Irungaray has a cut on his forehead; his wife scratches on her legs. They are frozen in shock. They are waxwork figures, flies trapped in amber.”

After a busy first year of business, Charco Press looks set to continue its quest to inform and delight inquisitive readers in 2018. On 1 June, literary translator Charlotte Coombe made a rare appearance at Golden Hare Books in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, to discuss her work on Charco’s latest offering, Fish Soup, by Margarita García Robayo. The book combines a collection of short stories with a rite of passage novel and a brand new novella by this award-winning Colombian author. The latest addition to the Charco Press promises to occupy a completely different space on the Charco spectrum, telling tales of survival interspersed with awkward family scenes, frayed relationships, societal rejection and intimate struggles propelled by the pull of time, all with a touch dark humour and a seductively cynical yet beautiful style.

This review of Charco Press would be incomplete without a mention of the two latest high-profile translators to join forces with this exciting new publishing venture. Writer, editor and translator, Daniel Hahn, is one of the most revered and respected translators in the British literary scene, with an impressive list of awards to his name, including the Blue Peter Book Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the LBF International Excellence Award. His translations have also been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the L.A. Times Book Awards. When he won the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award for his translation of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion from Portuguese, he donated half his winnings to help establish a new prize for debut literary translation: the TA First Translation Prize. Acknowledging the difficulty of breaking into this competitive profession, Hahn said: “The translation profession has changed tremendously in the last decade or so, and to my mind overwhelmingly for the better, but it remains a difficult one for newcomers to break into, so the new prize will be for a debut literary translation, and it will be shared between the translator and his/her editor.”[5] His first translation for Charco Press will be Resistance, by Brazilian writer Julián Fuks.

Anyone with an interest in contemporary Latin American writing in translation will have heard of Megan McDowell. The prolific translator and former managing editor of Asymptote was once a publishing fellow at Dalkey Archive Press and is now based in Santiago, Chile. McDowell is responsible for bringing many exciting Spanish and Latin American voices to an English-speaking audience, including critically acclaimed writers Alejandro Zambra, Man International Booker Prize 2017 nominee Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. She studied a Master’s in Humanities with a focus on literary translation at the University of Dallas at Texas and has also been awarded various prestigious residencies. Megan McDowell describes translation as a subjective, creative practice: “It can be done to varying degrees of success, sure, but I reject the idea that a translation is inherently inferior to its original. After all, any book is a translation of its writer’s thoughts – things are added or forgotten in the process of transfer from brain to page.”[6]

Charco Press is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of titles, all of which have been written by critically acclaimed, award-winning writers with a challenging, thought-provoking perspective that sparks debate. Charco Press call these authors the “shining lights” of contemporary literature, and the publishing venture is out to challenge the commonly held belief that readers are less than fond of short stories and translated fiction. With the slender yet intellectually weighty books in the Charco Press catalogue, English-speaking readers can now finally decide for themselves.