(An Extract from My BCLT 30th Anniversary Edition)
Early in 2012 I was trying to figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life. I’d ended up having a so-called ‘portfolio career’ as an actor and radio journalist, with some journalistic translation and copy editing on the side. Following a period of debilitating illness, this had narrowed down to just the translation and editing. Surely there must be something else out there – something in the general realm of languages, literature, theatre – that I could really love? Something that, at my age, I could still reasonably hope to get into?
It always intrigues me how people end up in particular careers. What childhood obsession, what chance encounter, what enticingly opened door sets someone on the path of becoming, say, a logistics expert or a wastewater engineer? What possibilities might be out there that I’d simply never considered? I spoke to a counsellor about my post-illness career prospects. She asked me what aspects I’d loved or found satisfying about the work I’d done to date, compiled a list, and told me that whatever I ended up doing should tick as many of these boxes as possible.
Still with no clear sense of direction, I applied for a job at the Goethe-Institut. The next item on their calendar was the Sebald Lecture, a joint event with the literary translation awards. I thought perhaps I ought to go along. The readings and discussion there left me fizzing with excitement, as did the conversations afterwards. A couple of people mistakenly assumed that I, too, was a literary translator. A door of possibility clicked open. There were some flyers on a table about a literary translation summer school, and I thought: well, why not? Only five days. Might be fun.
And so I and about a hundred other translators showed up at BCLT in the hot summer of 2012, wondering what we’d let ourselves in for. Was our (very varied) previous experience up to snuff? How would we translate collaboratively? Translation is such a solitary activity – wouldn’t we all pull in different directions, each arguing for their own interpretation? The leader of the German workshop, Katy Derbyshire, divided us into smaller groups, and the collaboration in our quartet was a sheer delight. We ping-ponged ideas and suggestions across the table, voicing the kind of debates a translator usually has to have in their own head. How much licence can we take? Can we justify flipping this sentence around? This word, or that, or another? Comma or semi-colon? Far from clinging to our own ideas, we were all excited if one of us came up with something better.
The afternoon panels were both interesting and useful. The workshop leaders talked about their careers in translation, and gave us tips and advice; we heard from pub- lishers about the industry; the authors whose excerpts we were translating discussed their careers and their experience of being translated. There were some excellent communal dinners, too, and inspiring exchanges that spilled out onto the bunny lawn. I acquired a whole new group of friends. It was exciting, exhilarating, exhaust- ing; we were all drunk on translation.
One evening in particular stands out. We were invited to an event with the translator Rosalind Harvey, a BCLT/UEA alumna, and her publisher, Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, also a UEA alumnus. Rosalind’s translation of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole had recently been shortlisted for a couple of awards. After the reading, I waited in line to ask her to sign my copy. She was sitting down, and it felt odd to make her crane up to talk to me, so I knelt, absurdly, at her feet. She asked how I was finding the summer school. ‘I love it,’ I said. Then, although until then I hadn’t really considered it, I found myself saying, ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to do.’ To which Rosalind said, simply and seriously, ‘Then you should.’
A second door opened. I still didn’t know whether I could make a career of it, but after five days at BCLT I knew for certain that this was what I wanted. BCLT had given all of us the tools with which to start: not just confidence in our ability as translators, but practical information about approaching publishers, doing samples and reader’s reports, going to book fairs, joining the Translators Association.
Most important of all was the opportunity to meet and get to know other translators. Rosalind, Jamie Lee Searle and Anna Holmwood had recently started the Emerging Translators Network, and that summer a few ‘early adopters’ like Roland Glasser were actively encouraging other workshop participants to join. Boosted by new members from BCLT’s ‘Class of 2012’, the ETN became a vital translation hub, both online and in real life.
BCLT was, without a doubt, the springboard for my career as a literary translator. There’s a lovely symmetry to the fact that Nino Haratischvili’s epic novel The Eighth Life will be published by Scribe UK this autumn, translated by myself and Ruth Martin. I got to know Nino and her writing because she was our author at the 2012 BCLT summer school. And I knew I had to co-translate the book with Ruth, because it was through working together at BCLT on excerpts from Nino’s previous novel that we’d met and become friends.
Recently, I came across a forgotten scrap of paper at the back of a drawer in my desk. It read:
WHAT I WANT FROM MY WORK
Being able to express self
Connection with others
Sense of common understanding Humour
Degree of seriousness/depth
Literary translation, I realised, ticks all the boxes.
Charlotte Collins is a literary translator from the German and Co-Chair of the UK Translators Association. She was awarded the 2017 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. Her co-translation, with Ruth Martin, of The Eighth Life: For Brilka by Nino Haratischvili was published by Scribe UK in November 2019.
Photo credit: Roland Glasser