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Just about my favorite place to be in the world –or in time– is at the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association [ALTA] which I’ve been going to with some regularity since the first one in Amherst, MA in 1980.  I had just returned from Spain with a manuscript of Garcia Lorca’s poems for children and had no idea if I’d turned them into English that wouldn’t tarnish his magic, or what to do to get the MS turned into a book.  I cold-called Gregory Rabassa, America’s premier Spanish translator,  standing in a phone booth in Grand Central Station and he told me that ALTA had just founded itself and a conference would be coming up.

iu trees2That first meeting, in the snows of Massachusetts, was smaller than the one in Bloomington, Indiana,  from which I’ve just returned but the liveliness spark that was lit there has never gone out.  And the though snow is lovely in its first fall so is the October fall before the first snow.

Imagine if you will, 150 people, speaking 39 languages, some of them 4 or 5 with equal ease, with the sole motive being to hang out with each other.  Unlike other big language conferences — the MLA or AWP, or the ATA– the ALTA conference is not much of a job fair.  Thus, competition to defeat is way down and competition to aid and abet is way up.  People make friends, offer suggestions on publishers, look at manuscripts, listen to other’s reading, think deeply about the interplay of meaning, rhythm, rhyme, shape, sound.  New verbs and gangster argot get the same puzzled interest as ancient similes and intensifiers. 

One young man, at the evening Declamación! –an open mike for declaiming with no help in hand– gave us a bit of The Iliad in his own loose hip-hop translation carried by a stirring oral presentation.  Nobody had ever heard anything like it!  Standing O.  Carolyn Tipton, better known for her translations into English sonnets from Alberti’s Spanish [try it some time!] recited a stanza from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a dialect of Middle English.  We were led in a Swedish drinking song and heard contemporary Vietnamese “ca dao” folk songs, sung in the original and ‘declaimed’ in translation.

The conference is typically composed of five or six parts: the original panels which three or four translators self-organize to take on some aspect of work that has been bedeviling or interesting them. 50 panels in three days — from a ‘One Sentence Translation Workshop’ to ‘Translating Voice in Russian Literature;’ from ‘Decentering Semantics’ to ‘Your Food Basket and My Food Basket;’  from ‘Translating the Untranslatable” to “Recovering Spain’s Generation of ’27.”  My my, how to decide?

Keep in mind that translators, like writers, by and large work alone. We begin to suspect we are strange: does this rhymed couplet matter to anyone but me?  To be among peers is to pass from solitary strangeness to strangeness shared by others, becoming not so strange at all.

ALTA Levitin

Bilingual readings with some 50 readers — the most ever–  add fifteen sessions to the conference. Originated 25 years ago by the indefatigable Alexis Levitin, translators read some portion of their own translated work in the original language and much more in English.  Five readers take up an hour and fifteen minutes.  If the original writer is present, the duo gets half an hour for a fuller reading in the original.  Of course the audience doesn’t always know the source language but, from time to time that is an advantage, giving mental room to focus on rhythms and stresses and rhymes, which in our own translating language can be left as unwanted step-children in the wrestle for meaning and image. 

Each year workshops in particular languages are held, typically with one or two pieces chosen by the organizer, sometimes with small selections brought by the participants.  It’s always a wonder how many “right ways”  a particular passage may be translated.  One evening, (not conference related), I laid down three translations of “Don Quixote” along with the original.  Nowhere did I find more than two words together, identical; nowhere did the the meaning change.  Of course translators can get it wrong, which we all dread and spend kilohours double checking, but what is amazing is how many ways there are to get it right.

ALTA Paschke

A more recent addition to the conference is the evening declamación, Barbara Paschke bringing it in from San Francisco Mission District poetry readings, in which no paper or digital aids are allowed.  The tension that surfaces when the memory needs coaxing transfers itself from speaker to audience as pauses interrupt the flow of sound, eyes rotate, looking elsewhere in the world for the missing verse. We can almost see the language brain at work, re-running a difficult approach to a line or a stanza, to make the take-off the second time through.

A highlight is the evening in which the ALTA fellows read to the crowd.  All new translators, and generally young, they have been awarded the prize after being read by a panel of experienced translators.  And, besides being refreshed by youngsters taking up the challenge they often, being young, bring new writers — from Turkish, Hungarian, Argentine.

