The Business of Literary Translation, or #ETN14: A Day of Nuts, Bolts and Whistles, And A Toolkit in the Making

When I co-founded ETN almost three years ago with Anna Holmwood and Jamie Searle Romanelli, after an excited discussion at the Free Word Centre, we wanted to create a new space for early-career literary translators. The Translators Association, or TA – the subsidiary group of the Society of Authors that acts as a kind of union for translators – provides an essential and excellent-value service for those of us who are lucky enough to have a contract to do a book, and I would urge any translator to join it once they are in a position to do so.

But Anna, Jamie and I felt there was a gap: what about all the eager would-be literary translators, or not-quite-yet translators (proto-translators?) who did not yet fulfil the criteria to join the TA, but who nonetheless still required answers to their many questions and the backing of a supportive network of peers and colleagues? We wanted this space to be a place where members could ask questions that perhaps some members of the TA hadn’t had to ask themselves for a while: how do I write a reader’s report? What IS a reader’s report, even? What exactly happens throughout the whole process of seeing a book go from something much-loved on your shelf to a fully-finished translation with your name on the cover? What else does a translator do, aside from re-creating texts in another language? How do you let publishers know who you are and work productively with them? Does literary translation pay? And how can I ensure I’m getting the best deal, for the book, for the author, and for myself?

Thus ETN was born, and it swiftly moved from being a tentative Google Group with only Anna, Jamie and myself as members to being what it is today: a thriving community with 450 members and growing, in places as diverse as Bradford and Brasilia, Cheltenham and Chicago, Winchester and Warsaw. The group covers languages from Catalan to Ukrainian, by way of Polish, Kurdish and Korean. There is a now an active US branch (ELTNA), many regional groups within the UK who meet regularly in places such as Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Norwich and, after discussions I had recently with a Buenos Aires-based translator, there may well soon be an Argentinian branch – watch this space! We have members who are recent graduates, and others who have worked in a range of jobs for years, from commercial and technical translation to teaching, agenting, theatre lighting, bookselling, conference organising, journalism and academia, and the breadth and depth of experience and wisdom out there is quite astonishing.

The network has grown organically and become a place where early-career literary translators feel welcome and able to ask all manner of questions of their peers in a safe, supportive environment. Its greatest strength is this peer-to-peer learning – we’d like that to continue, and it was from this spirit that the idea for ‘The Business of Literary Translation’ event emerged, specifically after a chat in a pub in Cambridge last September. Tired from punting in the rain but cheered by Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies, a group of ETN top brass started talking seriously about what was next for the group. It soon transpired that Ruth Martin and I were in similar positions of having very little work (Ruth was in fact about to quit her day job, the fool, I mean, brave soul!), so in between applying for a bizarre array of part-time work and hoping the next big translation project would pop into my inbox, I started talking to her about how a big ETN event might look.

It was clear, after ETN’s first few years of enjoyable meet-ups and socials, that the network had outgrown Google Groups. Ruth and I both had a hankering for it to be something more than it was, plus a shared recognition of ETN’s immense value that was at times obscured by its frustrating platform. So we put together a plan for a conference, filled out funding applications, and generally bounced ideas around until we had something living and breathing on our hands: Monday the 21st of July was to be the ETN’s debut as a Very Important Organisation. We were immensely lucky to receive funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation via the Writers’ Centre Norwich in order to achieve this (whose chief executive Chris Gribble also acted as our wonderful chair on the day).

When the morning of the 21st came around, I woke at 6am in a panic: what had we forgotten? What would go wrong? Would everyone have fun? It was a little like when you plan a house party and worry (generally needlessly) about all your guests for some reason finding themselves incapable of talking to each other, of having fun without you coming round and introducing everyone like mad, over-zealously topping up their wine glasses. I was determined not to end up acting like Beverly in Abigail’s Party, desperately trying to over-manage things with a slightly unhinged smile on my face, and so I calmed myself down by thinking, ‘Well, it’s OK – it’s the ETN. I’m going to know everyone there; it’s a nice crowd, a really easy, friendly audience’.

In actual fact, one of the best things about the day was that I didn’t know everyone there: after I arrived and Ruth – ever-efficient – briskly handed me a clipboard with my agenda and a red plastic whistle attached to it (more on that later), we started greeting delegates and I realised that at least a quarter of them were completely new faces to me. This means we had managed to tap into a hitherto unknown seam of eager wannabe translators, which is exciting in a field that can sometimes seem a tad cosy. This is partly because we targeted all the MA courses, but the newbies weren’t all young: there were a good few more, ahem, experienced faces out there too, a good demonstration that literary translation is something that people come at from all stages of life. I feel this is a salient point when it comes to talking about the many prizes and opportunities out there for young translators – the cut-off point tends to be under 35 – rather than ones at the start of their career. The late-adopters are perhaps becoming less common as more and more MA and even BA courses in translation become available and well-regarded, and some might argue that the opportunities for younger translators are as much about giving confidence to younger people but, as is evident from the many questions they ask on the ETN, older translators who have a wealth of life- and professional experience can also feel nervous about starting out. The translation residency at Free Word is a good example of an institution which recognises that literary translators can emerge at any age.

Anyway, I needn’t have worried about people not having fun at our party, I mean Very Serious Conference, because, judging from the evaluation forms we’ve had back and several comments on the day, most people – delegates and speakers – had a whale of a time. Oh, and that whistle? Ruth had joked about buying me one to help with the timings for the pitching session, but when I saw it bulldog-clipped to my clipboard I knew she was deadly serious. So I’d like to apologise to anyone’s ears I managed to offend, although to be honest, it could probably have been even louder – someone quipped afterwards that trying to round up translators sheepdog-style was not a little like herding cats… I’m just thankful I didn’t have to resort to putting on a Demis Roussos record.

Rosalind Harvey

* If you have a passion for literary translation – or think you might do given some friendly encouragement – and you haven’t yet joined the ETN, then please email to join in the conversation. All you need is a gmail address and a hankering to turn great foreign books into great English ones! We’re launching the ETN’s first even resource, the Translator’s Toolkit, at International Translation Day 2014, this September the 26th at the British Library. Book your tickets here.

This article originally appeared on the blog of publishers And Other Stories.

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