Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Bookwomen Around The World.
When Sandra Tamele’s ambition to be an architect ended in disappointment, she pursued her other passion – languages. Since becoming a literary translator in 2007, Sandra has translated 21 works of poetry, prose, and children’s literature from English and Italian into Portuguese.
Today, she is deeply committed to promoting literary translation among young Mozambicans, and hosts an annual competition that led to the establishment of Editora Trinta Zero Nove (ETZN), the first Mozambican publishing house dedicated to literature in translation.
ETZN platforms debut black, female authors, writers with disabilities, and other minority voices to work towards a more inclusive, fairer society. In 2021 Editora Trinta Zero Nove won the London Book Fair’s International Excellence for Literary Translation award.
She was born in Pemba, but lives in Marracuene, where she is planning to open the first bookshop-library in the district of over 262,000 inhabitants.
“Translating Ammaniti started as a school project but persevering to complete it catapulted me into being the first Mozambican to translate and publish literature.”
After turning away from architecture, what drove you to become a literary translator?
I confess that I never planned to give up architecture. Becoming a literary translator was the fortunate outcome of an unexpected life changing event which meant that I had to give up my career after seven years studying for my degree.
I consider myself lucky because I had an alternative; I spoke Italian and English, which enabled me to establish myself as a commercial translator and interpreter. Reading is a passion that I fostered from an early age and being able to read in five different languages it was fated that I would find a book that I wanted to translate.
That book was Io non ho paura (I’m not scared) by Niccolò Ammaniti, and its story changed my narrative. Translating Ammaniti started as a school project but persevering to complete it catapulted me into being the first Mozambican to translate and publish literature.
I have since translated 17 titles for fellow publishers both in Mozambique and overseas. I’m really honoured to have joined PELTA [the Portuguese into English Literary Translators Association], and proud to be working towards the dissemination of new voices from lusophone Africa.
“In my country, 39% of people are illiterate, and more than half live below the poverty line, both realities affecting women disproportionally.”
What were the challenges in acquiring material to translate?
Unlike my fellow Mozambicans I’m among the lucky few that have consistent access to broadband and thus to have been able to join online forums and networks of publishers that are open to sharing their diverse catalogues, so there’s no lack of materials to translate.
The most important challenge is financial – having the funds to be able to pay writer advances or translator fees. Being a publisher from a small market like Mozambique, I’m working to raise the awareness of overseas publishers and authors about the reality of the market I’m operating in – which is completely different from theirs. In my country, 39% of people are illiterate, and more than half live below the poverty line, both realities affecting women disproportionally. This means the price of our books is much lower, and the print runs much smaller, so I must often negotiate on the terms of a token or no advance.
What inspired you to start a publishing house?
Again, this was not a planned move, in 2015 I started a literary translation competition aimed at promoting reading and literary translation among young Mozambicans. Three years later I had three beautiful books of short stories by authors unknown in the Mozambican market which I pitched several times to existing, established publishers. None of them was willing to publish the format or work in translation, this led me to establish Editora Trinta Zero Nove. Trinta Zero Nove means September 30th, International Translation Day, and we are the first Mozambican publisher dedicated to translated literature.
Our debut collection was published in 2019 with three titles translated into one language, and it has since grown into 37 titles translated into seven languages. This makes me very proud and inspires me to work further in Mozambique, a country with 42 spoken languages and one sign language, and I’ll do my best to represent most if not all of them in print.
“I believe we all share the same challenges, the trade book market is too small with a poor distribution infrastructure.”
How would you describe the Mozambican publishing industry today?
The fact is, there is no publishing industry or infrastructure in Mozambique. There are no records or statistics available. A small group of publishers is now trying to set up the Mozambican publishers and booksellers association, and their first task will be to run a census and find out how many players there are in the market. A market dominated by three multinational textbook publishers that sometimes publish fiction. When I started as a publisher it was one of those major players who told me that publishing fiction in Mozambique was an act of courage.
I’m very happy to have seen in the last couple of years the rise of indie publishers established by young writers who are bringing more diversity and quality, and interest to the literary scene in Mozambique.
I believe we all share the same challenges, the trade book market is too small with a poor distribution infrastructure, and most of our potential readers cannot afford to buy books. Also, we face the deep-rooted belief that Mozambicans don’t read at all.
Being an optimist and drawing inspiration from similar projects in the region and internationally, I believe that we are at a turning point if we tap into digital resources, and we evolve like other markets have. That’s why ETZN is publishing eBooks and audiobooks in local languages and in Braille and in Mozambican sign language; by making books more inclusive I believe that we can reverse this gloomy scenario.
“There is a deep-rooted belief that Mozambicans can speak the languages, but they cannot read in them.’
What were the challenges of being a pioneer in the literary translation sector?
The greatest challenge is having a pool of translators to work with. As I mentioned, we are translating into Mozambican languages, eMakwa, ciSena and ciChangana, and there are only a handful of translators into those languages. In addition, they are often unfamiliar with translating literature, which means that projects take longer because of training requirements.