Of course there is a keynote talk or two.  This year Maureen Freely spoke to us, a novelist and translator to Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, including the two major works,  Snow, (2004) and Istanbul: Memories and the City,(2005)  which preceded his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.  She talked about working through difficult passages over long periods of time with a living author –and one who believes his English is quite good enough.  [The benefits of dead authors vs. living authors are a constant topic in our panels and readings.]  Cole Swensen gave a wonderful talk called Friendling Translation,  taking its departure from the lack of a verb for ‘being a friend’ in English and where that leads, which in her case was a delightful spin down etymology lane.  She is a translator from the French and a poet in her own right, reminding us how many of America’s poets have been shaped and informed by the translations they have done:  Richard Wilbur, Robert Bly and Robert Lowell to mention only a few.  Quite a wonderful way to begin a Friday morning!


Borges warns: “Sometimes the original is not faithful to the translation.”

 Not to go unmentioned is Willis Barnstone‘s closing night talk, erudite and far ranging as his own translation work has been, culminating in a powerful, building, prophetic voice, reading his translation of the Biblical Seven Seals (here, at the end of the whole address.)

And, since institutions, even small ones, need ideas, plans, execution and funding there are business meetings — even for poets and translators. [And of course you can join and donate to keep it going.  No deep-pockets means ALTA depends on many ragged ones.]

I was the moderator for several of the bilingual readings.  Spanish I am comfortable in, and enjoyed readings of Pedro Larrea (poetry), Esther Tusquets (fiction) and Fernando Arramburu (fiction) among others.  It’s of course difficult to make a considered judgement about a translation while being read to for 10-15 minutes.  The timbre of the voice, the rise and fall of stress and rhythm and its fidelity to a text we don’t have before  us,  the nervousness or not of the reader can unfairly detract or add to the text.  Even though both poetry and story telling have ancestry deep in the oral tradition, since at least the Industrial Revolution writers have written for the eye as well as the voice and so, unless signaled otherwise, that is how we now read them.   Even so, reading, like lighting a familiar scene differently, brings out matters we might have missed.  And our readers have been improving over the years.  Always enjoyable.

Of the Middle-East, I know some of the literature and poetry — Rumi, in Coleman Barks translation, has long been a bright star in my guiding constellation.   Muhammad Taha Ali, a Palestinian of current years, whose marvelous “Twigs,” as rendered by Peter Cole, I had declaimed the night before, lives in my heart.  Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif of Lebanon and Peter Theroux of Washington D.C.  is a powerful novel still with me, three years after reading.  But understanding any of the languages  — Farsi, Arabic in Iraqi or Lebanese dialects, is quite beyond me.  Our readers rescued us.  We heard of Ahmad Shamloo of Iran from two translators, and he, himself, via one of many YouTube appearances.  Yousef el Quedra from Palestine was new to all the Arabic speakers.  A gentleman who read the Arabic bemoaned that he had spend 60 years immersed in Arabic poetry and now he had so much catching up to do!  And Mahmoud Saeed of Iraq appeared with his translator William Hutchins, giving us a chance to hear him, in language and laughter as he read passages that still tickled him.  Lovely stuff. 

Sometimes we have a reading titled Miscellaneous — not that the languages are, but that the overflow in German, or Chinese, or French needs to be accommodated.  Readings of  Anna Akhmatova  from Russia, Janis Einfelds from Latvia and Alta Price’s bold rendition of a Giuseppe Giochino Belli poem in the Romanesco dialect of Italy, were a fine, unwanted end of the week-end. Rush to the bookstore to find one or more.

And I still missed, only heard high praise for, Olivia Sears reading  Ardengo Soffici of Italy and several others reading Catalan.  Damn!

Several decades ago we were mostly Romance language translators with German, Russian and Yiddish as comfortable companions.  It took a while to attract translators and their work from the Chinese and other Asian languages and even longer from Arabic and Persian, all of which are now modestly represented.  Where we are still embarrassed is in the African languages.  So we were happy to have Setswana represented this year in the fiction of DS Matjila as translated by Karen Haire.  We even got a small taste of native spoken Setswana from a YouTube clip. 

It was the kind of week-end you regret having to leave even knowing that to extend it would be to lessen the compressive charge that makes it what it is.  So then, there is next year, and until then a mountain of attention to the poems and stories, myth-cycles and novels, sacred texts and profane caterwauls, the 2,500 year old texts only just discovered and the pantheon of greats who need to be translated again for new readers believing they are the first to really, fully read Rilke, Kafka, Machado or Trakl.  

So it goes in long human quest to put back together the pieces of the original, mythical Ur-language spoken in the time before time….