The Translation Tango: On Being an Emerging Translator

Megan Berkobien
From the November/December 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I’ve never liked traveling. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed living abroad or visiting the various countries that have welcomed me. Rather, it’s something in the physical movement from place to place that unsettles. The movement between cultures and languages is a bodily experience; it marks you, and it can be exhausting to learn the new gestures, to contort your limbs into another semantic system, to conjugate your entire tongue. Even after years of not speaking Russian, though, I can still easily pull out the phrase: “My head hurts, do you have any aspirin?”

Last November I felt a similar body ache en route to Milwaukee, which was the location for the 2014 American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference. I entered the Hilton where the event took place—all high ceilings and polished marble floors—and pulled my carry-on luggage into the lobby, my arrival announced by a broken wheel. It wasn’t the romantic vision of becoming a translator—dreamily passing through the streets of Barcelona (though I’ve hallucinated those moments too)—but it was a momentous occasion nonetheless.

ALTA is something of a saving grace for literary translators in the United States. Having been around for nearly four decades, the organization has passed through several incarnations, the most recent transition being from its former institutional home in the Translation Center at the University of Texas in Dallas to an independently run nonprofit arts association in Bloomington, Indiana. Its annual conference draws hundreds of translators, editors, and critics to a different city each year for four days of events and after-dinner drinks. Though perhaps ALTA’s most ambitious undertaking is highlighting the work of its many members, including several special readings that celebrate a series of honors—the National Translation Award, the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and the most coveted award for emerging translators like me, the ALTA Travel Fellowship, which gives four to six up-and-coming translators the financial support to travel to the conference and introduce their work to hundreds of expectant ears. 

I arrived intentionally early that Wednesday, a habit meant to work against my travel anxiety. As a student in a PhD program (at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor), there’s a general expectation for me to attend academic conferences. Having gone to one of those a year earlier—the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago—my expectations for ALTA were, well, skewed. Sometimes these formal gatherings can feel absurd, even at odds with their expressed missions; in my experience, many graduate students are so nervous about their own panel performances that they miss events while preparing to present their fifteen-minute papers. 

So I suppose I was on autopilot when I scurried up to my hotel room that November afternoon, cloistering myself for the better part of three hours, preparing for the group reading I was scheduled to participate in with the other fellows instead of venturing out to meet other translators. My translation from Catalan of Llucia Ramis’s “The Port” had to bear the bulk of my unease: a change in tense here, one word swapped out for another there, until I wasn’t even sure about my English anymore. I knew it was time to leave when I couldn’t quite tell if the was a real word or not.

When I finally headed down to the conference to look for familiar faces, I found the registration line, extending from what was usually the coatroom, growing. And by the looks of those around me, I had overdressed. My choice of black business attire—against that sea of more colorful and casual garb—betrayed that it was, in fact, my first time. 

One by one, my fellow fellows and I spotted one another, our photos having been posted on the ALTA blog some time before the conference. We huddled before the spiral staircase, and our small talk first revolved around whether or not to affix the Fellow ribbons to our badges. The wonderful Marian Schwartz, our mentor, laughed at our general uncertainty and gave us the push we needed. For the rest of the night, the eyes of other veteran translators dropped straight to our chests: “You’re a fellow, eh?” 

Or, my personal favorite: “You don’t look anything like your picture, you know?” 

Receiving an ALTA Travel Fellowship was the biggest honor ever bestowed upon me, to be sure. I remember excusing myself for a moment to hurry back up to my room before the opening ceremony, moving in that excited gait one takes when one’s expecting you. In the elevator ride the lingering disquiet—of having to prove that I deserved to be there among esteemed translators—was interrupted by three lively women who invited me out for celebratory cocktails. And though I opted for the free local beer at the welcome dinner instead, I remembered their laughter later that night—perhaps not better than aspirin for a headache, but just enough medicine to soften the day’s chilled travels and the anticipation of the adventures to come. 

How did I arrive in Milwaukee, as an emerging translator? I fell in love with a certain text, of course. 

Seven years ago I was deep in the guttural trenches of my Russian language studies when I decided to begin university classes in Spanish and Portuguese. Knowing there would be few classes offered in Russian during upcoming semesters—and that those classes would often only cover the wise-old-male masters—I skimmed the course catalogue and happened upon another world entirely, in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures. I didn’t know how the transition would go, because my own story was the normal one: a few years of Spanish in high school, nothing substantive—I probably couldn’t even hold a regular conversation. But at least there was a clear path to work my way up to the more challenging classes and, eventually, achieve some semblance of fluency. What a word—fluency—a spectrum of signs that appear and disappear against one’s will. If you ask an emerging translator just what it means to be fluent, the pause often says more than the response.  

However, as a junior in college, instead of packing my bags and flying off to Latin America, I overcame that first step in the serpentine climb toward bilingualism through textual immersion: translation, that is. This approach is a gamble; most literature on the subject says that you have to live a culture in order to communicate it. But after reading Cristina Peri Rossi’s short story “Rumores” in a class about imagined cities, inhabiting a text seemed the more sensible (or maybe even the only possible) route.

When I began my initial attempt at translating this story, I had both Peri Rossi’s Cuentos reunidos [Collected Stories] and Cosmoagonías [Cosmoagonies], from which the story had sprawled out, beside me. The books were not enough. I also had several dictionaries on loan from the library and a dozen open tabs on my browser, from WordReference forums to pictures of Berlin in winter (“and after dark they would scrawl the words der traum in leben on desolate station platforms or metal shutters”). I knew Tobias Hecht’s brilliant version of the story was already available in English, thanks to Words Without Borders, though it was important for me to resist consulting it. Instead, I poured out my first impressions rather carelessly, listening more to my own sense of the thing than to the thing itself. This is where your own vision of the world takes over, and you wonder how to translate even a simple verb like contemplar, whether or not you really “contemplate the color of the sky.” (I suppose it depends on your translation strategy.) I only spent a few days on the story before putting it away. That’s how it went when I was first starting out; whenever I got frustrated, I would simply swap one cuento out for another. The first story I finished was the penultimate in the collection, “The Uprooted”—six paragraphs about people who weren’t really people at all. 

