Tuesday, 31 July 2012

BCLT Summer School Post Mortem

As predicted, the literary translation summer school was too hectic to allow for any blogging. And then I had to recover. But I'm back now to tell you all about it.

I was (nominally) leading a group of ten aspiring and emerging translators, all of whom were already very good at translating. Much of my time was therefore spent feeling slightly superfluous and humble, until I hit upon the idea that I was simply there to provide some structure by telling them what to do and when. That made me feel much better, so I promptly carried on as before but with a clearer conscience, adding smatterings of advice à la "Well, I tend to do it like this but of course it's up to you."

There were two good things about that: firstly, I think the participants felt like they were getting some useful hints from my huge range of experience, and secondly, it meant I put into words some of the ways I work, reflecting on my own methods, intuitions and short-cuts. My mantra was really, however, Rules Are Made to be Broken - there's nothing worse than complacency in translation.

So what did we actually do? The group worked on three extracts from Nino Haratischwili's excellent novel Mein sanfter Zwilling. The first was the short, ten-paragraph prologue, which is very dense and obscure and gave everyone the chance to do a tiny passage on their own, which we glued together in breakneck fashion on the final morning. The second was a sex scene that veered more towards Fifty Shades than Mills & Boon. I chose it for the workshop because I always seem to end up translating steamy sex scenes (is it just me?) and I find it very difficult. My tip for the four brave women who stepped up to the challenge: I'm afraid you're going to have to visualise it. They did, with much gesturing and laughter, and produced an excellent translation. And finally, there was a deceptively simple narrative passage in which a woman tells a story from the Georgian civil war, where the difficulty was retaining the faux-naturalistic speech while not sacrificing literary quality. Again, I was very impressed by the outcome.

We were also lucky enough to have Jim Hinks, an editor at Manchester's Comma Press, joining us in one session. Before exchanging drinking anecdotes, we caused him excruciating embarrassment by presenting him with our sex scene for a spot of live editing. Imagine sitting in a room full of strangers, 91% of the opposite sex, and discussing the right adjective for an ejaculation. The poor guy did so well. Befittingly for a press of that name, Jim also gave us some excellent punctuation pointers. So if you're looking for well-punctuated yet exciting international short stories, look up Comma Press.

The USP, if you like, of the BCLT summer school is that the author is actually in the room with you. Nino Haratischwili was a delight to have around, providing background information to the novel and its settings and willingly answering all our questions. Not a jot of writerly arrogance - to my relief, she very happily surrenders the stewardship of her texts to editors and then to translators, which is not always the case. One thing that was interesting is that she writes fairly quickly and intuitively, whereas we can't work that way. So the trick is capturing that impression of spontaneity while actually painstakingly turning over every word.

The finished translations should be available online soon, at Norwich's great New Writing site. Last year's collaborative translation from Sabrina Janesch's Katzenberge is already there, and keep your eyes peeled for a very exciting project set to launch soon - a platform for collaborative translation by the name of "Translation Lab". Sounds oddly familiar...

To keep us on our toes, the late afternoons were given over to panel discussions (translators, editors, writers) and an interesting keynote speech by the Japanese-American translator and academic Michael Emmerich. Please don't ask me what it was about - although I understood it at the time, I couldn't piece it together again now. The subject matter was pleasantly challenging and entirely new to anyone who doesn't read Japanese, and indeed to most people who do. How innovations in printing technology forced a mass "translation" from one form of Japanese script to another. I think.

All in all, I came away exhausted and elated, having learned a great deal. I hope the actual students felt similar. I can wholeheartedly recommend the summer school to anyone starting out in the literary translation business.


Tony said...

Ah... In another universe (one without kids, work and money issues), I'd be signing up for this in a flash :)

Not that I think my German is actually good enough to be a literary translator, but it's a nice dream ;)

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