Late July 2017, in Norwich, UK, toward the eastern edge of England, on the sprawling, easy-to-get-lost-in, very comfortable campus of the University of East Anglia. We had converged from distant parts of the earth—all of us students of literature in translation—even as some of us were writers of note, administrators of the college, or old hands running the workshops—for the international summer school program of the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). Summertime, though it rained daily in Norwich, though it blazed in northern Europe, though it chilled in New York, as the world reeled politically from ill will and ill minds. If we looked anywhere but where we were, the moment was weighed down with worry, with a sense of siege, of near-physical pain. Yet within the confines of this week in Norwich, despite the cool and wet, there was, among the disparate group of us gathered, an almost devotional focus on the work we were embarked upon. We were trying to find the language that expressed the ideas, the heart, the literature of another language. Not a big bang of an aspiration, not a scientific breakthrough, merely a profound, elusive human one. And unaccountably, unexpectedly, it was thrilling.
There were eight workshops at this year’s summer program—Bengali-to-English, German-to-English, Korean-to-English, Lithuanian-to-English, Spanish-to-English, English-to-Spanish, prose from multiple languages into English, and poetry from multiple languages into English. Obviously we didn’t speak the same language, but we had a language in common, and the genuine pursuit of translating one language into this more common language was humbling and inspiring and awe-inspiring. And while it was also painstaking and exhausting, there was the reward that comes to one from the knowledge that full effort had been expended.
Some might think the exercise of literary translation inconsequential—how can translation bear concrete results—but the week made clear, in both outward demonstration and inner awareness, that translation is something so basic to our needs as humans beings as to be essential to living together on this planet.