I ventured my first e-mail to Cristina three months afterward. I mused about the things I loved in a language not my own, things I saw inscribed in almost all of her printed pages. I had written with the secret intention of asking permission to publish my translation of “The Uprooted” in the undergraduate translation magazine I was founding at the time (a low-stakes venue, to be sure, for only a handful of people would ever read it). I made no mention of rights, however; instead I tried to win her over by treating her like a distant confidant, by drawing little sketches in words like private doodles in a notebook. Translation is a lovers’ tango, after all. 

The surprise was that she responded. 

Cristina wrote of love, of Borges, of what it meant to translate and be translated. She asked for a photo so that she could better know the person carrying fragments of her voice to new places, to Ann Arbor, to a time beyond when I would eventually publish her stories (she was more sure than I was on that point). From then on, we would speak about our own cities (real and imagined) as each season passed. In one of my most vulnerable moments, I sent her a video of me singing a Nat King Cole tune, a side of me that I only share with those closest to my heart, and she responded in complete shock that it was her favorite song—something I’m still not sure I believe. I had never trusted Walter Benjamin’s line that some texts call out to be translated at certain times, by certain people, but if I needed a sign, that was it. 

Really, I can’t quite remember when I switched verbs about the work I was doing, from “I want to become a translator” to “I am one.” As I try to hone in on it, the moments simply heap up. I don’t think I was a translator when I completed that first story of Cristina’s, but was I when I finally “completed” the entire collection of Cosmoagonies? (My gut still tells me no.) Or when I won an undergraduate award for it? (The award money was carelessly spent, but kept my spirits high.) Perhaps when I received my first publication acceptance? (“...yes I said yes I will Yes.”) Maybe, finally, when I stood up onstage and delivered another text from the Catalan to an audience of my colleagues in Milwaukee? (The importance of this gesture of acceptance by my colleagues was crucial, and there was my badge to prove it.) More than anything, I suppose, it was hearing, first through e-mail, then in person, from Cristina that my work mattered, and that she granted me poetic license to reinterpret, to re-create her stories, our languages now like shifting tectonic plates, scraping against each other to split the soil. 

But maybe the truth is that it still depends on the company I’m keeping.

My close friends hate that I’m a morning person, that I’m so god-awful cheery in those first fuzzy hours. At 8:30 AM I slipped down to the “First Time ALTA Participants” panel and nodded much too vigorously throughout. Then there were the panels on getting published, negotiating contracts, and self-publicity—standard but important fare for tenderfeet like me. At lunch, I can’t remember eating much as I listened to everyone’s stories: of Sara, whose first novel, Girl at War, was just coming out with Random House; or of Tenzin, who had worked a few years as special assistant to the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

It was hard not to feel a bit intimidated, but I derived some courage from the book exhibition, where I came across Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary, translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. I then attended several bilingual readings and enjoyed some exquisite coffee at break. At around 4:00 PM the other fellows and I met up for our practice session before the reading. Knowing that I first had to read from the source text (a beautiful Majorcan story with the ends of the first-person singular verbs cut off like dangling fingertips) seemed the real test. I stumbled through sentences like a drunk, my mouth too close to the microphone to make any sense. 

The ballroom was packed with about a hundred expectant audience members that evening. The room itself, with its velvety interiors and ornamental framing, demanded the kind of reverential silence one imagines to be truly “literary.” I was fourth in line, just enough time to let the anxiety eat me up as I waited. 

The first few words in a different language always pop out haphazardly, I think. Yet, when I saw all the smiling faces before me, even the Catalan words hopped out of my mouth. Record un eriçó devorat per les formigues…. I remember looking down and seeing my friend Julia’s face—Julia is another wonderful Portuguese-Spanish-Catalan translator—her eyes closed as she listened to me speak. It felt almost natural. Perhaps more natural than when I speak Catalan during my stays in Barcelona. 

After the event, I felt the high that only reading work to an audience can give you. A couple of friends greeted me at the back of the room, and though I gleefully received their congratulations (in measure, of course), my immediate reaction was: But how did my Catalan sound? 

“Your voice gets so deep when you speak it,” Julia said. 

Another friend, Nate, remarked how strange it was too.

“Like a man’s,” I said. 

Maybe not like a man’s, though. Maybe something completely different, like the voice of a bumbling alien. Or maybe like a foreign radio sounding out from between my teeth, the static getting in the way.  

We spent some time comparing our voices in Spanish, Catalan, and English. Only mine refused to stay put. If I were to point to a palpable aspect of my own transition to a serious translator (de debò), it’s just this feeling of performance. And I’m always hoping that it’s normal, that we’re all just actors in separate acts.

After the reading, a group of us ventured out into the snow. It was that time of year when snow is a welcome sight, when it’s new and soft and dreamy. Flakes that remind you of when you were younger.

In a sports bar a few streets away from the hotel, I ordered a cider and began chatting with Kaija Straumanis, editorial director for Open Letter Books. We didn’t really talk all that much about literature. It’s not that we wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but there’s a point when you’d rather know a person as a person instead of merely talking shop (this is, perhaps, the corrective to performance). For as much as our days are swept up between printed lines and promotional e-mails, the ALTA conference gives translators a good excuse—and rare opportunity—to truly meet those other individuals in the field.