Teaching Undergrad Translation 2.0

Well, actually this is probably more like 5.0, since I taught a number of translation-focused undergrad courses at the University of Iowa between 2007 and 2012 or so, but this will be 2.0 for Indiana, where I taught this course, very humbly titled “How to Translate Anything,” for the first time in Spring 2022.

That first round was just fine, not great. This has often happened with new classes I’ve taught. I put a ton of work into the prep, am thoroughly excited about them, and then they go fine but never quite live up to my own hopes and dreams. Last time I think it was just too much reading about translation, not enough translating and reading translations.

I will keep most of the various parts, which I still think are good, but I need more scaffolding to hold them up, and that will be short translations and in-class analyses of extant translations, especially contemporary ones. They include:

  • a dictionaries exercise, in which I have the students go find one that they like, then explain why they think it’s a helpful resource to their classmates (and to me);
  • a number of English editing exercises (my friend Ben Paloff has taught a similar course at the U. of Michigan, which he describes as a “stealth English writing course,” and mine has some of that in it);
  • a computer-assisted-translation component, in which the students explore the SDL Trados suite that I had our Center for Language Technology purchase (twenty site licenses) about four years ago;
  • a style exercise, using Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (in Barbara Wright’s translation) in which students transform a short passage from one style into another, basically intra-lingual translation; and
  • a workshop portion, in which students pursue a short project that we use a workshop format to help them polish and then submit as their final project.

The readings were where I had trouble last time, as some of the things I chose were just too advanced or maybe not practice-focused enough. There are some good chapters in David Bellos’s Is That A Fish In Your Ear that I can use again — the one on dictionaries can provide them with a model for how to go about approaching their own dictionaries project, for instance. But it’s also almost exclusively “about” translation, and one thing I found was that there is a large gap between discussing translation with the students and then asking them to do it.

For the latter, I think those poets who teach their workshops using a lot of modeling have the right idea. To do translations, the students need to read translations, in general and also, especially, from the languages they are translating. They need to see how others have handled the ubiquitous French comma splice, Spanish punctuation, gender pronouns and the lack thereof, Japanese paragraphing, dialog tags, direct and indirect (and absent) articles, the ellipses tic, empty words like the Russian “already,” pacing, line breaks, rhyme, sound painting, metaphors, lexical inventions, footnotes and endnotes (and stealth notes), and all the rest.

That’s the plan anyway.

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