A View from the United States: The PEN America Translation Committee
The Summer 2015 issue of In Other Words, published by the British Centre for Literary Translation, features a section titled “A View from the US,” in which representatives of translator organizations in the United States were invited to explain their activities and achievements to date. Here is the contribution from the PEN America Translation Committee, reprinted with the kind permission of the IOW editors.
This is a fascinating time for literary translators into English, and a critical one. Worldwide, and particularly on the Internet, English is losing ground to other languages, even as literature translated into English seems more visible, prominent, and energetic than ever before. Call it world literature, call it international literature; either way, the authors who write it, along with those of us who translate it, are being recognized and sought after by an increasing number of English-language publishing houses devoted to literature in translation. The number of newly translated fiction and poetry titles, too, is growing, as shown by the Translation Database project, maintained by Chad Post at the University of Rochester. These developments raise many questions, all of which are debated constantly, both online and in “real life,” by publishers, reviewers and critics, bloggers, authors, readers, and of course translators. What does this mean for translators themselves, actually, and where does the work of the PEN America Translation Committee fit into this changing landscape?
Although Translation Committee members are spread not only across the United States, but around the world, for members in the New York area we hold meetings every two months at the PEN American Center to discuss current initiatives, plan future activities, and build a sense of community. If you visit our page on the PEN America website, you’ll see that the Committee’s mission is to “advocate on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature.” The key words here are art and professional.
Lying at what might be called the intersection of the artistic and the professional is the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, established at the PEN American Center in 2003 by the magnanimous gift of over $700,000—the largest single donation ever received by the PEN American Center—from scholar and translator activist Michael Henry Heim and his wife, Priscilla, “to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.” Each year the PEN/Heim Fund’s Advisory Panel (currently chaired by translator Michael Moore, with one of the Translation Committee co-chairs serving on the panel) selects ten to fifteen projects, from more than one hundred and fifty applications, to support with grants of $2,000 to $4,000. Because the Fund calls for “works of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or drama that have not previously appeared in English in print or have appeared only in an outdated or otherwise flawed translation,” and explicitly “seeks to encourage translators to undertake projects they might not otherwise have had the means to attempt,” there is a clear intent to support translators who undertake projects that are less commercial. At the same time, the fact that the Advisory Panel includes publishers and editors as well as translators means the grant winners have an implicit seal of approval that their projects are worthy of publication. In the PEN/Heim Fund’s eleven years of operation, 123 projects have received funding. Of these, over half have found a publisher, and a significant number have either won or been shortlisted for major literary awards. Thus the Fund also helps to support translators, and publishers of translations, from a professional standpoint.
The Translation Committee’s primary activity in support of the art of literary translation is to recruit judges each year for the PEN Translation Prize, which was established in 1963 as the first U.S. award honoring the art of the literary translator and is given to a book-length translation of prose from any language into English; and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, founded in 1996, and awarded to a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English. In addition to these prizes, awarded annually, once every three years the Translation Committee selects the winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, established in the 1980s with funds donated by Bernard Malamud and Gay Talese, to honor “a translator whose career has demonstrated a commitment to excellence through the body of his or her work.”
More prosaically, as a service to translators everywhere, the Translation Committee maintains on its webpage several resources: a list of literary journals that are actively seeking translations; a list of publishers that bring out translations on a regular basis; and a list of grants, awards, and residencies for which translators can apply.
One of the most valuable professional resources the Translation Committee has to offer is its model contract for literary translators, with a list of accompanying FAQs on rights and contracts. Of course contract issues deserve a full article of their own, so here we will note simply that, from a historical standpoint, the original version of the Translation Committee’s model contract—the first ever devised for literary translators—dates back to 1981. Since then, the Committee has continued to adapt the model contract to assert translators’ rights in response to changes in the publishing industry. Copyright and reversion of rights remain hot-button issues. A troubling number of U.S. publishers still prefer work-for-hire contracts, under which the translator surrenders ownership of his or her work to the publisher. To counter this and other unfavorable practices, the Committee is engaged in ongoing efforts to raise awareness among new, and even established, translators of contractual terms that are open to negotiation, as spelled out in the PEN model contract and FAQs. The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) generously allowed us to place copies of the model contract in the registration packet of everyone who attended ALTA’s 2014 annual conference, in Milwaukee, putting the contract into the hands of over 300 translators. During the conference itself, the Translation Committee held a workshop on the model contract, to a standing-room-only audience.
What PEN does not have at its disposal, however, are lawyers to review contracts for members and comment or advocate on contractual questions as they arise. In the United Kingdom, these issues are primarily the purview of the Translators Association, a group within the Society of Authors, yet here in the United States, the analogous organization, our Authors Guild, while open to translators and highly active on behalf of authors’ contract rights, has no translators’ section. We are in contact with the leadership of both ALTA and the American Translators Association (ATA), which has a Literary Division, and we hope that together we may arrive at strategies for advocacy that put the strengths of each organization to best use, to the benefit of all translators.
Because it is part of PEN, an international organization whose mission is twofold—to protect freedom of expression and to promote literature—the Translation Committee has also engaged in human rights advocacy. In fall 2014, for example, a member of the Committee alerted us that the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, a British citizen, was barred from boarding a plane at Heathrow Airport in London for a flight to the United States, where he had been invited to give a talk at New York University. In an article about the incident, “When Your Name Is on the Blacklist,” translated into English by Sinan Antoon, Nasser described the conversation he had over the phone with a representative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It was more of an interrogation than a conversation, in fact, and after two hours it ended in Nasser being told he was not allowed to board the plane to New York—which at that point had in any case become moot, since the plane had already taken off.
“What is the reason?” Nasser asked.
“I cannot disclose that,” the DHS official replied.
“Do I not have a right to know the reason?”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
The Translation Committee forwarded Nasser’s article to the executive director of the PEN American Center and the head of PEN America’s Free Expression Programs, asking them to consider making a statement on the issue, which, as we wrote, “directly concerns the mission of PEN to uphold both literature and free expression.” Five days later, the executive director of Split This Rock, a national network of socially engaged poets, joined PEN America’s executive director in publishing an open letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, calling on DHS to review its decision to bar Nasser from entering the United States, “to clearly set out the criteria” it had used to make the decision, and either to tell Nasser why he was not let in or grant him entry. Meanwhile, to draw attention to the incident and emphasize that Nasser was invited to speak because of his artistic achievements rather than his political views, the Translation Committee solicited translations of Nasser’s poems by Fady Joudah and Sinan Antoon, which ran on the PEN America blog. The story was covered in the Washington Post, including a link to the poems. Of course the true test of the action’s effectiveness will come the next time Nasser is invited to speak in this country, but it was a powerful example of the role translators can play in standing up for their fellow artists when their rights are violated, a role we hope to develop at the Translation Committee over the coming years.
Our predecessors over the past decade and a half—Susan Bernofsky, Michael Moore, and Esther Allen—have set a high bar in their advancement of literary translation and translators’ rights. At the end of our three-year term, we hope to leave the Committee with an equally admirable record, and are especially eager to empower more of our members to play an active role. We are also encouraged by the growing communication and joint work by literary translators on either side of the Atlantic, and look forward to sharing in that common effort.