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The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities: Towards Cross-cultural and Transdisciplinary Communication

Written By: Krista Brune on October 10, 2013 No Comment

While my colleagues ventured to Latin America and Europe over the summer, I headed to the middle of this country to spend three weeks at the University of Illinois participating in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer program on the centrality of translation. Over the course of the institute, we examined the question of translation across a range of historic periods, disciplinary perspectives, and languages. After discussing the history of translation studies and key theoretical texts, we delved into four case studies that allowed us to approach translation from different angles. As a graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese writing a dissertation about translations of the Brazilian nation, I found the first case study on the Boom and Latin American literature in translation particularly fascinating. Discussions with Gregory Rabassa, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Deborah Cohn about their experiences as translators and scholars underscored the influence of political and personal interests in translation decisions. We next turned our attention to the translation of the Hebrew Bible, considering the role of an imagined author and the translator in the process of creating a translation of a sacred text. Another case study addressed Freud’s English language translation, specifically the problems raised by terminology. We ended with a comparative analysis of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems to consider the stylistic and practical questions of translating poetry. These case studies served as entry points into the diverse cases and experiences of translation, helping us to shed light on our own projects and interests in translation.

Translations of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poetry  at the 2012 Paraty International Literary Festival, Brazil

From the beginning of the seminar, we had to grapple with different personal and professional backgrounds that informed each scholar’s vision of translation. Whereas I approach translation primarily as a scholar interested in the implications of literary and cultural translation within the Americas, other participants experienced translation primarily as practicing translators, creative writers, and performers engaged in projects of translation. Historians, on the other hand, considered the repercussions of translating notions of modernity, progress, and religion. Other summer scholars understood translation from the experience of language instruction, communicating with students, and incorporating activities of translation in a communicative classroom. Given this variety of perspectives, we needed to develop an encompassing understanding of translation that would allow us to communicate across these disciplines, yet not so broad of a definition that it could mean everything and nothing. In order to approach this working definition of translation, we explored spatial metaphors of translation as a gap, a bridge, a transfer, a carrying across and also temporal notions of translation as an afterlife, a future possibility, a continuation that puts the work in motion in a new context. I left the workshop thinking that perhaps the theories of postcolonial scholars like Homi Bhabha and especially Silviano Santiago best synthesize the spatial and temporal components of translation by emphasizing the hybrid and the in-between. As I continue my studies of translation, I hope to remain in this space in-between as a necessary mediator of languages and cultures who also respects difference and recognizes the possibility of untranslatability.


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