Collective Conversations: An Interview with the Boston-Area Literary Translators

If you’re not from Boston — or even if you are — this may well be the first you’re hearing of the Boston-Area Literary Translators, who have hitherto largely operated in the offline world. Our featured literary translation collective for July has no online presence at all, which feels rather radical in this day and age. Here’s a rare glimpse into their inner workings.

This month’s interview was conducted by the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC). 

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Left to right: Ellen Elias-Bursać, Jim Kates, Mark Schafer (above), Mary Berg (below), Sekyo Haines

Your official name is Dolet, for Étienne Dolet. Tell us about the meaning behind that, and how long the group has been in operation.

Our listserv is, indeed, named “Dolet” after Étienne Dolet (1509-1546), but in fact we don’t really have a proper official name. Étienne Dolet was chosen for the listerv because, as the story goes, he was strangled and burned with his books by the Catholic Church for an inaccurate translation (and his attacks on the Inquisition). We often refer to ourselves as the Boston-Area Literary Translators, but, again, not an official name.

We have been in operation since just after the 1992 ALTA meeting in Pittsburgh, when the group formed. Some of the first to join were Cola Franzen, Jim Kates, Kirk Anderson, Lisa Sapinkoff, Carolyne Wright, Mark Schafer, Elisabeth Oehlkers Wright, Ellen Elias-Bursać, Dick Cluster, Mary Berg. Currently we have 48 people on our mailing list, of whom 30-35 are active members. About 10-15 usually attend each meeting.

As one of the oldest continuously meeting literary translator groups, what are your secrets for sustainability and longevity?

Our members said, in response:

The meetings are informal. 

The food is good. 

We aren’t very regimented – sometimes we meet every month, sometimes every 6 or 8 weeks, depending on who offers to host.

Sometimes we get together in New Hampshire in the summer and pick blueberries (and even then we read each other work once we’ve picked the blueberries).

Recently some of our newest members have been hosting, which has been greatly appreciated. 

The feedback from colleagues has been invaluable. 

We support each other by coming to one anothers’ readings and events.

One of our members says he has built Cola Franzen’s voice into his work by now, after years of discussing the translation of poetry with her at our meetings, and even though she died last year he still carries on conversations with her about his work as he’s translating.

People can come to the meeting even if they don’t have work to share just then.

We love discussing languages.

What is the mission of your group? And what’s its vision for the future?

Our mission is to keep each other company as we work as translators, and our vision is to bring our work to the public in various ways, something we’re just starting to do more of. 

You have (that we know of) no online presence. Has this been intentional? How can a fellow Bostonian translator reach you?

Word of mouth has always been the way we’ve brought new people in. You’re right, we’ve never had a Facebook page or website. I guess we were never sure what we’d put on it. The address of the person hosting the next meeting? It feels more private sending that sort of information around by email through our listserv. But that does limit accessibility for those who don’t realize we’re here. Sometimes people find us by asking around. We are hoping ALTA will create a page on the website listing all the collectives and the email of a contact person for each one.

How often do you meet and what is the focus of your meetings?

A member offers to host the gathering, the host sends out an invitation over our listerv, the people planning to come let the host know what they will be bringing (in terms of food), we meet either at 6 pm for dinner mid-week or on a weekend for brunch, and after we eat we read to each other from what we’re currently working on, usually choosing material that offers an interesting translation problem for discussion. Each reader reads from either one page of prose, or one or two poems, and offers copies for the group in both the original language and their translation. Usually 10-15 people come. 

What languages do you work in? 

We almost always have a mixture of Romance (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian), Slavic (Russian, Polish, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian), and Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), but have also had members who have worked from Germanic languages (German, Swedish), Arabic, Vietnamese, Farsi, Bengali, Antillean Creole, Hebrew.

Do you do any community-oriented work–as in, translation events open to the public? Or do you just gather together for mutual support? 

We are looking for good places where we can hold readings. We held several great readings at Cambridge Public Library but had to stop using their space because we aren’t a Cambridge-based NGO (their requirement). Now we’re talking with several bookstores in the area. Brookline Booksmith has recently inaugurated their brilliant Transnational Literature series organized by Shuchi Saraswat which has been presenting authors and translators. Boston University holds a lecture series on translation every spring and has for over 40 years. Our members regularly take advantage of both of these and many of us have been asked to speak at one or the other of them. 

How many original members are still active? How do you recruit new ones?

There are three original members still active: Jim Kates, Mark Schafer, and Ellen Elias-Bursać. We recruit by word of mouth. There is no application procedure, we’re open to beginning translators as well as experienced ones. Recently we’ve all been making an effort to get word out about the group at various translation gatherings, such as the conference on translation held last September at Boston University, and those efforts have brought in new members, which we are all delighted about. Also, when we’ve organized readings we include some regular members, but always bring in people who haven’t been in our group to take part as well. 

What is particularly enticing about writing and translating in Boston?

The BU spring seminar on translation has been ongoing for over 40 years, so there has always been a core of people engaged in discussing translation issues. The people teaching in the language and literature departments all over the city as well as the non-academic members of the Boston-area community, many of them involved in publishing, have provided a steady stream of participants. Also it’s important to say that we don’t just include people from Boston. Two of our members come to meetings regularly from New Hampshire, several have joined us from other parts of Massachusetts such as Amherst, Northampton, and Gloucester, and we have members in Rhode Island and Connecticut as well. 

What are some essential translator resources you’ve found invaluable over the years?

Each other, first and foremost. And the stimulation offered by readings, talks, bookstores (hooray for Brookline Booksmith), libraries. We all miss Schoenhof’s, the Harvard Square bookstore specialized in foreign languages. 

Do you have any hard rules for translation? An extension, perhaps, of rules in writing?

Reading out loud to each other. We have no hard rules for translation.

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