From Birmingham to Sokcho – a Conversation with Author Élisa Shua Dusapin and Translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins

On Thursday, 17 December 2020, the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… Podcast will publish an episode about Elisa Shua Dusapin’s novel Winter in Sokcho. I had the great honour to interview the author and her English translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins for this podcast and I’m thrilled to share it with you soon. I already enjoyed the text when I was reading the short novel, but I have to say that I appreciated it even more after our conversation. So I hope you’ll enjoy it, too!

In our conversation, we talked about the – often collaborative – process of translation and it was fascinating to hear how the two, Élisa Shua Dusapin and her English translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins, have worked together. By the way, I had the great pleasure to do a short email interview with her German translator, Andreas Jandl, too, whose translation was published by the Berlin-based Blumenbar Verlag (an imprint of Aufbau Verlag). Our interview will be published tomorrow on Literary Field Kaleidoscope, so please stay tuned.

The podcast episode we recorded for the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… Podcast will be available online from 17 December 2020 on. You can either access it via the website: or via your preferred podcast provider on your smartphone (search for: “Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…”).

And do have a look at the other episodes with fabulous guest teams like Kit de Waal in conversation with Paul McVeigh, Gaylene Gould interviewing Paul Mendez, or Candice Brathwaite in conversation with Dorothy Koomson. The podcast series was curated by festival director Shantel Edwards and guest curated by Kit de Waal for this year’s special edition of the festival.

Élisa Shua Dusapin (photo: Yvonne Böhler)

Élisa Shua Dusapin is a Franco-Korean author who grew up between Paris, Seoul and Porrentruy and now lives in Switzerland. Her debut novel Winter in Sokcho was originally written in French and published by the Swiss indie publisher Éditions ZOE (2016). Winter in Sokcho was translated into 13 languages, if I’m not mistaken, among them English (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published by Daunt Books) and German (translated by Andreas Jandl and published by Blumenbar). Élisa has won several prizes for her novels, among them the Swiss “Robert Walser-Prize” and “Prix Alpha” and French “Prix Régine Deforges”. She has two more novels out in French: Les Billes Du Pachinko (Éd. ZOE, 2018) and Vladivostok Circus (Éditions ZOE, 2020).


Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a literary translator and translates from French to English. She spends most of her time between London and a small village in France. In addition to Élisa Shua Dusapin’s novel she has also translated woks by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Nina Bouraoui and Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Her translations won several awards, e.g. the “PEN translates awards” for the Goncourt winner What Became of the White Savage by François Garde and her translation of A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir, which was published by Jacaranda Books in 2019.


Winter in Sokcho

Winter in Sokcho is Élisa Shua Dusapin’s first novel. We follow the female protagonist for a couple of weeks through the rather dreary and cold town of Sokcho. Sokcho is a touristic place in the summer, but rather quiet at this time of the year. The guest house in which the protagonist works comes across as a bit desolate: “There was no mention of Old Park’s in the guidebooks. People washed up there by chance, when they’d had too much to drink or missed the last bus home.” And then there is the particular geographic location, too, that has an effect on the people: it’s a place not far from the inner-Korean border, “in limbo. In a winter that never ends” […] “still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real”.

The protagonist does not have a name and, in fact, seems to be looking for her place in the world, navigating expectations from her mother, her boyfriend and society (plastic surgery, marriage…). At some point during our interview Élisa describes her as “a voice in search of a body”.

The novel starts with the arrival of a new guest, Yan Kerrand, a comic book illustrator from Normandy in France. Without wanting to give away too much: what follows from there is not a cheesy love story. What the readers witnesses, though, is the development of their relationship and how this has an effect on both of them. She seems to need him – in the podcast episode Élisa talks a bit about how she constructed Kerrand as the protagonist’s mirror – as his gaze shows her another side of herself. She, on the other hand, helps him to see what he can’t see and find the inspiration he’s so desperate for. However, that’s not what she was looking for. “I didn’t want to be his eyes on my world. I wanted to be seen.” […] “I wanted to live through his ink”.

Élisa Shua Dusapin’s style and her use of words and images is quite exceptional. Aneesa Abbas Higginst, who translated Winter in Sokcho to English, describes her biggest challenge as reflecting the author’s “incredible economy of language. She has a great talent for using very few words to conjure something very rich, something that is so appealing to the imagination.”

Discovering and Translating the Book

The English translation of the novel was created by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published by Daunt Books – but what I found really special was the way this came about (not least when you think about how few books are translated into English). In our conversation, Aneesa told me that it was she who had discovered the book in her local bookshop in the south of France and paved the way for its translation. She was “absolutely entranced” and “fell in love with the way it was written”, then realised that she “would love to translate this”, wrote a sample translation and approached a number of publishers. Fortunately, as Aneesa says, the literary journal Asymptote picked it up and featured Élisa among the “new French voices” in an issue (link to Asymptote website) which then again led to Daunt Books finding it and asking Aneesa to translate the novel.

Those of you who know me already might know that one of the things I think a lot about is how the publishing industry has a record of catering for a white, Western, middle-class audience – which can sometimes lead to the exotisation or whitewashing of everything editors and publishers see as ‘other’. So I was curious if Élisa had experienced any of it and how she decided how little or how much she wanted to explain explicitly for readers who might not have the same intimate knowledge of or relationship with Korean culture. She answered that, for starters, she didn’t really picture a specific reader. And secondly, she explained that she was concerned not to exoticise or explain too much because she just wanted to immerse herself in her young protagonist’s world: “J’avais très peur d’écrire un livre qui soit didactique, justement, ou qui donne une expression d’exotisme. Donc je crois que j’ai, au contraire, oublié toute question d’explication ou de transmission pour simplement m’immerger dans l’intimité totale d’une jeune femme.” Interestingly, the UK version follows Élisa’s approach while the German publisher included a short glossary at the end of the book.

