Blog

Michael Biggins honored with prestigious Slovene award

Earlier this year, our very own Michael Biggins, Affiliate Professor and Slavic, Baltic, and East European Studies Librarian, was chosen for the Trubar Award by Slovenia’s National and University Library. Professor Biggins’ lifetime contributions to Slovenia’s literary heritage has had international implications. He has translated over twenty books of Slovene prose and poetry into English.

We sat down with Professor Biggins to talk to him about his impressive work as a translator and his lifelong commitment to sharing literatures unknown by the English-speaking world. Watch the interview here.

Many congratulations, Professor Biggins! We can’t wait to read your upcoming translations.

Student Spotlight: Oya Aktas

On today’s student spotlight, we’re featuring Oya Aktas, PhD student in the Department of History at UW. Read on to learn more about Oya’s experiences with multilingualism and translation.

“My whole life has been spent in translation. Growing up in a bilingual household in Turkey, I would speak English to my mom, Turkish to my dad, and instinctively correct both when they adopted the language of the other. When we moved to the United States (I was in third grade), my American mother took on the impressive feat of speaking exclusively Turkish with us to ensure we would not lose it. The Turkish language became the tether that connected me to my childhood home. 

After undergrad, I worked on Turkish-American foreign relations in D.C. for a few years, and often felt that my work was many levels removed from people’s lived experiences. I saw journalists in Turkey being arrested, newspapers being taken over by the government, and felt powerless to make a difference. This was when I began to volunteer as a translator, in order to use my privileged access to the English language to help people in Turkey reach a wider audience. This volunteer work eventually turned into a paid freelance job, and my translations have appeared in internationally-recognized publications such as the Washington Post, where they have highlighted activists, artists, and journalists in Turkey under persecution. 

Through my PhD studies in the UW History department, I have come to recognize that Turkish was just one of many languages that have been spoken in Turkey for hundreds, even thousands of years. I have worked on learning two of these languages—Western Armenian and Ladino—in order to access the histories that have been forcibly erased and forgotten, but also reclaimed and resiliently remembered. These languages are much harder to access and learn due to the lack of pedagogical resources available, but I am fortunate that UW is one of the few institutions that offer classes and community for learning Ladino. Through languages and translation, I have developed more complex tethers to my home, and now understand how language can be a tool of empowerment or oppression.

Translation can be a lonely endeavor. Navigating the unspoken conventions of freelancing without guidance, or trying to figure out how to learn/bolster your knowledge of languages not tied to a specific nation-state, can be isolating and overwhelming. Furthermore, the power that language holds necessitates a critical, reflective approach to translation. Students working in translation would therefore benefit tremendously from more formalized training, guidance, and community that a translation certificate program could offer.”

Nominate a graduate student to be featured in our student spotlight series by getting in touch with us: uwtranslation@gmail.com.

Colloquium with UW Asian Languages and Literature Faculty

Our first colloquium of winter quarter brought with it three unique presentations from faculty in the UW department of Asian Languages and Literature. Professors Paul Atkins and Ping Wang spoke on their research as scholars of East Asian poetry. Professor Justin Jesty gave an overview of the ways in which he has been utilizing translation as a pedagogical tool in his classrooms.

Professor Atkins began with his reflections on translating medieval Japanese Zen poetry, with a particular focus on Gozan Bungaku, or the Literature of the Five Mountains. This vast collection of influential poetry was composed by monks across five, state-sponsored monasteries throughout Japan between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. The collection has posed several challenges to scholars and translators alike. Gozan Bungaku was written in Classical Chinese; its domesticity or foreignness within both Japanese and Chinese literary studies has been debated. According to Professor Atkins, however, Chinese is the linguistic “other” that allows us to even understand classical Japanese literature as a genre.

As his pandemic project, Professor Atkins has gone to work translating the poetry of Zekkai Chushin, a particularly skilled monk known for his ability to write and recite poetry in perfect Chinese. The Shokenko collection of Zekkai Chushin’s work spans 172 poems and dozens of additional letters, prefaces, and other documents. For Professor Atkins, one of the most important aspects of his mediation of these texts has been to craft cross cultural translations that are attentive to the experience of an imagined reader. Because these poems have survived centuries of linguistic, social, and cultural changes, it is important to Professor Atkins that contemporary readers of medieval Zen poetry enjoy a similar feeling of leisure and inspiration as those of Japanese monastic orders once did.

