Finding Your Tribe: Dispatches from ALTA 2014 from Fellow Tenzin Dickie

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.

The greatest corpus of literature in Tibetan, the Kangyur and Tengyur, are short-form titles for “The Translated Teachings of the Buddha” and “The Translated Commentaries.” The ‘gyur,’ sewn inseparably into the ‘ka’ and ‘ten’, the Teaching and the Commentaries, explicitly marks the translated. Tibetans cannot talk about the canon without calling it “the translated canon.”

For comparison, imagine always referring to the Bible as “the Translated Bible.” But for Tibetans, the fact that these thousands of texts were translations from the Sanskrit, the original liturgical language of the Indian subcontinent and the Latin of Asia, was in fact what gave them legitimacy.

Translation was the great legitimizer. The translators—Drokmi the Translator, Marpa the Translator, Rinchen Zangpo the Great Translator (Marpa Lotsawa, Drokmi Lotsawa, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo)—have always been heroic figures. Scholars in the most classical sense, they were also great adventurers and travellers. The word “Lotsawa” derives from the Sanskrit “locchava” for one who opens the eyes of the world.

And sure, the image of translators has drifted to a more mundane level in the Tibetan public estimation since the time of those great figurers, but translation is still seen as a noble endeavor. There are still people about whom you might use the word “Lotsawa” without irony. For myself, it’s the humble “yigyurwa” I am trying to earn.

All of which is to say that for me being at ALTA 2014 was like being in a roomful of rock stars. Here was Marian Schwartz, translator of Tolstoy! Susan Bernofsky, translator of Kafka! I listened to the poet Mani Rao recite from her translation of Kalidasa, the great 5th century Indian poet and playwright, in a haze of delight and supreme surprise at seeing Mani Rao recite Kalidasa!

The thing was, even among such luminaries, you seem to belong somehow, by an alchemy of collective kindness and generosity of spirit by ALTA members that marked that entire conference. Older and established translators were genuinely supportive and welcoming to us newcomers, seeking us out to talk to us, sharing their knowledge and experience and inducting us into this family of literary translators.

As Alice Guthrie, my fellow Fellow (yes, the six of us Fellows did spend the entire conference calling each other our “fellow Fellows” and laughing our heads off and no, we don’t get out much) said, “It’s like finding your tribe.”

It was like finding my tribe.

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Smelling the Film: Report from ALTA 2014 Fellow Alice Guthrie

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 May 1. More information here.


As I roam the lush carpeted pastures of the Milwaukee Hilton among the North American branch of my tribe, in an ecstasy of homecoming—to borrow Sara Novic’s notionthere are several layers of fascination at play for me that my lovely fellow Fellows don’t share and seem, therefore, to be sometimes slightly bemused by. Because the content of the event in itself is so rich, so fulfilling, so thought provoking, and because the population of the conference so open and friendly and sparky and intriguing, all of us are highly stimulated, deeply engrossed and actually often somewhat spellbound. But I have something else going on, in addition to all of this: sitting rapt in the middle of an extraordinary reading of some central Asian fiction by one of my newly discovered translator cousins, I absentmindedly reach out for a sweet (candy, to the US reader) from a bowl on the table in front of me. I unwrap it and put it into my mouth, and am sideswiped by a chemical taste so highly synthetic I cannot at first place what on Earth it might be imitatingand yet somewhere in this fog of industrial flavour there is a distant dull echo, dimly recognisable. Then it hits me, and it’s all I can do to keep silent in my seat and not disrupt my colleague’s incredible reading by leaping to my feet and screaming ‘GRAPE FLAVOR!!!!!!’ (And yes, my scream would spell it without a u). It’s a major moment for me: I’ve just been catapulted quite a way deeper into some of the fiction that is most important to me, in a way that Google could never facilitateI can look up images of poison ivy or madrone, or listen to any music obscure enough not to’ve made it across the Atlantic already, and of course we all got used to translating terms like ‘bangs’ and ‘sidewalk’ and ‘stroller’ and ‘Kotex’ and ‘a bunch’ for ourselves way back in childhood, but tastes and smells? They remain utterly mysterious and thereforeduring my thirty-eight years of immersion in North American literary, musical and cinematic culturehave taken on a luminously exotic quality. As I sit sucking on my first ever blast of the mighty, the totemic, the Oh-so-American grape flavour, my focus on the reading I am supposedly listening to is suddenly gone, and I’m whizzing through my mental archive in a blur of references, landing here and there and adding a new sheen to this or that sceneback in the opening pages of Pynchon’s Vineland, for example, sitting on Zoyd’s porch with him in an intense new intimacy as he cracks open that four-pack of grape sodas.

This is only my second ever trip to the States, so there are all sorts of moments like this, and a frequently almost overwhelming sensation of being inside a film. Of course it is not only the specific concrete things we know we have never tasted, like grape flavo(u)r, that are entrancing for anyone who grew up in the non-American anglophone world: perhaps even more significant are the unnamed and unmentioned tastes and smells that North Americans wouldn’t even notice or mention, that emerge as having formed that unreachable other sensory dimension to all the films and books we’ve been steeped in for all these years. And then there is the intense redolence of the way people speak, so that from time to time during the conference I suddenly swoon into a scene from Steinbeck, or Happy Days, or whatever. I could go on and on and on with the examples, but suffice it to say that for me, at ALTA, there is quite a lot going on, and I may have been overheard muttering the phrase ‘I’m smelling the film!’ more than once.

