Racing to Be the Slowest

  • onOctober 20, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byRoxanne Edmunds

As an aspiring literary translator, I jumped at the chance to attend this year’s British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) summer school. The workshops bring early career translators together with an experienced translator and an author to work on a consensus translation. This year they offered workshops in German, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, and, for the first time, Korean. Though the translation workshops are the core of the summer school, the week in Norwich offered much more than a chance to flex our literary translation muscles. Attendees spent the first hour of each day practicing creative writing, an important skill for a literary translator. The afternoons saw guest speakers give talks on topics useful to budding translators. One of the best parts of the summer school, though, was meeting other literary translators. They might be specialists in languages as diverse as Yiddish and Bengali but they all shared an interest in literature and language that brought us together. Translation can be a very lonely pastime, but through events like this we are reminded that we are part of a community.

     Emails started arriving in the weeks before summer school began: a scanned copy of the text we were to translate, invitations to join a Facebook group, and all sorts of administrative paperwork. A stern command was repeated at us again and again: Do not translate the text beforehand. We were to read and comprehend only. I was a little disappointed at only receiving the first few pages of Han Kang’s short story “Europa” from the collection A Yellow Patterned Eternity. Is that all they expect us to translate? I would soon learn how misguided my disappointment was.

     The workshops focused on the process rather than the end product. We were told to think about the possibilities and engage with one another as a creative exercise. In the end, we would translate barely two pages in the week we spent together, but each and every word in that translation was the fruit of hours of discussion and intense deliberation. Is it any wonder that there was a running joke that we were in a race to be the slowest?

     The great thing about the workshops was that we were able to work on the translation with the author. It was a little intimidating at first, but Han Kang put us at ease with her enthusiasm. It was my first experience of being able to consult with an author about a work I was translating. To be able to turn to her whenever there were points of contention or ambiguity and have her jump in on our discussion with useful observations was invaluable and made our translation more truthful. At times, though, it did feel like an indulgence to have her there; I had to rein in my impulse to ask her trifling details, saving my questions for only when necessary.