Collective Conversations: An Interview with The Starling Bureau

Just in time for the London Book Fair, we now head over to the UK for the second installment of our literary translation collectives interview series. The Starling Bureau is based in London, and consists of Zoë Perry, Roland Glasser, Morgan Giles, Paul Russell Garrett, and Ruth Clarke. The photo below is from their recent event at London’s French and English bookshop, Caravanserail.

This month’s interview was conducted by the Northwest Literary Translators. 

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Tell us how the members of your collective first came together. How did you meet?

The five of us first met in 2012, at a week-long Literary Translation Summer School run by the British Centre for Literary Translation in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich (now the National Centre for Writing). In the years since then, we have come to know each other better through being active on the London translation scene, and by our involvement with organizations such as the Translators Association, the Emerging Translators’ Network, and the European Literature Network. The fact that we were all friends certainly made it easier to get the collective rolling. We all have quite strong personalities—which provides a useful creative friction—but we’re very supportive of each other. It’s a good balance.

Starlings! Why starlings?

We wanted our name to say something about what we do, how we do it, and where we’re based. Starlings are able to move synchronously, swiftly, and gracefully in imposing “murmurations” because each bird works in close communication with up to seven of its neighbors. This shared interaction optimizes the balance between group cohesiveness and individual effort—a notion that fits our collective perfectly. And the starling is one of the most common bird species in London, our base.

Your collective seems to operate almost as a literary agency. Many translators end up doing that work for “their” authors on their own – what benefits and drawbacks do you see to doing it as a group?

One of the obvious benefits we quickly discovered was the variety of publishing contacts we had. We assembled a shared list of contacts, and surprisingly, there was very little overlap. So although we could do that work individually, our reach wouldn’t be as great. We’ve also pooled our knowledge on the kind of information publishers are after, and have focused our pitches based on that information. We workshop our pitches and our sample translations as a collective, allowing us to produce effective proposals for publishers.

Who’s your competition, and what advantages does The Starling Bureau have over them?

Agents might seem like a more obvious competitor, but in fact, they’ve been mostly supportive of the work we’re doing. Our biggest competition probably comes from more established translators, who are not necessarily seen as competitive. Publishers often have fixed relationships with translators from certain languages, preferring to work with a translator they’ve collaborated with in the past, over a translator they aren’t familiar with. One of the benefits of working as a collective is that we can raise one another’s profiles, and hopefully make these publishers notice our efforts.

Your members cover many different languages, but some major ones are missing – German and Russian, for example. Does that feel like a limitation or a blessing?

Our collective is first and foremost about us, a group of close colleagues, and though we were keen to cover a variety of languages (seven), we felt that being able to work together and trust and support each other was more important than covering every “major” language. Also, we represent far more than just languages, we each have individual interests in certain cultures, countries and genres. We have our own tastes, but we all feel comfortable pitching each other’s titles. Ultimately, it’s the books that are important, not where they come from.

From the beginning, we discussed our language range, and explored options for expanding it, but we soon realized that we hadn’t set out to become an agency, with a wide offer for publishers, but to promote our own work, and find a home for the foreign literature that we love!

Do authors approach The Starling Bureau and ask you to represent them? Or do you find them? How do you decide, as a group, which books to pitch?

The books we pitch might come to us from the author, agent or original publisher, from a friend’s recommendation, or simply from a bookshop splurge on a foreign visit.

For a book to be featured on our website, it needs to make it through the ‘internal pitching’ session, where we essentially pitch the books to each other and come to a (usually) unanimous decision on which ones to run with. These meetings are a bit like being on a judging panel for a literary prize, and the most convincing argument for a good book isn’t how many technical boxes it ticks, but how much passion comes across when you start talking about it.

How have publishers responded to your efforts as a group? Are they confused at all by the concept of a translators’ collective?

Most publishers respond very positively, although some source language publishers have been confused about the concept. Other translators understand that acting as an agent, scout, publicist, etc. is all part of a literary translator’s job, and that combining our efforts and energies makes sense, but it has been less clear to people in other aspects of the business. On the whole, though, we feel that the somewhat blurred lines—many people refer to us as an “agency”—do us no harm, and indeed act to our advantage.

Is The Starling Bureau open to new members?

No, we’re staying small for now. Kate Briggs gave a talk about This Little Art at the translation festival in Oslo, ‘Oversatte Dager’, where she celebrated the ‘little’ in the title of her book. Similarly, we’re happy to be This Little Bureau for the time being.

If so, what do you look for in potential new members? If not, why not?

We like to meet up in person for regular meetings, and everything we do is decided collectively, so keeping it small is also a practical decision.

Your website is lovely! Did you design it yourselves?

Yes, with some help from Squarespace!

The collective brings together not only our different translation experience and contacts, but also a great combination of other skills that shape what we do.


More information about The Starling Bureau can be found on their website, and you can connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Questions by the Northwest Literary Translators, part of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, a group of emerging and established translators who meet monthly in Seattle. Find out more about them on their Facebook page, and check out their upcoming Spring Translation Slam!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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