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In conversation with...Jen Calleja, Translator in Residence at the British Library



Jen Calleja is the first ever Translator in Residence at the British Library, an initiative supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Translating Cultures’ theme. Jen explains how she first came to ‘discover’ literary translation following a slightly unusual path and how she hopes to make the role of translators visible to the wider public. 


How did you first hear about the residency?

The residency began in April this year and runs until April 2018. I first heard about it about a year before it existed. Daniel Hahn, one of the most key people at the centre of the translation world, mentioned at an event that he was in talks with the British Library about creating a residency. When it became real and I read the role description I thought it sounded perfect and applied. Now here I am.

Can you explain what your main responsibilities will be during this residency?

In a broad sense I’m here to promote the presence and understanding of literary translators and issues in translation. But more specifically, I was asked to use the archives, engage with staff at the British Library and both create and be part of public events. I’m also tasked with using the British Library space in interesting ways and to work with AHRC Translating Cultures associates. In addition to this, I’ve been reaching out to various British Library departments and external institutions to create further projects and events.

Why do you think this residency is so important?

Having recently finished a two year residency at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, I’d seen first-hand how important it is to have a translator involved in creating exhibitions and performances as well as curating literary events. Translators are often removed from the equation when it comes to the visible or public parts of exploring the creative process, and many people, even in the literary scene, still don’t understand what is going on ‘in translation’. I see it as an educative and skill-sharing role; helping everyone understand translation, regardless of what walk of life they’re from.

Have you been able to put any of your ideas into practice and what projects have you been involved in so far?

One of my first projects was joining the steering committee for International Translation Day, which is happening on 2 October at the British Library, in partnership with the Free Word Centre and English PEN. I’ve convened a panel on new developments in literary translation comprising myself, the translator collective, The Starling Bureau, along with Shadow Heroes, a group of literary translators that work in schools. I’ve also held forums with staff at the British Library in St Pancras and Boston Spa on how translation affects their work.

The vast majority of projects I pitched to the British Library have now been greenlit. I’m moderating a panel discussion which I’ve curated on Translating Gay Identities as part of the Gay UK exhibition. I’ll also be giving a masterclass in intersemiotic (or cross-medial) translation and writing an essay on Angela Carter’s translation work, both for the Learning Department at the British Library. In addition I’ll be writing a collection of poetry influenced by poet-translator Michael Hamburger’s archive; creating a video about the British Library’s multilingual staff, and hopefully a big ‘takeover’ project and some performances, if I find the time…

Can you tell us how you came to be a literary translator?

My path has been a little unusual I suppose, but it seems to have worked so far. I was the only student to study any language past the age of 16 at my school (I did French and German) and after my A-levels I moved to Munich with the plan of staying there for three months - which turned into 18 months. I started writing at the age of 17, and studied Media and Modern Literature with Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College while attempting to read German novels in my spare time where I tended to focus on translation as a topic.

I then went on to study for an MA in German Studies part-time at UCL, which is where I ‘discovered’ literary translation, and realised that this could be the perfect career for me as a writer with a knowledge of German. I graduated in 2012, and was offered my first book translation – a young adult book on globalisation, while writing my Masters dissertation on the poet-translator Michael Hofmann and the artist Gerhard Richter. I was encouraged to apply for a PhD in Poetry Translation, but I wanted to pursue being a literary translator instead. That summer, I did a one-week residential course in literary translation with the Arvon Foundation, which taught me skills and ways of thinking that I still use on a daily basis in my work.

I’ve done a few German- and translation-associated jobs over the years – working at the Goethe-Institut London, being acting editor of the magazine New Books in German, being Translator in Residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London  – while building up my career as a literary translator of novels, non-fiction, children’s books, short fiction, arts writing and poetry.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

My residency here at the British Library!

Are there any books or individuals that have really helped to inspire or influence you in this field?

A number of people and texts come to mind. Dr Theo Hermans, who taught the Translation Theory and Practice course at UCL. Sasha Dugdale and Maureen Freely, who taught the Arvon Foundation course; David Bellos’ book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? as well as translators including Danny Hahn, Anthea Bell, Michael Hofmann, Deborah Smith, and so many others for being so eloquent about translating. Publications like Asymptote and Words Without Borders have also had an influence along with friends that I’ve made and continue to make in the field of translation.

What are you hoping to achieve or leave as a lasting legacy as a result of your residency?

If a few more people in the world understand what translators do and why they should be cherished and supported as craftspeople in their own right then I’ll be happy.

What is the one thing people might not know about you?

I guess people might not know that I’m also a published writer and a poet, and that I play in a few punk bands! I also help coordinate a campaign against harassment in the night time economy called the Good Night Out campaign. That’s more than one thing I know…

Find out more about Jen and her role as Translator in Residence at the British Library; keep up to date with her work by visiting www.jencalleja.com  or follow her on Twitter @niewview.


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