Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Trying to Become a Translator

At the beginning of the year I asked one of the PhD students about the reputations of the various creative writing courses. He had something to say about the prose students, the poetry students and then stopped. ‘What about the translation students?’ I asked – ‘Oh, we’re invisible’.

I did not realize at the time how deep his comment went. From neglect in the publishing world to second class literary status in the narrow minds of few, translation has a tough living all around. But while I could not do much in a global sense, I made every attempt to bring literary translation to the public. As part of my internship with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) I led an international literature reading group at the Norwich Forum public library. The meetings to talking about world literature in translation were an opportune time to share what I learned in translation courses with the general public. And in return I received insight into actual readers of translated literature. What a translation should sound like, look like, read like was challenged on both sides of me—on the one side theory from academia, on the other side an appreciation for unobstructed literature written in English. Even now I try to keep the two sides in mind when I translate.

Of equal but very different value to me was the MA reading series I founded and hosted at two venues in Norwich. The free events were an excuse to get people together from different UEA MA creative writing courses: prose, poetry, nonfiction, literary translation and scriptwriting (though no scriptwriters participated this year). At these events the five or six readers, who would consist of writers from the various MA courses, would read about ten minutes of their work, followed by mingling. People seemed to enjoy the readings, which included joke means of introducing the readers such as horoscopes and fake biographies. In the spirit of keeping the final reading lively and anything but a reading, I staged a ‘performance piece’ in the style of American comedian, Eric Andre, wherein I destroyed the setting of the show to jazz music (

While some of this may indeed have chipped the status of literary translators in the community, it was all meant in good fun and aimed at making literary translators and literary translation memorable to others. For that reason I also aimed to include literary translators, my course-mates, in as many of the readings as possible, despite being the smallest group in numbers. The motivation behind these things, but in no way responsible for them, was Daniel Hahn’s differentiation between translating—doing the work of translation—and being a translator, spreading the word about translation as well as translating. It means promoting the work of translators and translation as a whole concept in the community here and abroad. While I could only work in Norwich, I think I did something right. After my antics, I read a poem I am currently translating for my dissertation; and despite my heavy breathing, bleeding and general disorientation after the introduction, two people contacted me about seeing the poem again with the originals. Not only did my translation piques peoples’ interest, but it put more translations in more hands (or ears), which is the goal of every translator.

Cole Konopka was born in 1988. He is a freelance English-German translator, writer and painter ( You can contact him at:


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