Professor Ping Wang presented on the translation of the word and concept of “nature” and the nature of translation. Her presentation brought to light how fascinating just one word can be as it travels across time, space, and language. Prior to the 1917 Literary Revolution, Classical Chinese was the principal language for East Asian literature. Until the end of the eighteenth century, more texts were written in Classical Chinese than all the rest of the books in the world at that time combined. National modernization efforts in the twentieth century led to the decline of the use of Classical Chinese.

As the language of literature transformed, so did the vocabulary of writers. A newly translated word for “nature” came to popular use after centuries of there being no such equivalent word in early Chinese texts. While the concept of nature was consistently present in Chinese poetry and prose, it was used rather as a modifier to describe a state of being of a different object. To write of natural phenomena was to write specifically of landscape, countryside, forest, mountains, river, and so forth.

“Ziran” appeared in Chinese as the word for “nature” in the mid-1800s. Professor Wang traces it back to the Chinese translation of the book Elements of International Law by Henry Wheaton, wherein the phrase “natural right” was translated as “ziran zhi quan.” The word itself is perhaps a turn loan from Japanese: A Kanji term that was once derived from Classical Chinese. Through the middle of the twentieth century, “ziran” appeared with more frequency in the poetry and literature of China, especially as the environmental movement gained traction around the world. In spite of its historical novelty, this word along with many others have eclipsed the traditional vocabularies of Classical Chinese within only one century.

To conclude the day’s presentations, Professor Justin Jesty spoke about his fourth year Japanese reading course. Professor Jesty uses translation in the classroom as a tool to check Japanese reading comprehension. With real world collaborators from Japan, Professor Jesty leads his students in a group translation effort in order to prime them to use their language skills outside of the classroom.

The texts that students in the class translate align closely with Professor Jesty’s own research, allowing him to take the position of an advisor. As students connect to groups that are writing to raise awareness of social and political issues, they become accustomed to reading Japanese as written for a Japanese audience, rather than for language learners. But because this is still a language teaching course, students continue to toil over the complexities of grammar and syntax. Translation for publication simply pushes students beyond the goal of “good enough” or roughly comprehensible in English. Instead, they enter a new realm of accountability and responsibility.

According to Professor Jesty, translation for publication works well as a goal that can frame the discussions of nuance and creativity in and across language. At no point during the class do students focus too much on English; both language remain in parallel to one another, so that students can exercise their ability to think between them simultaneously. The more closely students examine the art of crafting an English sentence, the greater appreciation they seem to have for the intricacies and quirks of Japanese.

We thank Professors Atkins, Wang, and Jesty for spending time with us in our ongoing colloquia series. Our next event will be on Friday, February 19 with members of NOTIS. Click here for more information.

Student Spotlight: Nathan Marks

The Translation Studies Hub recognizes that many graduate students across UW are doing fascinating academic work that engages translation studies in some way. Today, we spotlight Nathan Marks, doctoral candidate in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

How does translation show up in your academic work, or how is translation a part of your academic life?

Such a good question. I think it shows up everywhere for me now. Whether I am reading the news and translating bits and pieces for friends and family or whether I am writing my literature review for my dissertation, translation is ever present. That being said, it is not like I am translating entries works or anything of the sort, since I do mainly work in sociolinguistics, dialectology and phonetics/phonology, it is just bare bones translating, like finding a section in an article. But if that is important to what I am writing at the time, so much so that I want to quote it but it is not in English, I have to do my best to translate it adequately. 

How might a translation studies community support you at UW?

I have been so lucky to have friends and colleagues who are native speakers of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, BCMS, Finnish, etc. that I have all at one time or another needed a translation checked. Many of my colleagues actively work with translation and translating and it is a profound skill set to have. I always am looking for more expertise and guidance when it comes to translation and different genres of literature. 

If you’re a current UW grad student who would like to be featured on the TSH blog, send us a message!

Student Spotlight: Owen Harris

Welcome to the second installment of our student spotlight series! The Translation Studies Hub recognizes that many graduate students across UW are doing fascinating academic work that engages translation studies in some way. Today, we spotlight Owen Harris, graduate student in the Jackson School of International Studies and the Evans School of Public Policy.

