An ALTA Fellow’s Notes from Kansas City

Guest post by Nora Delaney
On Friday night, I found myself standing at the counter in the Mexican consulate in Kansas City, in a little booth space between privacy partitions  – presumably where people line up in the day to deal with passports – chowing down on tacos and chatting with fellow translators about their work. I had never been to Kansas City, and if you had told me a few months before that I’d be spending a festive evening at the Mexican consulate in that city, I’d have thought you were nuts. But there I was, enjoying the wonderful tribute Margaret Sayers Peden – affectionately called Petch by her students – who had done so much in her career to bring literature from Mexico and Central and Southern America to an English-speaking audience.  The tribute to Petch was just one of the many inspiring moments of the 2011 ALTA conference that I had the opportunity to enjoy as one of this year’s travel fellows.
It was a packed few days, and I saw little outside the hotel (save for the Mexican consulate), but that didn’t matter. There was so much going on inside. I was struck by the variety of panels – panels on children’s literature, debut books, retranslations, publishing and promotion, teaching, tone and style, memorization, and more. What made each session particularly memorable was the informal rule that panelists not read from papers. These were impassioned talks by experienced and devoted practitioners who love the literature they work with dearly and want to share their love and knowledge with others. No stuffy jargon-filled treatises mumbled from papers here!
The bilingual readings were a joy as well and brought home to me, again, that translation is an act of creation. Translators sharing their renditions of poems and fiction from Russian, German, Spanish, and other languages reminded me that we as translators are both artists and midwives. Yes, our aim is to facilitate the transmission of a piece from one language to another, to use the skills at our disposal to help along a literary work’s birth in a new language. But we have choices. We have puzzles to solve in translation, and each choice we make rules out a host of alternative choices. We must execute our rights and responsibilities as artists with an ear closely attuned to the sound and nuance of language to make what we think are the right choices for the tone and impact of the piece. Douglas Hofstadter’s plenary talk “Let a Hundred Neutrinos Bloom” demonstrated precisely that each act of translation is a choice, and that for each potential translation there are scores of others available out there.
Talking to so many people who love language – and languages – as much as I do reaffirmed for me why I am a translator. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it allows you to share a little part of the world with others. The conference’s “Declamación” event was a perfect example, with people standing up to speak and sing pieces by heart, from the Swedish drinking song that started the night to Chinese songs and pieces from classical Greek. The range of material was matched only by the unadulterated fun in declaiming a loved piece by memory.
 I am honored that I got the chance to be part of this year’s conference as an ALTA travel fellow and to share the Dutch poet Remco Campert’s poems –pieces of writing that examine the world with what I think of as a child’s sense of novelty and beauty – with an audience of my (more experienced) colleagues. I may have seen very little of Kansas City aside from the Mexican consulate and the labyrinthine bowels of the Intercontinental Hotel, but I gained so much of value from every panel and reading I went to, and every person I talked with. I had a great time and am looking forward to next year.
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