ALTA40: A Brief Report

(This is long overdue.)

In July I was notified that my submission to the ALTA Travel Fellowship, an opportunity by that point that I had nearly forgotten about and long-since given up on seeing any results from, had been selected as a finalist. It was a wonderful surprise, though soon driven to disappointment when just a few weeks later I learned I hadn’t been chosen in the final round. As a consolation, however, I was offered free registration for ALTA40: Reflections/Refractions, so in mid-October I found myself packing my bags for Minneapolis anyways.

The conference was informative, though perhaps surprisingly, not necessarily enlightening as far as the method and theory of translation. I did not meet the wizened, experienced translator who would take me under their wing and guide me to success. (Alas.) Nor did I meet the publisher interested in paying advance royalties for my next 10 book-length translations. (Alas, alas.) I did, however, meet many others in my own situation, younger students with a taste for it, though little publication history.

The diversity of panels was encouraging. No less than three panels related in some way to “queering” translation and exploring LGBTQ voices in translation. A panel on “choosing to translate women,” which was nice, though I thought did not go far enough in engaging with the historic gender dynamics inherent in the profession of translation (ie. women translate what men create). I was disappointed to miss a presentation by Susan Bernofsky, and I was otherwise surprised by the dearth of translators working in German. However Russian was well-represented.

Lydia Davis’ keynote was surprisingly quaint, describing “the pleasures of translation” to a room full of people who arguably knew intimately well the pleasures of translation. However, it was wonderful to hear her speak in light of conversations I’d had at DU, where some became quite heated in comparing her (in)famous translation of Proust to the classic Moncrieff. (I myself have zero investment in French, and found myself on team Davis if only for her supposed faithfulness to the original).

Svendsen on “The Mad, the Bad, the Dreamy: Translating Literary Rogues and Eccentrics”

The highlight for me was in fact Christina Svendsen’s presentation on her remarkable translation of Unica Zürn’s Trumpets of Jericho. I hadn’t known Svendsen was attending until I was shocked to read her name in the program. (Context: the only time I have ever pre-ordered a book was Trumpets of Jericho when it was announced.) Her work takes on Zürn’s anagrammatic writing, a nearly impossible task for translation. Svendsen, however, does a masterful job weaving both aesthetic translation (reminiscent of Christian Hawkey‘s work on Ventrakl) and substantive translation of Zürn’s wonderfully bizarre text. The result is a beautiful liminal space, made all the more tenuous by the already unstable contents of Zürn’s writing.

As an aside, Minneapolis turned out to be a lovely city. As Denver sinks further into the beige, brewery and dispensary-infested hole it has dug, Minneapolis seems focused, engaged. Its artists are funded, its authors supported, and I could not ride the bus without passing at least two large arts complexes. I was also surprised to learn it is the home of Coffee House Press, that legendary publisher of DU’s most experimental, confrontational writers. (They are a non-profit, supported by Minnesota’s generous arts funding). And there is something to be said for the beauty of Minneapolis’ skyline at night.

In the end, perhaps where ALTA40 was most valuable was in understanding a little more of what it is to be a literary translator. I expected the university-sponsored students and faculty, but was surprised to see how many hobbyists and local writers the conference attracted. There is a large variation in the level of critical engagement with which translators approach their work, and if anything, I left feeling even more committed to the route of scholarship rather than to translation in and of itself. Translation is valuable to me as a space for the interaction of creativity and logic. To invoke Davis’ speech, it is the pleasure of problem solving. There is also no greater method of understanding one’s own limitations in the source language than pouring over each and every word and attempting to render them first into meaning and then into English.

Being selected as a finalist for the Travel Fellowship was validating, though not life-changing. There was an atmosphere of collaboration that I hope will result in some exciting projects coming up, though all remains chained to the speed of email communication. I’m not sure if I will attend again without financial sponsorship, but I am profoundly glad I was able to this year.

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