Writing retreats in Barcelona

Thinking Writing invited to talk about writing retreats at The Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (METM 2013).


You do wonder how monasteries continue to flourish. But then when you see their real estate, the financial acuity built on centuries of experience, and how they have adapted to the desires of 21st century life, it is clearer. In a new conference centre within a 12th century Cistercian monastery in Poblet, in the Prades mountains a good few miles north of Tarragona, The Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (METM 2013), was just that, a meeting, even though in outward form it looked like a conference.


Established by a like-minded group of translators and editors working in the Mediterranean orbit, the METM idea was to provide this community of practitioners with professional guidance. It was a meeting, (although reunión in Spanish, might be closer) and one of the most welcoming and sociable events I’ve been to for a long time, a change from the long-winded times of some higher education conferences. I was there to talk about our work on writing retreats as a possible vehicle for training and professional development.


There was some interest in the idea of retreats, mediated by the sense in many people’s minds that there main purpose is for ‘creative’ writing. It’s hard to convey the value of the intensity and focus of a group of people sitting around a table all tapping away of their work, without having been there.


In the discussions and sessions, I was interested in the idea of an author’s editor, which sounds like quite a privileged relation. As if the translator is some kind of indentured clerk to the author. This is an interesting way of working with texts, and I encountered lots of ways of working with author’s, from the distant service provider to the close collaborator, almost partner. Most of the people I talked to were working in the sciences, with some editors as permanent members of a research institute. I’d be keen to find out more, and get a detailed understanding of the ways they work with these texts, as I’m sure it would be useful to the work we do.


In the plenary by Michael Cronin, crowd translation rather than machine translation as a new direction in emerging forms of digital interactions for translators, and the impact of para-browsing as a form of reading a screen were two of the themes that grabbed my attention. The first is used by Twitter and Facebook and ‘employs’ large groups of bilingual people across the world to translate their sites. Yet another form of unpaid internship or free labour for the big corporates.


There is now a lot of research into the ways we scan and jump around a screen when reading, or para-browse. How does this impact on writing? Maybe we should be doing some (more) crowd writing in HE? I wasn’t convinced by the evolutionary neuroscience argument that because of the plasticity of the brain, these new modes of interaction may alter neuronal pathways and the way the brain functions. Seems like a huge causal leap. And to some extent haven’t we always para-browsed?


And then the intense pleasure of sitting in the hot sun outside the monastery, reading Manley Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland. All that spiritual keening and those thumping rhythms, the nun on her knees, lashed and wrecked by the storm …


And then there were the hotel slippers, and a bit of John Donne.


Lamentation for hotel slippers:


Pure, the thin white towel,

an espadrille for modern life.

Unsexed, soft pad ‘cross stone terrace,

But yet you are constrained.

I long to set you free among

The formal codes of dress.