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Translators in Residence: An interview with Jen Calleja

  • By Marta Dziurosz
  • 28th July 2016
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Why is translation important, and what is the role of translators in our ever diverse societies and cultures? Marta Dziurosz, our Translator in Residence for 2015-16, met with fellow Translator in Residence Jen Calleja to talk all things translation.

I met Jen Calleja, Translator in Residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London (ACF) (she’s also a poet and musician), on Twitter. I was so interested to see there was someone else with the same job title that I just reached out. I went to one of her events at the ACF to meet her in person. Jen is so eloquent about translation and thinks so deeply about what she does that I just had to interview her about her role – and many other things.

MD: How did you end up being the Translator in Residence at the ACF?

JC: I’ve been the acting editor of New Books in German for nearly two years, and when I finished the first year, the ACF asked me if I’d be interested in helping with the literary aspect of their programme. I helped find a group of poets who would be commissioned to write on contemporary Austrian fashion. Because of that first project I’d ended up translating one of the Austrian writer’s pieces and then suggested that we make it a residency. They wanted me to continue organising literary programming for them and I thought: wouldn’t it be great if the events were translation-focused? So they would often entail a British contemporary creative as well as an Austrian creative to root Austrian literature in the British scene and I’d get to translate some work. The ACF were amazing and said yes. So far, I’ve organised half a dozen or more events, some very ambitious, some author conversation events. Basically it happened because I asked.

MD: It’s the role of the bridge between cultures par excellence, isn’t it? You’re working in an institution which wants to bring Austrian literature to a London audience and you’re a translator, so you know both sides of the scene.

JC: Because I’m partially in the poetry or writing scene as well, it feels perfect: I can invite people I’m aware of. I had Joanna Walsh in conversation and poets like Amy Key and Alex MacDonald. But then there were people who have never really experienced an institution’s cultural project before. When I did an exhibition of multimedia translations of a story by Anna Weidenholzer, many people involved were filmmakers, musicians and artists that I knew from being around creatives. It’s a perfect melding of all my lives.

MD: Do you think a translator is well-placed to work with an institution that wants to promote its national literature somewhere else?

JC: Yes, I think especially now that we’re becoming a lot more visible in the literary scene, translators are in the perfect position because we are the bridge between the foreign literature and the British scene. Many institutions need a bit of a helping hand when it comes to revving up their literary programming and also making it the impetus to try and teach people about translation, because there’s still a huge gap in the knowledge about that.

MD: Would a position of a Translator in Residence work with an institution that’s aim isn’t promoting literature from another country?

JC: I was just thinking the other day how great it would be to be a Translator in Residence at an art gallery. Especially working from the position that just communicating is translation and that when you’re transforming an art form into another art form, that’s translation. Visual art could be seen as a visual translation of ideas or concepts. Also thinking about how translation has affected art and translated literature and essays and manifestos have affected artists – that’s something that doesn’t really get discussed.

MD: Do you find that your work makes people more aware of what translation is? Have you heard from people who were surprised or found it newly interesting?

JC: There were two specific examples of people who have come to events but also people who I’ve had conversations with about translation. One was a friend of mine – I explained to him how, when translating, you have to alter the text, and he was furious, said that’s immoral and that you should “just translate” it. Also, at a conference I said that you always translate into a context, for example if you’re translating a book for a British literary publisher, then in some way you are translating it into a context, both temporal and there’s genre and a social context – British literariness is not the same as German literariness. Someone said: “No, that’s wrong, as a translator you don’t make that decision, you “just translate” a text”. I love this idea of “just translating” – you don’t touch it, you just take it from this box and put it in this box. But I sent my friend a lot of podcasts and articles about it, and he came back to me and said: “I now understand”. As a translator, you’re always explaining to people what translation is. During the multi-media translation event (with the Weidenholzer short story that I translated into English, and then commissioned a 30-second video, tape-loop sound work and photography from) I gave a brief talk about why this is like literary translation. It’s their personal voice; viewing that translator as a voice that has been told a story and is further communicating it in a way that they personally can. Someone came up to me after the event and they’d had the lightbulb moment: “Now I know!” It’s just the simple thing of explaining that if a hundred translators translate a story, their versions would be very similar, but there would also be vast changes in how it would come out, what would stand out. It’s the same with any reading of any text.

