What’s at stake in translation?

This is the foundational question that frames the course “Literary Genres in Translation.” If translation is a copy, what kind of a copy is it? After reading Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s 19 Ways of  Looking at Wang Wei, I believe my students and I have settled on the idea that translation is a copy . . . with a difference. The key tension involved in translation is starting with a given that the translator wants to honor but having only the mediation of the translator’s own knowledge and emotional experience with which to do the honoring. A good translation, then, is committing to providing one’s own reading of the text. The greatest achievement then is not imitation but creation.

I present my students with the frame that translation is a form of reading, writing, and thinking critically. In fact, we are always already translating whenever we read.

Because translation is the very water we swim in–the medium through which we come to ourselves, others, and the rich diversity of our world–thinking about the politics of representation and the relationship between knowledge and power as elaborated by critical theorists Edward Said and Michel Foucault is important. We want to be intentional in thinking about the frames we bring to our readings. What forms, styles, and meanings are centered when we read? When we try to make sense of the world?

A key purpose of our undertaking to read novels translated into English is to center the act of translation and to celebrate the opportunities reading translated works offer: the chance to

  • develop expansive tastes in our literary appetites
  • gain more nuanced, critical, and culturally sensitive political understandings of the world
  • appreciate multiple literary registers and styles.

Take a look at some of the experiences, ideas, and readings we have come to through our journey.