Last month I attended the Warwick Translates Summer School at the University of Warwick, a series of literary translation workshops and talks led by leading professional translators and publishers. As I hadn’t been to a translation event in quite some time and this one was especially geared towards literary translation, I was quite excited. My enthusiasm clearly showed as I tried to cram in three modules over the 5 days: French translation, Spanish translation, and Theatre translation.
The French module, run by award-winning literary translator Ros Schwartz, had us split off into groups and start translating a Cameroonian novel that Ros herself was working on. Although I popped in and out to also attend Spanish and Theatre, we were in the same groups all week, and everyone came up with some great ideas to convey the imagery in the text.
In the Spanish module, run by Rosalind Harvey, the group looked at 5 different short texts every day. For the two I attended, one was a text that I was really looking forward to: a Mexican children’s book where a different animal for each letter of the alphabet is the subject of a ‘fable’ – and nearly every word was alliterated! On one of the other days we looked at code-switching texts, particularly a ‘Spanglish’ poem. This raised the question of bilingual identity and how you might go about translating a text like this (and whether you even should!).
For those of us taking the theatre translation module, run by Paul Russell Garrett, we had already been instructed to translate some or all of a play of our choosing beforehand. The first order of business when we arrived, then, was to read some the play out loud in front of the group! Over the week we read our plays in different ways and tweaked our work, and we tried to break away from our texts by introducing some physical and creative exercises so we could see how words can be interpreted differently. It was fascinating to see a variety of languages in this workshop, as one girl was translating The Pillowman from English into Mandarin, and another had chosen to interpret a passage from The Vagina Monologues into British Sign Language. For a couple of days Trine Garrett, from the theatre company Foreign Affairs, also joined us to give her perspective as an actor and director.
All of the workshop leaders and speakers gave us indispensable advice throughout the week, not only on how to be more creative and effective in our translations, but on how to approach publishers and producers and where to look for arts funding. The three themes that kept emerging were summed up by Paul Russell Garret in a talk that he gave to the entire conference on the first day: Creativity, Collaboration and Courage.
To be a successful literary translator, you obviously need creativity. Over the 5 days we came up with and saw so many inventive solutions to our texts. In the French workshop, working on the Cameroonian novel, we ran into some issues when it came to words that didn’t have a one-word translation in English, such as frere-ami. The writer uses this to talk about his friend-who-is-like-a-brother, but it’s hard to think up a tidy way to express this in English!
In Spanish, there was some great ingenuity as one group worked around the alliteration problem in the children’s book by switching the letters (so the fable about focas fastidiosas became a story about slippery seals), and just for fun, another group created a homophonic translation instead. These ideas wouldn’t have been possible without the next C…
Collaboration. It was so rewarding to work with other translators from a variety of backgrounds. I could bounce ideas off other people and hear points of view that I hadn’t considered before, which would then help our group work and will aid me in my own future work.
In the theatre translation module, Paul taught us a ‘critical response process’ devised by Liz Lerman, where we could ask for and give feedback about our translations without unnecessary criticism – which is a common fear for many translators or writers when they’re asked to share their work. This structure was a good idea, as it instantly built up trust in our small group and I think we felt more comfortable sharing our thoughts from then on.
The importance of collaboration was raised by many of the workshop leaders; in order for your writing to be the best that it can be, you need to get out of your bubble and let other people read your work. This can be a daunting step, and it requires the final C:
Courage. At the beginning of the week, I was extremely nervous about reading my translated play out loud, and hesitated to make translation suggestions when working with more experienced translators than me. But as we all got to know each other over the 5 days, I lost that fear a little, and our groups grew in confidence – and with that, came the courage to get more inventive.
It’s easy to get into a rut or fall into old habits when writing – which is why the course leaders reiterated that we shouldn’t be afraid to shake things up in order to find the right translation: destroy the syntax of the original sentence, read it out loud, draw a storyboard, or even act it out! By the end of the week, groups were giving dramatic readings of their translated Spanish poems, or making a tableau of a passage from someone’s play to add a more visual aspect.
Warwick Translates gave its participants the opportunity to break out of their comfort zones, team up with a variety of translators, and unleash their imaginations. I have been inspired to continue working on the French play that I chose, and I will definitely keep an eye out for more literary translation opportunities!