Inaugural BCLT translators-in-residence William Gregory and Olivia Hellewell will be writing regular blog posts over the coming months covering topics discussed with BCLT’s Cecilia Rossi.
What is a literary Translator?
Am I one? When I wrote this article for Words without Borders in 2016, I wasn’t so sure. Although I had been translating plays for many years, I had not long embarked on trying to make this the central pillar of my career, and my first forays into the literary translation world had been mixed. Theatre translation was only just establishing a foothold. Some literary translation prizes explicitly excluded drama, theatre publishers were absent from the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair, and residency opportunities seemed to prefer prose fiction. Four years later and I find myself a translator in residence and an award finalist, theatre translators seem to have drawn closer to the bosom of the literary translation family, and I look forward to exploring now how theatre translation techniques might inform the translation of other genres.
Increased visibility for theatre translation means more space to discuss the issues affecting our profession, including those that have emerged more recently. Translators of drama have long been familiar with debates about ‘speakability’, ‘literal’ translations and the perceived absence of international work at Anglophone venues. But other questions are emerging, not least about the intersection between the translator and the performer in a globalised world where migrant theatre-makers are increasingly visible on our stages (‘speakability’, surely, depends very much on who is speaking). Through my work with the international theatre companies Foreign Affairs and Global Voices Theatre, the Out of the Wings collective, and now the BCLT, I have welcomed the opportunity to explore these questions more deeply, in conversations and through practice; and, in conversations with Olivia and Ceci, to learn more about how these concerns coincide with the challenges to be faced and discoveries to be made on their own literary translation journeys.
What is a literary translator? I don’t suppose I’d ever broach this question with overly confident pen strokes, such is its scope, but at this present moment, it’s not just the myriad of potential answers that make my brain particularly hesitant to settle for an answer. Questions over the so-called “viability” of creative work can filter down into your subconscious, even if you do your daily best to resist equating success with capital and productivity. When teamed with the usual uncertainty over what projects may or may not come next, I find myself questioning whether I can indeed call myself a literary translator, if literary translation is not something I can afford to do all the time?
I wouldn’t typically seek to define myself solely in relation to work – so why do I worry so much about the labelling myself a literary translator? I don’t always, thankfully. But there are lots of layers to that hesitancy, all bound up in issues of background, experience, and the quirks of translating from a language with only two million speakers. William’s phrase, ‘pillar of my career’ was useful, I thought. Not only is it healthy to be reminded that for most people, literary translation is not their sole source of income, but it also made me think of the role of a literary translator in terms of skills, as opposed to an immutable, inherent disposition. I have a certain set of skills, which I’ve worked on and honed over many years, with the support of many others, and I can use those skills to translate books.
Thinking about the role of a literary translator in terms of skills allows us to focus on process, and for me, being a literary translator will always be an ongoing process. And that’s what I love about it; every job, every project, will make some sort of contribution to my ability to translate. How could my linguistic understanding, my breadth of reading, my ability to hear and reproduce voices not be improved each time I have the opportunity to perform those skills? And that goes for skills beyond the page, too; each time we act as representatives of authors, of books; each time we speak publicly about literature, contextualise it, find connections; each time we perform these skills, we find ourselves a little more at home in this role. In this title of Literary Translator.
The new academic year has prompted me to go back to the basics and, as I was planning the evening sessions with the new MA in Literary Translation cohort, I decided to lead a workshop on what we actually do when we translate a literary text. The verb do is crucial – “do we write translations or do we make them? Or, indeed, do we do them?” asks Kate Briggs. What verbs would I list if I were to put down all of the actions involved in the process of translation? Read (and all its variations – reread, scan, underline, read out), draft, write, doodle, draw… But also remember, revise, cross out, rewrite, and more importantly, breathe – breathe in, breathe out, sigh… And the list goes on. And the translator translates. A translator can never be a “neutral, impersonal, transferring device” (Douglas Robinson). When I did the exercise with the MA students, no one listed “to breathe” yet, breath, breathing, is what sustains the life of the text, what animates it.
