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Teaching in Translation: The Translation Workshop

By Becka Mara McKay

I was hired in 2009 to teach translation in Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program—something that had never been offered in the MFA curriculum. To encourage as many students as possible to register for the translation workshop, I decided that I would not require that they know a second language. Working from the premise that proficiency and flexibility in English were the most important requirements for students in this particular workshop—and that together we would find resources to assist their understanding the various source languages—the translation workshop has, over the last three years, produced some remarkable projects. These include:

  • A translation/stage adaptation of The Tale of Genji  set in a postapocalyptic Japan
  • A hybrid form that I am still searching for a way to name that consists of a translation of a Strindberg short story woven together with a lyric essay about the translator’s process
  • Translations of Hawaiian petroglyphs
  • A plan for a scratch-and-sniff, pop-up book translation of the Song of Songs
  • A graphic version of Don Quixote
  • An adaptation of a feminist Senegalese novel as a series of blog entries written by an African-American woman from Alabama

Some of these projects may sound amusing and even irreverent (neither of which is necessarily a bad thing), but my students always take their work very seriously. If they do not have access to the source language (many of them have at least a little knowledge), they consult native speakers, multiple dictionaries, and multiple previous translations to learn as much as they can about the voice, context, and cultural background of the work. 

Every year in the workshop I also have the students do a project focusing on a classic work in translation—this year it will be the Iliad; last year it was the Inferno. I asked the students to do their own translations of a canto, and gave them no limits on style, medium, or form. This is a partial list of what they came up with:

  • A rap
  • An erasure piece
  • A blues song
  • An aria
  • A couple of animated shorts
  • A slide show with action figures
  • And a video game:

Courtesy Nicole Oquendo and Mike Shier

Most of my students have continued to work on their translation projects a year or more after taking the workshop. They’ve told me that they find the workshop atmosphere to be remarkably supportive and inspiring. It does them good to practice their skills in service of something beyond their own writing projects. I believe that any MFA program that makes an investment in offering translation in some form—from a single course to a certificate/concentration—will be rewarded with students who are more engaged in aspects of writing that go beyond writing a thesis and learning their craft.  I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that I think that all writers should be translators and all translators should be writers, and I hope that by the end of our time together they will be both.

Published Mar 22, 2012   Copyright 2012 Becka Mara McKay

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