What I Learned at ALTA 2014

chris_author_photo-330It’s been a busy two weeks since I got back from the 2014 ALTA Conference in Milwaukee, so I’m quite behind in blogging about some of the things I learned at this year’s annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association. It was a particularly strong conference, with a number of panels I was excited about participating in and/or hearing. I arrived at the conference late, so missed both the ALTA Fellows‘ Reading (which I heard was the best ever) and the launch event for The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation. Here are some excerpts from my notes on the panels I attended:

The Literary Translation Workshop: Best Practices

This is a panel I organized and moderated about teaching literary translation, figuring (correctly, it turns out) that I could pick up some pointers. Becka McKay offered “10 rules for making new translators” that included “make them believe in the necessity of translation,” “make them better readers” and “make them evangelists [for translation].” She has all her students create versions of some sort (open genre) of one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (one student this year “translated” it into a cake). Leah Leone has her students read a novel translated from a language they don’t know and keep a journal as they read, writing down all the translation strategies they notice and noting which of them would also work for the language they translate from. What a great idea! Sean Cotter has found his students particularly responsive to/likely to be inspired by metaphors for translation having to do with physically embodying a text. Some of the readings he’s found most effective are Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lavish Absence, Anne Carson’s Nox, Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, and Daniel’s Weissbort’s From Russian with Love. Aron Aji asks his students to write translator’s notes to accompany each of their workshop submissions (way to get them focused on strategy and craft!) and begins each workshop with a five-minute period in which anyone in the class can ask the translator questions, followed by a 40-minute workshop period in which the translator must remain silent. I think I’m going to try this in my workshop next semester, as a way to keep the workshop from turning into a conversation between the translator and everyone else (which is interesting, but not really what a workshop should be); explicitly compartmentalizing is a good way to address this, especially as it means that the other workshop participants know they’ll have to come prepared to ask the translator whatever questions they’ll have right at the outset. Oh, and Aron asks students to answer the question “why this work” in their translator’s notes. Sean, too, asks students to address this topic, in his case by making them submit formal project proposals and query letters for the works they propose to translate, based on the ALTA Guide on book proposals (this document is not currently available on the ALTA website, which is being redesigned and transitioned as we speak, but you can temporarily find it here.)

Translating Fiction: Point of View

This was a panel organized by Elizabeth Harris, the fifth of an excellent ongoing series of panels (she’s been running one a year) on specific issues of craft related to translating fiction. I missed part of this panel because of a meeting, but heard Ellen Elias-Bursac talking about issues raised by the fact that Slavic languages (like romance languages sometimes) mark gender in their past participles. Which usually isn’t such an issue, but she was translating a long story in which the gender of the first person narrator was kept intentionally ambiguous until the final sentence. She had to find an alternate way to “let it slip” that the narrator had been a woman all along. Listening to this presentation reminded me how little I envy (or perhaps how much I envy) the people who wind up translating lipograms. Bill Johnston then talked about his strategies for addressing the fact that English doesn’t (any longer) mark a difference between formal and informal registers in the word “you.” What if it’s important for understanding the context of the narration? In a book written entirely in the second person (formal), he decided to mark the formality of the discourse in the opening sentence by adding a “sir”: “You’re here to buy beans, sir?”

Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness in Translation

This one was organized by Alta L. Price, and was one I was particularly eager to see, since issues like this come up all the time in my own translation work. There was lots of storytelling, and problem solving. Scott Esposito told the story of editing a novel translated from the Chinese in which a sex scene was depicted so euphemistically that it seemed weird in the translation, so he actually wound up editing the scene to be slightly more explicit than it had been in the original (for which he took some flak, although the author and the translator both approved the changes). María José Giménez and Christopher Schafenacker talked about a story by a Cuban author they’d co-translated that contained what struck them as a gratuitously misogynistic aside (an isolated paragraph, off-topic from the rest of the narration) that they decided to cut because they feared it would make the narrator appear incredibly unsympathetic to the story’s U.S. readership (more so than to the Cuban readership of the original); the anthology’s editors objected, and they put it back in. This gave rise to an interesting discussion, particularly as this particular magazine is published in Guatemala. The editors also wouldn’t permit Giménez and Schafenacker to leave any words in the Spanish, even when the narrator was making a joke about Christopher Columbus’s Spanish name; the rest of the anthology, the editors said, had a different style. Esther Allen said she’d encountered something similar when translating a story by Juan Rulfo; the Rulfo Foundation refused to approve the translation because she’d left a few words (recognizable to the book’s English-language readership) in Spanish; they claimed she was “tainting” the style. Then there are different sorts of censorship. Roger Sedarat talked about pedophilia in Hafiz and the historical inclination of translators to edit out his praise of boy lovers, much as they have done with references to Islamic religion in Rumi. He praised the translations of Coleman Banks, saying they put the musicality (and the Islam) back in Rumi. Then there are the translations of Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman,” which contains the inflammatory word “maricas”; early translations rendered it as “perverts”; later ones as “faggots” or “queers.” Jack Spicer translated the word as “cock-suckers.” The use of the word in the poem is intentionally homophobic; the work displays and thematizes Lorca’s discomfort with his own sexuality. In short, a lot of difficult questions were raised and wrestled with on this panel. My own take is that it isn’t our job to save authors from themselves in general, but given the differences in tone and expectation in different languages and cultures, sometimes subtle tweaks are in order. I only once was asked to translate something I deemed offensive (because openly, unironically racist), and my way of “fixing” the situation was to turn the job down. I also wonder whether there’s a certain “license to forgive” – I find I’m more willing to accept (explain, understand, apologize for) a form of bigotry that targets me directly, e.g. I might get more indignant over racism than sexism, though both are incredibly harmful. There’s more to be said/thought/written about translator psychology and these difficult questions.