The other challenge is that translation is expensive, it adds to the cost of a book that is already expensive, so publishers are always challenged to find ways of making our books more affordable for the readers in our market. Distribution is also an issue because there is a deep-rooted belief that Mozambicans can speak the languages, but they cannot read in them, so trailblazing in this sector has many unknown variables and barriers, that we are striving to overcome.
“We publish women because female voices are often rejected and refused by cis male publishers who believe that women are incapable of intellectual, interesting, creative writing.”
You publish diverse voices and authors. What does the future hold for your publishing house?
Our motto is: giving stories, (i.e. people) a voice. We publish women because female voices are often rejected and refused by cis male publishers who believe that women are incapable of intellectual, interesting, creative writing. We publish people with disabilities and their stories. We also publish LGBTQ+ narratives to make our books inclusive and relatable to all Mozambicans. These voices were all underrepresented or never published and are often people who are discriminated against and abused. That is why the initiative is relevant at this moment in time. We have since published five titles by and about people with disabilities, and titles by queer authors. We plan to expand and grow this number by cooperating with organizations that work for the rights of those minorities.
In 2021 you were awarded the London Book Fair International Excellence for Literary Translation. Did this award open new opportunities for you?
Yes and no. Yes, because the West recognizes the importance of such an award, and I am honoured to be part of the group of seven organizations from around the world that have won the same award. More so because I am a micro-publisher from a developing country and my peers are all from rich Western countries with strong communities and/or governmental support, something I do not have.
No because my compatriots and publishers of the region fail to grasp the importance and magnitude of this historic award; I’m not sure if it is because I’m a woman or because I’m black, or both. Nevertheless, they cannot take from me the joy and honour of being the first publisher from the PALOP [Portuguese-speaking African countries] to have been awarded the International Excellence for Literary Translation. I was even happier when Yulia Kozlovets, from The Book Arsenal Festival from Ukraine, shared with me that this award meant being the best in the world in that year. It also meant increased interest and participation of young people in the annual literary translation competition, growing the number of applications from 50 in the previous year to over 250.
“One of the biggest challenges is making it in this male dominated world.”
What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
Having given up a career 17 years ago, I struggle every day to find new mechanisms to persevere in publishing. One of the biggest challenges is making it in this male dominated world. Mozambique is traditionally a country where female leaders were revered and respected, but our colonial past meant the assimilation of patriarchal and sexist values which make it difficult for a woman to be taken seriously or be seen as worthy of a leadership role.
Being assertive is my strategy to counteract the initial perception of male collaborators, peers, and clients, and to make them see me as an equally ambitious, professional, and competent person.
Do you think that bringing in young people will eventually change perceptions?
Yes, that is why children and young people are the focus of all my initiatives. I think that this is only natural in Mozambique, where more than half our population is under the age of 18. This means a large pool of youngsters that we need to inspire and empower to generate change.
It is not easy to give a timeline for when this change will be visible, my country is just 47 years old, and I am part of the first generation of native, black intellectuals. Again, because of the colonial past when black people were denied schooling past sixth grade. I can’t remember where I read that it requires at least two generations and I’m doing my part to impart on young women from my community all the values on which my personality and purpose are based on.
Have any other women inspired you?
Yes, and I am so happy that I found them. I am so happy that now technology enables easier connections among female publishers.
Richa Jha from India, who I met through Publishers Without Borders. She is a powerhouse, and the books that her publishing house is creating are amazing. And sometimes she, like me, does not see the business side of being a publisher. In fact, I’m struggling with the financial side of the business – I am more interested in the creative process of publishing books.
Colleen Higgs from South Africa, a neighbouring country. She is the one who makes me persevere. Her indie press, Modjaji Books, started like ETZN and is celebrating their 15th anniversary this year.
Last, but not least, Dominique Raccah, the founder of Source Books, who grew out of her garage into the top 10 publishers in the USA. I think of her every time I walk into my office/warehouse in my garage.
I am extremely happy to have found them and so happy with this network which is mutually supportive and gives me the chance to learn from them.
“We’ll be able to go where our potential readers are and offer them relatable, potentially life-changing stories.”
What does the future hold for you?
I’m becoming a bookseller. I dream of opening this bookshop/community library, a space where women and girls can come and read books to change their narratives. In Marracuene, where I live, a mere 26 km from the CBD of the capital city, Maputo, seems like a distant, rural area. Despite its population of 262,000 there is not a single library or bookshop in the district.
I know most people can’t afford books, and this seemed the best model to ensure that low-income readers are not left out and are able to read ETZN’s and other books. I hope to include also digital resources because they can bring audiobooks to those who cannot read.
It will not be a brick-and-mortar store, but a giant book shaped wooden structure that can be placed at markets, public gardens, and schools. We’ll be able to go where our potential readers are and offer them relatable, potentially life-changing stories to change their narratives, like Ammaniti’s book changed mine.
I love to tell this to every person I meet. Please read as much as you can and then follow the three P’s: perseverance, patience, and practice. Don’t be discouraged because nothing is going to be easy, so you must find a way to cope. Perseverance is the key.