Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I didn’t even know I had allergies until I arrived at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England (future participants: you’ve been warned). Throughout the BCLT International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School, my immune system was as confused as my brain, hypersensitive to otherwise perfectly harmless allergens and translations. If, as a literary translator, you aren’t already hypersensitive to language, this course will give you language allergies—arguably in a good way.
The intensity of the workshops, conducted within the sleek, futuristic settings of the UEA Enterprise Centre, involved impassioned discussions on commas, comparative grammar, verb conjugation, authorial intent, extended metaphors, and other ultra-geeky stuff literary translators crave to discuss (but rarely get to). These discussions would carry over to the communal breakfasts, lunches, and dinners provided throughout the week, and to the late-night bull sessions where participants from different language groups would gather in the residential common rooms to compare notes, share experiences, and indulge in the international camaraderie of translators.
When a call went out from LTI Korea for applications to the BCLT Summer School, I jumped at this chance to learn from Deborah Smith, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (O, teach me how you translate, and with what art, you sway the motion of the reader’s heart!). I now lay the blame of my language allergies at her feet. Deborah would question every word we had “settled” on, reminding us that the easiest choices are often the laziest, and that good literature requires a tough, working language, not a complacent one that expects the reader to do the heavy lifting. The greatest gift I received from her and the other redoubtable translators in our group was to see the richness of potential in a single sentence, how it is possible to contemplate for hours (and hours and hours, as we did) on the myriad facets of one simple, throwaway line. It was like hwadu meditation as practiced by Seon Buddhist monks, but with gourmet dining and wine every night.