Rachael Daum joined ALTA in 2014, and became Assistant Managing Director in 2017. This interview was conducted over e-mail.
Q: You’ve worked for ALTA for 4 years now. What changes have you seen in the organization during that time that excite you?
A: It’s been a pleasure to witness ALTA’s growth as I’ve seen my own role at ALTA grow as well. From being the social media manager as a graduate student and then coming into my role as Assistant Managing Director, I’ve seen the organization expand—we now offer the Emerging Translator Mentorship Program, for example, which has been a joy to see grow (thanks to Allison Charette’s tireless work). It’s also been such a pleasure to see the organization start to speak more about diversity and advocacy as we discuss more about ensuring that people of color are included in discussions of translation (ALTA offers the Jansen Fellowship now, for example), and people who identify as women, as well (it is #WiTMonth, after all!). Additionally, I’m happy to see that we have more and more of our membership engaging, whether it’s by donating (last year we had ¼ of our membership donate to ALTA), volunteering their time with us, coming to the conference—or all three.
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t note my enthusiasm about the affiliation between ALTA and the University of Arizona as ALTA makes its move to Tucson, AZ; I’m looking forward to seeing what this partnership brings.
Q: You translate from two languages that are fairly well-represented in translation in the U.S.: German (74 works translated into English in the U.S. in 2017, all stats taken from the Three Percent database) and Russian (18 works in 2017). But you also translate from Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian (9 works total in 2017). Tell us about the differences you perceive in translating from well- and under-represented languages into English.
A: I feel very fortunate that I grew up speaking German, another major world language, so that when I did get into translation thanks to the literary translation certificate program at the University of Rochester and internships at Open Letter, it was relatively easy for me to find texts to translate and—even more important—much-needed guidance. I’ve also been fortunate in finding invaluable teachers and mentors in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian community as I’ve been learning, living, and working in Belgrade. Whereas there is much more institutional support when translating German and Russian, I find that it’s even more personal when working with BCS: because there are not as many dictionaries available on- or off-line, for example, there have to be that many more face-to-face conversations, especially with the immensely rich selection of work not yet translated into English from the Balkans. I’m so grateful for my friends’ patience as I ask about slang and informal use of Serbian grammar!
Q: You live in Belgrade, Serbia. What does it mean for you as a translator to be immersed in the language and culture from which you translate? Do you find that your community in Belgrade has a different relationship to literary translation than does your U.S. community?
A: As I’m sure many in this community feel, I really think it’s crucial to be as immersed in the language you translate as possible—for me, I just feel so lucky that I get to live in one of my favorite places in the world while speaking a language every day that I love so much and am so humbled by; I really do feel that I get to learn something every day. It’s also wonderful that bookstores still have such a presence in Belgrade: I found the authors I’m translating currently because I stumbled across their poetry in bookstores when I had a free hour.
As to attitudes toward literary translation, being a translator is much more commonplace here seeing as Serbian is a lesser-represented language. And one of the best things about this is that no one makes comments about how Google Translate is going to put us out of work!
Q: Of which of your translations are you the proudest? Which provided the greatest challenge?
A: I’m still very much an emerging translator, so my answer to both of these questions is the same: I translated Circus Shardam, an absurdist children’s puppet play by Soviet dissident writer Daniil Kharms. It was filled with challenges, number one being: it has to be funny for children! It was a joy and a challenge to try to render the text in English so that it would be funny to contemporary American children, which is going to be a different kind of funny than it was to Russian children in the 1920s. But it was also humbling to realize how much humor is international—who doesn’t love seeing a wooden puppet bonked on the head and break the fourth wall? I’m delighted that at this year’s conference in Bloomington, IN, which has a theater theme, a section of this play will be performed live, alongside the translations of the fabulous Anne Fisher, Gregary Racz, and Zachary Scalzo.
Q: What is your favorite part of managing ALTA’s communications and social media?
A: This is perhaps cheesy, but it has to be seeing how relevant literary translation is every day. We put out posts twice per weekday, which at first seemed like a lot; but the translation world is extremely active, so there’s always something on, it’s always growing. And it’s a joy to get to celebrate the work of ALTA members—I feel there’s always someone getting an award for their work, which means more books I need for my shelf.
Q: You completed your master’s in Russian Language and Literature, as well as studying Literary Translation, at Indiana University where ALTA41: Performances, Props, and Platforms will be held in just a few months. What are you most looking forward to in Bloomington? What should attendees look forward to there?
A: I am so looking forward to seeing the many folks in this really wonderful community and getting to nerd out with them about translation, celebrate their work, and meet many people I’ve only corresponded with over email. Besides this, I admit I’m very food-oriented: Bloomington is a wonderful place for food and drinks, so I’m looking forward to getting vegan donuts (something sadly lacking in Belgrade!) from Rainbow Bakery when I arrive.
Q: What three things do you need in order to translate?
A: A pile of dictionaries, a hot drink—and my cat!
Rachael Daum has worked with ALTA since 2014, and became ALTA’s Assistant Managing Director in 2017. She received her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Rochester and MA in Slavic Studies from Indiana University; she also received Certificates in Literary Translation from both institutions. Her original work and translations have appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, TRANSverse, The Airship Daily, Mt. Island Magazine, Literary Laundry, and elsewhere. Rachael lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia, where she also runs a teaching and translation agency called Black Birch, and translates from Serbian, Russian, and German. Find her on Twitter at @rclouisedaum.