Translation School = Editor’s School?

The online journal of literature in translation Words without Borders, currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, is one of the best in the business, in large part because of the efforts of editorial director Susan Harris, who has chaperoned many thousands of pages of translations into print. Recently she was invited to participate in a series of workshops at the illustrious Translation Summer School at the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The idea was that she would be “observing and offering suggestions and approaches from the editorial perspective” – and I’m sure she was hugely helpful to the seminars’ participants – but by the end of the week she reports that the experience made her think differently about her own editorial work.


Her full report on the experience can be found on the Words without Borders website, but I thought I’d give you a little taste of it here. To fully appreciate the first paragraph, it’s helpful to know how much she likes rabbits.

I spent a rapt and giddy week last month at the British Center for Literary Translation’s summer school, housed at the lagomorphiliac University of East Anglia in Norwich. (I’d heard that the UEA campus is chockablock with rabbits, but did not anticipate that they would be grazing on the lawn like herds of small cattle, whole warrenfulls ruminating and frisking about.) This annual program offers intensive workshops in half a dozen languages, at both beginning and advanced levels, in which participants collaborate on a group translation that’s presented on the final day. This program differs from others in that the authors are in attendance, available for questions, clarifications, and the occasional objection. The directors of the program, Daniel “Evil Mastermind” Hahn and his co-conspirator Kate Griffin, invited me to move between workshops, observing and offering suggestions and approaches from the editorial perspective. This was the first time I’d actually seen translations in progress;  it was like reading the blueprints when I’m accustomed to walking into the completed building and suggesting shades for the paint.

The advanced workshops were led by Katy Derbyshire, working with the German author Daniela Dröscher, Anne McLean (Spanish) with Javier Montes, and Jeffrey Angles (Japanese) with Aoko Matsuda, and the beginning/emerging by Kari Dickson (Norwegian) with Kari Fredrikke Brænne, B.J. Epstein (Finland-Swedish) with Johanna Hölmstrom, and Danny Hahn (Portuguese) with Cristhiano Aguiar. Just as each leader took a slightly different approach, author participation varied as well, from the responsive (Cristiano Aguiar not only attended every workshop, but in true collaborative spirit revised his original in response to the translation) to the less receptive. Watching the translators go through the texts line by line, each offering and arguing for her version, with the occasional contribution from author or leader, was sobering, and illuminating. I always knew how much work goes into translation, and how every word is agonized over; but I’d never been involved at this nascent stage, and  I realize how many of my editorial queries involve questions that would have already been raised and resolved far earlier in the process, and how much I’ve missed in the meantime. And of course I’d always suspected that I had the easy end of things, but this surely confirmed that concern, not to mention the patience and self-control of the translators I’ve inadvertently terrorized.

There’s a lot more interesting insight where that came from, but for the rest of “‘The Infinite Sequence of Minute Decisions’: An Editor at the BCLT Translation Summer School,” you’ll have to hop over to the Words without Borders website. While you’re there, look around; you’ll find plenty of great reading matter. The journal’s August 2013 issue is devoted to the literature of Brazil.

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