In This Together: Dispatches from ALTA 2014 from Fellow Meg Berkobien

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 June 1. More information here.

If you’ve ever sent in a short story or poem for review, you’re most likely familiar with the crushing weight of all those “declined” statuses on Submittable. With time, you get used to the waiting. You might even get used to the rejection.

It was different with the ALTA Travel Fellowship.

I still remember clicking submit outside the Art Museum in Ann Arbor, my legs melding into the metal bars of the bench. I remember downloading the application a few times afterward to make sure that I hadn’t made any grave errors. I remember counting the days for the “in progress” status to reveal the decision. I think I even made some kind of deal with a phantom entity to whom I now owe my first child: let me have this and I’ll . . . When the acceptance email arrived, I was a bit shocked. As an avid reader of literary journals and reviews that focus on translation, I was well aware of the amount of talented emerging translators out there. I couldn’t really believe that I was (now formally) one of them.

I was nervous the entire train ride over. After making my way to the hotel, I went straight up to my room and pondered the whole thing a bit. Part of me was wondering whether or not I’d be cornered and asked to prove myself, a fear, I believe, that comes with being enrolled in a PhD program. I went over some phrases in my head in English, Spanish, and Catalan. I checked my phone, careful not to be too early.

It will come as little to surprise to veteran ALTA attendees that my fears were unfounded. On the elevator ride to the ballroom I was asked to join a group of women for celebratory drinks. I met several of my translator-idols in line at the buffet. I wasn’t expected to perform (!). Within a matter of minutes, people who were once only email contacts materialized before me, and like with the initial magic of the talkies, laughs and voices became real. I got caught up in that pleasing excess of too much conversation with too many people. We talked about our work, sure, but we weren’t trying to sell ourselves. For the first time in quite a while, I felt like I belonged to a community, and a generous one at that.

I’m trying to put down all of my giddy thoughts about the conference but I fear they’ll seem trite. It was a turning point for my career in translation. More importantly, perhaps, is that I have never before felt so welcome at a professional gathering. Some of the best advice I’ve heard so far about working in the field came during the panels on editing and publicity. I had the chance to meet other practicing Catalan-language translators during the bilingual readings. I handed out three cards (which, for me, was a step forward). I celebrated some of the year’s best translations over cheese curds and wine. I left the hotel on Sunday inspired, eager to finish all those translations that had once discouraged me.

Like my fellow Fellow Sara Nović noted, the Fellows Reading was the biggest event I’ve ever taken part in. And I was terrified. During practice, I stumbled through sentences like a drunk. But when I saw all the smiling faces before me, even the Catalan words gleefully hopped out of my mouth. I remember looking down and seeing Julia Sanches’ face (Julia is another wonderful Catalan-Spanish-Portuguese translator, un crack as we say), her eyes closed as she listened to me speak. To quote Sara again, “We were in this together and it was important.”

When I walked through the crowd afterward, I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t think it was only about the reading, though. No, more important was knowing that we all supported one another, albeit in different measure. And I look forward to sitting in the audience and seeing the next set of Fellows take the stage.

About Erica Mena

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