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In April,1964, I was just eighteen when I stumbled exhausted out of a train in Madrid’s Príncipe Pío station. I’d travelled by boat and train from Spalding in Lincolnshire. I knew nobody, though I had sent a slew of letters to English teaching schools in Madrid and received no replies. With my Spanish A and S levels and a place to read French and Spanish at Cambridge, I had decided to escape small-town claustrophobia and strike out for new experiences while learning to speak Spanish. A man approached me on the platform and asked me if I had anywhere to live. I didn’t, and he said he could take me to a pensión in the centre. I struggled to understand what he was saying; he was a middle-aged, not highly educated Asturian. Real Spaniards obviously didn’t speak Spanish in the Burgos Castilian of my grammar-school teacher. I jumped into a taxi with this complete stranger (not to be recommended, I know, but I was a naïve provincial lad). I spent my first ever Sunday night in Madrid in a bed on the Calle de la Flor Alta. The following morning I went to the Academia Briam (no longer ‘a dos pasos de la Puerta del Sol’) and was interviewed by the director. I started teaching that afternoon; 3000 pesetas a month for a 36 hour week. Lampposts were festooned with placards proclaiming ‘25 Años de Paz.’ I discovered a strange personal freedom despite the dictatorship and made friends with waiters and travel shop assistants, students and professionals who wanted to learn English and talk about the welfare state, democracy, Lorca and Galdós. I was hooked.
In 1987 when I received a contract by Quartet Books to translate Coto vedado, the first volume of Juan Goytisolo’s autobiography, I had no idea what lay in store. I had sent a sample translation of 50 pages to Stephen Pickles my potential editor and waited a few months to receive a positive reply. I knew no publishers, no translators and hadn’t a clue about rights. I was simply thrilled to be translating a pioneer work by an author I admired for his aesthetics and politics and payment was a welcome bonus (I earned a monthly income as a deputy head in a north London comprehensive school). Within four years I’d lost my innocence and joined the Translators Association. I was now a full-time freelancer and had experienced a rapid initiation into what was the Anglophone world of literary translation. My first book, edited by North Point Press and first published in the Unites States, had already taught me that a literary translator from Spanish into English must be aware of what happens on both sides of the Atlantic. I joined the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and began to go to their annual conferences.
I was forty-five when I was invited to join the TA executive committee and was, nevertheless, the ‘new blood’ of the day, and found myself among colleagues like Patricia Crampton and Barbara Wright who were both long-standing fighters for translators’ rights and leading professionals. They were all older than me and belonged to a literary world and establishment I knew nothing about. Patricia was a leading translator of children’s books and active in the International Translators Federation (FIT) and had been involved in negotiating the Nairobi Recommendation ‘on the legal protection of Translators and Translations and the practical means to improve the stratus of translators’, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO at its nineteenth session in Nairobi on November, 1976, the first ever international accord to consolidate translators’ rights. Barbara Wright was the translator of Raymond Queneau and other Oulipo writers, and a close friend of Samuel Beckett. They were inspiring. However, the Society of Authors, of which the TA was part, espoused at the time a policy of ‘business’ first. In other words, the sole focus was on contracts and writers within the publishing industry and there was little sympathy for any attempts to organise activities promoting the visibility that TA members thought translators needed, and that poets and novelists already had. The idea of In Others Words, the translators’ journal, was at first opposed and any ideas about promotional initiatives at the London Book Fair were rejected as the LBF was simply about the negotiation of rights, strictly a practical business affair.
ALTA couldn’t have been more different. It resolutely existed to celebrate the practice of literary translation and dedicated most of its efforts to the organisation of an annual conference attended by a host of translators who were either freelancers or academics. There was a strong sense of community that the event renewed every year: workshops, bilingual readings, roundtables were the order of the day with the focus on the practice of an art. The ALTA leadership wasn’t interested in the business of earning a living. It seemed to assume that most members did that through their day jobs as academics, schoolteachers, computer nerds or whatever. Contracts were never on the agenda. When I told ALTA friends about the TA’s vetting service, they were envious but couldn’t shift their organisation in that direction. When I told the TA about the Americans’ annual get-together, they showed no interest. Why should we want to do that?, came their response.
Over thirty years later, the context for literary translators is dramatically different in the UK and the USA. It is now overwhelmingly a profession of younger translators. There are MA and PhD programmes in literary translation, popular summer schools, residential and virtual, and activities in primary and secondary schools. Literary translation has a presence in literary festivals and on social media and activists have powered international networks for emerging translators. The pandemic has been awful but has encouraged broader international dialogue online. PEN in the UK and USA is active in defending human rights and developing support for literary translators. US activists have revolutionised attitudes towards contracts. New small presses are flourishing like never before: take Charco Books, making a big splash with translations of Latin American writing and headlining at the Edinburgh Festival this year with its writers and translators, or another ‘niche’ publisher, like Fum d’Estampa, that mainly publishes translations from Catalan. Then there are the prizes. The Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award (once the IMPAC) for single translated works have given huge prominence to literary translators and their art. There is a new prize in the USA this year administered by ALTA that will be of particular interest for readers of this NSB bulletin: The Spain-USA Foundation Translation Award ‘for translation into English of literary prose works written originally in one of the languages of Spain by a writer of Spanish nationality and published in the USA’. This is a real breakthrough for translators of Basque, Catalan and Galician. Focussed investment by national cultural agencies both in grants for translation and promotion are always crucial. Most small presses would struggle without their financial support.
What remains to be done? We need greater readerships for literary translations. The situation has improved in the English-speaking world but still lags woefully and complacently behind the rest of the world. If there are many more translators, we need more publishers, big as well as small, to start publishing translations from other languages. And how to win readers? We could start by persuading universities and schools that translations into English form part of the literary culture of the Anglophone world and should thus figure on the curriculum. My younger daughter finished her secondary schooling a couple of weeks ago and read no translations on her English courses. Nobody would deny that the King James Bible, a translation, is a canonical work of English literature that has profoundly shaped our language and culture. Why should there be a different attitude to other literary translations? The English-speaking world can no longer confidently be characterised as a monolingual place. The new multilingual realities should be recognised in the curricula. Some set books on university and school English courses should be translations. Philosophy and Religion courses could focus the minds of their students for a time on the way these subjects have been constructed through translation. All this would mean a larger market for translations. More readers would attract more publishers and that would mean more commissions for translators. Tomorrow evening (Ryanair permitting) I shall go to Barcelona for the first time in three years. I will explore the bookshops. In every one I will see translations in the most prominent window and table displays. What will it take to see that in a single bookshop in an English-speaking country?
10 July 2022