(An Extract from My BCLT 30th Anniversary Edition)
It seemed implausible only a year ago, but I’m writing this shortly after celebrating the publication of my first full-length literary translation, and completing the first draft of what will be my fourth. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the BCLT.
I stumbled into literary translation late in life, although it had been a forlorn ambition since the days when I was a UNESCO brat growing up in Paris, and my engineer father started bringing home advance copies of the Collection of Representative Works from his colleagues over in the translation division. Decades later, I was leading the comparative literature programme at the University of Auckland, when I idly registered for my first Translate in the City course with Ros Schwartz in 2014. By the time I actually attended the course, I had resigned my academic post to move back to Paris, and the prospect of devoting myself to literary translation full-time was suddenly possible and enticing.
After winning the Asymptote Close Approximations fiction prize early in 2016, I decided this might not be completely delusional. I had no desire to sign up for yet another postgraduate degree, and chose instead to go to as many short courses and events as I could, including the BCLT International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School at UEA, and the BCLT Arvon literary translation course.
The BCLT Summer School was the real springboard for me. French was not on offer that year, and rather than working only on my Russian or German, I applied to the multilingual prose group led by Daniel Hahn. We were nine students, with ten languages between us. For our collective tasks, Daniel had us discuss a translation from a language none of us knew (Portuguese), consider how we might approach a rhyming, pun-filled children’s picture book, back-translate a chapter of the Harry Potter series from its published translations in our various languages, then attempt to reconstitute the Urtext by comparing our English versions – all to much haggling and hilarity. We workshopped the texts we had brought, following Daniel’s lead in offering feedback with a combination of generosity, rigour, and humour. We cheerfully quibbled over nuances of meaning, punctuation, or UK versus US usage, and learned about each other’s languages, literary landscapes, and cultural practices along the way.
At the end of the course we set up a Facebook group, where we’ve continued to share our translation problems, projects, triumphs and frustrations. And new puppy and baby pics. The extravagant notion – mooted over far too much wine at the closing reception – that we should get together again to continue workshopping our projects, and rotate between each other’s countries, somehow acquired a life of its own. By September our Hungarian member had organised accommodation and a stunning workspace for us in Budapest, and seven of the original nine of us showed up in November. The following May saw us gather in a friend’s country house in Burgundy, then September the next year in a big Airbnb near Glasgow, and after much collective handwringing in April this year, in Bedfordshire rather than Yerevan. Over the years, ideas became samples, became funded projects, became pitches, became manuscripts, became published translations. And a roomful of strangers became loyal colleagues and fast friends, with Daniel as unofficial mentor to us all.
The BCLT Arvon course, which Sasha Dugdale has written about so eloquently elsewhere in this booklet, was run along similar lines, with a mixture of group activities, workshopping and readings. With the added pleasure that being accommodated in the lovely house at Lumb Bank and sharing cooking and clean-up duties was a great way to get to know each other. There were twelve of us, divided into two groups for the workshopping, one with Maureen Freely, the other with Daniel Hahn. Maureen’s encouragement and the group’s enthusiasm for the project I presented still gives me hope to this day.
Some of that week remains a blur. A few of us stayed up late on the Tuesday, watching with mounting disbelief and dismay as the US presidential election results rolled in. Snow fell that night, shrouding the garden and the valley beyond. In the morning our leaders suggested we take some time to discuss how we, as literary translators, could respond: we all came away with a renewed commitment to amplifying women’s and other marginalised voices.
The BCLT has also been invaluable to me in that it helped establish the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair: three days of presentations by translators, authors and book industry people, all set in the midst of the most impressive showcase of English-language publishing. Like many would-be literary translators, I’d started out with a few pet projects by authors I was keen to bring into English: an unsung French feminist, a Soviet dissident, a contemporary French satirist. I first went along to the LBF in 2017, mostly just to look and learn, but also with high hopes of finding publishers for them. In 2018, after winning two funding awards from the French Book Office in New York, my hopes were even higher.
So far, none of the projects I have pitched have been taken up, but the contacts I made along the way led to other commissions. My big break for that first book, which also led to a commission from the same editor for my second, was thanks to being in the right place at the right time at an LBF cocktail event last year, hearing that a publisher was looking for a translator for a newly acquired book, then sending off a short sample and being introduced by my BCLT tutor, Daniel Hahn. This year at LBF I was more than thrilled to be handed my first finished copy. A publisher Ros Schwartz had introduced me to at my first LBF, and who had turned down two of my pitches, recently offered me another book which will be my third. And I was delighted to be contacted out of the blue to do a sample by an American publisher, who was given my details by the rights agent of the French publisher of two of my pitched authors, which eventually led to my fourth contract.
How to emerge? Seize as many opportunities as you can to keep learning from the best in the business, and contribute to building the kind of generous translation community you want to be part of. The BCLT is there to help you to do just that.
Ruth Diver is the translator of The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, by Adélaïde Bon (MacLehose Press, 2019). She is the 2016 winner of the Asymptote Close Approx- imations Prize for her translation of Maraudes, by Sophie Pujas, and of two French Voices Awards in 2017, for Marx et la poupée by Maryam Madjidi, and Titus n’ai- mait pas Bérénice by Nathalie Azoulai. She collaborated with Ros Schwartz on the translation of The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015). She holds a PhD from the University of Paris 8 and the University of Auckland, where she was Head of Comparative Literature until 2014.