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.