Taking the Initiative: How to Get Involved, Get Results, and Make Friends Along the Way

This panel was chaired by Allison Charette, who knew of what she spoke, because she personally gave birth to ELTNA (the Emerging Literary Translators Network in America) only one year ago, at the 2013 ALTA conference, and now it has 180 members (you can join here). So she wanted to hear about other initiatives that have improved the lives of translators. I was honored that she asked me to speak about starting Translationista four years ago; she also asked Lisa Carter to speak about the translation-issues blog she runs on her business website Intralingo. Esther Allen pointed out that translators are by their very nature helpful, collaborative creatures (most of them, anyhow); she quipped that Natasha Wimmer is president of her PTA. Esther herself started the Directory of Translators on the PEN American Center website back when she was chair of the PEN Translation Committee. Olivia Sears talked about starting the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco twenty years ago with fellow students from her graduate program. Scott Denham of Davidson College piped up from the audience to say he was going to be assembling a collection of teachable essays on translation (theory and practice) as well as translation studies syllabi, to create a database of them that others can mine for teaching ideas; that certainly sounds like a worthwhile project. And so it goes, people see a need and start things, and that’s how the field grows. Oh, and I heard somewhere at the conference that poet/translator Don Mee Choi is building a set of dictionary tools to help people aid women who have been/are at risk of being trafficked. I’ll be looking to write more about that amazing-sounding project when I’ve learned more about it.

Debunking the Myth of the Literal: Finding New Ways to Talk about What We Do

Perhaps my favorite panel at this year’s conference was also the most cryptic and inconclusive. Katherine Silver organized this panel, noting that there’s something wrong with the way we talk about translation, both to our students and to the outside world. The word “faithful” has long since fallen out of favor for describing translations, but now the word “literal” is being used in much the same way to talk about approaches to translating, and it’s both a crutch and misleading – a sort of placeholder until we figure out better ways to speak about our work. But if not now, when? Katie talked about the idea of a “convincing translation”: how well has the translator harnessed the potential of the English language to capture a work? The word “reimagining” came up in discussion (also from Katie). Her fellow panelists (Dick Cluster, Stephen Kessler and I) gamely offered suggestions, as did many in the audience, but in my opinion the closest we were getting to things was by offering different sorts of metaphors (e.g. Alyson Waters, memorably: “I sit down at the piano and play the work again, except in English”; and Dick Cluster: “impersonating the author as if they spoke English”). Joyelle McSweeney spoke about helping student translators find their own “authority.” And Katie says to remember that what we translate isn’t “words.” I think the word “semantics” might be more useful than “literal,” but that thought too is a work-in-progress. Leah Leone suggested that we convene a workshop at next year’s conference to collect ideas on how best to talk about translation; I think that’s an excellent idea.

This year’s conference featured a keynote lecture by Christopher Merrill – “From the Last Days of the Interregnum: Politics and Translation” – that was truly spectacular. One of the patron saints of his talk was poet Zbigniew Herbert: “If we lose the ruins nothing will be left” (from “Report from the Besieged City,” translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter). I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase Chris’s words, tying together his many years of work with poets from around the world – the Balkans and Eastern Europe in particular – struggling to bear witness to life in time of war (as well as to survive). I hear that his lecture will be published soon, and when it is, I’ll post a link to it here.

photo-202Finally, in case you haven’t heard, the 2014 National Translation Award went to Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich for their collaborative translation of An Invitation for Me To Think by Alexander Vvedensky. Eugene is in Berlin for the year, so the award was accepted by Matvei, who read and spoke about several brief but hilarious passages from Vvedensky’s poems. The Lucien Stryk Prize was awarded to Jonathan Chaves.

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