Only at ALTA: American Literary Translators Association

I’ve said this before, but never tire of the experience: only at ALTA do people read my nametag and ask: “Slovak?” It always pleases and embarrasses me, because I know nothing of my grandmother’s tongue, and my name is hers.

Only at ALTA can you wander around the lobby and hear five or six languages. You see people you want to talk to and somehow that never happens. I glimpse Dennis Maloney across the room, but I’m heading one way and he’s going another.

The first night I attend “Reading in Remembrance” in a room ringed by the glittering lights of the city below. It’s a memorial reading for the likes of Gregory Rabassa, translators past, important to the translators present, reading in their honor. Pam Carmell talks about Miller Williams, who was her mentor and model and a founder of ALTA, appreciation warming her words. It’s a fine love, the regard we have for those who generously helped us along our road.

Only at ALTA could you hear statements like:

47% of translators agree that the word “mullet” is untranslatable except in Italian.

A bookseller responding to the availability of translated work says, “Africa is having a moment—God, I hate that expression.”

About the lack of consistency in printing translator names on books, another says, “I don’t think the market cares, but fuck the market.”

Only at ALTA would J Kates rant indignantly about the new translation of the Aeneid: “whose name is on the cover? Seamus Heaney’s.” On most translated books, the author’s name appears in 20-point type. The “translated by” is barely readable if it appears at all. “That’s because it’s Seamus Heaney,” I reply. “Exactly!” J Kates responds. “Who knows Virgil?”

Literary translation is also “having a moment” (I too dislike the expression) and a record 400 plus attend this conference. There used to be 60 people signed up for bilingual readings. This year there are 165: emerging Uruguayan poets, Italian fiction, Central American writers, Germanic languages including Yiddish, French poetry and prose, Arabic and Farsi, Mexican, Persian, Kurdish, Russian, Romanian…and more. Besides the daily readings, evening readings are held in bars, coffee shops and bookstores.

I read my poignant Agustín Cadena story, “The Former Colleague,” ( and the beginning of a suspenseful Mónica Lavín story, “A Textbook Case,” concerning consequences of calling a wrong number. When my time’s up, I give them the link. “It escalates,” I grin. Afterwards three people ask me for the link again, scribble it on their programs, to finish reading that story:

The moderator breaths: “you took exactly ten minutes,” awe in her voice. May I mention that it’s easy to time your reading in advance and know how long it takes? Just saying.

A magazine editor asks if I have others, gives me his card. You dream of such things happening, but normally they don’t. No guarantees, in any case. Submit, submit and let the translations fall where they may.

“Literary translation is linguistic hospitality,” Aron Aji says. Besides running the teaching translation workshop, he’s ALTA’s new president, heads the literary translation program at Iowa and translates from the Turkish. “We translate and teach translation in part to promote global literacy.” In part, I’m attracted to translation because it’s a service and a good cause. Once you love a country’s literature, it’s hard to regard its people as enemies.

Aji mentions In Translation as a good introductory text. A woman raises her hand, asks him to repeat the editors’ names. “Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky,” he says, “and if you’ll turn around, you can shake hands with Esther Allen, who is sitting behind you.” Only at ALTA.

Three days, four time slots per day, nine sessions per time slot. I barely spend time with half those I meant to see. On the last day I run into Dennis Maloney, remind him that White Pine published my translations of Elsa Cross poems long ago, 1994. “We just reprinted that anthology,” he says. Universities use it. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women.

After the third panel on the third day, I’m thinking I’ll just go to my room and lie down. On the way I stop to talk to C.M. Mayo and Alberto Ruy-Sánchez. They are conversing in Spanish and I discover I can’t utter a word: code-switching is beyond my exhausted abilities.

The last evening I attend the popular Declamación, for which the only rules are you can’t have paper in your hand and you can’t read your own stuff. Many translators are also poets and apt to read their poems at the slightest pretext. I hear a Spanish poem, a Chinese performance piece in four voices, a hauntingly beautiful Farsi song, a comical German piece. Someone is singing a poem in Mandarin as I leave. Only at ALTA. But no more, no more. It is ten p.m. and I have a plane to catch in the morning.


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8 Responses to Only at ALTA: American Literary Translators Association

  1. Denise Gibson says:

    The conference sounds amazing. And your telling of it equally so. I followed the links to the Agustín Cadena and Mónica Lavín stories and enjoyed them greatly. You have given me a morning of pleasurable reading. Thank you!

    • dubrava says:

      Thanks, Denise! I hesitated to include the links, not sure if people would follow them. Now I’m so glad I did!

  2. Agustin says:

    Sounds like it was great!

    • dubrava says:

      Querido Agustín, sí, era buena. Y Catherine y yo hablamos de nuestra idea para un libro de tus cuentos también. No tuvimos mucho tiempo, pero fue un comienzo. Abrazos.

  3. C.M. Mayo says:

    Pat, it was such a delight to see you in Oakland, and I think this was one of the best ALTA conferences ever. And I say that having missed Declamación, always the most fun! Because I went to a second conference on the following weekend, I am still unpacking, including my many thoughts about our project… Meanwhile I send you an abrazote,

    • dubrava says:

      Abrazote back to you! It was a great conference, and no hurry. I did send Agustín a quick note that we met and talked about the project, but have been on deadline for my literary translation course description and able to think of nothing else. Catch your breath! Hope the women writers conference was good too.

  4. A beautiful post! I can’t wait for that book of Agustín’s stories….

  5. Bob Jaeger says:

    Hey Pat. Sounds exhilarating and exhausting. Wonderful description as always.Welcome home.

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