While ALTA is proud to serve literary translators all over the USA – not to mention farther afield – local communities are also essential, as these can be more cohesive than is feasible in a nationwide network, particularly in a country this large. Serving this need, a number of translation collectives have sprung up centering on a single city or region; this month, we hear from The Northwest Literary Translators.
The interview was conducted by The Smoking Tigers.
The Northwest Literary Translators selling books at a translation conference in Seattle, September 2018. Left to right: Zakiya Hanafi (Italian), Shelley Fairweather-Vega (Russian), Lola Rogers (Finnish), Wendell Ricketts (Italian). Photo: Katie King.
Please introduce yourselves. What are you “northwest” of? How many are you? What is your primary objective as a group?
The Northwest Literary Translators are a plucky troop of aspiring and established literary translators living in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. We have a loosely organized core membership of about ten people, but we’ve been known to gather sixty people at a time for our most popular events.
We like to think of ourselves as a support group for literary translators, with both a social and an educational mission, providing each other with information and inspiration. We share our experiences and discuss both the business and the craft of literary translation, give each other advice, and cheer each other’s successes.
As they say in the comic book world, what is your origin story?
The group is the brainchild of two mad translators with dreams of conquering the world (just kidding!). Our first event was a translation reading night in May 2016, inspired by the bilingual reading series at ALTA. Shelley Fairweather-Vega was due to organize a social event for our local chapter of the American Translators Association, called NOTIS (the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society). She thought having a reading in a bar might qualify as a social occasion, and serve her ulterior motive: bringing together some of the local literary translators she had met at ALTA that year and drawing out of seclusion some she hadn’t yet met. The plan worked, and one of the local translators to fall for it was Katie King, who later proposed that she and Shelley work together to organize a more lasting group for literary translation in Seattle. The rest is history.
Please walk us through your peer-to-peer translation process.
Several times a year we devote our monthly meeting to a Feedback Forum. Two or three members volunteer to bring in a work in progress, and discuss any trouble they’re having with it, and we all offer suggestions. With our different languages and areas of expertise, we’ve come up with some very interesting solutions. We’ve discussed all kinds of work, from poetry to screenplays, and all kinds of problems, from translating jokes to translating intimate, confessional narratives.
It’s clear from Googling your name that you do a lot of outreach work. Can you describe more of what you do in your community in terms of education and promotion?
Every time we meet—once a month during the academic year—new people attend, alongside our regulars. They include students, practicing translators without experience translating fiction or poetry, writers and avid readers from Folio, the private library where we meet, and scholars we’ve brought in from the University of Washington. Our Facebook group is open to anyone who can demonstrate even a passing interest in literary translation and has a connection to our region, and it has members who have yet to attend one of our events. And we try to advertise the most popular events, like our spring reading night and translation slam, very widely.
What tips do you have for other translator communities in terms of running outreach?
Building relationships is vital! We would not be where we are today without NOTIS and Folio. NOTIS provides a budget and all sorts of administrative help – we use their event calendar, member database, blog, and so on to reach our public. And Folio gives us access to a beautiful, inspirational meeting space and a diverse community of “book people” in Seattle. They advertise all our events to their members, and they have connections with the local press. Any group that wants to do outreach needs to ensure their events are presented as inclusive, not intimidating, to people who might be a little wary of translation and/or Literature with a capital “L”. We’ve brought in comic-book lovers with our recent session on translating comics, and opera lovers with a talk on translating for opera. And we try to serve refreshments. That helps.
What are the particular challenges of being a region-based translators’ collective? And what challenges do you face particularly from being in the Northwest?
Seattle is the most highly educated big city in America, according to a recent report, and it’s a UNESCO City of Literature. It’s also linguistically diverse and growing quickly. Those things help our profession and our group thrive here. Seattle is home to AmazonCrossing, the most prolific publisher of literature in translation in the US for the past several years, and multiple smaller presses who are interested in translation. But it’s not London or New York, and there’s nowhere near the number of publishers or agents that certain other cities enjoy. While we meet in Seattle, we try to cover the same wide swath of the country that NOTIS does: the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Idaho. That works better on Facebook than it does in person. There’s a newer group in Portland, Oregon that seems to be thriving, and we are cheering them on.
What aspects of your work do you feel most excited about? (It could be any kind of contribution including specific translated works.)
As the organizers of the group, we’re most proud of how much we are growing, how new members discover us all the time and seem very happy to have found us. We’re glad we’ve been able to consistently organize new events and draw a crowd. And our members are having individual success, too. Mandy Olson won the Gutekunst Prize of the Friends of Goethe New York in 2017. Zakiya Hanafi was selected to help judge the Italian Literature in Translation Award this year. Tim Gregory finished his M.A. in literary translation in 2018. Melissa Bowers’ translation of Liv Strömquist’s Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy appeared on The Guardian’s list of best graphic novels of 2018. Katie King is about to defend her doctoral dissertation on the subject of creating translation hubs on university campuses. I think we get a mention in her text.
How does one join Northwest Literary Translators?
Join our Facebook group and check the NOTIS event calendar and come meet us the next time you’re in Seattle on a third Thursday. Membership in NOTIS is encouraged, but optional – and at $40 per year, $15 for students, it’s a bargain.
Does Portland really have awesome bookstore owners like Candace and Toni of the Feminist Bookstore in Portlandia? If not, what’s the book culture like over there? What’s Folio like?
In the interest of preserving harmony between our Portland and Seattle factions, we would like to respectfully point out that both cities have extremely awesome bookstores (though, sadly, fewer than before). That Portlandia bookstore is real, and Shelley used to shop there for zines when she was a buyer for the public library system in Portland. But the biggest bookstore in Portland is Powell’s Books, a huge independent, vast enough for its own culture and ecosystem. Seattle has old-fashioned newsstands, bookstores that double as publishers (like Fantagraphics for comics and Chin Music Press for East Asian literature), and independent icons like Elliott Bay Book Company and Third Place.
What’s next for Northwest Literary Translators?
Our April event is a talk by translator Lyn Coffin about her career. Our annual Spotlight Your Work reading night will be in May. In the long run, we’d like to forge even more local relationships, possibly with public libraries. And we’d like to help other regional groups get off the ground, in part by helping literary translators take advantage of the infrastructure already available through local ATA chapters.
For more information about The Northwest Literary Translators, visit their Facebook page.
Questions by The Smoking Tigers, a complaint of experienced literary translators working from Korean to English. Find out more about them on their website, or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter. And read their Collective Conversations interview here!