Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Teaching in Translation: Bennington Translates

By Marguerite Feitlowitz

From translator Sarah Ponichtera’s presentation on postwar Yiddish poetry and prose. (J.J. Beck for Bennington College.)

“All of a sudden, I’m seeing translation everywhere! Gracias! Merci! Toda raba!”

I was so thrilled with this exclamation by an undergraduate on the second day of class that I was all but tongue-tied, and so resorted to a bit of mischief: “Oh, but I hope we haven’t arrived at a moment that can’t be translated. I mean, my pleasure runneth over!”

“That,” she deadpanned, “is a Biblical allusion you might work with. ‘Give it some time, play around, try this, try that.’”

Hoist on my own petard. She’d quoted me with the ebullient smile that is the perfect translation of “Gotcha!”

I’ve taught The Art of Literary Translation at Bennington since I joined the literature faculty in the fall of 2002. The college does not have departments in the usual sense, but rather discipline groups, some of which comprise several disciplines. In literature, we teach works in translation, a number of us are bi- or trilingual, and we encourage students to read course texts in the original as well as in translation. In my literature classes, I often incorporate translation assignments: comparisons among multiple English versions, actual translation exercises, and studies of the translation history of a particular work. Bennington may be famous for “not having requirements,” but we’re clever, and we find ways to exhort our students to study languages. Bennington is a magnet for students who self-identify as writers and/or eventual publishers: How, we ask them, will you participate in a global republic of letters if your borders are marked by a single language? Why live in only one language, when there are so many more adventures to be had, more lives to live, when you speak, read, and write in at least one other tongue?

Translation may not be absolutely “everywhere” at Bennington, but it is infused through the disciplines: it is integral to the respective practices of colleagues who are poets, composers, historians, scholars and critics (of literature, art, media).

From Sarah Ponichtera’s presentation. (J.J. Beck for Bennington College.)

My classes are multilingual—a typical group works in French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian. Bennington colleagues in the Asian languages have been an essential part of the process, especially for students doing senior projects, which consist of a translation preceded by a translator’s preface in English and a critical essay written in the language of the original text. Distinguished visitors such as Ellen Elias-Bursac and Daisy Rockwell have been more than generous in, respectively, SBC and Hindi. In the last two years, we’ve also had students whose first languages are Brazilian Portuguese and Hindi.

In my first class at Bennington, an Israeli freshman translated her grandfather’s autobiography—which recounted not only this man’s astounding escape from Europe, but his role in the founding of the modern state of Israel, written longhand for his family on the letterhead of the pharmacy he’d established in newborn Tel Aviv. That same year, one of my students won a Fulbright to go to Guatemala to gather and translate folktales; she quickly became fluent in Tchu (thanks in part to a love affair that culminated in an enduring marriage) and now teaches ESL in the boroughs of New York. I require all of my students to do short assignments in all four genres, and to select texts from a range of centuries. Students have brought ancient poems from Japan and China; from Provençal, Italian, Old French, and Old English. For all of us, there are revelations—writers we’d never heard of, traditions that come as great surprises, optics on the world to which we’d never been exposed.

When work is presented to the group, we begin by listening to the student read the original (or at least an excerpt of it) aloud, and usually more than once. The translator then talks about particular aspects, or habits, of the language in question, and the ways in which the writer exploits, expands, or subverts that legacy. Then, without yet considering questions of “accuracy,” we listen to the English, read by someone who is not the translator. After some discussion about the aural, textural, and formal qualities of the translation, we begin to ask about specific choices—words, phrases, images, voice, lineation, etc. Students make a translation portfolio to present at the end of term. This may consist of everything they’ve done in this course or, for more advanced students, it may unfold in several parts—early experiments and shorter assignments, followed by a piece they submit as a culminating translation. About two-thirds of the way through the term (the Bennington word for “semester”), I assemble the students into pairs or small groups, so that each will have a sort of “micro-salon” comprised of at least one partner who knows the original language and one who doesn’t. I also reserve additional office hours for this class, during which the student and I continue the work done in seminar.

Sarah Ponichtera presents for Bennington Translates. (J.J. Beck for Bennington College.)

Over the years, some truly notable translations have emerged: a handmade book consisting of Spanish-to-English translations of ten poems by Pizarnik and English-to-Spanish translations of ten poems by Plath; the letter-poems of Remedios Varo, with the widower’s blessing; an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek into Brazilian Portuguese. I’m proud to report that in the last couple of years my students have published work they did in our class in literary journals both in the US and elsewhere.

