When I opened Maria Suarez’s email, congratulating me on receiving the ALTA fellowship, the first thought that went through my mind was, “finally, something is happening.” Things were moving forward, evolving, and I could feel myself emerging from obscurity with a bang. In my mind, a glamorously professional picture was forming – shaking hands, signing book deals – complete with straight hair and stylish, yet professional, attire.
I was lucky enough to travel from New York to Kansas City with my friends Tara (who had also received the fellowship) and Rachel (a translator of Portuguese poetry). We all attend the MFA program at Columbia University, and we had prepared together for the conference, sharing our hopes and fears. We were each other’s little support system.
“Now listen to me,” I told myself on the taxi ride from the Kansas City airport to the Intercontinental Hotel, adjusting one of the few nice-looking button-down shirts I own, “This is going to be awkward for you. You’re going to meet a bunch of new people, and you’ll want to stick close to your friends the whole time. But don’t – just don’t. This is not about fun, it’s about business.”
Indeed, I came to the ALTA conference ready for some serious business. As a writer and a translator, this was not necessarily my forte. I was much better at sitting at home or at a quiet café alone or with a friend or two than in a conference room full of opportunities. I prepared a fancy folder with my resume and some samples to hand out to what I suspected would be dozens of interested parties (or at least a dozen, according to the number of copies I made). I got my very first business cards. I was ready to hit the big time.
What I discovered differed quite a bit from my expectations. The conference had a much warmer, more intimate air to it than the commodity market I’d pictured. At a reception on the night of our arrival, Stephen Kessler, who was in charge of us clueless fellows and showed us the ropes in his kind and gentle manner, began introducing us to translators, editors and readers, specializing in different languages and genres. That’s when joy and affection began revealing its surprising presence. From that point on, I noticed how ALTA members gathered in every corner of the hotel, doing the thing that until that point I perceived as “bad business” – they were having fun. They were sharing experiences and anecdotes and drinks and sometimes simply being translators together – enjoying the closeness of others who share their passion for words, their desire to make local words known internationally and to be part of a creation greater than themselves.
This atmosphere of camaraderie reached its peak during “Declamación,” in my eyes the most important event of the entire conference. The reason I found this event to be of such significance wasn’t the lovely recitations (though they were, indeed, lovely), nor the participants’ impressive memory and performance. It wasn’t even the fun of the multi-lingual sing-along or the American-Idol-type insanity that followed. Declamación was important because it exemplified what this annual conference is all about – lasting connections, long-forming close ties. A relationship.
Our reading was scheduled on the last day of the conference. I went on stage, thanked everyone and presented my excerpt. The room wasn’t full like I’d hoped, but the many who did show up were completely focused on the readers. I could make eye-contact with every person in the audience, and could identify the origins of each smile of appreciation and burst of laughter. When it was all over, we received comments, compliments and criticism, made plans to get in touch with a few publishers, and shook the hands of many supportive colleagues. While no one wanted to take my neatly-prepared packet of materials, every single person encouraged me to get in touch, send over my excerpts and ask for assistance. They were all willing to contribute important information and tips, ideas for ways to continue my progress in the translation industry, and warm words of support.
On my way back to the airport, early on Sunday morning, I remembered Stephen’s stories about translators, editors and publishers getting in touch and working together after meeting at the conference. What stood out in his stories was the fact that these collaborations formed throughout years of meeting at conferences, discussing their respective projects, hearing each other read their work out loud, and spending nights at restaurants and bars, getting to know one another. I was happy that I did stick close to my friends after all.
I realized then that I expected the ALTA conference to be a quick leap to fame, a storm of glory, but that what it turned out to be was something much more valuable. It was a gateway to a deep and intimate knowledge of the world of translation, a place in which to find lasting bonds and begin building for the future. For me, the ALTA conference signifies the commencement of a journey through a special, gentle and difficult industry – it is a start.