That Rare Joy of Being Understood: Report from ALTA 2014 Fellow Sara Novic

Each year 4-6 emerging translators are awarded $1000 each to travel to the ALTA conference, where they participate in panels, workshops, and readings. Applications to be an ALTA fellow are open until May 1. More information here.


Sara Novic received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

Sara Novic received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

I still have Milwaukee plugged into the weather app on my phone. It’s one of several cities in the scroll—New York, where I actually live, then Boston, Philly, Zagreb (places I once lived, and frequently visit), and Melbourne (where I spent last summer). Then Milwaukee, a place to which I really have no connection at all, except for the few days I spent there in November at the ALTA conference. Still, I can’t yet bring myself to delete it from the list. Part of it is the perverse pleasure of seeing exactly how cold it can get there—as I write this, it’s 17F here in Queens, but 1 degree in Milwaukee. But the other part of it is the feeling of homecoming I get when I think about the conference.

Growing up alongside but not quite in several languages and cultures, I often felt out of place. I could count on one hand the number of times I remember the clear feeling of being “at home” or among “my people.” One was in Croatia, when my friends and I crashed in the abandoned ruins of a house taken out by the war, then stayed up late speaking “Cringlish”—Croatian sentence structure injected with English stand-ins for the vocabulary I was lacking, then conjugated with Croatian verb endings. One was some late night in a dark bar in Morningside Heights, where I talked books with my workshop mates from the MFA at Columbia. And another time was at the ALTA conference.

What happened at the conference was perhaps even more spectacular because, unlike those other times, when I was with my peers, at ALTA everyone was a far more established and decorated translator than I am. Still, on that very first night a group of ALTA veterans invited another Fellow and me to join them at their table simply because we had conference name tags on. I remember being surprised by their initial friendliness, and even more so by the ease with which the subsequent conversation flowed. I haven’t been to any other kinds of conferences, but I can guess from my experience in gatherings with other writers and academics that this feeling of instantaneous welcome and ease is not the norm. Perhaps because translators are used to working behind-the-scenes, there was no competitiveness between us, no expectation that we should be starstruck by the experts all around us (though I was, frequently).

Our days were filled with seminars and readings, groups of various focuses and sizes. But some of my favorite moments were the ones in which we were gathered all together—the commemoration of Michael Henry Heim, the National Translation Award celebration for Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, the ALTA Fellows Reading, and Declamación. In those moments, the sheer number of people in a room made what we were doing feel far from “behind-the-scenes”—rather a sense of urgency was palpable; we were in this together and it was important.

The Fellows Reading was the biggest audience I’d ever read in front of, and the outpouring of support was beyond anything I could’ve expected. While my fellow Fellows read, I felt almost embarrassed to be in the company of such talent. Afterwards, at the reception, we received such positive feedback, I remember turning to the other fellows and saying, “These are the most compliments we are ever going to receive! We should write this down!”

On our last night in town, after Declamación, a group of us (only one of whom I’d known before I got there) went to the hotel bar and drank Milwaukee beers and talked late into the night about the uses of semicolon across languages, and the grammatical cases of Slavic languages, and I felt that rare joy of being understood. The plane ride the next morning didn’t feel much like going home at all.

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