The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Translator

Ever since I retired from academic life three years ago, I’ve been working from home as a full-time literary translator. It wasn’t a sudden decision: I had been translating for years, mostly during summers and sabbaticals, entertaining fantasies all the while about how blissful life would be if only I could leave the obligations of my professorial life behind.  The rhythms of academia, which had governed all my actions for so long – measured out semester by semester, week by week, day by day, in neat, fifty-minute segments – would suddenly evaporate, to be replaced by some new, as yet undefined structure of my own invention, responsive to my own needs and preferences.  No more faculty meetings, student appointments, consultations with colleagues.  No more constraints of any kind. No more regular paycheck, either – but, hey, I was prepared for that.

What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was the solitude. Why had it never occurred to me before?  When I was teaching full-time and translating in the interstices, it hadn’t been so apparent. Translation, at that point, had been a refuge, a longed-for retreat from the incessant human interaction that more conventional jobs demand. And now, suddenly, it had become all there was – all day, every day. Even the requisite correspondence with authors, publishers, and others in the book industry usually takes place remotely: through email, for example, or occasionally by phone. For the first time in my life, I realized just how important “face time” was to me and how much I missed those good, long talks over coffee with people who shared my passions.

Who was I? What was I? Freelancers reading this may wonder what the big fuss is all about.  Why such a huge existential dilemma?  But for someone whose working life had always been defined by an affiliation with one institution or another, this sudden liberation was somehow too liberating. I felt guilty (still do sometimes) about showing up at Trader Joe’s in the middle of the afternoon. It seemed wrong, somehow. Not infrequently I would go out to the local bakery or the market for a “therapy session just to have a conversation with someone, anyone, even if that conversation was of the “Paper or plastic?” variety.

In my frenzy for self-justification, I had business cards made up.  “Literary Translation,” they proclaimed in a stylish font.  That wasn’t enough. I still didn’t believe it was real. I took a class in website design and didn’t learn much. Eventually I relented and hired a graphic designer to create a website. Maybe by obsessively visiting and revising my website I could convince myself that I was actually engaged in a “serious” professional endeavor, one that mattered to the rest of the world.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t getting things published: in that regard, I was rather lucky. After years of translating, I had developed a respectable list of book publications and short pieces in anthologies, print journals, and e-magazines. But now there was no university culture surrounding me to reward those achievements with promotion and tenure: all that was behind me, and no one really cared. Or so I thought.  My former colleagues were busily dashing off critical articles, planning course syllabi, grousing about internal political imbroglios.  I could see their eyes glaze over whenever I started spouting off about a particularly knotty sentence that I was working on.  Of course I knew that other people throughout the country and in other parts of the world were doing much the same thing as I was: quietly, privately, independently.  But whom did they talk to?  How did they contend with the silence, the loneliness?

American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) meetings helped, of course, but they’re annual, after all. A year is a long time to wait for that longed for cara a cara with like-minded practitioners of the art. The ALTAlk online exchanges of information, queries, and suggestions also provided an excellent way to establish links with others. Still, it wasn’t enough.

And then it happened. Cindy Shuster and I, encouraged by the recently-launched Midwestern literary translators’ group and another splinter group that has been active in the Boston area for years, decided to investigate the possibility of forming a local Southern California forum for literary translators.  Working from the ALTA master membership list, we identified about forty people who live within the vast geographical spread known as “SoCal,” in this case all the way from San Diego up to the greater Los Angeles sprawl – and beyond.  Of that number, we managed to recruit seven or eight core people who attend our monthly meetings regularly. We’ve been a functioning group for only four months or so, but already I can feel the difference in my attitude. We meet at various members’ homes on Sunday afternoons. I was astonished to see that three of our “regulars” commute from San Diego to L.A. just for the meeting – a two-and-a-half hour drive each way!  It’s a casual affair, strictly pot luck, which makes for a mix just as intriguing and varied as the languages we work from. But the laughter flows along with the wine, and as we read and critique each other’s work, many valuable ideas are generated.  Each month, as new people become aware of SCALTA (Southern California Literary Translators Association, an acronym Cindy describes as sounding “like a skin disease”), we attract more and more interested members.  We maintain a listserv to facilitate communication among our ranks between one meeting and the next. Every so often someone posts a current translation problem and receives a prompt reply.

Some of my SCALTA buddies are people I’ve met before through ALTA or in other venues, but some of them are new friends.  While I can’t guarantee that the loneliness will ever dissipate entirely, the knowledge that in just about thirty days I’ll be able to sit in a room together with these wonderful, unusually perceptive people goes a long way to sustain me through the days in between.

Andrea G.Labinger is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press), Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis), and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press). Her website is