Thursday, February 9, 2012

What They Said in Kansas City

Statue of Winston Churchill near the conference hotel in Kansas City / Image courtesy of ChrisM70

Each fall, a group of translators gathers somewhere in North America for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association. I’ve gone twice now to the ALTA conference, and I can’t imagine a more welcoming community for a beginning translator. In particular, those who translate from Russian and suchlike languages have gone out of their way to make me feel at home. And I truly appreciate their company. For someone like me who often has no real connection with other translators for months at a time, ALTA can be downright exhilarating.

My second ALTA conference took place in November of last year in Kansas City, and ever since then I’ve been meaning to write up a quick post giving a few highlights from the gathering. Well, somehow the busyness of everyday life has prevented me from even writing something “quick,” but a nasty cold that kept me home from work today has given me a little free time to organize my thoughts.

So before I lose my notes and forget the particulars, here is a list of what I thought were some of the key moments in Kansas City:
  • Observing Jim Kates’ excitement over using the King James Bible as resource for translating Genrikh Sapgir’s Russian poems into English. Kates says that Sapgir interprets the Book of Psalms for a Soviet reality, which strikes me as very similar to the method of Timur Kibirov, a poet from the following generation.
  • Listening to Katherine Silver’s description of the program at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, or BILTC (pronounced “Biltsy”), which sounds like a literary translator’s heaven. I hope to be end up there someday—and not by metempsychosis. 
  • Sitting rapt as Bill Johnston wowed me with his complex yet perfectly clear explanations of how to translate style and syntax in Slavic texts. (Comma splice, anyone?)
  • More on comma splices: hearing Russell Valentino, editor of The Iowa Review, give us his notion of translation as “disarming the bully.” If you are writing the same comma splices into your translation that exist in the source text, you should ask yourself, “Why am I reproducing this?” Valentino says that their mere presence in the source is not a good enough reason. You must be able to articulate a ‘why’. (Naturally, this rule applies to any stylistic feature, not just comma splices.)
  • Overhearing a conversation in the hotel bar on the utility of the so-called ‘hyphellipsis’. (See the fourth resolution in this New Year’s list.)
  • Taking part in a panel on “Great Translators and the West’s Love Affair with Russian Literature” along with two women I happen to admire greatly, Marian Schwartz and Lisa Hayden, a.k.a. Lizok

(Marian presented on Constance Garnett, whose Edwardian style she appreciates, even though she believes that newer translations of classic works will always be necessary. Regarding Garnett’s outmoded English standing in for Tolstoy’s Russian, Marian said, “We’ve got a barrier now that didn’t exist at the time.” So thank goodness we’ve got superb translators like Marian to boost us over that barrier. As for Lizok, she spoke about Ann Dunnigan, another Tolstoyan—though an enigmatic one—who held “accuracy and grace” in high esteem, and it shows in her translations. Lizok supposed that Dunnigan’s style might have had something to do with her background as an actress and speech teacher.)

  • Watching an evening screening of The Woman with the 5 Elephants, Vadim Jendreyko’s poignant—yet somewhat puzzling—profile of Svetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky’s five “elephants” into German. (Lizok wrote about the screening here.)
  • Hearing this zinger from Chad Post, who writes for Three Percent, which takes its name from the estimated number of translations published in the U.S. each year: “We should change the name of our blog to, like, ‘Zero’.” (I.e., things are not getting any better.)
  • …and hearing this rejoinder from Jon Fine, of, on the near absence of literary translations in the American marketplace: “The three percent problem is, for us, a white space.” (I.e., Amazon sees it as a business opportunity.) I think this is good news, but can you ever really trust an eight-hundred-pound gorilla?

Speaking of Three Percent, this year’s ALTA conference will take place in its hometown of Rochester, New York, in early October. The city is also home to Open Letter Books and the University of Rochester, which offers both graduate and undergraduate programs in Literary Translation Studies. All around, it should make a great setting for the conference. And incidentally, some say this year’s gathering will include a rave in an abandoned subway…


  1. This was a fun post, thank you, Jamie! I've been thinking back on the conference recently, too, which made it especially fun to remember some of the моменты you mention. It also made me even more sorry that I missed the panel with Bill Johnston and Russell Valentino... particularly since I always seem to be trying to resolve vexing punctuation issues, some of which require more than a hyphellipsis.

    I hope your cold abates soon. And that your semester has been going well. I'll see you in Rochester!

  2. Johnston and Valentino are not to be missed! They're two of ALTA most articulate speakers on the craft of translation. With any luck, both of them will take part in panels in Rochester.

  3. I had meant to go their panel but then got sidetracked! I'm also hoping they'll speak next year on similar topics.