MD: There’s still some distrust when it comes to translation. To an extent, the role of a Translator in Residence is to soothe that distrust, in more ways than one. On the one hand you’re getting people used to the fact that translation is not a lie, and on the other – you’re fighting distrust between cultures by showing that there are things that can resonate with you even though they’ve been written by an Austrian or a Polish writer. We engender trust, don’t you think?

JC: Absolutely. I also always think of the translator as a storyteller. You pass along a story and as a storyteller and a human you always bring your own life, background and personality into that. You can’t avoid it. The problem with the mainstream conception of translation is that people want you to stay out of it, which is impossible. You can’t take the translator out of the translation. If you’re translating a story about family, you can’t really forget your own family. The way that you tell it and the emphases you’re putting on its different parts would definitely be your own impulses and motivations.

MD: As a Translator in Residence you’re also made even more visible – that’s interesting, because, as you say, translators are expected to stay out of it. You chair the discussions, you choose what and how you want to present.

JC: Yeah, you’re elevated to the same position as the writer. It used to be that you didn’t really have a Translator in Residence position at all, because you were seen as a sort of an admin person, and now it’s really acknowledged that you are doing a form of creative writing and it takes a lot of creative power. I recently translated a children’s book and I asked: “What kind of editorial process will we go through?” and the editor said it was already edited in German, so we wouldn’t have to have an editing process. I think that really explains that people don’t understand that it’s a creative process.

MD: You also choose what you make visible to others. I think this process of selection and being an expert on the foreign literature that you bring to people’s attention is very interesting.

JC: You’re really right: we read a lot of books from that literature, we’re aware of what’s going on in that scene, we’re also great editors, we know so much. There’s an acknowledgement: “Well, you know best, so we ask you who you think is the most interesting”. I get the impression from a lot of your events that there’s a political aspect to it. Is that something you’ve done consciously?

MD: I was just going to ask you that. The answer is definitely. For many reasons Polishness as seen abroad is becoming more and more narrow. It’s because Polishness is defined increasingly narrowly in Poland; the zeitgeist is such that you have to tick certain boxes to be considered a true Pole. I have this incredible opportunity to show a different kind of Polishness: to show diversity, dissent, women’s voices, migrant voices. It’s a privilege to work with Free Word because their politics mesh so well with mine. Applying for the job I said that I see this role as rooting for the underdog. In a linguistic sense, in a political sense…

JC: For me it’s different, because German and Polish are in different realms in terms of popularity and perception in England, but I’m definitely of the opinion that translation is a form of activism in terms of forming that cultural bridge that is so necessary, whether people want it or not. I had a project where we brought over two Austrian writers to come and spend time in London and to write about it. What they wrote could be perceived as negative: they found London to be brash, ugly, loud, dirty and Londoners to be very stressed, which is not wrong. Through translation we can find the way in which we’re connected, and see we have a lot of similarities. I brought together Joanna Walsh and Carolina Schutti – Carolina had written a book about domestic violence and child abuse. Those topics are prevalent in our own writing in Britain. And with both those things, in the negative and in those points of connection, what you’re getting is part critique and part connection and you can’t have one without the other.

Especially now, in light of Brexit, I feel we have to talk about Europe; it’s like Britain doesn’t want the critique any more, they can’t take the fact that things can be done differently, they don’t have the dialogue. That’s why translation can be an act of activism. In her amazing piece for the New Statesman Stephanie Boland says that when you engage with foreign cultures you have to translate yourself. If you speak more than one language, if you’re part of two different cultures or if you get a perspective of someone from a culture outside of your own, you see the world you live in – that you take for granted – in a different light and you can understand that things aren’t rigid, that they’re fluid and can change. It’s like a constant reflection – if you don’t have a mirror, you just exist in a bubble. Doing translation events, getting people to meet foreign writers and read foreign texts is so important socio-politically. And on a minor level it’s been really important for me to be in a visible role, to learn how to talk about my subject. It made me think in a much more focused way about what I do, taught me not to scurry away from being in a public role, because that’s so important in terms of communicating and educating.

