Crossing Cultures and Borders: At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre

By Ofer Shorr

The primary focus of Canada’s BILTC is “to afford literary translators a period of uninterrupted work within an international community of translators.” Sound too good to be true? It’s not, as Ofer Shorr found out this past summer.

“A deepening of literary translation work.”

I arrived at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Canada, on a cold and rainy June evening. Little did I know that the next day would be the beginning of the most thrilling three weeks of my professional career.

The Banff Centre for the Arts is a sprawling complex of art galleries, performance halls, and rehearsal rooms situated on a mountainside above the city of Banff in the breathtaking Canadian Rockies. Dedicated to furthering the various arts in Canada, the Centre offers stipends for artists in a wide variety of disciplines, including music, visual arts, dance, writing, and, yes, translation. During an artist’s visit – for which all expenses are paid – he or she is free to structure his own time, with free access to the Centre’s many facilities.

At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, translators may request a joint residency with a writer, allowing the translator to consult and deepen his or her knowledge of the writer’s intentions and the context of the work being translated.

What this – forgive me – translates into, is three weeks of detachment from the problems and interruptions of the outside world, allowing for a true deepening of the literary translation work.

The Literary Translation Centre gathers translators from around the world, the only condition being that their project be focused on a Canadian writer. Our group consisted of about 20 translators from many countries, including Mexico, Holland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Israel (yours truly). All in all, we were working on about 15 books.

My project was Yann Martel’s The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which I was translating into Hebrew (I also translated his better-known recent novel, Life of Pi). I was lucky enough to have not only my Bulgarian and German colleagues working with me on the book, but also Yann Martel himself on hand.

After the tiredness passed and we got to know each other, our individual projects began in earnest. What an amazing experience! Free from the constraints of day jobs, family, and children, we were able to concentrate solely on the work at hand. Working with the other translators was absolutely thrilling – even though we usually didn’t speak each other’s language. Manfred, Magdalena, and I spent long hours honing solutions to various translation problems, such as place names, abbreviations, and colloquial language.

Working with Yann was an experience in itself. He is such a brilliant and fascinating man, and did a lot to help me understand the intricate details of his writing. In one story, for example, he gives some specific details about Canadian History. As we discussed the appropriate tone of the excerpts, it became obvious to me that they were not randomly chosen, but each expressed an overarching emotion which was echoed by what was happening at the time to the protagonist. I thus had to find a way to achieve the proper tone, balancing the documentary style of the text with the emotional burden it needed to shoulder.

As time passed, I came to an understanding, indeed a revelation, as to why translators are, in general, such a nice and unassuming bunch: always working against a text which is not yours is a humbling experience; it maps out your limits for you, reminds you that there is always someone else out there besides yourself, and so your ego cannot soar to the heavens, as very often happens to writers, for good and bad.

As three weeks drew to a close, it seems as if I could have stayed there forever. I met some amazing people and had great experiences, which I will never forget.

Translators have until December 1st, 2005 to apply for BILTC’s 2006 residency program. For more information, visit