As I sat in the Indianapolis International Airport on my way home from the annual ALTA conference in Bloomington Indiana, I tried to think of an angle I could take for this article. Having attended a dozen lectures, met many people, and made a good number of personal and professional connections, how would I shape this into a coherent reflection?
First of all, what were my expectations? I imagined I would find myself amongst professional translators for whom literature was a passion that they pursued on the side (albeit with gusto). I was wrong. Indeed, I was one of a handful of freelance translators. The large majority was associated, in one capacity or another, with a university. Whether a scholar and professor, a language instructor, a department chair, or a graduate student, most people’s first question was some variation of “so, what university do you teach at?”
Actually, one question invariably became a series of them, which went something like this: “So, where are you from? Oh, Montreal, what a beautiful city… so, you teach at McGill? No? Are you doing grad work? Oh, so what’s your focus, what do you publish most?” I must admit that at first I felt a little sheepish in answering that flurry of opening questions with “no, I don’t teach, I am not a grad student, don’t have a post-graduate degree, and haven’t published anything.” I guess you need to start somewhere though, and I was made to feel at home despite my foreignness, both experiential and national. Many people, most notably Pamela Carmell, Barbara Pashke, Brett Alan Sanders, Andrea Labinger, and Jordan Smith, encouraged me despite – or rather because of – my inexperience, and I’m grateful to all who welcomed and encouraged me.
People in the know – people in the industry – have always told me it’s impossible to make a living as a literary translator. And I never doubted them. The point was driven home, however, in a panel on money and how to secure funding for literary projects. At one point the moderator asked the 80 or so participants how many made their living from translation alone. About 20 people raised their hands. The follow-up question was how many of those made their living exclusively from literary translation: one hand. The woman to whom this hand belonged later clarified that she was “married to a full time job.”
Indeed, it is a fairly well-known fact in literary circles that only 3% of book sales in the English-speaking world are works in translation. So if the majority of living poets need to have another source of income, imagine the person translating their poetry… Moral of the story? Forget it, Liam, it’s not going to happen. Literary translation is a hobby and a passion, not a job.
Although as a first-time participant at ALTA, I neither led a workshop nor took part in the bilingual reading series, I did get an opportunity to exhibit my work at Friday night’s informal Declamación. As far as I know, I was the only first-time ALTA attendee to participate in the event. I recited my translation of “Vocación y argumento” from Spanish poet Fernando Valverde’s book Razones para huir de una ciudad con frio, a work that I’ve been plugging away at for almost a year now. While I didn’t have any specific solicitations for my work from publishers, a good number of colleagues, both editors and translators alike, approached me later on to commend my performance and my translation. It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers (and your superiors!)
The conference included workshops, lectures, and bilingual readings, and my struggle in choosing which events to attend reminded me of going to the Ottawa Folk Festival as a child, or to any music festival for that matter. At any given time there are two or three options that seem of almost equal interest. But alas, I could not divide myself, so I tried to divide my time between the nuts-and-bolts lectures about getting published and securing funding; technical and academic lectures that focused on the types of problems encountered in translating certain genres; and finally the bilingual reading series, where translators read from an original work and from their translation of it.
Some of the most valuable aspects I have taken from the ALTA conference are less academic, less technical than I would have expected. With regard to translation techniques, theories, and even to the machinery of the industry, I didn’t learn an enormous amount. Rather, my prior knowledge and understandings were reinforced, and perhaps given a bit of nuance. I feel most enriched by the personal and professional relationships that I made, not to mention my discovering some great poets from cultures I had never read (most notably Japan’s Yoshimasu Gozo and the late Taha Muhammad Ali of Palestine).
For the bilingual reading series I stuck to Spanish-English readings, and was again pleased to discover some new authors I will have to read, such as Argentina’s Alicia Kozameh. The readings also reminded me of the need to keep reading original work in Spanish so that I stay up to date. Living in Canada makes exploring contemporary Spanish language literature a bit difficult. It means I’ve got to judge a book, not even by its cover, but by the little picture and blurb I see on the screen when I order online. Then I just cross my fingers!
For me, this conference was a learning experience, an opportunity to meet people in the industry, and to make connections that with any luck will bring new opportunities. Indeed, it has been a sort of initiation into the North American community of literary translation.
So despite our differences – the fact that I am an unpublished translator who has neither a doctorate nor an affiliation with a university – everyone at this year’s ALTA conference had something in common. Whether poet, freelance translator, graduate student or accomplished academic, each one of us has a love of literature, and more importantly, a desire to make foreign language literature available to an English-speaking audience. Each one is impassioned by the prospect of bringing one culture, one frame of reference steeped in the history of its people, to an audience curious about the world. We struggle with the nuances and the simultaneously frightening and seductive idea of “untranslatability” that beckons us to strive. And so we translate, so that others may read.