Training the Translated Literature Professionals of the Future

By Sorcha McDonagh

As well as twenty years of NBG, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary for two of our most important schemes: the Emerging Translators Programme (ETP) and the NBG Internship.

As NBG’s first intern and a graduate of the very first ETP, I’ve been talking to fellow participants about their experience of the scheme and their careers since then.

After a year at the helm of NBG, editor Charlotte Ryland noticed what was missing: on the one hand, a good source of high quality sample translations, and on the other, support for budding translators. Killing two birds with one stone (or two flies with one swat as a literal translation from the German might have it), Charlotte launched the Emerging Translators Programme in 2011. The premise of this unique scheme is deceptively simple. Six participants are selected by way of a translation competition, and are commissioned to translate a long extract from a book recently recommended by NBG. That translation is not completed in a bubble, however, but is the result of close and sustained collaboration. As Charlotte notes, ‘over the years the cooperative element has remained absolutely core to the process’. With an emphasis on communication at all stages, the emerging translators can access a web forum to pool ideas while they are working on their translations at home. They are then brought together in London for a workshop led by established translator Shaun Whiteside, and towards the end of the process are paired up to discuss each others' texts in detail. The intention is that translators at an early stage of their careers can gain skills and confidence in the art of translating, but also on a practical level find a space in which to share their experiences of the industry and meet others hoping to do the same. This cooperative ethos is echoed by many of the programme’s participants, including Ruth Martin: ‘Translation is usually quite a solitary activity, and it’s easy to feel like you’re working in a vacuum, especially at the start of your career. The chance to share your work and give feedback on other people’s translations is really invaluable’. Any nerves that Rachel McNicholl felt at flying to London in order to participate were calmed by the atmosphere: ‘Even if you’ve done workshops before, it’s still hard to bare your work to a peer group, and to a workshop leader who is a recognised authority in your field. But everyone was really nice, the atmosphere was very constructive and I learned a lot’.

Many of the programme’s graduates have gone on to develop successful careers in translation. Several have book-length translations to their names: they have translated fiction about Churchill; non-fiction about the refugee crisis; literary crime thrillers set around the world; science fiction involving mad scientists; and collections of short stories. They have won translating awards, accepted bursaries to pursue their translation work, worked as translators-in-residence, taught translation, set up translation working groups and some have even found time to take part in translation duels. This last activity, I am assured, is ‘very good fun’ despite ‘sounding like the stuff of nightmares’. Many participants point to the programme as a source of confidence in tackling these varied challenges.

Asked if they are still emerging as translators or consider themselves already emerged, there is a definite sense of the former. Perhaps Rachel McNicholl sums it up when she says she is still ‘at the caterpillar stage’. But whether a translator is caterpillar or butterfly, new books in German will always need skilled and assured translators to transform them into new books in English. And the Emerging Translators Programme is the perfect chrysalis: a safe, protective space for translators to develop.