MD: We’ve been talking about people wanting the translator to only be a transparent pane of glass that you can see the text through. It takes courage to sit on the stage and not think about whether your hair looks weird. I found I really enjoy it.

JC: You have to really embrace the platform. And especially because translation is predominantly bodied by women and yet women being visible in terms of the arts and literature and having a regular platform is really important. That women can talk about that subject and make the most of it. A lot of my events have been women-focused.

MD: So have mine. In terms of the political aspect, I think what we’re there to do is to foster change. I’ve been trying to do that within the business as well – I had two events that were a bit inward-looking. One was about translators’ contracts, which, again, aimed to make the little voice stronger and help translators be more confident about negotiating.

JC: It’s definitely still a submissive role in that power dynamic.

MD: The other event that I saw in a political sense was the bilingual translation discussion at the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair. I wanted to make people think about it again. Does it necessarily always need to be true that you can only translate into your “native” language?

JC: I’m fascinated with this new awareness of bilingual and multilingual writers. Even though being a literary translator is still quite a rare thing, the reason why I love having the foreign author there, as well as the translator (in many cases me), is that someone always gets forgotten in this equation; sometimes it’s the author, because maybe they’re not 100% fluent in English. In terms of the event, I am in the power role, because I am the translator.

MD: That’s an interesting reversal, isn’t it?

JC: Sometimes when you’re translating that balance is shifted. In many cases I’ve felt like I’ve been in a dominant role, but now that the translator is becoming an icon I think the people getting forgotten are the multilingual writers. Literary translation is going through a massive revolution, but there still hasn’t been enough of a focus on multilingual writers and they’re getting side-lined because maybe English isn’t their first language. That’s going to become more of a focus over time: writers writing bilingually, not just in English or in one of their languages, but those who don’t presume that the reader only reads English. I’m fascinated by this idea. I’d love to see books written by bilingual German-English writers that are written half in English, half in German, for people – who do exist – who can do both, across all languages. That would reflect the kind of reality that we’re living in. We’re not living in a monolingual culture. I’d love to write a book like that one day, but I don’t feel comfortable writing in German yet.

MD: It’s such a banal thing to say, but the more languages you have, the more worlds you belong to. Then it becomes easy to accept that there isn’t just one thing – like in translation. There isn’t just one correct version.

JC: If you’re a translator, if you’re multilingual or move across different scenes or mix with all kinds of people, you feel a connection to everything. You don’t worry about your self, your identity, your integrity, you don’t feel like you need to have it. You’re connected and in communication with other people. It enriches your life.

MD: Someone may be reading this and wondering how to become a Translator in Residence. Any advice?

JC: I was inspired by International Translation Day – there was a workshop about residencies. Someone said: “Just ask institutions! They might not fund you, you might have to find your own funding, but one of the best ways is to go off-track and just find somewhere”. If you’re good friends with an institution or a gallery that knows you from another aspect of your life, get in touch with them and forge your own route. With me it’s completely flexible and I was lucky enough that they do give me a fee to organise an event, I have free rein and I get paid the Translators Association rates for the translations. Think of it as a great opportunity in terms of people you could meet, personal development and your confidence. It’s a chance to educate people, which will make translators’ lives a lot easier, and to encourage more people to go into translation and languages. Deborah Smith, who’s now a superstar – one of the best things that came out of her winning the Man Booker was her saying that she didn’t start learning Korean until she was in her early twenties. Many people who don’t know a foreign language were amazed and inspired by this. You can learn a language at any point in your life.

MD: We’re coming back to that political aspect: translating stories – however you want to understand the process of translation – is now very needed.

JC: We really do. Even with understanding what’s going on now in terms of the EU crisis. I’ve been able to access foreign media, see other perspectives. It’s so important to hear other people’s voices. You never know, there might be a story out there in Chinese that would change your life.


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