Professor Helen Vassallo
Associate Professor of French and Translation
Professor Helen Vassallo graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1999, with a first-class Joint Honours degree in French and Hispanic Studies. She completed an MA in Literary Translation and a PhD in French, before joining the Department of Modern Languages at Exeter in 2004. She teaches a range of modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and supervises PhD research in each of her areas of expertise (women's writing, translation, and contemporary French/Francophone literature).
Professor Helen Vassallo welcomes enquiries about postgraduate supervision (for MRes and PhD degrees) in any of the following fields: contemporary women's writing, translation (particularly literary translation), publishing, and contemporary French/Francophone literature.
Current and Future Research Projects
My two primary areas of research are literature in translation, and contemporary women's writing in French. My Translating Women research project, launched in 2018, brings together my interests in translation and women's writing. The aim of Translating Women is to engage with publishers, translators, booksellers, the media and readers in order to address intersectional gender bias within the publishing industry.
Translating Women has three strands: an academic strand, an industry-based strand, and a public-facing strand. The most significant academic research will be published in my forthcoming monograph, Towards a Feminist Translator Studies: Intersectional Activism in Translation and Publishing (Routledge, October 2022), in which I develop a new critical model that works towards shifting paradigms in the translated literature market and presents a positive opportunity to address gender and interconnecting forms of bias. The research thus bridges academic and industry contexts, while the public-facing strand operates primarily through the Translating Women blog and Twitter account.
The three strands of my research come together in my most recent work, funded by an AHRC Network Grant. This project, entitled Changing the Landscape: Diversity and Translated Fiction in the UK Publishing Industry builds connections between academia and industry to analyse and challenge connected forms of bias in the production and reception of translated fiction. The network brings together publishers, translators and academics,working together to foster a sustainable approach to increasing and securing diversity of representation in translated literature at a time when advocating for inclusivity is increasingly urgent.
I am also a translator, and as well as freelance work I have published translations of Darina Al Joundi's The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing and Marseillaise My Way, both released by Naked Eye Publishing. My translation of Goncourt-winning author Leïla Slimani's The Devil is in the Detail and other stories is coming soon from Liverpool University Press.
Other research interests
My early research resulted in two books on French author Jeanne Hyvrard, and highlighted my interest in the literary and autobiographical manifestations of social and physical conflict and trauma. Moving on from this, I began to focus on narratives of war, or of the transmitted legacy of war.
I have published several articles which focus specifically on literature in French which deals with the legacy of the Algerian War of Independence, as well as completing a British Academy-funded monograph titled The Body Besieged: The Embodiment of Historical Memory in Nina Bouraoui and Leïla Sebbar and an article on a previously unpublished text by the actor and playwright Rachid Akbal, written and performed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence from France.
My dual interest in gender and narratives of war also links in to my work on Lebanese playwright and actress Darina Al-Joundi, on whose critically acclaimed play Le Jour où Nina Simone a cessé de chanter I have published a number of articles.
I am currently working on two collaborations that have been seed-funded by GCRF and UKRI grants. The first collaboration is the development of a digital publishing initiative with English PEN (a worldwide writers’ association that facilitates and promotes the translation into English of published work in foreign languages): with the scoping funding we brought together a network of translators, activists and academics for a series of interactions to address challenges to diversity in the UK publishing industry; these interactions are shaping PEN Presents, a high-profile publishing outlet for carefully curated samples of works by marginalised writers in translation. The site will be an essential resource for publishers as they look for outstanding new writing, a valuable place for translators to showcase their work, and a vital route into the UK system for marginalised writers in translation.
The second collaboration is with award-winning independent publisher Charco Press on a collection of essays written by contemporary feminist Latin American writers and activists. The project has both a social and literary purpose: we hope that it will not only raise awareness of cultural gender bias in all areas, but also show how such bias makes it harder for women to get published, and then harder still to get translated into English.
I welcome expressions of interest in research degrees in any of my areas of expertise: literary translation, translation and publishing, feminism, and contemporary francophone writing.
I have supervised PhD theses in several areas related to my research, as follows:
Alison Marmont, ‘The Politics of Intersectional Othering in France: (Dis)Embodiment in the novels of Linda Lê and Marie NDiaye’. SWW DTP co-supervision with Dr Aude Campmas and Dr Scott Soo, University of Southampton (awarded December 2021).
Clare Horackova, 'The Francophone Literature of Central and Eastern Europe in the (Post-)Communist Era' (awarded December 2014).
