Friday, October 19, 2012

Bits and Pieces of ALTA

Illustration from the page of the Carmina Burana that includes "O Fortuna" / Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Each fall, a town somewhere in North America gets overrun with literary translators, writers, editors, and (small) publishers. That’s when our little mob of littérateurs gets together for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association, and this year the place was Rochester, New York — home to Open Letter Books, the online literary resource Three Percent, and the University of Rochester’s program in Literary Translation Studies. (Next up: Bloomington, Indiana!) Any ALTA conference is a rich, varied, and intense experience, making it difficult to sum up neatly and comprehensively, but that’s why the gods of typography invented bullet points. With bullets, I don’t actually have to connect my thoughts. How nice! So here are a few of the moments (excluding bar scenes) that stood out to me from our gathering in Rochester earlier this month:

·      The plenary lecture on humor by David Bellos, whose hilarious example on shit and samogon from Vladimir Voinovich’s Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin has got me determined to read that novel at the soonest possible moment. (I’m a sucker for the scatological.) Bellos also showed us how our ears could fool us into thinking that the beautiful lyrics of “O Fortuna” had morphed into a “piece of lovely cake.”

·      The roundtable on reviewing translations, which happens to have become a pet topic of mine lately. My interest owes partly to my own recent forays into reviewing and partly to the book reviews I now ask my students to write. The panelists generally gave lots of advice for new reviewers, and they also formulated what a proper review ought to look like. (“Ably translated by X” just doesn’t cut it anymore.) Katherine Silver talked a lot about a certain “good” review that panned her recent translation of Daniel Sada’s Almost Never: sure, the reviewer didn’t like the translation, but at least she didn’t make Silver invisible. On the contrary, it was exactly Silver’s use of language that she objected to (e.g., “the translation fails spectacularly to deliver anything like Sada’s wonderfully wacky prose”). But not all “good” reviews are bad reviews. Silver also mentioned one in The New York Times, for instance, that exulted in her language. And where else can readers find decent reviews of translations? The panelists suggested Bookforum, The Nation, Full Stop, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Coffin Factory, not to mention two individual critics: Tim Parks and Ruth Franklin.

·      The thought-provoking panel on translating Slavic poetry, organized by Sibelan Forrester. The first panelist, Olga Bukhina, who translates children’s books, wondered what to do with English free-verse poems when rendering them for an audience of Russian youngsters, whose ears are not accustomed to such formlessness. (Ironically, I have the opposite problem.) At the same time, she acknowledged that Russian literary culture might just be in the middle of a change, since readers—even the youngest ones—have more and more exposure to Western authors. Vers libre for tots could be the next big thing! On the same panel, Jim Kates tried to figure out why so many Russian poems don’t have titles (one possible answer: Russian journals publish “not single spies, but battalions of poems”), and Brian James Baer listed all the reasons why Russians think their language is better than anyone else’s. Baer also brought us back around to free verse, which he says Soviet poets rejected as “American cultural imperialism.” Is that still so?

·      The publishers’ panel, “From Rights to Submission,” that gave us translators a glimpse behind the mysterious curtain. Kristi Coulter from AmazonCrossing claimed that “publishers love translators,” and suggested that if translators want to develop a relationship with a publisher, they “be willing to take on small projects. We commission a lot of sample translations.” Unfortunately for us poetry types, AmazonCrossing focuses almost exclusively on what Coulter calls “commercial fiction.” As for publishing rights, Tom Roberge from New Directions explained that, while translators should find out what they can, publishers can help out with obtaining rights too. Roberge also said that a publisher’s rejection of a book manuscript could actually be turned into an opportunity: since publishers know the lay of the land better than anyone else, they can suggest which of their competitors might be a better choice. So just ask them: “Well, if you don’t want to publish my book, then who might?”

·      The roundtable on translator’s work habits, moderated by none other than the writer of this here blog. During that session, we learned that the prolific Polish translator Bill Johnston gets up in the wee hours to translate for two hours before breakfast. Every day, seven days a week! On the same panel, Sibelan Forrester explained that she begins her translation process by “bulldozing” her way through the text, and then she goes back and cleans up the mess. (Sounds a lot like Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts.”) At the other end of the neatness spectrum is Sean Cotter, who said he made a spreadsheet to rank and organize the hundreds of translations in his last book. (I might just steal that idea!) Erica Mena does all her translating online, with each tab in her browser containing something she needs — dictionaries, search engines, files in Google Docs, and the like.

What’s in store for us in Bloomington next fall? I’m sure that ideas are percolating throughout the ALTA community and will pop up in due time, but I did already hear a couple of good ones in Rochester. One person suggested a panel on technological tools used by translators, another had the idea of exploring the interplay between translation and creative writing, and a third was considering doing a session on Jewishness in translation. If these are any indicator of what’s out there, we’ve surely got another good conference in the works for next year.

But come to think of it, I may not be quite done with this year’s ALTA conference: rumor has it that Chad Post and crew will be posting videos from Rochester on Three Percent. And since we had so many excellent panels to choose from, I definitely missed some good ones, such as Chad’s interview with the woman we Slavic translators all look up to, Marian Schwartz. I hope to catch a few bits of her wisdom online!


  1. It was fun to read your post, Jamie, and think back to ALTA: thank you for covering some of the panels I didn't go to! Thank you, too, for your work habits panel, which I thought was lots of fun, a great way to start the morning. I'm already looking forward to Bloomington!

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I'm looking forward to reading your take on Rochester! And yes, Bloomington is already penciled into my calendar too.