Nonfiction MFA Students at the ALTA Conference

Nonfiction MFA Students at the ALTA Conference

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This week, I asked fellow MFA candidate Maddison Hamil to be a very special guest blogger and to share with prospective students her experience of attending the ALTA conference earlier this month. She and three other MFA candidates attended the conference, as panelists, moderating a panel that examined and discussed literary translation in an MFA program from a student prospective. Here, she shares her experience.

Matt Cwiklinski, Micah McCrary, Dauren Velez, and I traveled to Rochester, New York for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) annual conference on October 3-6. We had a busy weekend attending panels, meeting with other translators, and enjoying the beautiful fall weather of upstate New York. Translators seem to be a very generous and kind group of people, and everyone was so welcoming to our little Columbia College Chicago crew.

It feels right to begin by admitting that, prior to taking Aviya Kushner’s literary translation class last spring, I had never given thought to translation.  That is not to say that I had not read translations or translated myself—I have a humble ten years of Latin and a few years in Italian as well—but I had never considered what decisions the translator must make in approaching a text or how a text changes in translation. Indeed, I felt almost embarrassed that I had never before questioned if Dante himself sounded anything like what I experienced in reading whichever no-name translation I had in school. That I did not see or acknowledge the translator demonstrates how invisible the world of translation was to me and often to many others, too, it seems.

In Aviya’s class, however, we dove right into the practice of translation, and week by week, each of us discovered a bit more about translation and developed an approach and kind of translation philosophy. Our class’ first attempt at translation included two short poems by Sappho (Greek) and Catullus (Latin). Working from the same trot, or word-by-word vocabulary list, each class member translated the poems and then read them aloud in class. We went on to translate a wide range of authors and languages—everything from French and Italian to Japanese and Gaelic to Hebrew and Ukrainian. It was clear from the first translations of Greek and Latin, though, just how much the translator herself shaped the translation. All eight students in the class began with the same text and the same trot, but the poems in translation that resulted did not bear resemblance to each in other in many cases. Working through the trots and short poems revealed to me how nuanced and situational translation philosophy can be.

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At ALTA, our group presented a panel, “The Translation Workshop: A Student Perspective.” Each of us presented on a variety of topics from translation without fluency to developing a translation philosophy to translation as personal transformation. We discussed how translation has changed our own writing within the MFA program and answered questions from the audience about the logistics of the graduate translation workshop, our plans for continuing with translation, and more specific curiosities about the individual projects we worked on in Aviya’s class.

One highlight of the conference was on Saturday night at the Declamación where we all gathered to hear participants recite, from memory, works in translation. There were funny moments—like when we all joined in and sang Allouette, a French children’s song—and more serious moments—like when a woman sang a Russian wedding song that was beautiful and almost mournful. We heard recitations of Swahili and Hebrew and everything in between. In all, we had a wonderful evening enjoying language, translation, and new friends.

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ALTA was a really wonderful opportunity, and I think I speak for Matt, Micah, and Dauren when I say we are all looking forward to next year’s conference in Bloomington, Indiana already.

***A very special “Thank you” to Maddison for being a guest blogger, and a big “Congrats” to my fellow classmates, Micah, Dauren, and Matt (and Maddison too!) on your conference success!