“Prior to coming to Seattle, I lived in Turkey and worked as a literary translator from Turkish to English. Most of the the books I translated were science fiction. I also worked at an NGO serving refugees. Some were French speakers from West and Central Africa while others were Arabic speakers from Syria and Iraq.  My work blurred the line between interpreting and translation as I both interpreted during doctors appointments or meetings and translated things like medical reports or asylum testimonials. After moving to Seattle, I volunteered with a few local non-profits as an interpreter and also continued freelance translation work. My first quarter in particular, I did a lot of Turkish to English translation for Ahval, a Turkish news site. In the Summer of 2019, I also did subtitling for a documentary on Turkish rap music.

As a concurrent student in both the Evans and Jackson schools, my work focuses on Languages and Migration in the Eastern Mediterranean. I have used my Turkish and Arabic skills in interviews for my research as well as reading primary sources. Until this year, my translation priorities were always from Turkish, Spanish or Arabic to English. However, this quarter I am taking “TKISH 402 The Modern Turkish Republic Through Popular Songs” in which professor Kuru challenges us to translate from English to Turkish. While I have built up a lot of machinery in my brain for translating Turkish into English, my Turkish writing has never felt fluid and natural. I’m excited for this class to help me hone my English to Turkish translation skills, and enhance my Turkish writing.

I think that students in both the Evans and Jackson schools as well as many other schools could benefit from a translation studies community for a number of reasons. First of all, professional translating is a great career for students and I have always been curious about academic translation. Being able to read Turkish and Arabic academic works has been critical to my own studies, but I think that scholars writing in those languages deserve to be translated so that people working in the same field in other languages can share knowledge without having to learn 5 or 6 languages. Secondly, there is an enormous collection of untranslated work right here at the UW. The most obvious example for me is the Ladino Collection at the Sephardic Studies department. I had a chance to take a Ladino course and work on cataloguing the collection. There are whole novels and biographies and diaries and other works sitting in Sephardic Studies collection which currently exist only in Ladino. These are written by people who lived fully in Ladino and expected that the language would survive with an international readership. The language survives only among a small but dedicated group of Ladino speakers and enthusiasts. However, I think translating these Ladino works into English would resurrect a whole world of experience that is currently limited to those who can read Ladino.  Honestly, reading some of those works while cataloguing them made me want to drop everything just to translate them as my life’s work. Translating them to English will make the works more accessible and I think translations from Ladino might also spur increased interest in the language and aid in current efforts to revitalize it.

Finally, with so many untranslated novels and other works in Turkish, Arabic and Ladino; I would love to see the UW establish a translation prize or fellowship. Students should be able to pursue an academic program where they develop their language skills, writing skills, and translation techniques. In the end, they could publish a previously untranslated work in their target language. Many of us write MA theses or PhD theses and wonder whether our research was relevant or moved the field forward.  I think making a previously unavailable novel or biography available to the world in a new language is a demonstrably relevant and productive goal.”

You can keep up with Owen via his instagram @owenjakobharris.

If you’re a current UW grad student who would like to be featured on the TSH blog, send us a message!

Student Spotlight: Anna Schnell

Welcome to our student spotlight series! The Translation Studies Hub recognizes that many graduate students across UW are doing fascinating academic work that engages translation studies in some way. Today, we spotlight Anna Schnell, graduate student in Japanese.

“Taking the Asian 590 Seminar in Translation Studies in Spring 2020 enabled me to spend an entire quarter translating articles for “Creative Support LET’S,” a group that aims to amplify the voices of those with disabilities in Japanese society. Focusing on the process of reviewing and polishing my translation with the instructors and my fellow students of translation helped me grow as both a scholar and a translator; I have been able to put these skills to use in translating comics for Glacier Bay Books, an independent small press publisher based in Oregon whose mission is to promote indie manga artists who are overlooked by mainstream Japanese and English-language publishers. While translation itself is similarly often underappreciated by the general public, I hope the UW will one day offer a translation certificate program – or even an entire degree! – to emphasize the enduring importance of translation in all of our lives.”

You can keep up with Anna via her art instagram @annaschnellart as well as on twitter @anna_translates. Visit her website here.

If you’re a current UW grad student who would like to be featured on the TSH blog, send us a message!

Professor Vicente Rafael’s Four Spheres of Translation: A TSH Colloquium

The Translation Studies Hub was delighted to host its third colloquium with UW History Professor Vicente Rafael on December 4. Professor Rafael is the author of several books and works on the cultural and political history of the colonial and post-colonial Philippines. Currently, he is finishing a book on the necropolitics and aesthetics of authoritarianism, