Hitting the Road: Translation Workshop in Columbia (the city, not the country)

May 13, 2018

As readers of this blog might be able to deduce, I wear many hats. I recently wrote about one of them: teaching translation at Leipzig University. I love teaching and one of the advantages of the university context is the chance to go slow, have plenty of repetition, and get into depth on a variety of topic. However, I personally learned much of what I know in the context of a week-long summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation led by Shaun Whiteside. So it won’t come as a surprise that I have long desired to lead a workshop.

And as with so much in life, the realization of this wish depended on connections. I happen to have been planning a short visit to the Midwest (for a conference in Iowa, see future blog post). And I happen to know a couple of German professors at the University of Missouri in Columbia. We were able to put together a workshop, integrating my insights into three different advanced German classes. To some extent, it was a déjà vu experience. Granted, Mizzou is considerably larger than the liberal arts college I attended nearly 20 years before, but the atmosphere certainly felt familiar. And it seemed that most of the students had better language skills than I did before I went to Marburg. The first class I hijacked was Professor Franzel’s course on Contemporary German Literature. The students had just finished reading Yoko Towada and had been writing blog entries on Etüden im Schnee or Memoirs of a Polar Bear. They compared their reviews to my blog entries (giving me compliments, but also criticizing my lack of pictures); before moving on to discuss my translation of Hooligan and how that book might compare or contrast with another book they had been assigned, Faserland by Christian Kracht. Then there were a series of questions that had to do with my professional life as a translator and how I’d gotten to where I was now.

The second class, normally led by Professor Howes, was a ‘capstone’ seminar, most of the participants having been in the previous class, and I was able to devote the hour and a half to the nuts and bolts of translation. After a brief exercise examining seven different translations of the first line from Kafka’s Metamorphasis (the majority ended up picking Corngold’s version as their favorite), we jumped into the students’ versions of three select passages from Hooligan. The first section was mostly exposition and not too challenging, but the party scene and a later dialogue-laden section revealed that the students’ greatest weaknesses lie in the comprehension of the original text. Some words just can’t be found in dictionaries! The third class was a group of masters students. Based primarily on a reading assignment from a book called Born Translated, we debated the role of translations in the past, present and future. Although some of Walkowitz’ examples (like Orhan Pamuk do illustrate her thesis about literature written with a foreign and not domestic audience in mind, I argued that most literature that gets translated is subject to the vagaries of the publishing industry, and it is a rare case for author’s to not be primarily focused on the audience in their native countries.

Generally speaking, the workshop reminded me of the strengths and weaknesses of German students in the United States. The University of Missouri’s German Department is solid and the instruction quite good, but many perspectives – whether relevant to translation or not – cannot be acquired without living in a German-language context. I can only hope I was able to expand some horizons with my brief workshop, and provoke an interest in digging a little deeper.

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