Tuesday 10 May 2022

Translating literature – not such a lonely business after all

 Nicky Harman writes: Literary translation, like writing, is traditionally a one-woman or one-man job. At most, two people might work together to translate a book. Large-scale collaborative translation projects are a thing of the past, the far distant past when the Bible and the Buddhist scriptures were translated. But literary translators are resourceful folk and have begun to get together in mutual support groups. Here, I interview Natascha Bruce and Jack Hargreaves, both of whom are active in such groups and agreed to tell me more about them.


Natascha Bruce translates fiction from Chinese. Her work includes Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon, Bloodline by Patigül, Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong and, co-translated with Nicky Harman, A Classic Tragedy by Xu Xiaobin. Forthcoming translations include Mystery Train by Can Xue and Owlish by Dorothy Tse, for which she was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim grant. She recently moved to Amsterdam.


Jack Hargreaves is a translator from East Yorkshire, now based in Leeds. His literary work has appeared on Asymptote Journal, Words Without Borders, LitHub, adda and LA Review of Books China Channel. Published and forthcoming full-length works include Winter Pasture by Li Juan and Seeing by Chai Jing, both of them co-translations with Yan Yan, published by Astra House. Jack translated Shen Dacheng’s short story ‘Novelist in the Attic’ for Comma Press’ The Book of Shanghai and was ALTA’s 2021 Emerging Translator Mentee for Literature from Singapore. He volunteers as a member of the Paper Republic management team and releases a monthly newsletter about Chinese-language literature in translation.


Nicky: How did your group start and how does it run? 

Jack: I’m part of a five-person, non-language-specific translation workshop that happens on Zoom on the third Wednesday of every month. The five of us started meeting after taking part in other workshops in 2021 and getting the bug for this kind of setup – big picture chats about whatever we’re working on or wanting to pitch. I dare any translator to try and not fall in love with sharing time and space with other translators just to talk translation. It feels as productive as actually putting pen to paper or clicking away at your keyboard, and often more rejuvenating. The workshops it came from were the series Daniel Hahn held in early 2021 and an ALTA one with Jennifer Croft later that year. Ours was supposed to follow their model pretty closely, and does, only the two hours we’d planned to meet for each session quickly turned to three, then four, then more. Obviously some of that time is spent nattering and sharing gossip, but we spend a good half-hour to forty-five minutes talking about each five-page sample. Between us, we translate from eight languages (maybe nine? One of the group is always revealing another language they know, to the rest of our surprise and awe – I’m teasing them there, but it’s not far off the truth) and we’ve managed to cover a good array of genres and styles in the four sessions we’ve done so far. 

Natascha: I’m part of two different groups who meet regularly for workshops. One sprang from an online ALTA translation workshop last year, and the other started a while before that, born from a pandemic-heightened sense of aloneness and frustration. In the first case, I signed up for an ALTA workshop and the energy in the Zoom room was so good and so powerful that when, at the end, one of us said, ‘You know, if anyone wants to do this again…’ everyone else exclaimed in delight, including the instructor (she’s part of the group too). We try to meet once a week, something we agreed with the understanding it would be completely unsustainable – the idea was we’d shoot for weekly and land somewhere around the fortnightly mark, and that’s roughly what has happened. We focus on one person’s work for an hour and a half, and sometimes we get through two sentences, other times several pages. It’s non-language-specific, because that’s the ALTA model, although the others have Spanish in common; I’m the only one of us working from Chinese.

My pandemic-desperation group started not as a workshop, but as a tiny solidarity club. In early 2020, another Chinese translator had the idea of inviting translators to check in with each other on a regular basis, sharing goals and questions and frustrations and SOS language queries and so on. She found a free version of something a lot like Slack and made different channels for these discussions, and it’s become a fixed part of my working day: I log on and see how my far-flung colleagues are doing. It felt natural for this to extend to online workshops too; we’re already talking about our work with one another so much, after all. We meet once a month or so, and in this case we all translate from Chinese. 

Nicky: Can you say what you get out of it? 

Natascha: First of all, it’s incredibly fun. It also makes me feel part of something bigger than my own work and, relatedly, like my work-in-progress is part of something bigger than just me. The more workshops I do, the crazier it seems that any translator should work on something entirely alone, at any stage of their career. Of course we have editors, and before editors, many of us have partners and friends and siblings we coerced into reading manuscripts to tell us what they think, but those stages usually come later, after months of us grappling with words in solitude. Workshops feel uniquely comradely to me: it’s okay to admit to having hit a wall, to debate comma placements for twenty minutes, to send over a passage you know isn’t in a fit state to be submitted but that you simply can’t face looking at anymore. Sometimes you just need someone else to poke the words a little, to reframe how you relate to them. 