But there are elements of the actual content of the ALTA gathering that I find delightfully exotic and have nothing to do with smells or tastes or accents, of course: the programme’s deep focus on listening to each other’s actual work in formal readings is something I would love to see take off in our UK literary translation community, where we are much more likely to be found talking shop, or talking theory, than actually reading our writing to each other; the delightful open-hearted enthusiasm and camaraderie of the community, so supportive and uplifting, and so much less reserved and complex than what I am used to; the extended time we have together and the new friendships that develop as a result of itin London, at most only a few hours away from participants’ homes, we tend to only meet for a day, or two at the very most; the feasting and the singing and the celebratory atmosphere that infuses the whole event. It will certainly be interesting to see how the ALTA gatherings develop over the coming years, and an honour to be part of bringing the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School training model over and adapting it for the US context (watch this space)I am totally, utterly and hopelessly hooked on the ALTA carnival caravan and plan to follow it as far as I can.

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AWP15 Bookfair Bingo: Translation!

This year, to help navigate the overwhelming riches of the #AWP15 bookfair, join ALTA for a game of Translation Bookfair Bingo! One person each day will win 26+ amazing books from the 25 incredible independent presses participating in the game. (See below for the books you could win!). bookfair bingo cardSo here’s how to play.

  1. Come to the ALTA booth (1407) and pick up a card.
  2. Go to the tables on the Bookfair Bingo card and have them mark your card.
  3. Return the fully completed card to us, and keep an eye on your email or Twitter or both to see if you won for the day!

Easy, and a great way to find some of the most interesting international literature at AWP.

Participating Presses & Books:

Action Books

Alice James Books

Archipelago Books

Argos Books

BOA Editions

Coffee House Press

Copper Canyon Press

Deep Vellum

Graywolf Press

Les Figues Press

Litmus Press

A Midsummer Night’s Press


  • Fortino Samano, by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue (winner of the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets)
  • Spectacle & Pigsty, by Kiwao Nomura, trans. Forrest Gander and Kyoko Yoshida (winner of the Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, 2012 and winner of the 2012 Memorial Rekitei Prize for Poetry)
  • Songs without Words, by Paul Verlaine, trans. Donald Revell

Open Letter Books

Persea Books

Phoneme Media

Red Hen Press

Tavern Books

  • Skin, by Tone Škrjanec, trans. Matthew Rohrer & Ana Pepelnik
  • Duino Elegies, by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Gary Miranda

Tupelo Press

Two Lines Press

Ugly Duckling Presse

Unnamed Press

Wave Books

White Pine Press

Zephyr Press

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Call for Submissions: Underpass, new journal for international literature

New International Literary Journal Accepting Submissions

Underpass, a new online journal for international literature, is accepting submissions of short fiction and narrative nonfiction from established and new writers from around the world.

For the launch edition, we’re accepting submissions of short stories, narrative nonfiction pieces, and excerpts from longer work that has been translated into English. A very small percentage of books published in the United States each year are translations and most are translated from French, German, and Spanish. At Underpass, we want to hear from the rest of planet.

We are particularly interested in writing that has been translated from languages other than French, German, and Spanish and provides English-speaking readers a window into a different country, neighborhood, culture, perspective. Submissions should be fewer than 7,500 words. Accompanying images, art, and photographs are encouraged.

To submit, please follow these directions:

Send a Word document of the English language version.

  • Include a PDF document of the submission in the original language. Please let us know if it has previously been published in the original language.
  • Include a short author bio and a translator bio in English. Please describe any past publication experience.
  • All submission should be sent electronically to
  • Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis. To be included in the launch edition planned for summer 2015, please send your submission by April 30.
  • We will respond as fast as we can–hopefully within one month of submission.
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A Whole Different Animal: Report from ALTA 2014 Fellow Christopher Tamigi

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 May 1. More information here.

Christopher Tamigi received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

Christopher Tamigi received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

I remember having a conversation with some other young translators in the hotel lobby on the last night of the 2014 ALTA Conference. At one point the ergative case came up, and I learned that there’s an international network of Esperanto enthusiasts who are happy to let fellow speakers crash on their couch. I also remember ALTA fellow Sara Novic giving us an impromptu demonstration on how to talk smack in ASL. This is the sort of thing that can happen when you bring a couple hundred translators—people from across the country and beyond, working on all kinds of different projects in a myriad of languages—together for a long weekend.

This is actually my second time at ALTA. I had an opportunity to attend the 2013 conference in Bloomington, and since then I’ve been recommending the experience to other translators back at the University of Arkansas. I often compare it to the other writerly conference I’ve been to (AWP), which boasts thousands of attendees and features evening readings by celebrity authors. While it has its good points, I found the atmosphere there somewhat disheartening: just look at all these aspiring writers and poets; what makes me think I’ll be one of the select few who ever get published? And, given the size of the conference, it almost goes without saying that I never got a chance to shake hands with any of the celebrity authors.

