Translating books, transcending boundaries

How can we have a global Grinnell without global literacy? This was the question behind the Translation Collective, a newly-formed group that seeks to encourage and facilitate the practice of translation on campus.

The group’s co-founders, Professor Hai-Dang Phan, English and Writing Lab Assistant David Perez, hope to supplement the literary scene already established at Grinnell through a series of readings and roundtable discussions with translators. But Phan said that the group’s goals extend beyond promoting the artistic merits of translation. He sees the practice of translation as being inherently interdisciplinary.

“We’re sort of just trying to facilitate translation on campus as both a literary practice, a creative practice and also as a critical model of thinking about what it means to be a citizen in the world today,” Phan said. “I think translation is really vital to Grinnell’s stated mission of a Global Grinnell … not just literary translation, but translation across the disciplines.”

The group emerged from conversations between Phan and Perez about the merits of translation as a teaching tool which can illuminate topics as specific as individual word choice in writing and as broad as what it means to live between two cultures. They were also informed by the students in Phan’s Ethnic American literature seminar and the work they did with translation.

Phan and Perez are optimistic about the ways in which studying the specifics of translation can prompt students to think more critically about the nuances and limitations of language. Perez in particular hopes to include students from non-English speaking backgrounds in a way that encourages diverse perspectives rather than assimilation.

“I always was concerned with how to engage the international students who came to Grinnell and how to give them a way to contribute something, rather than expect them to quickly adapt to Grinnell and write in English and put a lot of pressure on them to adapt to this environment,” Perez said. “Something about the translation project made me think that this is a way that we could turn it around and say, ‘Okay, it’s great that you’re from China or Pakistan and yeah, you’ve got to write papers and all that stuff, but it would be cool if you could contribute what you already have, what you carried with you.’”

The Translation Collective currently includes a number of students working independently to translate texts with faculty support. Its future goals include hosting salons where students and faculty can showcase and respond to one another’s works in translation and reaching out to faculty from the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Literary Translation program at the University of Iowa, with whom Phan believes the Translation Collective shares a common goal.

“[The MFA program is] in line with our mission and spirit of trying to integrate translation across the curriculum as both a creative practice but also a method of inquiry that is very much in the spirit of the liberal arts, trying to integrate practice and language,” he said.

The translator series will begin this Thursday, Sept. 25 with Vietnamese translator, poet and fiction-writer Linh Dinh, who Phan describes as a “lively and rebellious spirit.” He will answer questions at a roundtable discussion at 4:15 p.m. in Mears Cottage. He will read from translations as well as his own work at 8 p.m. in Faulconer Gallery.

Ultimately, Phan said that studying translation and expanding literary boundaries is not just beneficial but necessary. “I don’t think it’s enough to read American literature, I think you need to read widely, globally. I think literature in translation actually sort of helps to enliven our literature.”