Dispatch from the 2013 ALTA Conference

By Yardenne Greenspan

On Friday, October 18th, the second day of the 2013 American Literary Translators Association Conference at Indiana University in Bloomington,  keynote speaker Cole Swensen spoke about translating the word “friendship.” She presented the origins and roots of the word in different languages, spoke about how the word shifted between meanings and contexts, and then discussed the friendliness of the translation process – creating a connection between two tongues through a shared text, merging two languages into one common thought, and the inevitable intimacy that is formed between a translator and her author.

Swensen’s talk was informative, charming, and appropriate. It fell right in line with the previous day’s lecture given by Maureen Freely, about her close working relationship with Orhan Pamuk, not only as translator of his novels, but as a friend who had also grown up in Istanbul. It wasn’t simply the similarity of their pasts, but rather, the differences between them, which informed her reading and her translation of Pamuk’s writing. It was the knowledge of the nuances of life in Turkey, not only those experienced by Pamuk, which helped her create a faithful rendition of his words. Once again it was friendship—the affinity and distance between people, cultures and forms of art—that defined the work of a translator.

I could certainly relate. Translating a book means becoming more deeply familiar with it than most anybody else who will ever read it, think about it, or review it. It is considering not only the proper English equivalent for each word in the original language, but also the context of the word, the voice, the mood, and the intention behind it. It is getting into the author’s head and heart, attempting to know them from the inside. If one is lucky enough to have a living author to converse and work closely with, sometimes this friendship can escape from the page and into real life.

But it wasn’t only evident in the talks and our individual work. Friendship seemed to be the main theme of the ALTA conference, and from the reports of longtime members, I’ve learned that it has been for years. Visiting the panels, listening to readings, and having snacks, lunches, dinners, and drinks with translators, editors, publishers, and professors from all over the world, I saw that people formed more than business relationships—contacts that would lead to publishing opportunities and creative collaborations. They laughed and were merry and silly together, comparing their experiences of working in the industry, their habits, specialties, and little tricks, and enjoyed being in the company of people who know what it’s like to be in love with words.

The conference featured helpful panels on questions and issues faced by translators (how to translate comics and hybrid texts; poetic idiosyncrasies; what makes a piece of writing untranslatable) on the business side of translation (residencies and fellowships; the promotion of published translations; money) and on translation education (creative writing and translation programs; the teaching of translated texts). Alongside the panels were bilingual readings in a myriad of languages. It was impossible to catch them all, but I was lucky enough to be able to hear Tanya Paperny reading Andrei Krasnyashykh’s short story on how Russian attitudes can transform the results of a soccer game, E.C. Belli reciting the haunting poetry of Pierre Peuchmaurd, and Jessica Cohen reading from David Grossman’s heartbreaking prose-poetry book, which he wrote in the aftermath of his son’s death. More than the musical and soothing effect of listening to these authors’ respective mother tongues and the translators’ interpretations of their work, it was wonderful to hear what these translators had to say about their work process: how the work changed them, how they felt it in their body as it spoke to them in two languages at once.

The grind of the job—sitting alone in front of a computer, fighting off distractions, looking up definitions—can be lonely. Translators are lucky enough to have their source text to keep them company, but the opportunity to spend a few days among others like them and be able to put into words everything they love about their craft, is, well, untranslatable.


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