A Collaborative Translation

Élisa and Aneesa were so kind to reveal how their collaboration worked. I like the fact that they communicated in a mixture of English and French – and both seemed really happy about their exchanges. Élisa explained that she was touched by the care that Aneesa took in her work to understand in detail what Élisa had wanted to express and Aneesa praised Élisa’s long, considered answers. About the kind of things they discussed, Aneesa told me: “They weren’t necessarily questions about specific words and details [but rather] the ideas underlying the images to clarify if I had understood them.” That was particularly important because, as Aneesa explains, “English needs to spell out things a bit more than French does.” While in French you can sometimes get away with being more elusive and ambiguous, “it doesn’t work so well in English […] sometimes one has to pin it down a little more in English, just because the language demands it.”

And this is what Aneesa described as the biggest challenge(s) in the translation process: “This is a book that is full of intense images. Some of it is quite visceral, some of it is very atmospheric. It is very visual, but also full of smells and tastes. The challenge was to convey the same images into English and to reflect Élisa’s incredible economy of language. She has a great talent for using very few words to conjure something very rich, something that is so appealing to the imagination.” Even though the book is rather short, Aneesa told me that it took quite a long time to translate, “because in a way it’s like translating poetry”. Nevertheless, Aneesa points out that what she described as part of the challenge was also part of the pleasure!

Another aspect I loved about the conversation about the translation process is how Élisa drew our attention to the fact that actually, while she wrote the novel in French, nobody really speaks French in the book: the protagonist and Kerrand speak English with one another, and when talking to her mother, boyfriend and boss she speaks Korean. So Élisa calls her writing process “autotraduction permanente”, a permanent process of translation in her head before she writes down the French words, which made for an interesting encounter with the ‘actual’ translator. In the process she realised even more how there were millions of ways to express and indeed understand what she wanted her characters to convey – and it made her realise that she had to let the text go, that it didn’t belong to her any more.

While both appeared to have enjoyed the collaboration, not least because they both seem to have discovered or understood some aspects on an even deeper level through their conversations, they both were very careful not to step on each other’s toes or impose their views on the other.

… and a Less Collaborative One

While the English and German translations and the process that led to them were positive experiences for Élisa – not least because she speaks both languages fluently and was able to really engage in a conversation with both translators – she had no contact at all with her Korean translator. Which was a pity and a missed change as Korean is one of her mother tongues and the published text revealed a couple of hiccups.

Élisa would have liked to be more involved in the Korean translation, because the published version of it remained quite close to the French text, which created “very strange effects”, as Élisa described them. She explained in the interview how in Korean, it is not necessary to use the first person “I” to state the subject. In fact, using it as much as her translator did in the Korean translation characterises the protagonist in a completely different way (and she would have liked to understand better why he made these choices). While Élisa felt that her protagonist was rather elusive and insecure – “like a voice in search of a body” – the use of the first-person pronoun in Korean implies that a speaker is much more self-confident. So the fact that the Korean translation stays very closely to the French original in terms of the wording means that it moves quite far away from the intended characterisation. As a result, the reception of the book in Korea was quite different from the reception in Europe.

Book Marketing…

Talking about cultural differences: I was struck by the different covers the publishers chose, but also by the comparisons that were made in the marketing texts. In the UK, for example, Winter in Sokcho was compared to Marguerite Duras (a comp that came from the French magazine Elle) and at the same time the novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Hm, interesting combination… I can see the similarities to Marguerite Duras’ economic use of words and creation of images (even if I really suffered through Duras at school and enjoyed Winter in Sokcho much more) and in the French establishment this is an amazing honour, of course, so I understand why this would be picked up. (Interestingly not in the German version – no idea if the publisher didn’t agree or thought that no one in Germany or at least in the intended target group might recognize Marguerite Duras.) My cynical self, however, wonders about the combination with Convenience Store Woman. It’s a bestselling novel by a female author, set in Japan. Is that enough to justify the comparison? Set somewhere far away, Korea, Japan, oh well, close enough, both far away from the UK, and it sold well? Yes, it also features a female protagonist who tries to find happiness, a purpose or just a place in life, navigating expectations from parents and society – but to me, the differences between the style and the characterisation of the protagonists are much stronger than their similarities. I’m not sure it does the novel justice.

… and Book Covers

Let’s have a look at the book covers then, which could hardly be any more different from one another. Here’s just a sample (left to right; all shared with kind permission by the respective publisher): the original Swiss edition by Éditions ZOE, the German one by Blumenbar as well as the British cover by Daunt Books (I never heard back from Gallimard – surprise – so I won’t share it here).

Andreas Jandl, the German translator of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s novel commented on how the different covers tell us something about the target group the respective publisher envisages (read the full interview (in German) in tomorrow’s blog post). And he goes on: “I am glad that the dissemination (or: this part of the communication process) is not part of the translator’s responsibility. Because it is one thing to get to the core of a text and translate it, but it’s a whole different story to get the booksellers of a specific country on board and sell it well enough to at least cover the costs.”

I do hope they were successful in their respective markets and I do hope to hear and read more from this special author and her two translators! But enough from me. The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… Podcast with Élisa Shua Dusapin and Aneesa Abbas Higgins about Winter in Sokcho will be published on 17 December – please tune in!



Further reading / listening