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Energize Your Happy [Or: Why It's Important for Literary Translators to Go Do Stuff]

This is a bit of a risk, posting something among all the commotion surrounding the Women’s World Cup of Literature, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and wanted to finally write about it.

I’m writing this post from Venstpils, Latvia, where I’ve had the pleasure to spend these first two weeks of June working primarily on some of my own translation projects (and also primarily at cursing Google Docs and my inability to figure out how to auto-sync manuscript edits between my iPad and the Intarwebs—my apologies to summer Open Letter intern-apprentice Meg Berkobien for the near-endless outpouring of techfury I text her in the middle of the night), meeting the other residents also at the Ventspils Writer’s and Translator’s House, and experiencing a slightly different part of Latvia than what I’m used to.

These two weeks have gone by incredibly quickly, and in addition to wholeheartedly thanking the Ventspils House for giving me this opportunity, I wanted to use it as one of two examples (the other being the 5th Biannual Graduate Student Translation Conference that took place in Ann Arbor, MI in May) of how important—nay, crucial—it is for translators (and writers, and editors, and publishers!) to find out about and apply to these kinds of “retreats,” if you will, and similar conferences or meetings, not just to make and maintain connections with people and presses, but in order to do something we all really, really need to do, whether you’re aware of it or not: energize your Happy.

Granted, this sounds like the product of a so-close-not-quite translation (or something a little sexual, or a drug habit), but it make perfect sense. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more aware of how great I feel after each ALTA conference—yes, even with all exhaustion each conference results in—how jazzed-up and ready-to-go I feel after each panel I go to, after each colleague I talk with, how reenergized my “Happy” for literary translation becomes. It’s not that I find myself depressed about translation life in the months leading up to ALTA, but there’s undeniably something about coming together with other people working through the same obstacles, hearing what your friends have been working on, what they’re excited about, etc., that really just does it for me, emotionally and mentally. Being around that like-minded vibe makes me look forward to doing more of the same: in my personal projects, in my capacity as editor at Open Letter, etc. This is one of the reasons I go to ALTA, and that I have been going for the past five years (I know, I’m still a newbie, relatively speaking), and why I will continue to go to this conference.

BUT. What are we supposed to do in the year between each conference? Do we even care to look for and find anything else to participate in or travel to in the bleak days until the next Declamácion? I know some larger cities have groups of literary translators who come together to chat, discuss, workshop, breathe the same air together—but not every city has something like this, and not every city has more than one active literary translator living in it. Which is why it is crucial to be aware of and seek out the other (more or less) myriad opportunities out there to keep fuelling your Happy throughout the year. Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of when this refuelling happens, and more aware of how I need it to keep happening, and how I want to talk to other people and make sure that they’re aware of and energizing their Happies as well (okay okay, now it really sounds like something sexual, but just humor me, please). Do you know where your Happy is? Do you know how your Happy is? Your Happy needs you. And truth be told, the world of literary translation needs your Happy. We all do.

Back in April, I had the wonderful opportunity to go to Ann Arbor to participate in the Graduate Student Translation Conference, where I spoke on a roundtable with Benjamin Paloff and Meg Berkobien, got to hear keynote speaker Sean Cotter, and helped moderate/facilitate one of several translation workshops with a group of students. The conference only took place over the course of two days, and I didn’t even bring my own translation work to the table—but I felt SO. AMAZING. after all was said and done. Just being around this group of bright, young translators working through their translations (which where all fantastic, and one of which I’d particularly like to share1), hearing about how they became interested in literary translation, their specific projects, what they want to do in the future, and simply seeing how excited they were about literary translation . . . It jump-started that same Happy in me. This isn’t a case of “being reminded of how I once felt” about translation. This is the Happy I know is there, and will never forget is there, but the Happy that sometimes, unfortunately, gets put on the back burner while I’m dealing with other projects, other manuscripts, piles of laundry, traveling, forgetting to buy groceries because of traveling, cleaning up trails of cat vomit and shit because oh thank god you’re home but DAMN YOU MEOWMMY AND YOUR TRAVELING SLASH ABANDONMENT. It’s the Happy that feels so good when you put it back in the spotlight, the Happy that makes you want to translate All the Things!, the Happy that, truly, makes you the literary translator that you are. It’s the obvious love and craft you put into your work, your skill, the hours you spend agonizing over a single sentence, phrase, word, semicolon. And as precious as it sounds, it’s also what connects each of us to one another. It’s why I’m grateful to call so many of you literary translators/editors/publishers not only colleagues, but friends—because we get each other. We know what’s up. We’re down with the flow.

The translation conference—which I’d like to add was professional, but very casual and comfortable at the same time, an element that definitely had some influence—left me with this spark, this gleam in my eye. It left me ready and wanting to get home, give my Happy a football-slap on the buttcheek and say “See that book over there, the one we’ve been tinkering with and talking about for months? LET’S DO THIS THING.” The awareness alone that I was reenergized just fuelled me even more, and it really was something I needed to get me to push myself into committing to resuming a project, to finding the time to let myself get lost in it. That’s when I started to really realize that what I need—what I believe most of us need, if even on some level—is a string of mini-ALTAs throughout the year to keep us going, to drive our Happies forward. Be it through literary events and readings, festivals, conferences, seminars, residencies, or just talking to someone who’s not a literary translator, it’s vital for us to be aware of these events, to get involved, and to talk them up to any literary translator who will listen.

