Personality Without Ego
A Review of ALTA’s 31st Annual Conference, October 15 – 18, 2008, Minneapolis / St. Paul

By Lucas Klein


Translators are, by definition, interested in more than one thing. This makes them great people to talk to, and marks a distinction between translators and academics, who are often interested only in one thing.[1] Translators are also different from writers, many ALTA participants reminded me, who also tend to talk about one thing: themselves.[2] You can’t be a translator and be egocentric. While we all bemoan what Lawrence Venuti calls "the translator’s invisibility," the benefit of being under-noticed is that as a group we’re generous, considerate, and, because we’re conscious of how much we haven’t read and grateful for what we have, very warm to each other. Of course, we all enter this profession for money and fame, but somehow in pursuit of that we have learned the value of listening to others before we speak, and of incorporating the viewpoints of others into our self-expression. With translators, you get lots of personality without lots of ego.

This also means that, as opposed to an academic conference, where people go not to learn but to cherry-pick, and where possibilities for discussion boil down to possibilities for one-upmanship, at ALTA the panels are very well attended and discussion is fruitful. People actually want to go to panels at ALTA, and this year’s panels drew large audiences. I showed up too late on Thursday to hear the panels “Translating Poetic Form,” “Talking Shop: How to Workshop a Translation,” “Retranslation: Influence, Interference, Infraction,” and “Translation in Every Classroom,” which I remain curious about. But the first Plenary[3] lecture by Peter Theroux on “Arabic Translation in English: Be Careful What You Wish For,” which critiqued America’s failure and resistance to representing Arabic literature in English embodied the spirit of agreeable and constructive contradiction exemplified by the ALTA conference year after year

Friday morning I attended the tail end of Cris Mattison’s panel on “The New Collectivization,” which asked whether anthologies helped introduce foreign literature into English or else stopped single-author projects from finding publication; the discussion ended up looking for new ways to bring translators into the marketing of anthologies so that they could be starting points, rather than endpoints, of international writing. Then, unable to decide between attending a panel on the complexities of translating punctuation and one on “Forming the Literary Translator and the Critic of Literary Translation: International Perspectives,” I stopped by the buffet to grab a coffee and pastry and found myself in conversation with Richard Jeffrey Newman, translator of Persian poetry, before a truncated meeting with a publicist from Penguin Books.[4] Early that afternoon I was on the “Reviewing Translations” panel, chaired by
Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. The panel began with Martin Riker bemoaning a state of translation reviewing where [this] passes for praise.[5] Daniela Hurezanu echoed, noting the problem with reviews based on the premise that we all know—and agree about—what literature is. Johannes Görannson, quoting Slavoj Žižek, followed by challenging us all even further by dis/agreeing with Martin’s notion that translation was good for the health of American literature, saying instead that he wanted to destroy American literature. Somehow, we were all nodding along. I spoke last, and mentioned a few of my standards for judging translation while reviewing translation, followed by a synopsis of a review’s afterlife in preparing it for translation into Chinese.

Saturday morning began with Esther Allen’s Plenary lecture, “Pastiche, Imposture, or Commentary? Thoughts on the Scholarly Status of Translation,” focused on the problem of tenure-review committees ignoring translation. More than just preaching to the choir, her plea for literary translation to count toward promotion passed through a sociology of our culture’s academic sphere as well as a number of new approaches to understanding translation as scholarship and commentary. She says she hopes her talk will be published in the
PMLA, and I hope to have a chance to read it. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if they do not print it, we should all withdraw our subscriptions in protest (by a show of hands, the vast majority of her audience at ALTA were academics of some stripe).

The panel Art Beck and I co-chaired, “Versions, Forgeries, Colonizations: Deliberate Departures from the Text,” followed the lecture, and Art and I managed to come down on opposite sides of the ethic that says the translation of a good foreign-language poem should be a good English poem (him for, me against), but again, our opposition came from a fundamental agreement. On the same panel, Silvia Kofler mapped the ways that a paragraph of Goethe’s from The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) has been translated over time; by the end of her talk, I found myself changing my mind about my preferred translation. Steve Bradbury closed the panel with a take on the colonized writing back, focusing on how the new work of Taiwanese avant-garde celebrity poet[6] Hsia Yü 夏宇 uses translation as a condition of its creation, and how he goes about trying simulate its effects in English to create its translations.

That afternoon, I also made it to the second half of Becka McKay’s panel on “Comparative Translation: A Teaching Toolbox,” where she, Emily Goedde, Jason Grunebaum, and Diana Thow looked at how to teach translation in the literature class, the English class, the creative writing class, and the foreign language class. The discussion afterwards pointed to different ways of teaching translation—one memorable comment was for students to translate between different modes of discourse, in English—with an overall sharpening of knowledge of why we need to explore ways of teaching translation.

