A BCLT Epilogue: A Walk in the Woods

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byElmer Luke

Late July 2017, in Norwich, UK, toward the eastern edge of England, on the sprawling, easy-to-get-lost-in, very comfortable campus of the University of East Anglia. We had converged from distant parts of the earth—all of us students of literature in translation—even as some of us were writers of note, administrators of the college, or old hands running the workshops—for the international summer school program of the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). Summertime, though it rained daily in Norwich, though it blazed in northern Europe, though it chilled in New York, as the world reeled politically from ill will and ill minds. If we looked anywhere but where we were, the moment was weighed down with worry, with a sense of siege, of near-physical pain. Yet within the confines of this week in Norwich, despite the cool and wet, there was, among the disparate group of us gathered, an almost devotional focus on the work we were embarked upon. We were trying to find the language that expressed the ideas, the heart, the literature of another language. Not a big bang of an aspiration, not a scientific breakthrough, merely a profound, elusive human one. And unaccountably, unexpectedly, it was thrilling.

There were eight workshops at this year’s summer program—Bengali-to-English, German-to-English, Korean-to-English, Lithuanian-to-English, Spanish-to-English, English-to-Spanish, prose from multiple languages into English, and poetry from multiple languages into English. Obviously we didn’t speak the same language, but we had a language in common, and the genuine pursuit of translating one language into this more common language was humbling and inspiring and awe-inspiring. And while it was also painstaking and exhausting, there was the reward that comes to one from the knowledge that full effort had been expended.

Some might think the exercise of literary translation inconsequential—how can translation bear concrete results—but the week made clear, in both outward demonstration and inner awareness, that translation is something so basic to our needs as humans beings as to be essential to living together on this planet.

For the basis of translation is respect, and if we have the facility, if we can cultivate the capacity to deliver on that respect, as cliché as it may seem, we are so much the better for it.

Such seriousness, such rarefied interest, such lofty goals, but what no one expects: such pleasure, such fun!

I was the leader for the Korean-to-English workshop. I flew in from New York. Nine “students” had come to Norwich from Seoul, Toronto, and North Carolina, to be a part of this workshop, bringing with them advanced degrees and accomplishments and professions. I knew none of them, but over the course of the week I was amazed to find in each of them care, thoughtfulness, inquiry, insight, passion, ambition, and truly remarkable ability. We worked together on texts that each had translated, going over words, ideas, expressions, meanings spoken and unspoken. Nine texts—including historical soap opera, science-fictional satire, feminist disaffection, psychiatrist couch, and, not least, a dildo fantasy on Mars—who would have imagined such range! As we tried to find the appropriate language to convey us—that is, to translate us—from one literature to another, we crossed social and cultural borders, we blurred national boundaries, we ferried ourselves among several. Without intention, without designated purpose, without statements to such effect, we were diplomats. To claim something like this teeters on the facile and the pompous, but in a period of history where nations everywhere find themselves, within and without, embroiled in outrage and bombast, in shouts and murmurs, in slings and arrows, in hate and division, we were making our way forward artfully, considerably, and without a lot of noise. That effort cannot be dismissed, or thought the less of, because it is not hard science or technology or not under the aegis of politics or economics or government. For while the work that we were doing is less measurable or quantifiable, it has, perhaps, more depth and more breadth, is more human and, we would like to believe, lasting. We seek to understand and to make understandable.

I seized the opportunity of a free afternoon that week to go for a walk on the wildlife trail that the campus yields into. It’s a marvelous bit of nature—looked after so that it will grow wild and afford people contact with a sense of green, with a woods as it once might have been. Ponds, woodlands, wetlands, meadows, trees of all kinds, some drooping into water, vines taking over the underbrush, and all, remarkably, unpoliced and unrubbished. I walked directionlessly, as the sun began to set. It was the first day we had had of warmth, of sunlight. I encountered others—the more intrepid running their miles, the lazier sitting and smoking, laughter, conversation, hellos, children. There was quiet and then, at one point, isolation. As I followed a path that meandered off, and another from there, mindlessly, before long I found myself seeing no one—not a soul. Just the quiet of the woods. Surely, I thought, the path would come round; it would not lead nowhere, not to a bog or to a fence overgrown and unpassable. I believed this, continuing onward as my path led nowhere, or nowhere I knew, and the thought gradually came to me that I might be lost, that darkness would come, that no one would know where I was, and that I would miss dinner and the drink before it, with colleagues and students now friends. I grew anxious and picked up my pace, the sense of adventure and well-being diminishing; I took short cuts, then had to reverse myself when they turned out to be dead ends. I soiled my shoes leaping over muddy streams, legs tangled in vines. I listened for voices, footsteps, sounds of life, and heard none. I would have to retrace my steps—taking the long way back—a detail made more difficult given that I had deliberately chosen less-traveled paths, nothing direct or straight or certain. But the day was longer than I’d thought, and in time—ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, or thirty—I did not have a watch or mobile with me—after taking paths sure and unsure, I heard the comforting squeal of a child, voices of adults not speaking English, generalized laughter, footfalls of runners, and I began to relax. I found myself before the bridge I’d crossed. I was back among others, and resumed my stroll casually. I would not miss my drink before dinner. 


by Elmer Luke
Writer, Editor, Publishing Consultant