How to Translate Anything

At Translation's Edge

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m teaching a new course this semester, with a title I have borrowed (with permission) from Benjamin Paloff at the University of Michigan. “How to Translate Anything” is a course I have been threatening to teach for many years, and I’m finally doing it, beginning on Monday of next week. I taught many translation courses at the University of Iowa, but this is my first at Indiana University.

It is quite surprising that IU, which has bragged for years about the breadth and depth of its foreign language offerings (80 or more, some sources say), has not a single general course for undergraduates on translation. It has a graduate certificate, run through the Department of Comparative Literature, with two staple courses (one on theory and history, one on practice), and then occasional language-specific courses in one or another department (East Asian, Spanish and Portuguese, Central Eurasian, Germanic Studies), but nothing more general, not on the practice, or theory, or history, or politics, or ($40B) business, or linguistics, or technology, that might be (would be) of interest to anyone with an interest.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

This fact makes the prospect of a course, just one course, a bit daunting. My strategy has been to take a broad purview, first, by joint-listing the course in comparative literature, the Slavic department, and honors; second, by advertising it as multi-lingual and multi-genre; and third, by using David Bellos’s broad and ambitious Is That a Fish in Your Ear as a sort of a grounding text and then reaching out through other, more specifically oriented works and technologies to sample and taste and encourage. Here are some of the additional short pieces we’ll read:

Anthony Kwame Appaiah, “Thick Translation”; Antoine Berman, “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign”; Lori Chamberlain, “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation”; Roman Jackobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”; Lydia H. Liu, “The Eventfulness of Translation: Temporality, Difference, and Competing Universals” (from At Translation’s Edge, pictured above); Eugene Nida, “Principles of Correspondence”; Abe Mark Nornes, “For an Abusive Subtitling”; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation.”

I’ll supplement these with shorter, more professionally oriented readings (e.g., about the business of translation, what it means to freelance, what level of languages skills one needs to translate, and so on). The students will write short reflection pieces on these and on individual chapters from the Bellos book throughout the semester, which I hope will enable us to think through things more carefully.

I also got the Center for Language Technology to purchase 20 site licenses for SDL Professional Translation Suite, which they have installed on a number of computers in their lab space for our class to come over for two weeks of exploration, and a sample “business” translation. There are 22 students in the class at this point, so we’ll probably do this in shifts.

On the more writing focused end (Ben actually calls his class a “stealth English writing course”), we’ll do a short “style exercise” using Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (Barbara Wright, tr.),

consisting of taking a short prose passage and transforming it stylistically (stylistic paraphrase, “intra-lingual” translation), and, to get a sense of the artistic side of things, we’ll do a short poetry translation using two facing pages from Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself (after I discover the language capabilities of individuals in the class — I’ll choose something from a language the students don’t have, and if there aren’t any I’ll use something I created years ago using a Croatian text, since it’s not one students are likely to have.)

I also hope to take the students on a field trip to the Lilly Library (the next building over on campus from where I’ll be teaching) to explore the translators’ archive that former Lilly director Breon Mitchell compiled over some 30 years of dedicated work.

In other words, tutti quanti. We’ll see.

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