By its nature, literary translation can be a slow and isolated process, and one with limited training opportunities for those starting out.
The Emerging Translator Mentorship Program, launched by the American Literary Translators Association in 2015, provides one-on-one, long-term training, as well as a community of others working in translation to bring new authors to English-language readers. ALTA, affiliated with the College of Humanities since 2019, organized an event featuring the work of translators in the mentorship program to close out the 2022 Tucson Humanities Festival, a fitting and multifaceted exploration of the theme of Community.
The presentation, Read the World: A Kaleidoscope of Translated Literature, will feature 14 mentees, who translate collectively from 10 different languages in multiple genres, sharing a wealth of writers, languages, and stories with a broad readership. The reading is Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. A live stream will be available.
The Emerging Translator Mentorship Program was started by former ALTA Board member Allison M. Charette, patterned after a similar program in the United Kingdom. The program facilitates close working relationships between experienced translators and emerging translators, who spend nine months on a single project.
ALTA President Ellen Elias-Bursac, who has been translating novels and non-fiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the 1980s, says mentoring in translation covers a wide range of issues, from practical hints about word issues that come up in a particular language, to the business side, including how to promote work, secure a publisher, or gain permission to translate a work.
“The ALTA mentorship is an invaluable form of training for literary translators, a unique, one-on-one interaction that develops into a profound relationship,” she says. “It brings work we might not otherwise have ever heard of. That new translator is attuned to writing that is different than the writing I’m likely to be attuned to. They’re like our spies out there, figuring out what’s cool and bringing it back, so it’s very exciting.”
Executive Director Elisabeth Jaquette, herself a translator from Arabic, says the mentorship program has achieved what ALTA has hoped, providing young translators guidance early in their careers and introducing new authors to English readers.
“The translators who come through the program end up going on to be rising stars of the literary translation field. It’s thrilling,” she says. “They have publications across literary journals and in print and they’ve gone on to win and be nominated for a slew of fellowships and awards.”
Less tangible but just as important are the individual relationships and the community that emerges from the cohort of translators. For example, one of the program’s early mentors introduced a mentee to his publisher and in a few years, both were published around the same time and did a book launch together.
“It’s a different profession if you don’t have a group around you, supporting you, sharing advice and contacts,” says Kelsi Vanada, ALTA Program Manager and a poet and translator. “Many of our mentees have returned to the ALTA conference and a few have even taken on some important roles in our organization. Staying connected to a community of other literary translators is a hallmark of the program for us.”
One mentor-mentee pair, working in the Portuguese language, exemplifies the close relationship, new connections, and author discoveries the Emerging Translator Mentorship Program nurtures.
Katrina Dodson, who won the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories, worked with Angelina Coronado, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, for ALTA’s BIPOC mentorship.
“I wanted to work with a translator who didn’t have as much experience because I specifically wanted the mentorship to focus on the care and attention needed to translate, but also to think about all the other things you have to do as a translator, thinking about the publishing market and audiences, how you frame your author and how you bridge the gaps in knowledge and bring the writing to readers who know nothing about the work,” Dodson says.
The writer Coronado selected is Orlanda Amarílis, an Afro-Portuguese author from Cape Verde, or the Republic of Cabo Verde, an island country in the central Atlantic Ocean, west of Senegal. The mentorship project is the story collection, Cais-do-Sodré to Salamansa, which was published in 1974, the year before Cape Verde gained independence from Portugal.
“I can’t remember exactly how I came across her work, but the feeling I had when I read her for the first time is she felt so familiar despite being from a small island. What really resonated for me was the idea of grappling with being in between two separate racial identities that are seen as so uniform and so monolithic,” Coronado says. “For her work, I felt like she was almost someone I knew, or I could see myself in her.”
The Cape Verdean population is of mostly mixed African and European heritage, with a sizeable diaspora community existing across the world, especially in the United States and Portugal. The stories by Amarílis focus on mixed-race characters moving between Cape Verde and Portugal and deal with subjects like race and immigration that have resonance across time and place.
"There aren't that many African Lusophone authors being translated into English and almost none from Cape Verde, and I was also really intrigued by her writing,” Dodson says. “During the mentorship, we’ve had a lot of discussions about the language, the characters and the voices in the story, but Angelina has been so insightful when thinking about these complex racial and colonial dynamics that are in the stories. It’s so subtle in these stories and she’s got a good hold on that.”
Coronado says the mentorship process has both deglamorized translation for her, and made her more committed to the difficult endeavor.
“I see translators as ambassadors, trying to sell the work of a writer that has been lost in literary history, but in very poetic and moving ways,” Coronado says. “I definitely romanticized that in my mind, but when I started to do the project, it was so hard for me. I learned a lot about the practical, pragmatic aspects of translation. You need to sit with this work for hours and hours. The connection I have to this work and this writer at this point is fueling my interest even more. This is just the beginning of what I feel will be a longer journey.”