Megan Berkobien on Establishing the ‘Emerging Translators Collective’

At this year’s American Literary Translators Association conference, Megan Berkobien talked at a panel that went beyond #namethetranslators about the Emerging Translators Collective she helped found at the University of Michigan.

Post-panel, she answered a few questions for ArabLit:

Why “alternative and collaborative publication models” for bringing translations into English? What’s not working about the existing ones? 

berkobien_headshotMegan Berkobien: I knew I should have gotten rid of the “alternative” bit before ALTA! It’s really just a placeholder for the moment, as it begs the question: which models are we working against? Well, that’s a tricky, if not trick, question, because there are so many factors involved. Though of course the questions of payment and labor are central to the ETC. I don’t think all of the current models can sustain meaningful translation, as they don’t provide livable wages for translators. There’s no getting around that.

At this point, it’s easier for us to point to small/micro presses that we admire and whose work we want to draw on in our own endeavors. As founder of the ETC, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year “researching” (buying & enjoying the work of!) almost every little press I can spot. When I bring back those publications to the group, it feels like I’m sharing treasure. There are so many wonderful publishing projects out there for English-language prose & poetry, and provocative models from abroad, like the presses involved in editoriales cartoneras, we want to contribute by doing that for literature in translation. If we’re doing anything novel (which might really not be the case), it’s creating small editions/chapbooks/chaplets/broadsides of texts and paying translators for that work. You might think of One Story Mag, the Belladonna Series, Birds of Lace, Goodmorning Menagerie, and Greying Ghost press as some of the more adventurous ventures who’ve established these alternative models.  We feature these presses and more on the “inspiration” page of our website, and we’ll be doing a series of twitter posts soon about the work we love for members of the translation community who might not know the projects yet.

And collaborative, well that should be a given with translation, right? Well, while the publishing world facilitates translation in important ways, it also forecloses many of its radical possibilities. We can lament a lack of readers or money, sure, but that’s not doing much to change the status quo. In any case, even though editors and translators might work together on a translation, it ultimately has to shape up to certain expectations (apart from being quality writing). Since the ETC emerged, in part, from the grad workshop in translation I co-founded with Emily Goedde at the University of Michigan, we already had a well-oiled system for collaboration in place. So we thought, since so many of us have editing and design skills, since so many of us are interested in presswork, since so many of us are voracious readers in a wide range of languages, and since so many of us are working with quality mentors (like Anton Shammas, for example), why don’t we take a chance and put out some of our own stuff? We’re all wearing a bunch of different hats, and we’re capitalizing on our shared skill sets. And, most importantly, we’re thinking about how to make translation more visible on/in the publication itself.

Why a horizontal editorial and production process?

MB: Ideally, it would mean that we all put in the same amount of work and all have a say in what is published, how it’s prepped for publication, and, eventually, how it’s made. It’s not a hierarchical, vertical model where one publisher has the final say. Sounds utopic, right? Well, of course it’ll entail give & take, and it’ll require someone to head up the less-fun admin stuff—which I’m familiar with, as both of my parents started their own local businesses—but we trust one another. I know that not everyone shares my taste and vice versa, but that shouldn’t exactly preclude publication of a text, right? There are so many different types of readers out there . . . In any case, Ugly Duckling Presse has certainly set the standards for this kind of work.

How does working together as a collective help with intangibles (additional skills) as well as tangibles?

I think I tackled this above, but I want to underline the fact that we like to teach one another. We all bring really important skills and knowledge to the table, so we contribute and share what we can, when we can.

The idea of the collective is really important for graduate students at University of Michigan because of the strong presence of the graduate student union. We know that if we’re parted, we beg. And since my grandfather participated in the union movements at GM in his day (he retired during the Great Recession, when the city, including my own family, was really devastated), I get to call and talk strategy with him whenever I need extra inspiration.

What of magazines that publish translations but don’t offer remuneration for translators?

MB: This is such a tough subject! Let me first acknowledge that so much important work comes out of these publications. They provide important visibility and CV lines. That said, when I see big projects holding multiple $20,000 kick-starter campaigns for their magazines while knowing that none of that money goes back to contributors or editors, I get a little miffed. And I’m not really sure that publishers are keeping tabs on what’s being put out, anyway. In any case, we really need to move past visibility for visibility’s sake because, let’s be honest, those who can really afford to translate on spec are few. For the rest of us, that means we’re driving ourselves bonkers trying to work a day job and get that work done in the hope that we’ll break through. But, break through to what? How can we make translation a sustainable profession and a diverse one? And saying that translation is a labor of love doesn’t solve anything. It’s actually harmful rhetoric, as Miya Tokumitsu writes in her brilliant book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness.

What would your advice be to someone asking how they could start their own Emerging Translators Collective?

MB: Well, I probably shouldn’t give advice yet since the ETC is so new! Certainly we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. But my first thought would be to connect with fellow translators in your area and to establish ties with different artists and workshops in your area (screen printing, letterpress printing, etc.). You’ll no doubt be amazed at what kinds of communities are already out there!

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