Since becoming co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, I’ve been working on some new initiatives that draw from my experience as a writer of my own fiction and a translator of books for children. The first of these initiatives is the first ever Translation Work-in-Progress Reading series this Sunday, April 28 at 7 pm at the KGB Bar in New York’s East Village.
Ordinarily, the Translation Committee sponsors two Sunday evening readings each year at the KGB Bar, presenting newly-published translations. But as I know from my writing experience, people can work and wait a long time before seeing their words published, and a published-works-only reading locks out those who are trying for their first contract or between publications. It’s important to encourage those who aren’t yet published and offer the kind of editorial and presentation experience that’s already available to authors and translators working with editors and publicists. That’s why I belong to a regular critique group and have a circle of beta readers for my original fiction, and I want to make that opportunity available to others.
The other advantage of critique groups is that the readers and listeners learn something as well. In one of my VCFA workshops, I learned more about creating likable, sympathetic protagonists from a critique of Lindsey Stoddard’s submission than from what people said about my own. (Lindsey’s pages, by the way, would go on to become the acclaimed middle grade novel Just Like Jackie, while mine ended up cut entirely from the final version of Surviving Santiago.)
So at the meeting when we started discussing our spring reading at the KGB Bar, I suggested a workshop-style reading of our translators’ works in progress. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I soon had enough volunteers to fill the slots with an equal number of alternates.
Again, our first Translation Work-in-Progress Reading takes place this Sunday evening, April 28, from 7-9 pm at the KGB Bar. Each reader will give a 2-3 minute introduction to the piece and the challenges of translating it, along with anything they’d like the audience to pay attention to, followed by a 4-5 minute reading of the passage. I’ve made up a program that includes space for listeners to write notes. After the first four readings, there will be a short break, and people can talk one-on-one with the readers. After the break will be three more readers, followed by a general discussion and Q&A.
The brave readers who’ve put themselves forward to be critiqued are, in order of reading (and with language translating from in parentheses) Janine Beichman (Japanese), Vivian O’Shaugnessy (French), Alex Zucker (Czech), Nancy Kline (French), Larissa Kyzer (Icelandic), Norman MacAfee (Italian), and Mara Faye Lethem (Catalan). If you’re in the area, this is a great opportunity to hear stories from other lands, meet translators, and learn about the translation process. The Q&A is a good time to ask any general questions you have, because you’ll have seven experts available to answer them. I can promise a fun and enlightening evening, full of nice people whose work as translators offer a broader perspective on literature and life.
Update 4/29: We had a great turnout for the event, thanks to the readers and people who came out to listen and support them. Some of the general questions that came out during the readers’ introductions and discussions during the break were the extent to which a text “Americanizes” titles and names in other languages (for instance, Alex Zucker’s choice to use the Czech “Táta” or a more universal “Papa” to refer to the father), how other languages and dialects besides the source language are indicated in English, and paring text even though it creates a different sentence structure or doesn’t adhere strictly to the word or syllable count of formal poetry (for instance, Janine Beichman’s translation of tanka poems by Yosano Aikido). Translators also shared tips, including a recommendation to listen to readings by the author of the original if possible, before and during the translation process. The success of this translation work-in-progress reading means we’ll do this again — and give more translators the opportunity to present — in the future.