My experience at ALTA was a whole different animal. I remember attending a panel of editors from different journals that publish literature in translation: my take-away from that was, basically, “We’re always on the lookout for new stuff; keep sending us your translations!” I actually left feeling inspired. And there are no velvet cordons at ALTA: members of the “old guard” of well-established literary translators are happy to talk to newbies: sharing anecdotes and seasoned advice, discussing your current project or future career plans. It’s a welcoming atmosphere, and ALTA members did make me feel as though we’re all colleagues in this “thankless” field.

I was so honored to be awarded a 2014 ALTA fellowship for emerging translators. The other five fellows are among the friends I made at ALTA who I plan to keep in touch with and see again inside and outside the context of future conferences. Compared to 2013, this time around there were more readings and events organized in the evening (many of which had buffets). This included the closing event where we had the honor of hearing a bilingual reading of poetry (not to mention a rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”) in the languages spoken by Wisconsin’s indigenous peoples and a vibrant performance by a local “Spanglish” poet. For me these events were all the more welcome because, after exploring the city some on my first day there, the frigid Milwaukee weather dissuaded me from wandering too far from the hotel. Just looking at the list of future locations I get the sense that ALTA conferences are only getting better, and I look forward to seeing everyone next year in Tucson.

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MLA Call For Papers: Translation and Transcultural Audiences

MLA CFP: Translation and Transcultural Audiences

This special session at the 2016 MLA Convention in Austin will examine the role of translation in developing new audiences for literary texts, especially texts with multiple translations in different languages and for different time periods. How have translations created new audiences in the past and created contemporary audiences for classical texts? Furthermore, how can translations allow for additional potential audiences in the future? Email a 300-word abstract by March 15, 2015 to For questions, please contact Erin Riddle at

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That Rare Joy of Being Understood: Report from ALTA 2014 Fellow Sara Novic

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 May 1. More information here.

Sara Novic received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

Sara Novic received the ALTA Travel Fellowship to attend the 2014 ALTA conference in Milwaukee.

I still have Milwaukee plugged into the weather app on my phone. It’s one of several cities in the scroll—New York, where I actually live, then Boston, Philly, Zagreb (places I once lived, and frequently visit), and Melbourne (where I spent last summer). Then Milwaukee, a place to which I really have no connection at all, except for the few days I spent there in November at the ALTA conference. Still, I can’t yet bring myself to delete it from the list. Part of it is the perverse pleasure of seeing exactly how cold it can get there—as I write this, it’s 17F here in Queens, but 1 degree in Milwaukee. But the other part of it is the feeling of homecoming I get when I think about the conference.

Growing up alongside but not quite in several languages and cultures, I often felt out of place. I could count on one hand the number of times I remember the clear feeling of being “at home” or among “my people.” One was in Croatia, when my friends and I crashed in the abandoned ruins of a house taken out by the war, then stayed up late speaking “Cringlish”—Croatian sentence structure injected with English stand-ins for the vocabulary I was lacking, then conjugated with Croatian verb endings. One was some late night in a dark bar in Morningside Heights, where I talked books with my workshop mates from the MFA at Columbia. And another time was at the ALTA conference.

What happened at the conference was perhaps even more spectacular because, unlike those other times, when I was with my peers, at ALTA everyone was a far more established and decorated translator than I am. Still, on that very first night a group of ALTA veterans invited another Fellow and me to join them at their table simply because we had conference name tags on. I remember being surprised by their initial friendliness, and even more so by the ease with which the subsequent conversation flowed. I haven’t been to any other kinds of conferences, but I can guess from my experience in gatherings with other writers and academics that this feeling of instantaneous welcome and ease is not the norm. Perhaps because translators are used to working behind-the-scenes, there was no competitiveness between us, no expectation that we should be starstruck by the experts all around us (though I was, frequently).

Our days were filled with seminars and readings, groups of various focuses and sizes. But some of my favorite moments were the ones in which we were gathered all together—the commemoration of Michael Henry Heim, the National Translation Award celebration for Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, the ALTA Fellows Reading, and Declamación. In those moments, the sheer number of people in a room made what we were doing feel far from “behind-the-scenes”—rather a sense of urgency was palpable; we were in this together and it was important.

The Fellows Reading was the biggest audience I’d ever read in front of, and the outpouring of support was beyond anything I could’ve expected. While my fellow Fellows read, I felt almost embarrassed to be in the company of such talent. Afterwards, at the reception, we received such positive feedback, I remember turning to the other fellows and saying, “These are the most compliments we are ever going to receive! We should write this down!”

On our last night in town, after Declamación, a group of us (only one of whom I’d known before I got there) went to the hotel bar and drank Milwaukee beers and talked late into the night about the uses of semicolon across languages, and the grammatical cases of Slavic languages, and I felt that rare joy of being understood. The plane ride the next morning didn’t feel much like going home at all.

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