Translator-tricksters take Kansas City with sauce

By Stephen Kessler

On the drive in from Kansas City International Airport, to your left as you approach downtown is a large anomalous building in the shape of a monstrous yet elegantly sculpted sea shell that rises up out of the landscape like a hallucination.  It is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, KC’s new opera house and symphony hall, designed by architect Moshe Safdie.  Coming toward the building from the other direction you see its soaring glass façade and can’t help marveling at this extraordinary example of urban design and engineering.  This could replace those “crazy little women” of the Leiber and Stoller song as the signature attraction of this heartland metropolis.

I’m in town for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association, a meeting of several hundred translators held each year in a different part of the country.  ALTA is a very congenial organization, and most unusual for a congregation of writers in that virtually every member, even those with their own careers of original writing, is devoted more to serving literature than to advancing his or her personal ambition.  Other writers’ conferences I’ve attended tend to be crawling with people either trying to hustle a book project or attempting to get close to some renowned author or, in the case of such famed literati, basking in the adulation of their admirers.  The collegial fellow-feeling and mutual respect of ALTA members are a refreshing antidote to such power-strivings and social-climbings.

Margaret Sayers Peden, Willis Barnstone, Bill Johnston, Marian Schwartz, Alexis Levitin, Geoffrey Brock, Katherine Silver, Esther Allen, Jonathan Cohen and Roger Greenwald may not be household names, but they and others like them are instrumental in bringing foreign literature into English for the benefit of readers who would otherwise have no access.  Spanish, Greek, Latvian, Estonian, Chinese, Persian, Danish, Norwegian, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish, Serbian, Turkish, French and Russian writers, among others, can be read in versions so artfully wrought you scarcely realize they are not originals, thanks to the tireless efforts of these obscure workers who toil on the margins of literary celebrity but play a central role in bringing novels and stories and poems and plays from other languages into the lives of those of us who still read books.

Also, and very encouragingly for a grizzled veteran like me, there are two or three generations of younger translators coming up the line behind us, so that however dubious the future of literature in these increasingly digitized times, interesting writings from other cultures will continue to be turned into works in English, in one medium or another, and cross-fertilization will go on among the world’s writers and readers, as minute a minority as we may be.

It’s a curious subculture, this world of literary translators, and surely its eccentric position in the larger culture is part of what makes for such camaraderie among its members.  In Kansas City there was plenty of shop talk—about certain technical and stylistic issues, questions of publishing and politics, theory and practice—but for me the most interesting part of the conference is always the social connections, the extracurricular conversations and friendships formed or refreshed at night in the hotel bar, or during coffee breaks between sessions, or at lunch or dinner in neighborhood restaurants.

I met a young Iranian-American poet who drove up from Arkansas for the occasion and whose intense passion for poetry reminded me why I got into this game in the first place—for love of the words and the music and the inspiration and consolation of dynamic language dancing on the page.  There was a young Israeli fiction writer attending the conference for the first time who told me what a great experience it was for her to meet all these other dedicated people and hear what they had to say.  I encountered people I see just once a year, if that, whose projects—translating huge novels, editing anthologies, writing original books—somehow spur me on in my own endeavors in a spirit of encouragement and friendly rivalry.

Yelling over the loudness of the live music in the hotel lounge on a weekend night when other conventions are also in town and the conventioneers and other guests are determined to have a good time and making no secret of it, your annoyance with the cacophony of competing noises is somehow overcome by a sense of being alive to the chaotic drama and absurdity all around, even the hotel staff confused by the swirling intensity of interactions, the clusters of friends gabbing and drinking, the strangers getting acquainted over cocktails, the scholars getting loose under the influence of booze and shmoozing, the traveling salesmen on the make.

You get a wonderful feeling of anonymity staying in a big hotel, yet paradoxically at a conference like this you’re constantly bumping into people you know, and this contradiction makes you feel oddly at home and in an exotic realm at the same time.  Like the low-ceilinged rooms where most of the sessions and readings are held, this whole scene seems an unlikely place for any kind of esthetic experience—it is much too unnatural and commercial, claustrophobic, with bad acoustics—how could one begin to appreciate a poem or consider an idea or engage in a private dialogue in such a setting?  And yet, again and again, something said in a panel discussion or read in one of the bilingual readings or confessed by a friend over a drink or a meal touches me in unanticipated ways, so that by the time I return home several days later I feel recharged and ready to proceed with work that often seems gratuitous, a pointless exercise in creating something beautiful or revelatory or profound or moving or provocative that hardly anyone will notice.

The art of translation, like any other art created in the solitude of one’s study or studio, or even in the collective setting of a stage or bandstand, is an act of faith, a leap in the dark, a long-shot bet that what you are doing serves something beyond your own amusement—or, more likely, obsessive compulsions—something that others somewhere, sometime, eventually will recognize and be grateful for, something that speaks to and possibly for their own experience or spirit.  Those strangers, even if as yet unborn, are no more strange than the ones you see at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue chomping on their spareribs slathered in the restaurant’s signature sauce, or the gangs of schoolkids running through the Nelson-Atkins Museum past the imposing Henry Moore sculptures, or the blond-haired black-clad cocktail waitresses dodging the drunks in the hotel lounge while carrying trays of iced beverages over their heads without spilling a drop.  These might as well be the people we are writing for, oblivious as they are, because we madly trust that somehow one day someone may open one of our books and be astonished by what they discover.

How strange that in the middle of a country whose religion is football a performing arts center can spring up like a lovely mushroom and be sustainable, and that an otherwise ordinary hotel can host a gathering of oddball intellectuals who temporarily turn it into a hotbed of highbrow culture, as if they were really an association of magicians dedicated to the creation of completely convincing illusions.  For translators are tricksters, shape-shifting smoke-and-mirrorists, sleight-of-hand card-shufflers playing with unmarked decks that nevertheless turn up full houses in the form of stacked pages that read as if they’d been dealt that way by luck of the draw, when in fact those unfolded hands are mirages fashioned from alien tongues whose mysterious messages are patiently transformed by multilingual literary gamblers who often feel more like monks.

These usually invisible illusionists are an unusual breed indeed, working more for the sake of some obscure honor than for any sort of worldly glory, and for the pleasures and satisfactions of making something out of something else.  More than the blues and the barbecue sauce, more than the sexy curves of the opera house, more than the bends in the Missouri River reflecting the heartland light, a renewed belief in the art of translation and the half-crazy people who do it is what I brought home from Kansas City just in time for Thanksgiving.

This essay appeared originally in the Winter 2012 issue of The Redwood Coast Review (


About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and book artist. Pronouns: they/them.
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