Another reason it’s important to get involved in these mini-conferences or residencies, even as an observer, is because they also give you the opportunity to take a step back from everything. For me, it was refreshing to see the group of students at the Ann Arbor conference—people I had never met before—be so openly excited and passionate in a group of people they had mostly not met before either. It was refreshing to be at a conference that wasn’t ALTA, but still upheld the same interests and values and conversations. It was refreshing to have the realization that other people were just as jazzed-up about literary translation in the spring as people are in the fall. I needed that. And I think the students needed that, too. Putting yourself in a different situation, a different location, a largely different group of people helps you see a different picture that uses the same materials. It’s simultaneously fresh, yet familiar.

I guess what I’m saying is that it is so incredibly necessary for us as literary translators to get out there. Not like missionaries, but just as people, for our own good. If you’re lucky enough to have been to a residency, or are lucky enough to be able to go to conferences throughout the year, just think about how you feel afterward, how the full spectrum of emotionally charged discussions (heated to pissed to drunk and singing folk songs in a foreign language) leave you feeling revved up at the end of it all. For those who have had the opportunity to go to a residency and are amazed at how much work you get done? Is it because you’re not in your usual setting with the usual office or house distractions and it feels at times like a vacation? Or is it because you spend some time with the other residents (if there are any), exchanging stories about what you’re working on, how it’s going, what sort of obstacles you’ve met with or have overcome, just being around like-minded and like-driven people and their Happies? No one at the Ventspils house is sad. Yes, we’ve all had our days where nothing seems to work (eff you, Google Docs), where none of the words seem right; but we’re always smiling. We’re always looking and drawing internally and externally for inspiration, for that boost to get us to the next wave of Happy. We enjoy each other’s company, because we get one another. I went on a long walk with another one of the residents the other day; we were both stiff and sore from too many hours hunched over our computers, and took the day off to rest our slightly broken and limping bodies. We chatted the entire time, about our families, home, travel, strange foreign foods, our respective projects… And when I saw her the next afternoon, we were both reenergized, back where we wanted to be (both in posture and in our work), and for my part, going on that walk and having someone here to talk to and connect with really did the trick. Another of the residents tells me about her poetry now and then, and has given me samples of it to read—and I love it; I love being in a new environment, and in one that makes it totally cool and safe-feeling to just give someone a page of your work to read without the fear of judgement. Though we’re not all literary translators here, we are all here for the same reason, and that’s the sense of community I cherish being made more aware of.

Time-jumping a bit—even on the drive to and back from Ann Arbor, Cameron Rowe, the University of Rochester MALTS student who I carpooled with, and I talked a lot about what we thought the conference would be like, and afterward what our impressions were of it. And I’m glad I had the chance to hear the thoughts of one of the participating students before and after the conference, and to see the experience through her eyes for a moment, as well as the positive effect the weekend had on her.

At this point I’m not sure how many themes I’ve repeated, or how much sense this is making. I do know that there are plenty of other ways to say the same thing I’m saying here, and that, in addition to these residencies (Banff, Ventspils, the Baltic Residencies, the Ledig House, etc.) and conferences and organizations (ALTA, AWP, MLA, BEA, ATA, PEN, etc.) there are many, many, many more that I am either not naming, or not immediately aware of, as well as events, festivals, and lecture series held throughout the year. Go to as many of these as you can. If you go to one and you had an amazing time—TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES. Tell as many people as will listen. If you’re a student or a non-student literary translator looking for opportunities to participate in the translation community, for a residency, for a book reading, ASK AROUND, POKE AROUND. It’s possible you may give or find new information.

For example, the Venstpils Writer’s and Translator’s House accepts and considers applications from writers and translators in all stages of their careers. It also books up 1.5 – 2 years into the future, from what I understand, so either apply for a residency period a few years down the line, or, if your schedule permits it, say you would be open to placement at any point throughout the year. While on research trips or while at festivals, the Ventspils House staff have also consistently found that most potential applicants think they have to be prolific, widely-published, have been working in the field forever—which just isn’t true. Yes, there are some residencies and conferences that ask for some of those things, but there are also plenty like the Venstpils House that are ready and waiting to give as many interesting and important projects as possible the chance to flourish. They DO exist! (That’s my personal tip. Also, come fall in love with Latvia!) I didn’t apply to the Ventspils House for years because I thought I had to have a few published works under my belt—if I had known otherwise, especially as a graduate student, I would’ve acted much, much sooner, and would have doubtlessly experienced a significant and electrifying jump to my Happy that much sooner as well.

I suppose in closing all I have is this: Friends and colleagues don’t let friends and colleagues forget about their Happies. Information exchange is one of the essential ways for all of us to keep caring about what we do as literary translators (and editors and publishers), and to keep caring about what the rest of our community is doing, and to feel good and energized year-round. Because a triple-shot of espresso every three hours will only get you so far.

1 I also wanted to share a sample of one of the three works I had the pleasure to help workshop at the Ann Arbor conference. Because of the length of this post, I’ve given its own page here.



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