BCLT and The Rule of Three by Paul Russell Garrett
(An extract from My BCLT 30th Anniversary Edition)
Third time is the charm, as they say in my part of the world. Having finally come down from the excitement of my third summer at BCLT, I have to admit that my involvement with them has been charmed from the get-go. Prior to my first summer school, the sum total of my translation experience had been the result of a chance invitation to an event at the Danish embassy in London, which resulted in a couple of commercial assignments and the publication of a short play that I’d translated. Years earlier at university, a couple of hours at most had been dedicated to studying translation theory, certainly not enough to prepare me for or inspire me to pursue a career in literary translation. For me, BCLT Summer School was a game changer. After that, everything fell into place.
Thinking back to that first summer in 2012, though, it wasn’t all roses. When I arrived at the University of East Anglia, I was completely discombobulated. I don’t think I knew a single participant, I knew next to nothing about translation, in fact, I couldn’t even speak Norwegian, though written Danish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible to some extent. I was so out of sorts that when I reached the registration desk, I informed them I was there for the Danish group. I was greeted with a blank look. Norwegian, I quickly corrected myself. Not the best of starts. Things soon started looking up and, despite some initial concerns about trying to break into what I expected to be a competitive and closed group, I was warmly welcomed by the other translators, a number of whom had recognised me and my trademark moustache from Twitter. I ended up keeping that moustache for years, for fear of not being recognised. When I departed Norwich that summer, I realised that I belonged to this newly-found community of translators as much as anyone, that I could translate Norwegian, and that I could translate, full stop. I’ll always look back fondly on that first summer school and the bumper crop of emerging translators it produced, with many of the participants going on to make some impressive achievements. They became my peers, my colleagues and my friends, and I continue to collaborate with many of them on a range of projects.
When the time came for my second summer school in 2015, I was feeling pretty confident about my translation career to that point. I had been part of the BCLT mentorship programme for Danish, I had several publications under my belt, I’d translated a number of plays and even seen some of them performed. On this occasion, I knew most of the other Norwegian translators in advance, as well as a good proportion of the other participants due to a concerted effort at networking (read stalking people on social media). This time I even managed to get my language right, well mostly, as I hadn’t realised the Norwegian group would be working with a Nynorsk author, not Bokmål, which I was reasonably comfortable with. But I managed to scrape through, with my decision to study three terms of Old Norse at university seemingly a wise one in hindsight. The experience acquired in the intervening years and the confidence it had instilled in me resulted in a completely different experience the second time round. That became clear to me at every stage: during the Norwegian sessions, in the creative writing sessions (a brilliant addition to the programme), at the talks and external events, even during time spent socialising over coffee, dinner and on the steps outside the student union. That summer made me look at translation differently, both in practical terms, such as my work habits and the everyday translation choices I made (working collaboratively is an eye-opener for the lone literary translator) but also in my view of the business side of translation and how it was perceived by the wider world. In the wake of that summer, I joined the committee of the Translators Association, started up a mentoring programme for emerging translators with [Foreign Affairs] theatre company and linked up with my fellow summer school graduates to form The Starling Bureau, a collective of literary translators. I had come to realise that I wanted more out of my fledgling career, that I wanted to be an ambassador for translation and help nurture the next wave of emerging translators.
In the summer of 2019, I took part in the Training the Trainer programme, something that BCLT has been working towards for several years now. Its purpose is to equip translators with the skills to lead translation courses of their own, for the mentee to become the mentor. I had already run a number of workshops for the aforementioned theatre translation programme and had led a multilingual summer school for theatre translators at the University of Warwick only weeks earlier. But there I was, an experienced translator, arriving at BCLT Summer School for the third time, feeling just as out of sorts as I had done on the first occasion. I could no longer call myself an emerging translator and I wasn’t yet a fully-fledged trainer, so where did I fit in? Apart from a series of dedicated workshops, including one with the amazing Kate Briggs, I was left to my own devices and given the opportunity to choose which sessions to attend, so that I could get what I thought I needed most out of the programme. There were six other workshops and an impressive group of tutors. The free rein that I was given meant that I was able to drop in and observe the various groups in order to see how different tutors operated. I decided to focus my attention on the multilingual prose and multilingual poetry groups, as well as those groups working in two directions, into and out of English. Once in the classroom, my greatest challenge was fighting the urge to join in with the other translators. So what did I manage to take away from my third round of BCLT Summer School? Observing quietly from the back of the room, I was able to see the subtle and unique ways that each tutor used to get the best out of their students. Through previous teaching experience, I recognised some of the tools the tutors were availing themselves of, but seeing them in action and the way they were met by students, as well as the manner in which they were adapted to suit the practice of translation, cemented their importance in my mind.
If I were to adhere strictly to the rule of three, after a third summer at BCLT, it is never going to get any better than this. Fortunately, that rule doesn’t seem to apply to BCLT. Ever since that first summer, I’ve been raving about my experience of BCLT to anyone who cared to listen, and I’ve returned there at every opportunity. With that in mind, I’m confident that the summer of 2019 will not be my last at BCLT, in fact, I’m counting on it.
Paul Russell Garrett translates from Danish and Norwegian. In 2019, his translation of Lars Mytting’s The Sixteen Trees of the Somme was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. His most recent translation, Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt, is a fictional account of the life of American street photographer Vivian Maier. Paul serves on the committee of the Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT) and leads [Foreign Affairs] theatre translation programme.