So what is a literary translator? This is the first question we discussed with the BCLT inaugural translators-in residence on their first day of their residency. We hope that the residency becomes a space for reflection, and reflecting on the figure of the translator, on what we do as translators when we translate, soon led us to a discussion of what we do when we are not translating. It is easy for me to think of this: as a full-time academic, most of the time I am not translating. Am I an ‘academic-translator’? Translator-academic? Phrases such as “professional literary translator” or “active literary translator”, are in usage (see Kelly Wahsbourne’s 2013 article ‘Teaching Literary Translation: Objectives, Epistemologies, and Methods for the Workshop’ in Translation Review 86:49-66) and, in recent years Daniel Hahn has been referring to ‘being a literary translator’ to denote all the activities that literary translators engage in when not translating. We also discussed this with William and Olivia and William mentioned how in the world of acting, it’s quite acceptable to be an actor (and define oneself as such) even when not acting. Now that I’m rethinking this, perhaps to say “I’m a literary translator” means that I stand for literary translation, not so much in the sense of ‘to represent’ but more along the lines of supporting or upholding or advocating literary translation – what it entails (i.e. all the activities we engage in when we translate) but also what we do when not translating. Certainly, not translating doesn’t mean that I stop thinking about literary translation. My research and teaching both revolve around literary translation, I feel more than fortunate that this is the case.
William Gregory is a translator from the Spanish specialising in the theatre of Spain and Latin America. Originally trained as an actor in London and Pamplona, he has translated close to 200 plays, many of these by contemporary playwrights as part of the international writer development workshops of the Royal Court Theatre, where he is also a script consultant. His performed work for the Royal Court includes B by Guillermo Calderón, A Fight Against… by Pablo Manzi (forthcoming) and various plays for the Arena Mexico, Cuba Real and New Plays from Chile seasons. Productions elsewhere include I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep than Some Other Arsehole by Rogrido García (Gate, London; Théâtre Excentrique, Sydney), Villa by Guillermo Calderón (Prime Cut, Belfast; Play Company, New York), Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez (Theatre503), Chamaco by Abel González Melo (HOME, Manchester) and The Concert by Ulises Rodríguez Febles (BBC Radio Drama). He was a finalist in the 2019 Valle Inclán award for literary translation from Spanish for The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Plays and a contributor in the same year to The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Argentine Plays. His forthcoming published work includes Housing Plan 2015-2045 by Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez (Laertes Press). The non-fiction work The Uncapturable by Rubén Szuchmacher (Methuen Drama), a collection of reflections on theatre by one of Argentina’s leading directors, has just been published. He has also translated poetry and fiction. He is a member of the committee of the UK Translator’s Association, a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, and a member of the Hispanic and Lusophone theatre translation collective Out of the Wings.
Olivia Hellewell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Nottingham and Slovene-English literary translator. Her most recent translation, The Fig Tree, by acclaimed Slovene author Goran Vojnović, is forthcoming in October 2020 with Istros Books, and previous published translations include Felix After The Rain, a children’s book for Tiny Owl, and None Like Her, by Jela Krečič-Žižek for Peter Owen. Her research has explored Slovene literary translation in Slovenia’s post-socialist period, analysing the power relations, institutional structures and discursive mechanisms that drive the supply of literary translation from a ‘small’ nation like Slovenia. Olivia also has a wealth of experience in leading translation events and workshops, and was workshop leader for the Slovene-English translation workshop at the BCLT’s 2019 Summer School.
Cecilia Rossi is a Senior Lecturer in Literature and Translation at the University of East Anglia, where she convenes the MA in Literary Translation and works for BCLT as Postgraduate and Professional Liaison. Her latest translation, The Last Innocence and The Lost Adventures (Alejandra Pizarnik), was published in 2019 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Following a British Academy Small Research grant in 2013, she visited the Pizarnik Papers at Princeton University Library. Currently she is the leader of a subproject on translation and cultural memory, part of the AHRC ‘Open World Research Initiative’ research project, led by the University of Manchester, ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community’.