What I Did on Translation Summer Camp

Hello, I’m home! So far I’m feeling completely unable to adjust to normal life, so I thought I’d write a bit about my summer school experience, in order to delay the moment when I’m going to have to get back to Proper Work and admit that the whole thing is actually over.

When I try and explain BCLT Summer School to other people, I usually refer to it as Literary Translation Summer Camp. It’s just got that summer-camp feeling to it, where everything is super-intense, every day is packed full of stuff, everybody else there is either super-brilliant or super-irritating or both, you stay up late every night (especially on the last night) talking for hours, and when you get back home you almost don’t want to tell people about it because they just won’t understand how great it was. If you are reading this and you are (or want to be) a literary translator, you should apply for the 2014 summer school. Just do it. You won’t regret it, and it might even change your life.

The Japanese workshop was one of six language workshops (the others this year were Portuguese, Finland-Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian and German), with up to ten participants in each. Ours was led by translator, poet, associate professor and all-round good egg Jeffrey Angles, and our text was スタッキング可能 (Stakkingu-kanou, Stackable) by brilliant, experimental young author Matsuda Aoko. It was a fascinating text with lots to unpack, which is ideal for this sort of thing, and we spent four and a half very happy days pulling it apart and trying to put it back together in English. We translated in small groups before coming together in a larger group to edit our text, arguing over almost every word. Everybody says they hate consensus translations – because they’re bland, because they’re impersonal, because the process of getting to consensus can be so hard on the ego – but they’re a brilliant way of finding out more about your own way of translating, and of learning that every single other translator has their own, very different, way of doing things. Arguments started out passionate and then gradually subsided as the participants lost interest at different rates, which was an interesting way of learning what different people considered most important in a translation. Some would take an unmoveable stand over sentence structure or punctuation; others were quite happy to concede those points, but would be more vocal about word choice and get into lengthy arguments over the nuances of near-synonyms. Some had an opinion on everything, while others spoke up only when they felt really strongly about something (I was in the former camp. Don’t pretend you’re surprised :p ). Miraculously, we ended up with a text most of us were mostly happy with, which we presented to the rest of the summer school on the last afternoon, to much laughter and applause.

The translations were the main exercise of the week, but there was so much else going on as well – there was a panel discussion every afternoon, and this year we had visiting editors dropping in to our workshops as well. I found the editors’ contributions particularly interesting, especially on our fourth day of staring at the same piece of text. We had visits from Susan Harris from Words Without Borders and Ra Page from Comma Press at different points, and both helped us to see the text with fresh eyes and think more about how it would come across to a reader in English, with no access to the original Japanese.

In the end, though, as with every summer camp, the thing that made it really special was the people I shared it with. I’d been lucky enough to work with most of the other participants before (either at Summer School 2011 or at the translation masterclass in April), and was really looking forward to working with them again, and I met some fantastic new people as well. Jeffrey was an excellent workshop leader, who managed to keep the translation moving while still giving us plenty of time to argue over minutiae, and remain good-natured throughout. And Matsuda Aoko, our author, was a joy to work with – genuinely interested in watching the process of translation, and touched that we were giving so much attention to her work. She’s actually a translator herself, so she understood why everything was so incredibly important to us (we also discussed some of the problems she was having with the work she’s currently translating into Japanese, which was super-interesting). And she spent a lot of time with us outside the classroom, so that the gap between The Author and the participants gradually disappeared, and she became just another one of the great people I sat with at dinner and talked to until midnight on the steps outside the student union bar.

In all, Summer School 2013 was an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful to the folks at BCLT for organising it and for making sure it all ran smoothly. I feel I have a lot more to write about, so there will probably be a few more summer-school-inspired blogposts appearing here over the next couple of weeks. If you’re looking for a more polished and coherent take on the whole thing, a post by my fellow participant Morgan Giles will be appearing on the Free Word blog next week. For now, I have short-story research to do, a dissertation to write, an evening shift at the bookshop…oh, and I should probably make some food at some point.

Thanks for a great week, everybody.

Photo on 2013-07-29 at 10.15 #2

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