This month finds us in Washington, D.C., which apart from being the nation’s capital, is also a hotbed of literary translation. In a spirit of community building and co-operation that certain other inhabitants of this city could stand to emulate, some of these translators have come together to form a collective: the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT).
This month’s interview was conducted by The Starling Bureau.
Responses by Carol Volk with input from the DC-ALT Board Members Yvette Neisser, Nancy Naomi Carlson, Marguerite Feitlowitz, and Indran Amirthanayagam
How did the group first start?
The group first started around 2012 when DC-based Yvette Neisser—a poet and translator from the Spanish—decided to gather folks interested in literary translation for monthly meetings at a small bookshop. Nancy Naomi Carlson recalls sitting with Yvette at one ALTA conference, in fact, and discussing Yvette’s vision for this group, which was the start of Nancy’s involvement. As for myself, I had been a literary translator for years in New York, with over thirty books published from the French, but had moved to Washington and started a new career in the Foreign Service—hoping nonetheless to keep my hand in literary translation. Through a poet friend, Pedro Serrano, I heard about Yvette, and eagerly reached out to her. Each month Yvette would organize a different speaker for a discussion around his or her work. Through word of mouth, a core group interested in translation grew, and six to ten people would show up for each meeting. Over time, venues have changed, leadership has passed from board member to board member, but the basic format of a monthly get together has remained.
The network has an interesting model with board members and paid membership, can you tell us how that structure came about, and why you chose it?
Early on, Yvette asked some people if they would be members of an “advisory board.” A few of the current board were part of that core group—myself and Nancy Naomi Carlson—while others have left and others have joined (our current board also includes Barbara Goldberg, Keith Cohen, Marguerite Feitlowitz, Indran Amirthanayagam, and Yvette). The board meets once or twice a year to brainstorm on the types of programs that would be useful and well-attended for the year ahead. In terms of membership, our listserv is open to anyone. We do encourage membership dues of $25/year in order to cover things like the domain name, hosting the website, and occasional refreshments, but whether dues-paying or not, all are welcome to join the listserv and Facebook group, to attend events, present and participate.
It seems that DC-ALT is something of a community as well as a network. How important is it to create a physical space for translators to meet in person as well as online?
The main focus of DC-ALT has been for folks to get together in person and to share their experiences in translation. No matter how busy we are, many of us find that getting together with other translators is always enriching—there’s something about the way we think… we always enjoy each other’s company and find discussions around the issues of translation thrilling and satisfying. In addition, the group is something of a DC literary home for some of us. Marguerite Feitlowitz, who teaches at Bennington and lives in DC only half the year, commented that “DC-ALT has deepened my literary and social roots in the city, for which I’m very appreciative.” Many of us feel that way.
How often do you meet, can you tell us more about what your events are like?
We try to have a mix of events—sometimes we invite translators to discuss their work. This year, for instance, we hosted David Keplinger, who teaches at American University; William Schutt, a Baltimore-based poet and translator from the Italian; and as a special event, we invited Esther Allen to come down to DC and talk about her work in dialogue with Sergio Weisman; some events are workshops (Yvette loves running those), and some are focused around “nuts and bolts” (the theme of our May event led by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Lara Vergnaud) such as sharing tips on finding a publisher, getting grants, and residency programs. We also are heavily involved in an annual translation conference sponsored by Montgomery College (Confluence) that celebrates international translation day, and we host a translation Open Mic every year in conjunction with that conference which usually draws around 60 people. The conference attracts people from all areas of translation (literary and otherwise), as well as students interested in the subject.
Have any interesting collaborations come about through the network or its meetings?
Roman Kostovski, publisher of Plamen Press and a writer and translator himself, met Rachel Feingold at one of our meetings, who subsequently became a co-editor of his press. Danuta Kosk-Kosika collaborated with many DC-ALTers on the multilingual edition of her mother’s Polish poetry, and regularly solicits translations for Loch Raven Review from the group.
Your network includes translators working in and out of English. How does this shape the group and what benefits does it offer?
For the most part we are working into English, but our members work out of a wide range of languages, and in a variety of genres. Regardless of the language, however, the issues are usually similar, and it is fascinating how the difficulties and conundra cross the boundaries of language.
Setting up a new network, you must have encountered some unexpected opportunities and some bumps in the road. What have you learned from the experience of working together?
As noted, Yvette created the “advisory” board early on, which is really the core of the group—its memory and planning committee. Increasingly, however, as we have grown, we are realizing that the model of having a director who does much of the organizing and implementation, and a group of advisors, is not sustainable. Frankly, we see many opportunities to expand the group’s outreach, but have been struggling to with bandwidth issues. We are considering how to create a more sustainable model, with a division of labor that works for everyone—whether it involves a true working board with distinct roles, or another model. We would love to be able to apply for official non-profit status, for instance—which could open the possibility of DC-ALT as a local arts organization, and enable us to pursue grants, etc.—but lack the people-power at the moment to pursue that goal. Basically, we have many ideas for ways to bring people together around translation and international literature, and to further build community around our efforts (greater outreach with embassies and local universities, for instance, launching a local journal, etc.), but again, it all takes time.
What’s your favorite metaphor for translation?
I love the performance metaphor—“performing without a stage.” I do feel translation is as much an interpretation—and in some instances creation—as any such performance, and involves the same level of skill and preparation.
What advice would you give to emerging translators, and what advice should they ignore?
Do it for the love of it, consider developing a money-making gig, and get involved with the community—attend ALTA, volunteer for DC-ALT! At the same time, it is crucial to stand up for the profession and its efforts to see it garner a living wage and respectable contract terms.
What are your plans for the future of DC-ALT?
Our mission statement, created at the outset, calls for us to both create community around literary translation in the DC area and to encourage appreciation for the art of literary translation. This still feels very relevant, and that is why our meetings are open to the public and why we are constantly seeking to spread the word and create outreach-type events, why we participate in literary fora (such as a recent DC Public Library local author conference, held at the Library of Congress). At the same time, we have a core group that enjoys getting together and deeply analyzing the problems and pleasures of translation. I guess you could say we are in the “messy middle” still defining ourselves, coalescing around a vision, and gauging the level of interest in our community.