A Robust Space for Literary Translation
As England returns to lockdown, I wonder what we can mean by robustness. When first thinking about this question, I came up with a clumsy analogy of a spider: the translator uses as many legs as possible to cling to as many different places as they can: the academe, the publishing world, the theatre world in my case, and so on. But this precarious act of multi-limbed straddling assumes that the points of contact clung to are robust themselves. Little point seeking stability in a place that is in constant flux.
So perhaps the robustness needs to start closer to oneself. I recently reflected that this freelance life has two elements to it which come in and out of focus at different times: one is knocking on doors, trying to get noticed, attempting to persuade those who don’t know us or our work to listen, and then to like what they hear; the other is going to where we are already wanted, making the most of the spaces (of all sizes) we already inhabit, valuing them and seeing them as opportunities for growth, creativity, or even much needed stillness, for ourselves and for our fellow translators.
The Residency is a bit of both; a golden opportunity to bask in the welcoming space of an organisation that wants us to be here and to use that space to work, think, explore, and share practice. It’s also a chance to knock on some nearby doors, engaging with colleagues, students and others new to thinking about translation. As we brace for the US election and the pandemic continues to plague the planet, I can only think how lucky I am to have this chance. A port in the winter storm, from which to emerge, perhaps, a little more robust.
To try and understand what a ‘robust space’ might mean for me as a translator, I reflected on some important translation spaces of my own, as I’ve made my way into literary translation over the past few years. One that stands out as being particularly significant was back in spring 2016, when I was able to take a distance learning module in Slovene literary translation at the University of Washington. The course was led by Michael Biggins, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and one of the most prolific translators of Slovene literature into English. As some of you might know, I’m a translator but I’m also an academic, and this academia/translation crossover was certainly key in being able to take up this particular opportunity. Without the bursary which I received from the Society for Slovene Studies, I wouldn’t have been able to take part; I wouldn’t have been able to access that space.
I revisited my notebook from that course, to see if I could recognise what the space had done for me back then. One scribbled sentence reads:
This class today has really highlighted the depth of analysis that goes into MB’s translations. Others in the class were also really impressive with their literary analyses – terminology, interpretations – and I think I need to brush up.
At first I laughed, but then felt an affinity with those words. What they reveal is that I was learning how to talk about this work of being a translator: how to adapt the vocabulary to talk about literature, about what we were doing, and developing the ability to apply that to work of my own.
I also found multiple vocab lists, new words that were introduced to me as I studied the reading list; archaic terms and verb forms that I hadn’t encountered before. I was being stretched, and someone was setting a higher bar for me.
[Vladimir] Bartol makes it clear that his neighbourhood was a built environment in flux. He lets you infer these forces by observing little scenes in the street. He lays out – at the micro level – these huge changes taking place at the time.
Similarly, this space was opening up my world to authors whose work I had not encountered during my relatively brief period of learning Slovene in a structured setting. And even more importantly, someone was contextualising these authors and their work, so I could situate them amongst those writers I did know. The space consolidated, but it also stretched. It gave direction to a path that was otherwise almost impossible to make out, let alone follow.
What was it about this space that made it robust? The people were all crucial, but it’s clear to me that it was a robust space because it was carved out by somebody willing to share their relative position of power; to open the door and let others in. The space was granted legitimacy by an academic institution, in this case – but also by the person leading it. By their skills and reputation. It would have been robust with this person’s guidance alone, perhaps, but it might not have been accessible without that institutional support. For me, the legacy of that space has been the foundation that it laid, and the network it provided. I think it could be strengthened, and I think there is still work to be done in making it more robust. But reflecting on that space has made me think about what I gained, and how we can offer similar opportunities to others. How we can open doors. How we can keep stretching.
‘Space’ is a word I have used quite a lot in the last few years in connection with literary translation. A couple of weeks ago we were discussing with William and Olivia the nature of the BCLT residency as a space for reflection on literary translation, on what it means to be a literary translator. And in connection with my current recent projects – both the AHRC OWRI project led by the University of Manchester ‘Cross-language Dynamics: Reshaping Community’ and the UEA GCRF Quality Review project on Indigenous Languages from Latin America – the literary translation workshop becomes an instrumental space. A space for sharing experiences, on the role of the translator and interpreter, for example, as was the case at the First International Meeting of Translators and Interpreters from Indigenous and Minoritised Languages (you can see the short documentary film on this at http://www.bclt.org.uk/research/research-news ). But crucially the literary translation workshop is a space for discussion and reflection on translator choices, for training and personal as well as professional growth.
This was certainly the case at the workshops funded by OWRI and organised by the AATI (Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters) and the Institute Lenguas Vivas (a leading HEI in Buenos Aires), part of the EOTL (Escuela de Otoño de Traducción Literaria). Last month the participants of the EOTL English to Spanish workshop from April 2017 reconvened in that virtual space that has become so familiar to us all in the last 8 months: Zoom. Workshop leaders, organisers (Lucila Cordone, María Laura Ramos and Estela Consigli – the formidable AATI team) and the British writer Giles Foden together with most workshop participants: what a wonderful opportunity to see the many trajectories – creative, translatorly, academic, professional… It was also a space for reflection on the creative process. Whatever happened to Camila, the protagonist of Giles’s novel-in-progress? I’m sure everybody had that question in mind. There were sighs of relief when we heard Giles’s creative project is still ongoing, and a respectful and admiring silence when he told us about the enormity of the research aspect of this project. In brief, creative projects take up much ‘space’: ‘mind space’ (we need to inhabit the world of the work). As do translation projects.
So carving out a space for literary translation becomes essential. Residencies and summer schools, courses (full-time and part-time), as well as networks and translation events, offer such a space. We will take the opportunity in the coming weeks to reflect on what they can offer, and to whom – i.e. to literary translators at their different moments in their career.