Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

How to Pick an MA/MFA Program in Literary Translation (But first, do you even need one?)

I recently made a quick trip down to NYC at the invitation of the magnificent Sal Robinson for the first event in this spring's Bridge Series: Breaking In. Moderator Allison Markin Powell led Heather Cleary, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Mary Ann Newman, and I in a discussion about the state of getting started in literary translation. As usual, though, there's so much more to say than can possibly be covered in such brief (but otherwise lovely) events. Blog posts have fewer limitations and more links, so let's unpack some of these issues a little more.

The night's first topic was MA/MFA programs in literary translation. One of the great things we've seen in the past decade or so is the sheer growth of programs, especially with how many new programs have started being offered in the States. But here's the thing: you absolutely do not need an MA/MFA to be taken seriously in the literary translation community. There's no real prestige to having an advanced degree in this field. So if you're already getting started yourself, you don't want to take on even more student debt, or you just don't really care for the world of academia, don't fret! This is a creative profession. Your work speaks much more to your abilities than any university-issued piece of paper can.

In order to decide whether or not an MA/MFA is right for you, consider what you’re looking for. Perhaps you feel your English (or whatever language is your own target language) writing isn't strong enough, or you're hopelessly under-read in world literature. Maybe you need to cultivate the relationships and connections necessary to be a freelancer in a creative profession. Or do you need pure business help, a better understanding of how the publishing industry works? If you're just looking for one or two facets of getting started, consider the following (much cheaper) options:

WRITING PRACTICE: There are lots of straight writing workshops offered by many different organizations. Look in your area, or check out these two online:

FEEDBACK ON YOUR TRANSLATIONS: This is pretty easy to do in an exchange between two or several translators. Don't be afraid to ask people -- chances are, they'd like another set of eyes on their work, too! Otherwise, for a more formal setting with experienced translators looking at your work, try the following options:

PUBLISHING INFO: Get an internship at a publishing house. Period. It's insanely useful. Find a publisher you admire and just ask them, especially if it's a newer or small press. Otherwise, here are some good places to start:

  • New Directions
  • Open Letter (generally offers month-long internships over the summer -- email them for more information if you can't find any online)
  • Archipelago
  • The New Press (another of my alma maters, if you can call it that)

THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING: There are books to read, and there are online courses to take. Mix and match, if you like:

CONNECTIONS: Joining an organization and talking to people, whether online or in person, works really well! Check out ALTA and ELTNA (or, for a more UK- and Euro-centric focus, the ETN; or, for a global expat view, the Translators Association Diaspora group on Facebook). Plus, look in your area for translation-related events, and strike up conversations with people there. A mentor, whether informal or through a program, could also be a big help:

  • ALTA's Emerging Translator Mentorship Program
  • BCLT's Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme (old link here; new one coming once the administration of the program changes to Writers' Centre Norwich in mid-2016)

THEORY: Well, in that case . . . maybe you should just go apply to that MFA, after all.

So if you have decided on an MA/MFA program, now you have to choose which one! Although there aren't many out there yet (at least, not in the States), there are still enough different options for everyone, from the 1-year MA at the University of Rochester (the MALTS program, my own alma mater) to the 4-year MFA at the University of Arkansas (which is also lovely, and I know many people who've done that program who would tell you so).

Besides considering things like location, duration, and cost -- which are all very important -- here are two tactics to figure out which program to choose based on what you're looking for:

  • Look at the course list: Is it more theory-based? Lots of writing workshops? Any teaching required/offered? Any courses on how the publishing industry works? What are the thesis requirements? That should be enough to tell you what the different programs have on offer.
  • Look at the faculty, and do a quick Google search on them: Are they purely scholarly? Do they have translations published for a general audience (e.g. published by a non-university press)? Have they written articles for non-academic outlets? Do they serve on boards or run outside programs? That’ll tell you more about what the program will be like and what kind of contact circles/relationships you can expect to build.

So, that's that! Customary disclaimer: This is essentially my own opinion, and it's not the whole picture. Also, it's basically US-specific, since I don't know anything about the many graduate programs that exist in the UK or elsewhere. My personal frame of reference is that I took three years off after undergrad before going to get my MA from the University of Rochester, which was an excellent choice on my part and served the purpose I was hoping it would.

But what about the rest of you? If you got an MA/MFA, did you think your experience was worthwhile? Anyone out there not get an advanced degree and really wish they had? Do you disagree with me altogether? What information am I missing? Let me know in the comments below!