Nine times out of ten, when my students write to authors whose poems or stories they are translating, the response has been warm and generous. But I do want to report one glaring exception (withholding names), as I think it might point to a more generalized misconception about undergraduates: One of my most talented, disciplined, and politically aware students, who is from a part of California embroiled in the dramas of immigration, began translating the stories of an upcoming contemporary Mexican writer; by all literary measures, they would seem to have been made for each other. Her most recent versions of his stories were worthy of publication; I couldn’t help but hope that this would result in an English-language book for them both. But the author—without even reading her work—was condescending to the point of rudeness; he played a cat and mouse game even when I wrote many months later to request his translated stories for a special issue of a prestigious magazine I’d been asked to coedit. He insisted that he would do the translations himself—how could a young student, etc. etc.? Long story short: his translations never materialized; his communications became ever more impolitic; I’ve yet to see those exceptional stories in English; and, worst of all, he gratuitously insulted and deeply discouraged a brilliant student who (I hope only temporarily) stopped translating.

I tell this story in order to make a plea for increased support for undergraduate translators. Perhaps those of us who teach might more regularly get our students together? Perhaps undergraduate publications could encourage the submission of translations? Perhaps ALTA could give this some thought?

But let me not end on such a tenuous note. For, truly, there is much to celebrate in the world of translation. At my college, which is not only small but located in rural Vermont, we need, as we say, to bring the world to Bennington and Bennington into the world. One of the ways in which we do this is through Bennington Translates, which embraces literary translation as well as humanitarian (primarily in conflict zones), medical (in clinics and hospitals, as well as for survivors of torture, rape), legal (especially for asylum), and community interpreting and translation (especially labor, housing, neighborhood issues). Established with seed money from the Davis Foundation and further supported by our Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), Bennington Translates hosts distinguished guests for visits of one to three days.

John Peacock presents for Bennington Translates. (J.J. Beck for Bennington College.) 

Our first season was initiated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, who spoke not only about her work as a literary translator but also made a presentation on the UN Ad-Hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where for five years she contributed her linguistic talents. We also hosted Luke Mogelson (Bennington ’07), whose award-winning reporting on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has been greatly helped by local native translators; Luke came with Hahib Zahori, an Afghan pediatrician who translated/facilitated for The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and who himself also wrote on the wars and is a Fulbright Fellow pursuing an advanced degree in international relations. Other guests included Eduardo Berinstein, founder of the Multi-Lingual translation and interpretation programs for the Harvard Teaching Hospitals (which became a national model);[1] and Marjorie Bancroft, whose Voices of Healing developed the first training programs for translators and interpreters who work in contexts arising from physical and mental trauma—in particular, torture and rape as an instrument of war. Our second year were joined by, among others, John Peacock, who translated The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters, written by Indians wrongly incarcerated during the Great Plains War of the 1850s, and Sarah Ponichtera, who translates postwar Yiddish poetry and prose.

Even before I had funding from the Davis Foundation, I always managed to pick an administrator’s pocket (former president Liz Coleman was especially generous) in order to bring translators and publishers of translations to campus: Lydia Davis, Edith Grossman, Richard Howard,[2] Paul Olchvary, and Daniel Shapiro. More recently, we’ve had fabulous visits with Chad Post and Jen Zoble. Literary translation, for those not yet exposed or initiated, can seem quite remote. Students are thrilled to meet translators in the flesh, to see that this is a life that can be richly lived, a life that they, if they choose, can embrace.

From John Peacock’s presentation on translating The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters. (J.J. Beck for Bennington College.)

Like many colleges, Bennington has an emphasis on social justice, and an ethic of public service. I’m hardly alone in noticing that our students sometimes struggle in their efforts to constellate their hard-core literary/artistic goals with a sense that they should also “do some good in the world.” When I say that the world desperately needs more reading; more poems, plays, stories, essays; more writing in forms yet to be invented, they sometimes look at me with a sheepish skepticism (that we trust they will outgrow). Bringing texts from one place to another, from one tongue, context, history, and human body to another, is itself a political act, I tell them. We can tell the history of the world through the history of when major texts have been translated—and where, why, and by whom.

At the beginning of our course, I ask my students to close their eyes and freely meditate on the definition of our enterprise: to carry over. What do you actually see? Feel? What associations arise to your inner eye, float into your mind, pulse through your body?

It’s a very modest start. But it can be very surprising. And what better point of departure, for any literary project, than thoughts, memories, associations and sensations that are unexpected?

[1] Inspired by his example, three students—Nina Berinstein, Selina Peltschek, and Andrea Tapia, all native Spanish speakers and completely bilingual—founded GANAS, dedicated to interpreting and translating for local migrant workers at such places as doctors’ offices, schools, stores, social service agencies, etc. In Bennington’s corner of Vermont, the migrant laborers come mostly from the Caribbean and Mexico. In the fall, they work in the apple orchards; if they stay for the winter, they work at the dairy farms. GANAS, which may be translated as “desire, enthusiasm, liking for,” has a totally positive and sociable resonance.

[2] Rachel Rosales, an operatic soprano then on our music faculty, suggested that we bring Richard Howard, whose Baudelaire translations she and a chamber group of musicians were then actively performing. Richard came to my class (which we opened to the Bennington community), then read and spoke at the musical evening.

Published Jun 2, 2016   Copyright 2016 Marguerite Feitlowitz

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.