Any conference is a wrestle between professional and social obligations, and while at ALTA the two seem to blend more easily than anywhere else, my review should focus at least as much on the liquor & conversation as on the coffee & discussion. Yes: translators translate In vino veritas, or Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια, or 酒後吐真言 into action. And while not everyone is friends with everyone, I noticed no cliques or camps, no divisions or partitions. Everyone seemed to be united by an uncommon common interest, and many were sharing their books along with their stories. Tying these ends together, I heard Willis Barnstone and Suzanne Jill Levine each get asked about their memoirs. The common interest was palpably political, too: Barbara Harshav wore a pin with Obama spelled out in Hebrew, but don’t tell Fox News that Russian translator Peter Golub was wearing a pin from the USSR (in fact, don’t tell Fox News about this sentence at all). When Lisa Rose Bradford organized a Salsa dance outing, half of ALTA showed up, without even knowing that the restaurant used to be home to Bob Dylan, where he wrote “Positively 4th Street.”

Bob Dylan also made an appearance at Declamación, where “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was recited in Portuguese. Belgian singer Jacques Brel, via Arnold Johnston, turned up alive and well to sing “Ne me quitte pas,” first in French and Flemish and then in Johnston’s rhyming, faithful English. Declamación invites translators to recite or perform songs, poems, and rhymes from around the world, and its only rule forbids reading from a script. The only rulebreaker was Taiwanese poet Ye Mimi 葉覓覓, who read her five-minute poem
蛾在腋下產卵,然後死去, but only because she had been roped into reading by her translator, Steve Bradbury, following his recitation of his translation, A Moth Laid Its Eggs in My Armpit, and Then It Died (Steve was displeased, but everyone else agreed that his performance would have been nowhere as moving if he hadn’t forgotten his lines and scurry for his notes). Later, Chaucer showed up to recite from The Canterbury Tales.

Not all was fun and pleasant or marked by solidarity, evidently. Driving home from the airport, an ALTA board member told me about the members’ meeting, which I hadn’t attended.[7] She said the meeting had been acrimonious, that an argument erupted over the requirements of the ALTA National Translation Award: to encourage recognition for translators, a new rule stipulated that publishers could only nominate translators for the award if the translator’s name appeared on the book’s cover; as a result, submissions dropped from 90+ last year to 20+ this year. The debate was over whether to hold onto the requirement and keep pressuring publishers to recognize our work on the cover, or else to take a step back because our rule is, in the short term at least, only harming translators. I’m all for pressuring publishers, but are the terms of the award serving us? Should we instead work for other ways to compel publishers to put our names on the cover? Of course, that would mean nothing if we aren’t also well paid for our work. The point is money and fame, remember.

While this debate was evidently unpleasant, I have no doubt that it was but an uncomfortable moment amidst a festivity marked by camaraderie. Translators—translation—make people uncomfortable: in wartime we may be spies, and we have a menacing habit of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. But while the rest of the world may have trouble trusting us, we excel at trusting each other. This trust is essential if we’re going to find ways to expand translation, to push for greater recognition of our work from the book industry, and to increase understanding of what we do amongst the greater public. In short, we have to trust each other before anyone else can trust us. We’re far from attaining wide trust and recognition, but from what I saw at ALTA Minneapolis, we’re not off to a bad start.


[1] At a conference in my academic field, the often hierarchical Chinese studies, convention seems to disallow anything but progress reports on research, and that everyone wants to be talking to someone else: grad students want to talk to the young professors who seem to have “made it,” young professors want to talk to senior professors, and senior professors want to talk to their friends and elders, whom they may only have a chance to see once a year.

[2] I’ve never been, but see Brandon Holmquest’s review of AWP New York, “Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw,” parts I and II.

[3] Aside from the ALTA program, I have nowhere else encountered the word “plenary.”

[4] I’m not sure how he found me or what he got out of the conversation. I left the meeting feeling good that Penguin was reinvigorating its desire to print translations and overcoming its history of bad work and low pay, but also that my areas of expertise are probably not right for the direction they’re headed.

[5] Martin quoted the second to last paragraph of Er and Beau Friedl’s
LA Times review of The Temple of the Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen, by Tsutomu Mizukami, translated from the Japanese by Dennis Washburn (Urbana-Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008), the only paragraph to mention the translation:
Fiction in translation can sometimes be a painful slog. Not in this case. Even the best translations put a pane of glass between author and reader, but while some lines here buzz with what seems the white noise of an interloper, most of Dennis Washburn’s translation is imperceptible.
But how would that be received if we translated it into a discussion of fiction in general?
Fiction can sometimes be a painful slog. Not in this case. Even the best novels put a pane of glass between story and reader, but while some lines here buzz with what seems the white noise of an interloper, most of Philip Roth’s writing is imperceptible.
[6] Perhaps only in Taiwan can these terms string together without resulting in oxymoron.

[7] I had forgotten to pay my dues, so I’m technically not a member.


Lucas Klein is a union organizer and editor of the online journal of creative translation, After living in Beijing and Paris, his current home is in Connecticut, where he slouches towards a PhD in Chinese Literature at Yale. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at CipherJournal, Frank, Mānoa, Composite Translations, Big Bridge, and Jacket, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues.


Anonymous said...

HI Lucas, THanks for this rich digest of ALTA 2008. I ALMOST made it, but much to my dismay, did not, and missed out on sharing my book, finally published after 6 years of editing/translating. I had looked at the panel descriptions and there were at least 8 panels I wanted to attend, not to mention socialize with all our friends. Well, let's hope we see each other at Pasadena in 2009! And thanks again for this great blog. Niloufar

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