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Finding Meaning in Translation

flagsThere’s more to translation than converting the text of books or articles from one language to another. It’s also an invaluable tool that can help make the world a better place. Peter Connor, associate professor of French and chair of the department, is building The Center for Translation Studies, a new program that aims to help students understand how translation isn’t just about sharing thoughts and ideas across languages and cultures. It’s also about human rights.

“[One] can translate a poem and publish it online,” Connor says. “And if it happens to be about political or religious persecution, it might give a voice to someone in a far away place who might not otherwise be heard. It’s an extremely valuable tool for intervening in the world.”

The program began last fall with the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and it’s still a work in progress, Connor says. The idea was to create a basic language translation course and offer colloquiums for students and professors; recent events have included bilingual poetry readings by Greek poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Cypriot poet Kyriakos Charalambides along with their translators.

Connor says the first course last fall was a big success and gave him plenty of encouragement to expand the offerings. “I loved it, and the students did too,” he says. “They want more classes.” The first half of the course introduced students to of the major theories and methods of translation in Western culture. These classes helped the students improve their skills through the translation of primarily prose, poetry, and drama into English. They could translate from any language they chose, which some students worried might create a little confusion.

That didn’t happen, says Amelia Spooner (CU GS) who chose to translate contemporary French writer Antoine Volodine for her class projects. She says she signed up for the class because her fiancé is French, and he’s getting his PhD in linguistics. They often talk about issues of translation. “Especially how we mutually don’t understand each other sometimes,” she says.

But the class also took a broader perspective. It examined the role translation has played in postcolonialism, globalization, and immigration, as well as the role translators have played in conflict and war. The class also examined how different countries interpret the same event, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Connor says. One guest lecturer discussed how U.S. history is represented in school textbooks around the world to show just how rarely history is presented objectively. “The sad fact is that much of the translation that’s going on today is going on in places of conflict and being performed in very arduous circumstances,” Connor says.

Diana Baron-Moore ’12 says she was particularly intrigued by Translations, a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Set in a fictional town, it described the process the British used to translate place names in Ireland from Celtic to English in the nineteenth century. “I’m really interested in the hierarchies of language,” Baron-Moore says. “And I’m thinking of going into bilingual education. The space where culture and language establish power dynamics, I think, is a really important place to be conscious of.”

One subject area—community interpreting—particularly appealed to students. They studied just how critical and important translators are for immigrants in hospitals, schools, and police stations. They also heard a guest lecturer talk about the challenges and rewards of a community-interpreting program in Spain. “We need more and more translators,” Connor says. “And we need them to be aware of the ethical stakes and to be sensitive to the need for very high standards.”

Students say the topic opened their eyes to the fact that interpretation is also an issue of human rights. “How does a hospital make sure someone gets the right treatment?” asks Byung Jin Kang (CC ’11), who took the course. “How is that patient going to get all the help they need? I never thought of providing translation services as a human right. You see it everywhere in New York, but you never really think about it.”

Spooner says she’s now thinking of community interpreting as a possible career path. A friend interned with an organization in Harlem that works with African immigrants who speak French, and she’d like to do the same. She already knows from firsthand experience just how practical interpretation skills are. Spooner speaks French and recently helped a French speaker on a plane explain to a flight attendant why his fragile musical instrument couldn’t be stored in an overhead compartment. She soon found herself entangled in the middle of a heated argument, much like a comedy scene in a movie. “Both sides kept asking, ‘What is he saying? What is he saying?’” Spooner says with a laugh. “It made my flight experience just a little bit better.”

Now Connor says he’s working to expand the translation program. He’d like to offer a course dedicated solely to community interpreting, and he hopes different language departments will soon begin to offer similar but more specific translation courses. He’s also trying to encourage professors outside the language department to incorporate issues related to translation into their courses, even if it’s just showing how the texts members of the class study may have been translated and by whom. “It’s all evolving over time,” Connor says. “And we’re thinking constantly about how we can add more courses.”

-by Amy Miller, illustration by Katherine Streeter