The 2014 conference was held November 12-15, in Milwaukee. In its coverage, the local Journal Sentinel noted that the conference center “may be nearly as multilingual as United Nations headquarters – only with better taste in books,” which is an accurate description of this three-days-long roster of panels, roundtables, readings and award receptions. Indeed, despite the array of experience levels, subject matter expertise and language pairs, the common ground of a shared passion for the written word is fertile for animated discussions on the art of translation in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. How fortunate, then, that Milwaukee should serve as setting, for, as the article goes on to point out, this year ushered in a new tradition of close collaboration with the local community, in the form of public readings at the Milwaukee Central Library (after which ALTA donated copies of award-winning translations and shortlisted books to the library) and a closing event featuring a presentation from poets in local indigenous languages.
For translators, as literary, cultural and linguistic ambassadors rolled into one individual, the annual ALTA conference offers a healthy mix of practical and theoretical panels, and this year was no exception. Personal favorites included a lively discussion among editors and educators of the politics of reviewing translations – the responsibilities of the reviewer and potential pitfalls – as well as a fascinating look at that consummate reader (and translator), Jorge Luis Borges, which traced the ripples of his influence in Italian literature, current translation work and philosophy. The panel “Visible Difference: Translating in the Field of Vision” called attention to the often neglected visual (and auditory) demands of translation – how the poetic text looks on the page, how graphic artists render onomatopoeic language in conjunction with the pictorial narrative, or, in the case of avant-garde theater productions, how the translation engages visually with the audience via the action onstage.
Two translators in particular were honored for their work at a reception Thursday night: Jonathan Chaves, for his translation of Every Rock a Universe – The Yellow Mountains and Chinese Travel Writing, by Chinese poet Wang Hongdu, was awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize, which recognizes book-length translations in the areas of Asian poetry or Zen Buddhism. Chaves subsequently delighted attendees with an energetic reading of selected passages from his publication, replete with a vivid cultural background detailing the spiritual significance which the Yellow Mountains held for Wang and his contemporaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich were awarded the National Translation Award for their co-translation from the Russian of An Invitation for Me to Think, by poet Alexander Vvedensky. As Ostashevsky was not present at the conference, Yankelevich read a few words of heartfelt thanks on both their behalf and then treated the audience to a reading from the book judges called an “alchemical translation, with its shifty rhymes and non-rhymes, intense images and absent logic,” a book which “knits and unknits reality before the reader’s eyes, walking not a line so much as a live wire.” Both these texts call attention to the intense demands which translation places upon its practitioners and that thrill of “discovery” – felt by translator and reader alike when an obscure title is given new life in English – which makes of their labors such a worthy endeavor.
As much as I look forward to the stimulating panels and the wealth of new translated literature on display via the awards ceremonies and readings, it is the camaraderie of like-minded individuals that keeps me coming back to ALTA every year. “I once lost a friend over a relative pronoun,” confessed an audience member in a panel I attended on editing translations. The other members of the audience burst into a resounding laughter, yet I doubt any considered hers a far-fetched scenario. In fact, had the floor been opened up, it is likely many would have shared similar stories. That kind of dedication, that bleeding together of personal and professional responsibility, is rare in any field. But here is a group of professionals who practice their art not for money or renown but for a love of literature, who fervently support one another in what is often a very lonely voyage through the twists and turns of research, rights, permissions, editing, funding and – if you’re lucky, and perhaps years after beginning – publication. At ALTA, such linguistic debates, far from threatening relationships, foster and cement them.
I look forward to the spirited discussions, the rigorous panels and the many languages seamlessly tickling my ear in 2015. And when that “babel of literary translators” descends upon Tucson a year from now, I will be proud to be among their numbers.
Higgins, Jim. "Literary translators bring mission of access to Milwaukee." Journal Sentinel. 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Mena, Erica. "NTA Winner: An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky, translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich." ALTA Talk. American Literary Translators Association. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Mena, Erica. "Stryk Prize Awarded to Jonathan Chaves." ALTA Talk. American Literary Translators Association. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Image via American Literary Translators Association
© 2014 Amanda Sarasien