Jack: It’s difficult to answer this question without gushing, but I’ll try to. For starters, beyond the obvious treasure of receiving really carefully done line edits after the workshop when we send back each other’s work, there are always some really important translation lessons and conversations to take away from every session. On top of that there’s the afterglow from all the wonder and fun I get from chatting with these colleagues, now friends, and reading their brilliant work. With that atmosphere, translation playtime or translation recess is a more suitable name for the online meetups than workshop. They really do feel like that: a safe space for trying something new or giving something a go, making mistakes, learning. They’re times to have a really in-depth look at your translation practice and to study others’ approaches, without any of the usual pressure associated with doing something professionally. By big picture conversations (mentioned above), I mean that we talk about the feel, atmosphere or voice of a text, or how to re-create in English something really idiosyncratic about the source text (be it punctuation use or a naming convention). More often than not, this ends up with us encouraging the person whose text we’re discussing to not be afraid to lean into a creative decision or take a risk they’re unsure about. If they haven’t already smashed it, that is. And this isn’t because we’re being reckless with each other’s work; 99% of the time the person is already on what seems like the right track in terms of producing a really effective translation, the constructive comments and encouragement are just a nudge to commit. And other than workshops and manuscript exchanges, there’s little opportunity to hash out key choices like these with others at an early stage in the process, so that’s incredibly valuable. 

Nicky: Ideally, would you prefer one that is Chinese-English-specific? 

Jack: I’d love to join one that is Chinese-English-specific, but I wouldn’t want to replace the workshop I’m in. It’s massively helpful talking with other Chinese-English translators about projects and translation choices, since they have their own insights into the source text, but that’s also another reason why having a non-language-specific workshop is so helpful: the conversation is free to centre completely on the English. Both have their benefits. In fact, if anyone is unconvinced or is looking for someone to share and talk about samples with, please feel free to get in touch. Time-commitments permitting, as far as I’m concerned, the more we as translators can share and pool our ideas, knowledge, experience and discerning taste, the better. 

Natascha: One of my groups is Chinese-English specific, but I wouldn’t say it’s more or less ideal than the one where I’m the only person working from Chinese. I consider both groups absolutely ideal and I find it exciting to read such a variety of work, as well as to realise how much we have in common across languages. And very often, when the non-language-specific group hones in on a sentence that isn’t working, I realise they have correctly identified a spot where I’ve moved much too far from the Chinese. They catch places where my ear has become too attuned to the Chinese word order, too, and ask me things like, ‘What is a door grille?’ when I’ve convinced myself that everyone everywhere will understand I mean the metal security grille that goes outside the front door of pretty much every Hong Kong flat (a problem that apparently comes up in Brazilian literature, too; Brazilian readers would know what I meant). On the other hand, within the Chinese group we have a better sense of why certain patterns might be cropping up, and can say with more authority that something is a Chinese-travelling-to-English issue, rather than simply a stylistic quirk of the author. 

Nicky: Any other thoughts about these online self-help groups as a model? Can you see them developing into anything else? 

Natascha: For me, they’ve been revolutionary. Workshops feel like a way to mainline the things I most love about translation, and about other translators: collaboration, solidarity, caring intensely about one another and the work we’re putting out there. I don’t know if it’s necessary to develop these particular groups beyond the quietly powerful forces for good they already are, although that isn’t to say there’s no need for translator solidarity groups that are louder and pushier and more public focused (there is, and of course Paper Republic is one excellent example of that). I think translators should talk and join forces and exchange notes and pass on work and be united in every way we possibly can, whether that’s tiny peer workshops or advocacy groups or #namethetranslator Twitter campaigns. And if anyone’s reading this and wishes they could workshop their translations from time to time but doesn’t know where to start, they should feel free to reach out. 

Jack: It’s funny you call them self-help groups, because there is an element of the support group about these meetups. Not that we’re all in crisis (not all the time, anyway). Seriously though, it’s not often you can say you feel lighter after a four-hour Zoom slog. But these workshops never feel close to a slog at all. More a hop, skip and a jump (to better translation). As for how they might develop, it would only benefit translators to meet up more, outside of the few formal events there are sprinkled throughout the year, if only for catchups and a tongue wag. But if we have our professional hats on, remember tech bros shouldn’t be the only ones able to have “corridor conversations”. It’s pretty clear that the career of literary translator, however that manifests, can be an enigmatic one in myriad ways. The more we share – be that editing duties, tips about publishers, a fresh pair of eyes, or whatever else – the less likely that will be the case.