Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

ALTA 2014 Mini-review #1: Women Taking Initiative

One of the best parts of my year is the annual ALTA conference, which took place last week in Milwaukee. And one of the best parts of this particular year's conference was the chance to moderate my first roundtable, which had a very fun name, if I do say so myself: "Taking the Initiative: How to Get Involved, Get Results, and Make Friends Along the Way." I gathered a group of translators I admire who have all started very interesting things, and I asked them to describe the process:

  • what they saw lacking in our industry
  • how they decided to fill the gap
  • what made them decide to take action, instead of waiting for someone else to do it
  • what problems they encountered along the way, and how they overcame them

We got some fascinating stories and practical advice out of it.

  • Lisa Carter talked about developing her own freelancing into Intralingo, her small business with courses for literary translators
  • Esther Allen talked about lots of translation initiatives within PEN America, including Michael Henry Heim's amazing donation to fund the PEN/Heim translation grants
  • Olivia Sears talked about how the Center for the Art of Translation was started over twenty years ago, and how the translation landscape has changed in the meantime
  • Erica Mena talked about starting the Anomalous Journal (and eventually Press) out of her own apartment, and the challenges and freedoms of not being a non-profit organization
  • Susan Bernofsky talked about how her incredibly useful blog Translationista was started, as well as some other advocacy work she does to fill the voids
  • I also talked a little about how ELTNA was started, and is continuing to evolve (on the anniversary of its creation)

Notice anything about that list? It's all women.

Now, I didn't plan the panel this way. Initially, I thought about people who had dreamed up some really cool stuff, and asked them if they'd like to come talk about it. And there was one male on my list, but he wasn't able to attend the conference this year. At any rate, about a month out from the conference, I suddenly realized that the people on my roundtable email list were all women.

Erica noticed it, too, and commented on both the panel's makeup and the fact that about 3/4 of our audience interested in hearing these stories were also women. She posited that maybe women start these things--especially if the things involved volunteering or working for free--because women are generally more giving and maternal. (Yes, we're going to be dealing with major stereotypes here. Roll with it for now.) But ALTA was founded by men, and men currently occupy the president, vice president, and past president positions on the board. That's a lot of volunteer work.

Maybe it's just that there are more women translators than men, or at least more who attend the ALTA conference and could thus be said to be involved somehow. (A quick count of participant bios show that approximately 155 women presented or read at this conference, out of approximately 252 total participants--that's over 60% women.) Or perhaps it's that I'm female, and so I'm more naturally drawn toward working or talking with other women.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that men operate more within the existing parameters of leadership to take charge, whereas women find typical leadership roles harder to access, so they just make their own. (This is a hypothesis. I told you there'd be some grossly overgeneralizing stereotypes.) (Also, to clarify, this doesn't actually hold water with ALTA: although the "top three" board positions are held by men, there's actually a female majority on the board, plus our female managing director.)

Basically, what I think I'm trying to say is, there are a lot of possible correlations here, and even more possible causes behind it. And we're getting into slippery statistical territory. Correlation does not imply causation.

Anyway.

To get back to the original topic, the roundtable was fascinating, even for those involved. Every last one of us has our notepads out and were scribbling furiously. We talked a lot about connections and reactions, how one essay can spark someone else to get in touch and do something, how the question to ask is "why not?" instead of listing all possible excuses for getting something done, and how sometimes you just have JDIs: Just Do Its. (I did apologize for the acronym-speak, but my husband's an engineer.) There was also a fascinating discussion of how more established organizations actually find it harder to drum up interest in their programs and new initiatives--CAT and ALTA being two examples--because people think they already know what the organizations are.

And on that note, if you'd like to get involved with an existing thing or have a brilliant idea for something new, come talk to me. Or talk to the appropriate person. Someone. Anyone. Literary translation, much like life, depends on fun new things being formed and developed all the time.