Do you secretly want to be a literary translator?

By Felicity Pearce

I do. I guess it’s not a secret anymore, but I think it’s quite a common dream among us commercial translators, and most literary translators will admit to doing some commercial work on the side. Of course, they must only do the glamorous and creative stuff, but it seems that they are not always only working on translating a book. Or a poem, which could easily take just as long.

And so I began my journey into the world of literary translators, attending this year’s International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School which was run by the British Centre for Literary Translation and Writers’ Centre Norwich, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Unesco City of Literature, of course. The summer school combined literary translation workshops with creative writing sessions and panel discussions.

Apart from being surrounded by genius, one thing that really stood out for me during the week was the collaboration among translators, nicely linking in to my last post on the #translaborate event. Our English-language workshop leader, a writer herself, also highlighted that this collaboration is not quite as natural among writers, who usually work in terrifying or beautiful solitude. I now have a better understanding of the fear of the blank page.

But back to translation. With the array of exotic languages on offer at this year’s Summer School, I considered trying Italian, which I love but do not have an in-depth knowledge of, or German, which I have a good understanding of, although our relationship is very complex. But in the end I went for the non-language-specific prose workshop, which took me so far out of my comfort zone, working with a Bengali text (and a first-draft/literal translation thereof). Imagine the discomfort of having zero comprehension of the source text! But we were all in it together, feeling our way through the dark.

The process was very enlightening. I see it as a slow-word movement in the middle of commercial deadlines and requests and follow-ups. We spent the whole week on it (many morning and afternoon sessions) and, by the end of the third day, I think we had less than 200 words, and even those were not finalised! What we did was a kind of editing/translating hybrid, and we had in-depth access to the source language and culture through Arunava Sinha, our workshop leader. It is easy to apply everything we were doing to translations with the languages I do understand, and especially to the editing we do every day.

On the last day, we enjoyed listening to the work of each group (translations from Dutch, German, Korean and Italian, to name but a few) and a dinner at the medieval Dragon Hall, the home of Writers’ Centre Norwich. Dragons feature a great deal in the history and architecture of Norwich, and Dragon Hall itself has a hugely rich history. The building began life in the 15th century as a trading hall, but has housed many other businesses and causes in its colourful history, including a brothel, we were told.

Dragon at Dragon Hall

A dragon relaxing at Dragon Hall

I cannot recommend this summer school highly enough, and if you are interested in literary translation, here are some other points of interest (if you are a literary translator or if you know of any more, please comment):

In Other Words journal from BCLT

Translate in the City Summer School – held annually in London

International Translation Day event at the British Library

Emerging Translators Network – E-mail based forum to ask questions about literary translation in a safe environment

European Literature Night – event held annually at the British Library

Translators Association – part of the Society of Authors

MA in Literary Translation at UEA

American Literary Translators Association



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