Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Everyone Is Just Like You – A Report from the 2012 Annual Conference of ALTA

I’m showing my age, and not in the way it’s normally meant. Lunch on Saturday, with a group of literary translators, was punctuated by that song from Barney and Friends: “You are special! Special! Everyone is special, everyone in his or her own way!” (Yes, the exclamation points belong there. Kids’ songs buzz with energy.)

But one thing I learned at the American Literary Translators Association conference, to my delighted relief, was that everyone is not, in fact special and individual and completely different from everyone else. Everyone is, in fact, just like you. Everyone thinks just like you. Everyone has the same fears, the same dreams, the same uncertainties, the same wishes.

  • Everyone wants to be published and widely read.
  • Everyone wants to get paid for their work.
  • Everyone dreams of having the latter two wishes intersect in every job.
  • Everyone has had to deal with that editor who insisted on a long-winded, frankly boring introduction.
  • In a bookstore, everyone bemoans a lack of money for books. And then buys books anyway.
  • While dealing with a particularly tricky passage, everyone has been smothered by the sense that they can’t translate, can’t speak French, can’t even speak English properly.
  • Everyone struggles with procrastination, or not dedicating enough time to their passions, or the overwhelming guilt when procrastinating gets in the way of passion.

So yes, everyone is just like you. At least among literary translators, that is.

My First ATA Conference

Like a baby's first word, or the first day of school: such is the importance of attending one's first major industry conference. It provides a huge (and needed) boost in the attempt to form a full-time career out of a part-time passion.

For three days at the end of October, I went to Boston to see what I could learn, who I could meet, what connections I could forge. And I have to say, it was a rousing success. I've been so busy taking action based on what happened at the conference that I've only now been able to put my thoughts down in the ether ("on paper" being a bit of a misnomer...).

So, here follows, in tidbit/interview form, a general conference review, from the highly biased opinion of a starry-eyed first-timer:

Scariest/best decision: skipping the first-time-attendee orientation session in favor of a seminar on "Translating for Quebec," given by Grant Hamilton. He knows his stuff. I know Québecois is a bit different (so is Canadian English), but he pointed out so many things you must know. Geography. Politics. News. "La fleuve" is not "the river," but the St. Lawrence River. Obviously...

Worst decision: not bringing a winter hat, gloves, and snowboots.  Oh, Nor'easters, how you make life more interesting!

Proudest moment: reading poetry I had translated while living in France, from a dear friend of mine's collection.  And having people give genuine compliments on both the translation and my stage presence.  Thank you, choir/theatre training.

Strangest connection: meeting a French>English translator who lives just across the river in New Jersey, and finding out we had the same professor at NYU -- eccentric Anne-Marie.  She had her in New York, but by the time I came along, Anne-Marie had been politely shuttled to the Paris campus, to finish her dissertation.  25 years in the making.

Best celebrity sighting: Chris Durban. No, no, this isn't your normal star, but a very highly respected French>English translator who is renowned and revered among most in this profession. She is smart, sharp as a whip, and takes no nonsense from whiners. I want to be like her when I grow up.

Most interesting audience member moment: watching the discussion go way off its rails at the Arabic session on theory and framework.  I think it's a cultural thing that makes people who have grown up in Arabic-speaking countries less tactful when butting into a presentation intended to give them useful information.  The presenter, a native-English-speaking professor of Islamic Studies who learned Arabic along the way, was trying to give the by-necessity-generally-amateur Arabic translators a bit of theoretical framework, and they pushed back the whole while.  Not because they didn't think his ideas were useful, but because it just seems to be in their nature.  And at the end, most of them congratulated the presenter on surviving his trial by fire and said they would be taking some of the techniques into account while translating.  Interesting.

First moment I thought "hey, I actually belong here": Friday lunch with some of the French translators I had met the prior evening at the French Language Division dinner.  The dinner had been lovely, fun, and informative, and I had met some great people.  The next day, finding some of those people for lunch, was proof that they weren't just humoring me.  (Some people could have probably realized that during the FLD dinner.  I am, occasionally, harder to convince.)

And now, for the list of awesome things that came from the conference: - personal contacts - an invitation to write a review for the Slavic Language Division's newsletter on a session on translating Rachmaninov's art songs (seems random, but isn't: the request came from the woman who ran the literary readings After Hours Cafe) - the initiative to get involved with my local chapter, the NY Circle of Translators - two possible job offers! - a strong desire to go to next year's conference in San Diego (starting to save money now...) - the knowledge that yes, I can do this

Excellent?  Yes, I would definitely say so.

On the brink...

I feel as though I've climbed a mountain to get here. It is midnight. Eight hours until I wake up for my first day of my first professional conference. I've done more prep work than I imagined possible (and have invariably missed many things). I'm on the brink, waiting to step out into nothingness... Except not quite. I've climbed one mountain, but just a foothill, really. Compare it to the McKinley of the conference, the Everest of a career, all this prep work was really just training. A rock climbing wall.

Here's hoping I remember my not-too-corny elevator pitch by morning!