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Translation vs. Creative Writing Workshops: Structural Differences

By Roger Sedarat

As a track within the MFA Program at Queens College, literary translation tends to follow the pedagogical models of creative writing in poetry, fiction, and drama. Operating on the principle that better writers become better translators, we require translation students to take writing courses in other genres. A verse translator, for example, can opt for a craft class in poetic closure, which will ultimately help his or her renderings into English. Conversely, many of our creative writers with varied language backgrounds experiment in translation, learning more about their chosen genre by close reading and rhetorical modeling of texts beyond English. 

Though benefiting from the same general approach of creative writing, the translation workshop necessitates some important divergences. Interrogating the process of rendering another’s literary work into English at times challenges, even opposes, assumptions of the traditional writing workshop. Of course, just as translation inherently resists a unifying theory—given the differences of languages, traditions, etc.—it also fails to fit into a single pedagogical model. Given the varied dynamic of the same workshop I’ve taught for seven years in this program, I’ve had to change approaches each semester to accommodate skill level, represented languages, and even class size. Nevertheless, as a faculty member who also teaches writing courses in poetry, I can at least articulate a few key ways in which the structure of the translation workshop differs from comparable courses in creative writing. 

Traditional workshops require the writer to stay silent while his or her work is being reviewed. Such a rule effectively allows the writer an opportunity to experience how others read the work submitted. Interjections of intentionality (“But I meant X when I wrote Y!”) most likely get in the way of critical objectivity. Typically peers can and do ask questions of the writer, but the response time remains limited and reserved until after discussion. 

Conversely, translation workshops greatly benefit from an ongoing dialogue with the translator. In my usual polyglot courses, the translator proves the greatest authority. In addition to a translator’s note that introduces the source material, special problems encountered, and author background, the student commands considerable knowledge of the literary tradition, culture, and language from which the source text derives. After reading an excerpt of the original writing in the foreign language as well as the English rendering, the translator greatly assists in the process of interrogating the text. Justifying or even defending given choices helps to teach peers about the piece under review while also allowing the translator to further reflect on decisions made. Insofar as most students in translation workshop decide to develop a single author project over the term, an extended dialogue deepens and develops between translator and fellow students.

To a great extent the translator is allowed to talk because he or she is not the original author. Comparing responses to challenges in creative writing to translation workshops, students in the latter tend to better get their egos out of the way and welcome critique.     

Another way in which translation and creative writing workshops differ is that instructors of the latter tend to discourage peers from rewriting problem areas of the writer’s piece. At most they are encouraged to identify problems like weak language, poor line breaks, etc. Peers trying to edit or even revise can provoke the author’s ego-defenses to the point of creating a toxic environment for critique. In translation workshop, however, we welcome and even encourage help with the ongoing process of revising an English rendering. Translators inherently see themselves as collaborators with the author of the source text, already approaching their work with much greater humility. Of course, those with some experience of literary translation know the impossibility of equivalence and the importance of tirelessly questioning rhetorical choices to better capture the spirit of the source text. They therefore welcome all the help they can get.  

The most productive moments in translation workshops have been when we collectively join the translator in brainstorming alternatives for a particularly difficult word, phrase, or idea for the target text. Often this involves talking around or paraphrasing the problem before one of us stumbles on what we deem the best alternative. We seem to care less as translators about possessing our decisions, allowing mutual participation in each other’s work. Frequently those without knowledge of the translator’s text offer the most productively objective solutions. 

To encourage mutual trust in this workshop process, each term I assign a collaboration exercise wherein only one member of the group knows the language from which they translate a short poem, story, or dramatic work. Invariably as a group they take even greater creative risks and explorations as they respond to each other. One semester, a group with a Greek member opted to translate a few Cavafy poems. After sharing the completed English versions with the class and justifying their collaborative process by showing their notes and drafts, they then went on to read the same poems that they had opted to further translate into another group member’s native Jamaican Patois. Such a playful turn in this exercise challenged hegemonic assumptions of English translation while also dramatizing the value of co-creation in the workshop.

Another important difference is that translators foreground theory and criticism in their process. The MFA program at Queens College requires students on all tracks to take both MA literature classes as well as a graduate course in theory and criticism. The former offers exposure to more works of literature from different periods and in different genres, while the latter gives a sense of critical and theoretical trends in literary study. While to some extent latently informing submitted works in creative writing workshops, the idea of the romantic go-at-it-alone writer still threatens to trump the material of such classes. 

Translation workshop conversely foregrounds criticism and theory as well as the literature of different genres offered for study. Students must begin by submitting bio-critical studies of their workshop submissions. When applicable, they also offer feminist, queer, postcolonial, or raced readings of their translated texts to better understand the implications of what they translate. 

Both translation and creative writing qualify as arts with language as the principal medium, yet few poetry workshops preoccupy themselves with the overriding question of what it means to write poetry. Insofar as the practice of translation involves the metafunction of language, student translators greatly benefit from commanding a discourse that can articulate the work they do. We therefore study and apply translation theory and criticism, as well as the broader literary theory and criticism introduced in their MA course. 

At a more basic level, students also need to examine their subjective position as translators working in the medium of language more so than their counterparts in creative writing. To this end, as a low-stakes creative exercise, I offer a plethora of famous metaphors about the translation process, starting with Robert Frost’s famous “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I then ask them to develop their own original understanding of translation by inventing their own extended metaphor. This local reflection parallels our seminal readings about translation by Schleiermacher, Jakobson, Benjamin, etc.

A final distinction between creative writing and translation workshops is that translators don’t turn in their own creative work. Aside from creative writing workshops in appropriation or documentation, MFA courses ask students to submit original pieces. Translators work with preexisting source texts, meaning they don’t write their own prose, poetry, or drama. As obvious as this sounds, the implications of this divergence from other workshops warrant reflection, especially in a creative writing program like mine where translators write and writers translate.

At the risk of upsetting my colleagues, I daresay I’ve seen students’ creative writing benefit as much, if not more, from the disciplined practice of literary translation than from their work in regular creative workshops. Insofar as they try to capture an original voice from another language in English, which demands close reading and rigorous revision in addition to creative play, they’re asked to be both Apollo and Dionysus. 

To this end, I frequently ask students to select and justify a rhetorical model of an original writer in English whose work closely resembles their source text. This typically gets the translator/creative writer comparatively modeling the published work of two writers from different traditions. The best example of such a process I’ve encountered has been from Queens MFA graduate Hillary Gulley, who used Faulkner’s prose to better render the syntax of Marcelo Cohen from Spanish.

The distinctions offered here between creative writing and translation workshops, of course, reflect only my own experiences in both settings. I should add that my MFA program productively complicates the dichotomies I’ve introduced in a culminating thesis workshop that includes translators and creative writers as well as through opportunities to submit hybrid theses of creative writing and literary translation. This structure, of course, greatly benefits all of our students. Even those who don’t enroll in translation workshops get constant exposure from their translating peers to foreign texts and traditions as well as to the process of rendering texts from one language into another. Translation continues to be a great teacher for us all.    


Published Jun 25, 2015   Copyright 2015 Roger Sedarat

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