5 things I learned at the #BCLT2018 summer school (apart from translations)

BCLT’s International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School at the University of East Anglia was so full of positive emotions that it will keep me buzzing for weeks to come. My heartfelt thanks to Latvian Literature who sponsored my attendance, because, within a single week, I learned more than I have learned in the past year. And not all of these lessons were to do with translations. Here are the top 5 things I learned at the Summer School, translations aside.

  1. How to let go of my ego

I thought that having an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and a budding career as a freelance writer, qualified me to be a good translator. I arrived at the Baltic languages workshop, led by former Bloomsbury commissioning editor Bill Swainson, and joined my Latvian group (translators Terēze Svilane and Christopher Moseley, and our wonderful author Inga Ābele), absolutely convinced that I held in my hands the best possible translation of Inga’s short story “Nātres” or “Nettles”. Within just five minutes of workshopping, I was safely brought back down on earth. In fact, I think that each of us held a similar belief about the version of her story that we had been asked to translate at home in preparation for the Summer School.

Through our friendly disagreements over the text, spanning from metaphors to sentence structures, to punctuation, I was able to really open my mind, expand my vocabulary and explore the possibilities of translations. I learned to surrender my ego, for the greater purpose of introducing an English reader to the beautiful language and imagery of Nettles. Inga’s story was full of complex metaphors and complicated sentence structures, so it was a challenging text to work with. But the reward for us as a group was to hear others say how much they loved the story and the imagery that it conveyed after the readings at Norwich Cathedral on the final day of the Summer School. I felt the same way about the translations produced by the other groups, and I’m sure that many of us will stick to the rewarding, albeit challenging path of literary translations.

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2. It’s all about the network

Here I was, thinking that, in order to become a successfully published author or to get a commission as a literary translator, all you need to do is read lots of books and write. Alone, in your room. It seems like one of the expert translators who participated in the plenary session ‘My Life as a Translator’ had a similar idea, stating that he went into this field so that he wouldn’t have to meet anyone new, ever.

Of course, there’s time and place to develop your craft, and you won’t get far in this field without doing plenty of reading. But, until coming to the Summer School, I didn’t appreciate just how important connections are – and how willing people are to make those connections, thanks to a shared passion for literature. And these connections actually keep you going when the writing and reading come to a halt – because it’s very hard to keep yourself motivated if you’re doing all this alone, in your room, without sharing what you’re doing or having someone who gets it put their hand on your shoulder, and tell you to keep going. It’s actually great to feel part of a field that relies so much on human connections.

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3. The best kind of networking is making friends

That word ‘networking’ used to terrify me. That’s because I assumed that networking meant coming up to a complete stranger and, somewhat out of context, launching a sales pitch of my work-in-progress at them while they’re eyeing a selection of canapes which they’d much rather be enjoying. What a relief to learn that it’s simply not true. As the great Persian poet Rumi once said…

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I made so many friends at the BCLT Summer School from all over the world, and I hope that these friendships will remain and prosper.  A huge and heartfelt ‘thank you’ should go out to the wonderful organisers who created so many opportunities for us to chat over coffee or have casual conversations over dinner, even leading to a spontaneous music jam on campus!

4. There are lots of opportunities out there

From grants for translators to various associations you can join to networking events, conferences and residencies, there’s a big world of opportunity out there. And it’s a supportive and welcoming world. I’ve already applied to be a member of The Translators Association as part of the Society of Authors and I plan to dedicate a portion of my next paycheck towards becoming a member of English PEN. Partly because they host an annual summer party for members and promote translations from under-represented languages in English and partly because their mission to “work to defend and promote freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature” is just what the world needs right now. Words Without Borders is another wonderful organization, which I came across at Canan Marasligil’s talk “Translating Comics: It’s Not Just in the Bubble” at the beautiful and historic Dragon Hall, home of The National Centre for Writing.

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5. International literature is an international brotherhood

I was deeply moved by the story of the Iranian writer Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar whose work was being translated by a group of talented and incredibly passionate translators at the Persian workshop. He currently resides in the U.S. and his books have been banned from sale and publication in Iran. This presents a very real possibility that his future work may have to be published in English only, rather than his mother tongue. Among other things, his story highlights the role of the translator (and perhaps the responsibility) to share important literary works and powerful stories with the rest of the world. Abkenar’s novel A Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Railroad Station would be the next thing I read, except it’s only been translated into French, German and Kurdish. Maybe the success of the Persian workshop at the Summer School and the new connections made will lead to more of his work becoming available in English.

Final thoughts…

I feel humbled and privileged to belong to a community where genuine friendships and different cultures are embraced, and very much celebrated. From the organisers to the speakers, to the participants, it felt like these values resonated in everyone’s heart.

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