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MFA in Translation: Queens College

By Susan Bernofsky

According to the New York Times, New York’s borough of Queens is one of the most linguistically diverse urban areas in the country—its inhabitants listed 138 different languages on their census forms this year—making it a perfect place to study translation.  And indeed, in 2007 Queens College of the City University of New York became the first institution in the greater New York area to offer students the chance to pursue an MFA in literary translation.  Poet and novelist Nicole Cooley, director of the new MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens, says that the decision to include translation in the creative writing program came about not only because of a desire to serve young translators looking for appropriate academic training, but also because this interdisciplinary expansion would benefit the young poets, fiction writers and playwrights in the program.  As she told Poets & Writers Magazine, “I think any time you think about language on a deeper level, as you do with translation, it's a good thing.”  In the interest of promoting this cross-pollination, the program requires its MFA students to enroll in one workshop outside their area of specialization, and to take “craft classes” focused on the intense study of specific literary skills as well as graduate seminars in literature.  They must also—unlike most other MFA students in this country—pass an exam on books culled from an impressive reading list.

As the new program’s first visiting faculty member specializing in translation, I’ve had a chance to experience first-hand what it means for a translation MFA program to be situated within a creative writing program and not—as so often happens—lumped in with comparative literature.  Historically, departments of comparative literature have been far more likely to house degree programs in translation than creative writing programs.  The reasons for this have a lot to do with the logistics of academic careers.  Many who are inspired to become translators are also inspired to study and teach literature, and quite frequently they wind up in comp lit or foreign language and literature departments.  So it makes sense that when they go on to offer coursework in translation, they do so in their home departments.  And translation studies—broadly understood to include the history and theory of translation as well as its practice—has recently been embraced by the academic mainstream, as we saw at the 2009 Modern Language Association convention, where the presidential theme was “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context.”

Another reason why comparative literature has become the default home base for students of translation is that many creative writing programs hesitate to embrace the study of translation.  To a certain extent, this has to do with a set of beliefs—mistaken but widely held—about what it is a translator actually does.  It’s easy enough for someone who has never immersed himself in this field to assume that translation is a more or less mechanical task, based on looking up words in dictionaries—there are computer programs for that, right?—and in any case certainly more scholarly than creative.  But as anyone who’s tried her hand at translation in any serious way can attest, translation is above all a writerly activity and requires the same level of stylistic finesse, the same control over rhythm and tone as any other sort of writing.  When you translate, you really are writing a literary text in English. It is absolutely a discipline worthy of being studied, practiced, and taught.

Even though the semester is just getting started, I am already seeing all sorts of beneficial cross-pollination taking place in my graduate translation workshop.  Of the eleven students enrolled in it, about half are on the “translation track” within the MFA program, while the others are poets and fiction writers looking to expand their repertoire.  The languages represented range from French, Italian and Spanish to German, Portuguese, Catalan, Japanese, and Bhojpuri (a dialect of Hindi).  Some of the students speak several foreign languages and are having trouble deciding which one to translate from.  A couple of them grew up speaking a foreign language initially but then went on to become writers in English.  One describes his foreign language chops as “virtually nonexistent” and plans to work by collaborating with his girlfriend, who is multilingual, though not a writer herself.  As I explained to this group on the first day of the term, having such a variety of backgrounds and languages represented creates an ideal workshop environment.

Let me say a bit more about this.  Just imagine, for a moment, that you are enrolled in a translation workshop in which everyone in the room is translating from the same language—Finnish, for example.  Well, there’s no better environment for really digging into the sticky details of Finnish sentence construction, idiomatic oddities and so on.  Everyone in the room is your ally and can help you make sure that you really have grasped all the nuances of your source text.  This is wonderful.  At the same time, all your classmates will be likely to share the same built-in tolerance for Finnishisms in English that you will invariably begin to develop once you fall in love with this foreign language and its literature.  Every language has certain things that it can say better than any other language (German, for instance, has all those beautiful abstract compound nouns with concrete meanings, like Sitzgelegenheit signifying “an opportunity for sitting,” i.e., a chair), and specific ways of saying things, and it’s difficult to avoid getting attached to these literary idiosyncrasies and beginning to replicate them in English—whether or not nonspeakers of the foreign language in question will be able to follow.  Living in Germany made me prepared to consider “We see us tomorrow, yes?” a perfectly reasonable sentence.

In a polyglot workshop, the only language that everyone in the room has in common is English, and so the demands placed on the English text qua English text are likely to be higher.  Yes, it is important to understand all the nuances of the foreign text and to communicate them as well and completely as possible in the translation.  But when we translate literature, we are writing literature, and the text of the translation must adhere to the highest standards of literary quality at all times.  The real goal of a translation workshop is to help students get better at writing English while translating.  And the fact is that any student who is going to go on to become a professional translator will inevitably wind up spending a great deal of time in places where her language of choice is spoken and will become adept at navigating all the stylistic and tonal nuances of that language.  But it is not the purpose of the MFA program to give her that expertise—this must be learned over time, in the field and in books.  An MFA program in translation should give students multiple opportunities to practice and hone their skills, just like MFA programs in fiction writing, poetry, and drama.

Of course, it is also vital to introduce students to the professional communities that can nourish and support them in their translating lives.  My Queens colleague Roger Sedarat, who translates from Persian as well as being a poet in his own right—his first book, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, won the 2007 Hollis Summers Prize—has been working hard to integrate our graduate students into the translation community at large.  Several recent and current MFA students, for example, will be appearing on panels he organized at the American Literary Translators Association Convention, which will be held this Oct. 20–24 in Philadelphia, and others participated this summer in a program organized by the writers’ organization PEN that brought together high school and college students with an interest in international writing.

If a creative writing program wishes to promote cultural as well as literary and linguistic cross-pollination, making the study of translation part of the study of writing is an ingenious way to go about it.  I am finding that the Queens MFA students concentrating on poetry and fiction who have enrolled in my workshop are delighted to have found a way to put their hard-won foreign language skills to literary use.  Their presence in the classroom will benefit those students who are already experienced translators, and vice versa.  To address the different levels of translation proficiency in the classroom, I am adopting a workshop format that I cribbed from Michael Henry Heim, one of the country’s very best translators and mentor/teachers.  Rather than having students take turns submitting longer texts to be workshopped by their peers, I am having all the students in the workshop submit, each and every week, a single perfectly polished page from their longer works-in-progress.  I think this strategy is going to serve these students well, particularly if they comply with my request to make a point of showing the class the passages that have been giving them the most trouble.  We’ll then look at their revisions of their longer texts in a handful of marathon workshop sessions at the end of term, and I’ll be reading their efforts outside of class in any case.  Ask me in December how it went, but I’m feeling optimistic about the enterprise.

Published Sep 16, 2010   Copyright 2010 Susan Bernofsky

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