When I was coming up, there were fewer opportunities for young translators and sources of support than there are now. I tried whenever I could to get feedback on my work, but usually the people I got feedback from were my German professors in college, who were primarily concerned with the “accuracy” of my renderings and less with how my translations were working as pieces of literature in their own right. Two MFA programs in translation did exist in those years (at the Universities of Arkansas and Iowa), but it would never have occurred to me to apply to one of them, since I saw myself as a writer who was translating “on the side,” with the result that my MFA is in fiction writing rather than in the subject I now teach at the graduate level.
What did exist was ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association, and from the first time I attended (well, technically the second), I knew I’d found mentors. The translators who ran and were active in that organization were very conscious of having a professional obligation to lend a hand to the generation coming up behind them. I never actually asked anyone there to read and critique my translations, but I learned a great deal from participating in language-specific workshops and listening to established translators discuss their work. Once, when I was a graduate student (read: broke), one of the members of the ALTA board even managed to finagle a travel grant to help me attend the conference; to this day I do not know whether some institution reimbursed him or whether the money came out of his own pocket.
These days, a substantial, and ever-increasing, number of institutions offer the chance to do coursework or even earn a degree in literary translation, and there are grant opportunities specifically reserved for younger translators. For the past several years, ALTA has been providing competitive travel grants to allow four to six young translators to attend the annual conference. And a generous donation to PEN in 2003 allowed for the creation of the PEN Translation Fund, which gives approximately ten grants per year to help support previously unpublished (or lightly published) translators. Serving on the committee that picks the projects to be funded is both inspiring and sad: inspiring because there are always such a large number of exciting, innovative translation projects submitted by translators of great merit; and sad because we inevitably have to turn down some of the projects we find worthy.
Today I dropped in to visit the PEN blog and found a sizeable excerpt from the novel Cambio de sentido (Turnaround) by Mar Gómez Glez, translated by Sarah Thomas. The last time I saw this translation excerpt it was in the context of evaluating it, probing it for infelicities; but today I found myself reading it for pleasure, and in fact it’s a terrific read. I hope a publisher picks it up soon. And ALTA recently announced the names of the 2011 ALTA Fellows, and two of the four young translators selected for this honor are Tara FitzGerald and Yardenne Greenspan, students I worked with last semester at Columbia University. (The other two are Nora Delaney and Nikki Settelmeyer.) So I’m feeling proud, and also happy that I am now in a position to help and encourage a new generation of translators, just as I myself was helped and encouraged when I was starting out.