“The Infinite Sequence of Minute Decisions”: An Editor at the BCLT Translation Summer School

By Susan Harris

I spent a rapt and giddy week last month at the British Center for Literary Translation’s summer school, housed at the lagomorphiliac University of East Anglia in Norwich. (I’d heard that the UEA campus is chockablock with rabbits, but did not anticipate that they would be grazing on the lawn like herds of small cattle, whole warrenfulls ruminating and frisking about.) This annual program offers intensive workshops in half a dozen languages, at both beginning and advanced levels, in which participants collaborate on a group translation that’s presented on the final day. This program differs from others in that the authors are in attendance, available for questions, clarifications, and the occasional objection. The directors of the program, Daniel “Evil Mastermind” Hahn and his co-conspirator Kate Griffin, invited me to circulate among workshops, observing and offering suggestions and approaches from the editorial perspective. This was the first time I’d actually seen translations in progress;  it was like reading the blueprints and pouring the foundation when I’m accustomed to walking into the completed building and suggesting shades for the paint.

The advanced workshops were led by Katy Derbyshire, working with the German author Daniela Dröscher, Anne McLean (Spanish) with Javier Montes, and Jeffrey Angles (Japanese) with Aoko Matsuda, and the beginning/emerging by Kari Dickson (Norwegian) with Kari Fredrikke Brænne, B.J. Epstein (Finland-Swedish) with Johanna Hölmstrom, and Danny Hahn (Portuguese) with Cristhiano Aguiar. Just as each leader took a slightly different approach, author participation varied as well, from the responsive—Cristiano Aguiar not only attended every workshop, but in true collaborative spirit revised his original in response to the translation—to the less receptive. (Or, to quote Tom Wolfe on a slightly different classroom: "The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening.") Watching the translators go through the texts line by line, each offering and then supporting her version, with the occasional contribution from author or leader, was illuminating, and sobering. Of course, I always knew how much work goes into translation, and how every word is agonized over; but I'd never been involved at this nascent stage, and as I marveled at the process, I cringed to realize how many of my editorial queries involve questions that would have already been raised and resolved far earlier in the process. And of course I'd always suspected that I had the easy end of things, but this surely confirmed that suspicion, not to mention the patience and self-control of the translators I've inadvertently terrorized.

The grueling workshop schedule was broken up by daily panels and presentations, including discussions of life as a literary translator, being translated and edited, translation publishing, and support for translations. Tuesday’s keynote presented Adam Thirlwell and Tash Aw (who’d just learned he was Booker longlisted for Five-Star Billionaire) discussing Multiples, the collection of twelve stories, translated in and out of English and seventeen other languages by sixty-one authors, published by McSweeney’s earlier this year and just out from Portobello in the UK. (In a timely example of cross-cultural hazards in translation, Thirlwell was flummoxed by McSweeney’s cover image of various telephones, since the game alluded to is known as "Chinese Whispers" in the UK.)  Although Thirlwell's deliberate exclusion of professional translators for the project drew a ripple of annoyance from some observers, he redeemed himself somewhat by acknowledging “the infinite sequence of minute decisions" of translation. We also enjoyed a field trip into Norwich for a discussion and reading with Anne McLean, Ollie Brock, and Tom Bunstead from Eduardo Halfon’s Polish Boxer, which they translated with Lisa Dillman and—yes, him again—Danny Hahn, and which originated at the BCLT Spanish workshop and was published to fanfare last year.

Conversations throughout the week covered the Spanish disdain for the em dash, and for editing; the power, or lack thereof, of profanity, in an instructive exchange that broke down neatly by generations; the name for those tonglike devices that older people (short ones, too) use to pluck things from a height or a distance; why "killing two birds with one stone” is not a solution in Japanese; why one Norwegian woman’s name prompts hilarity among Albanians, etc. As I moved between workshops, provocative echoes abounded: the Spanish and Norwegian pieces both had characters anxiously awaiting someone who doesn’t show up (“or should that be ‘arrive’?”); a character in the Portuguese text was of Japanese ancestry; the Finland-Swedish and Norwegian novels both feature ominous forests; the Norwegian and Portuguese texts both featured violent deaths. All was not dark, however: Kari Braenne’s novel includes an elderly woman in Norwegian national costume losing control of her bladder (not dramatized in the presentation); Javier Montes’s brooding character envisions his vacationing girlfriend consorting with artistic Italians; and Aoko Matsuda’s young office worker takes a verbal machete to her simian boss.

The week wrapped up Friday afternoon with the presentations of the final versions of the texts. The specter of a previous Japanese workshop in which an egg was cracked over someone’s head hung over all, but no foodstuffs or translators were harmed this time. The Portuguese group took a meta approach, with one workshop member reading the text and others interrupting with queries, suggestions, and rejections (“can’t that be ‘spot-on’?” “no, too British”). Given my moments of inepititude in the workshops—lost in a thicket of Finland-Swedish compounds and deserted by my sense of hyphenation; futilely waving the flag of US spelling and usage (“cut those silly u’s, replace those s’s with z’s, and get your quotation marks on the proper side of the punctuation”); and a couple of tone-deaf misreadings that made me look entirely numb to nuance—I was gratified to see a few of my suggestions preserved in the final versions presented on Friday. Though I contributed nothing close to Kate’s brilliant drop-by suggestion, in the Portuguese workshop, of “dead ringer” for “spitting image.”

I'd heard raves about this program, can attest to the excellence of its graduates (we've published many), and have recommended it to many young translators. The high level of the workshops and the quality of the translations, then, were as I expected, and the many blogs already published by participants confirm the value and pleasure of the week. But what did surprise me (aside from the Beatrix Potter tableaux vivants) was how the experience would affect my own work.  It may have been translation school for everyone else, but it was editing school for me, an intense practical course in teasing out the most accurate interpretation and then conveying that with precision and artistry. I know I'm reading more effectively as a result. I'm even more alert to multiple layers of meanings. And I'm more conscious than ever of our responsibilities, at WWB, in presenting international literature to the English-language audience. In short, just as the participants emerge as better translators, I return as a better editor. And I can't wait till next year.


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