Martin Baxter, ‘Questioning the Reformability of Western Civilization's Rape Culture' (awarded December 2013).
Jonathan Lewis, ‘Conflict and Remembrance in Contemporary Franco-Algerian Literature' (awarded May 2012).
External impact and engagement
I run the Translating Women project, which has led to many collaborations with external partners, including events at International Translation Day (2022) and the Cheltenham Literature Festival (2021), and development of the new digital publishing initiative PEN Presents, in collaboration with English PEN.
I have also worked on promotional events with publishers and authors, written freelance pieces for literary journals, and been interviewed for several publications and events. Selected links to online interviews, events and articles are below:
“Twenty Questions with Jesse Episode 8: Helen Vassallo”. Invited guest on women’s literary podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/twenty-questions-with-jesse/id1591799021. June 2022.
Vassallo, Helen, ‘Love in the Time of Capitalism: Rage and Resentment in Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel, translated from Croatian by Mima Simić’. Guest review for Reading in Translation. https://readingintranslation.com/2022/05/30/ivana-sajkos-love-novel-translated-from-croatian-by-mima-simic/. May 2022.
Vassallo, Helen, “Women in Translation: how to read the world differently”. Guest piece for “big five” publishing house PanMacmillan, to mark International Women’s Day. https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/women-in-translation-how-to-read-the-world-differently.
Host of event for Charco Press on Instagram Live, interviewing Colombian author Margarita García Robayo in celebration of Women in Translation Month. August 2021. https://www.instagram.com/tv/CSr9Pk0hprx/?hl=en.
Van Buren, Caitlin, ‘Translating Women: interview with Helen Vassallo’. Gŵyl: an online festival of literature in translation’, June 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXejSU4SS9o.
Host of virtual book launch for the Indonesian short story collection The Book of Jakarta, interviewing two of the authors and one translator for a live Zoom event organised by Comma Press, February 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-4LoI7EhA0.
Host of virtual book launch for Margarita García Robayo’s Holiday Heart, interviewing the author and her translator Charlotte Coombe for this sell-out event organised by Charco Press, July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kpo1WCjxaxs.
Van Buren, Caitlin, ‘Interview with Helen Vassallo’. Gŵyl: an online festival of literature in translation’, June 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIZD8qaP5UI
Brown, Katie and Helen Vassallo, ‘Hearing New Voices: an Interview with Charco Press’. The Literary Platform, April 2020. https://theliteraryplatform.com/stories/hearing-new-voices-an-interview-with-charco-press/.
Manolachi, Monica, ‘The Necessity of Translating Women: interviewing Helen Vassallo and Olga Castro’. Asymptote Journal of World Literature, February 2020. https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2020/02/12/monica-manolachi-in-conversation-with-helen-vassallo-and-olga-castro-on-translating-women/.
Meadowcroft, Victor, ‘Interview with Dr Helen Vassallo: founder of Translating Women’. Onomatomania, 10 January 2020. [http://www.onomatomania.com/interview-with-dr-helen-vassallo-founder-of-translating-women/].
Vassallo, Helen, ‘In conversation with Négar Djavadi and Tina Kover’, Translating Women conference, Institute for Modern Languages Research, 31 October 2019. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN7STHc4UXI&feature=youtu.be]
‘Plume Interviews: Helen Vassallo’, Project Plume, August 2019 [https://projectplu.me/portfolio/plume-interviews-helen-vassallo/].
‘Interview with Helen Vassallo’, BookSHElf, Women in Translation podcast for Wales Art Review, 23 November 2018 [https://www.walesartsreview.org/podcast-bookshelf-with-helen-vassallo/].
I teach a number of research-led modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level. My second-year module Translating Exile: Contemporary Francophone Women Writers ties in with my focus on translation as research, looking at how two extraordinary texts about sexual identity and experiences of war are translated and how they travel. My final-year module Women in Translation: Gender and Publishing in the 21st Century stems from my Translating Women project and research into activism in the UK publishing industry, looking at women's writing in translation and considering the barriers faced by women in translation and how independent publishers break through these.
I am currently developing a team-taught first-year module on short stories in French, which will include a collection I have recently translated by leading Francophone author Leïla Slimani.
At postgraduate level I teach on the MA Publishing, leading the module Translation and Publishing: New Approaches to Literary Activism, which offers insight into how translated literature is commissioned and published in the UK.