30 March 2021

The translator as creative writer

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    Our British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) has been instrumental in transforming the role of the literary translator from that of linguistic technician to creative writer who is publicly recognised by literary prizes such as the Man Booker International. 

    A survey of BCLT Summer School participants from between 2015 and 2019 revealed 87% stated it had been important or very important for their literary translation work.

    An innovative model of translator training developed by researchers at the BCLT transforms participants’ understanding of their role, emphasising the development of creative writing skills and a distinct professional identity. The model has achieved global reach through collaboration with international cultural organisations, BCLT training events in countries from China to Mexico, and the publicly funded European framework for literary translator training, PETRA-E. The BCLT training programme and Emerging Translator Mentorships, delivered in partnership with the National Centre for Writing (NCW), have led directly to the publication of newly translated novels, poetry, and non-fiction by highly regarded publishers, increasing readerships for world literatures.

    W.G. Sebald founded the BCLT in 1989 to combat a widespread lack of recognition for literary translation as a distinctive intellectual activity and professional practice. Emeritus Professor Clive Scott and Emerita Professor Jean Boase-Beier focused new attention on the translator’s ‘creative interference’ in the translation process. Between 2015 and 2018, Dr Cecilia Rossi has made significant advances on this research, shifting attention from the translator as reader to the translator as writer. 

    UK impact of the BCLT translator training model

    Dr Rossi’s research presents the creative writer as a paradigm for the professional literary translator. She has applied this understanding to a training programme at the BCLT that addresses two core requirements for a successful career in literary translation: a practice that incorporates creative writing skills, and an ability to participate in professional networks.

    Since 2015, the BCLT International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School has attracted 376 attendees translating from 17 different languages, producing impacts on translation practice, professional translation careers, and publishing outcomes. Participation in professional networks provides vital support for translators to promote their writing practice in the literary marketplace. The BCLT training model has led to increased confidence and a sense of professional identity, and this sense of community has a continuing impact: 91% have stayed in touch with their cohort, creating what they describe as a ‘support network’ for advice, professional collaboration, and access to commissions.

    As a direct result of participation in the mentorship programme, 78% of mentees have had translations published or have received commissions since 2014.

    In response to the beneficial professional impact of the community produced by the Summer School, the BCLT created a mentorship programme in 2010 to formalise support networks for translators. Managed by NCW from 2016, the Emerging Translator Mentorship Scheme pairs early career translators with professionally established practitioners. Since 2016, the scheme has overseen 35 mentorships translating from 18 languages. 

    The Summer School and mentorships lead directly to publishing outcomes, greater visibility for literary translators, and increased representation in prize culture. Participants attribute 49 book-length translations with publishers such as Vintage, Hodder and Stoughton, Quercus, MacLehose, Arc, Scribe, and Pushkin Press to their involvement in these training schemes between 2015 and 2019. In the past two years, four graduates of BCLT programmes have been shortlisted for the Translators Association First Translation Prize (2019-20), two for the U.S. National Book Awards (2020), and two for the International Booker (2019). A further two were shortlisted for the Vondel Translation Prize (2020). 

    International impact of the BCLT translator training model

    Since 2015, the BCLT has extended the international reach of its programme, addressing the lack of specialist literary translator training in countries underrepresented in the global literary market. Cultural institutes in Japan, Korea, Argentina, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have drawn on BCLT expertise to discover new translators, improve translation quality, and create networks, building capacity for the more extensive production of translation. They have funded translation workshops at the Summer School, placed translators in the ‘Training the Trainer’ workshops, which Dr Rossi organised from 2018 to disseminate the BCLT model of literary translator training, and have held events in their home countries under the BCLT’s guidance. Since 2014, the BCLT has also held further training events in China, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Brazil, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Georgia, Germany, and Mexico.

    The focus of Dr Rossi’s training model on translator creativity has been incorporated in the European PETRA-E framework for the education and training of literary translators, produced by a consortium of eight European institutions in 2016 and funded under Erasmus+. The consortium sought Dr Rossi’s expertise as both academic researcher and organiser of the BCLT’s training programme, and her presentations established ‘literary creativity’ as one of the framework’s key competences.

    The landscape of translated literature transformed

    The BCLT’s programmes have generated far-reaching impact on the production, recognition, and reception of translated literature. BCLT’s work is credited with contributing to the recent strong (and increasing) interest among British readers for translated fiction. One of the most visible public manifestations of this increased interest is the Man Booker International Prize, which is shared equally between writer and translator, and BCLT has been acknowledged as one of the important stakeholders in that prize’s establishment.