Saturday, November 16, 2013

Destination: Bloomington, Indiana. American Literary Translators Association Annual Conference Trip Report

It took a few weeks, well, a month, but here, finally, is a trip report on the American Literary Translators Association conference, held this year at Indiana University in Bloomington. Indiana. Not Illinois. Here’s some of what I enjoyed most…

First off, ALTA awards news: I was very excited that Philip Boehm won the 2013 National Translation Award for his translation of Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, which I read last year and recommend highly. Müller wrote the book in German but there are bits of Russian, too, with lots of wordplay. Lucas Klein won the Lucien Stryk Prize for translating, from the Chinese, Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, by Xi Chuan.

The first time slot of the conference after the first plenary session—in which Maureen Freely, chair of the Translators Association in the UK, spoke about translating Orhan Pamuk, noting, among other things, Pamuk’s intentionally trance-inducing long sentences, something I relate to oh-so-well—included a section of readings of translations from the Russian. ALTA’s bilingual readings are always fun, thanks to Alexis Levitin who serves as organizer and emcee; this year’s attendees included second-year Russian students from IU. Katherine Young read her translations of poetry by Inna Kabysh and Tanya Paperny read her translation of a story (“Иллюзион”) from Andrei Krasnyashykh’s cycle of stories Парк культыры и отдыха (The Park of Culture and Relaxation); another of Tanya’s translations from the cycle is here. I participated in this section, too, reading the beginning of my translation of Vladislav Otroshenko’s Приложение к фотоальбому (Addendum to a Photo Album), which I’m working on for Dalkey Archive Press.

And then there were panels and roundtables…  
  • “Translating Voice in Russian Literature,” which focused on poetry, was fun, with Alyssa Dinega Gillespie speaking about Zinaida Gippius’s “Она” (literally “She”), a poem I vividly remember from grad school (!!!), Anna Barker looking at Lev Tolstoy’s stories for children, and Jim Kates focusing on Alexander Pushkin’s “Ворон к ворону летит” (“Raven to raven on the wing”) and offering multiple translations, including his own, Yevgeny Bonver’s, and Google Translator’s. I thought Google’s work was particularly funny for these lines, which seem to invoke both Poe and an executive assistant: “The Raven, where we used to have dinner? / How can we check on that?”  
  • “Translating Fiction IV: Characters and Voice” was fun, too: Alex Zucker’s discussion of translating Petra Hůlová’s Paměť mojí babičce (translated as All This Belongs to Me) was particularly useful for ideas on colloquial speech and mixed language since Hůlová tosses in Mongolian and Russian. Marian Schwartz spoke about working on novels by Andrei Gelasimov, noting differences in registers (e.g. veterans tend to swear) and mentioning the presence of Yuri Levitan, a real-life Soviet radio announcer during World War 2, in Gods of the Steppe. Levitan appears fairly regularly in contemporary fiction and names like his, which are pretty obvious to Russian readers, are unknown to most non-Russian readers. The two other speakers were Sean Cotter, who spoke about Romanian writer Mateiu Caragiale’s Rakes of the Old Court, whose wonderfully “extravagant diction” (I think that’s a quote!) presented challenges, and Susan Bernofsky, whose talk about her work on Kafka’s Metamorphosis made the “IV” in the panel’s title feel less like a Roman numeral than an invigorating IV of adrenalin because her advice about exaggerating characteristic “things” in a translation to sharpen style, starting in early drafts, hit me at the perfect time. Honestly, I think it’s worth heeding the advice of anyone who calls Gregor Samsa a drama queen.
  • I also moderated a roundtable discussion, “When Two Multilingual Heads Are Better Than One,” in which Olga Bukhina, Sibelan Forrester, and Alyssa Dinega Gillespie discussed close collaborations with their authors. Olga talked about working with Eugene Yelchin on translating Breaking Stalin’s Nose into Russian (and she gave me a copy, which I’m looking forward to reading!), Sibelan noted lots of useful procedural aspects of collaboration, such as clarifying what’s unclear and handling writers with “some English,” and Alyssa, who has written about Marina Tsvetaeva and won awards for translating her, spoke about working “with” dead writers through scholarship and writing original poetry.

I’ll stop there since several other bloggers have already written great pieces about the conference. Here are some links:

Susan Bernofsky/Translationista: ALTA 2013 Part 1: Cole Swensen. A nice summary of keynote speaker Cole Swensen’s talk.

Susan Bernofsky/Translationista: ALTA 2013 Part 2: Publishing and Funding News.

Susan Bernofsky/Translationista: ALTA 2013 Part 3: Advocacy and Promotion.

Will Kirkland/All In One Boat: Leaping Linguals! Everything is Understood! Will mentions lots of wonderful details from the conference, including highlights of ¡Declamacion! readings (BTW, I recited a poem by Evgeny Kropivnitsky about bedbugs, lice, and mice, in commemoration of finding a bedbug in my room after last year’s ¡Declamacion! event), keynotes, and a closing night talk at a special Founders’ Dinner, at which Willis Barnstone spoke about ALTA, translation, and many other things, culminating with readings that then culminated with Apocalypse via “Seven seals,” from Barnstone’s The Restored New Testament: A New Translation Including the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas. A personal note: The Apocalypse is quite a way to end a conference. It sent me for a final ice cream at Hartzell’s, my very favorite place in Bloomington.

Yardenne Greenspan/Words Without Borders: Dispatch from the 2013 ALTA Conference. Another nice summary, one I particularly enjoyed for mentioning the informal aspect of ALTA that I love so much.

Bonus Links!

Sal Robinson’s update on the Tolstoy Internet project: “Russian volunteers put the complete works of Tolstoy online”. Sal, an editor at Melville House, is also a co-founder of the Bridge Series, “a reading series focused on translation” that holds events sounding so painfully great that I sometimes wish I lived in New York. City. It was great to see Sal at ALTA.

Martin Cruz Smith’s “Five Best” column on Russian humorists in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Yet another reminder that I never ever seem to get back to Zoshchenko… Sara Paretsky’s “Five Best” column in today’s Wall Street Journal focuses on “bearing witness to the unspeakable” and also includes two Russian books.

File:IUB Lilly Library P1000231.jpg
The Lilly Library, a darn hard place to find if you don't really know where you're going. It houses rare books and manuscripts, including translators' papers.

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, which I’ve been promising forever!

Image Credit: Vmenkov, via Wikipedia/Creative Commons.


  1. Elif Batuman is many things, but she is not a Russian humorist. I wish I could ask Martin Cruz Smith what he was thinking.