Life at the Library

Jen Calleja, the British Library’s inaugural Translator in Residence, reflects on the significance of this new role

In spring of last year, I found out that I was to be the first ever Translator in Residence at the British Library: a day-a-week, year-long role for a literary translator from and into any language to work on various projects, using the British Library as a base. After a whirlwind year, the residency has officially come to a close, and it seems like the perfect time to reflect on what I achieved through this incredible and unique opportunity.

The moment I saw the call out for applications, I knew this was something I wanted to do – had to do. This residency would be a culmination of years of translating German literature, curating literary events, writing, reviewing and working on crosscultural projects both at large institutions and independently – all while promoting the figure of the translator and the act of translation.

Back in 2012, while still a student, I founded Verfreundungseffekt, an Anglo-German arts journal exploring what people from German-language cultures cherish in English-speaking cultures, and vice versa. It includes translated literature, essays and poetry, illustrations, personal accounts, art and photography, and I am currently working on the third volume.

I also translated my first book in 2012, having never translated even a sentence of German before, nor studied German or translation formally. After a two-year stint as Acting Editor of New Books in German magazine, I was invited to become a literary curator at the Austrian Cultural Forum London to make their literary events more innovative. This evolved into becoming their first Translator in Residence, putting on inventive events and exhibitions focusing on Austrian writers but also, importantly, on the literary translator. I successfully pitched a column on literary translation to online publication The Quietus, which ran for two years.

Then, due to the determination of the translator and all-round translation hero Danny Hahn – who had convinced the library that a residency would be an incredible opportunity for literary translators – the British Library Translator in Residence role was announced, with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The reasons this residency is so significant to literary translators are many. Giving us credit and presence in this way increases visibility and acknowledgement of the work done by translators. This may lead to more recognition of translation as an art, and translators as skilled creative writers; nurture and encourage the next generation of linguists and translators through the sharing of experiences and expertise; and help non-translators (with and without foreign language skills) feel less intimidated by the thought of working with languages and translating. Most importantly, it might even lead to literary translators being paid fairly for their work.

To announce my residency, I wrote a blog post for the British Library setting out what I hoped to achieve over the course of the year. I had high hopes and ambitions, because

I couldn’t fail to see what a statement it was for an institution such as the British Library to validate the significance of the translator, and underline the importance of languages and crosscultural communication, in such a celebratory way, especially at this moment in British history. “Throughout my residency, I hope to consistently explore translation at the intersection of the theoretical, the educational, and the practical, allowing for perspectives onto what translation has been, is, and could be within society and culture,” I wrote.

This was my core mission at the library, and what I referred back to while working on projects. I wanted my work to take in new developments in thinking with regard to translation, but not at the expense of alienating people; to teach non-translators and monolinguals about translation practices; and to offer hands-on experience and skill-sharing. Coming from an activist, do-it-yourself, self-taught background, I like being open with my knowledge and ‘translating’ it into accessible forms.

I had my own desk on the third floor, alongside curators working with languages including French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Russian, and sat among the collaborative PhD students, who spend some of their time writing their theses and some assisting the curators who work with their languages and cultures. It was great to have a permanent desk at the library, leaving my flat in Brixton where I usually work, to spend the day with people working on interesting projects to do with languages.

I ended up spending more than the allotted day a week at the library because it was such a pleasant and exciting working environment. Sometimes I would go in to translate or write articles, and I’m happy to have made some close friends along the way. Day to day, I had meetings with library staff, looked at archives in the basement, or sat at my desk organising and researching events.

My central project consisted of year-long conversations with staff at the British Library sites in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. These were conducted through open forums where we could have dialogues about the languages they use at work and/or at home, and how translation figures officially or unofficially in their job at the library. These conversations are being made into a video, which will be available online later in the year.

I also spent time looking through the archive of poet-translator Michael Hamburger and writing a pamphlet of poetry based on his correspondences and translation drafts, which will be published this year, and which I hope is a testament to his unique life and work.

We held a weekend workshop in ‘creative translation’ for writers and literary translators, where we translated English-language poetry into new English-language poetry; magazine interviews into monologues; animal noises into poetry; facial emotions into descriptions; and scent into stories. These tasks were designed to make attendees think about close reading, what they’re drawn to, the ‘essence’ of texts, and priorities when communicating, as well as their creative writing skills.

Using my knowledge of current issues in translation theory and the translation scene, I also curated and hosted a series of panel discussions, which I hoped would engage both translators and a wider audience. Because translation is still pretty niche, it can be hard to get people to come to events if translation seems to be the only aspect to the discussion, so having a broader ‘hook’ can be key to drawing in an interested, mixed audience. The first event was ‘Translating Gay Identities’, which coincided with the ‘Gay UK’ exhibition at the library. This was followed by ‘Multilingual Writing, Multilingual Translation’ with Sophie Seita, a UK/US-based, German-born academic and artist, and Maltese writer and translator Antoine Cassar.

For my closing event, I sat down with poet Sophie Collins and Head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, Rachel Foss, to discuss the presence of the translator in public life, the canon and British Library archives.

The new Translator in Residence, Rahul Bery, a Wales-based translator from Spanish and Portuguese, started his time at the library in June. As my residency has been slightly extended, due to additional funding from the Institute of Modern Languages Research, we have the opportunity to work together while he settles in. We might even end up working

on a joint project.

I will have one final public flourish before bowing out: a movement piece Sophie Seita and I are devising, which we hope will communicate the process of untangling and retying words and sentences together in a text in translation, along with issues regarding female labour and translation.

As for my life post-residency, I have been working on a few new translations, and have recently been given a second column on translation for the new print publication The Brixton Review of Books. There are plans to have more creative translation courses at the British Library in spring 2019 (see for updates).