Smelling the Film: Report from ALTA 2014 Fellow Alice Guthrie

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.


As I roam the lush carpeted pastures of the Milwaukee Hilton among the North American branch of my tribe, in an ecstasy of homecoming—to borrow Sara Novic’s notionthere are several layers of fascination at play for me that my lovely fellow Fellows don’t share and seem, therefore, to be sometimes slightly bemused by. Because the content of the event in itself is so rich, so fulfilling, so thought provoking, and because the population of the conference so open and friendly and sparky and intriguing, all of us are highly stimulated, deeply engrossed and actually often somewhat spellbound. But I have something else going on, in addition to all of this: sitting rapt in the middle of an extraordinary reading of some central Asian fiction by one of my newly discovered translator cousins, I absentmindedly reach out for a sweet (candy, to the US reader) from a bowl on the table in front of me. I unwrap it and put it into my mouth, and am sideswiped by a chemical taste so highly synthetic I cannot at first place what on Earth it might be imitatingand yet somewhere in this fog of industrial flavour there is a distant dull echo, dimly recognisable. Then it hits me, and it’s all I can do to keep silent in my seat and not disrupt my colleague’s incredible reading by leaping to my feet and screaming ‘GRAPE FLAVOR!!!!!!’ (And yes, my scream would spell it without a u). It’s a major moment for me: I’ve just been catapulted quite a way deeper into some of the fiction that is most important to me, in a way that Google could never facilitateI can look up images of poison ivy or madrone, or listen to any music obscure enough not to’ve made it across the Atlantic already, and of course we all got used to translating terms like ‘bangs’ and ‘sidewalk’ and ‘stroller’ and ‘Kotex’ and ‘a bunch’ for ourselves way back in childhood, but tastes and smells? They remain utterly mysterious and thereforeduring my thirty-eight years of immersion in North American literary, musical and cinematic culturehave taken on a luminously exotic quality. As I sit sucking on my first ever blast of the mighty, the totemic, the Oh-so-American grape flavour, my focus on the reading I am supposedly listening to is suddenly gone, and I’m whizzing through my mental archive in a blur of references, landing here and there and adding a new sheen to this or that sceneback in the opening pages of Pynchon’s Vineland, for example, sitting on Zoyd’s porch with him in an intense new intimacy as he cracks open that four-pack of grape sodas.

This is only my second ever trip to the States, so there are all sorts of moments like this, and a frequently almost overwhelming sensation of being inside a film. Of course it is not only the specific concrete things we know we have never tasted, like grape flavo(u)r, that are entrancing for anyone who grew up in the non-American anglophone world: perhaps even more significant are the unnamed and unmentioned tastes and smells that North Americans wouldn’t even notice or mention, that emerge as having formed that unreachable other sensory dimension to all the films and books we’ve been steeped in for all these years. And then there is the intense redolence of the way people speak, so that from time to time during the conference I suddenly swoon into a scene from Steinbeck, or Happy Days, or whatever. I could go on and on and on with the examples, but suffice it to say that for me, at ALTA, there is quite a lot going on, and I may have been overheard muttering the phrase ‘I’m smelling the film!’ more than once.

But there are elements of the actual content of the ALTA gathering that I find delightfully exotic and have nothing to do with smells or tastes or accents, of course: the programme’s deep focus on listening to each other’s actual work in formal readings is something I would love to see take off in our UK literary translation community, where we are much more likely to be found talking shop, or talking theory, than actually reading our writing to each other; the delightful open-hearted enthusiasm and camaraderie of the community, so supportive and uplifting, and so much less reserved and complex than what I am used to; the extended time we have together and the new friendships that develop as a result of itin London, at most only a few hours away from participants’ homes, we tend to only meet for a day, or two at the very most; the feasting and the singing and the celebratory atmosphere that infuses the whole event. It will certainly be interesting to see how the ALTA gatherings develop over the coming years, and an honour to be part of bringing the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School training model over and adapting it for the US context (watch this space)I am totally, utterly and hopelessly hooked on the ALTA carnival caravan and plan to follow it as far as I can.


About Erica Mena

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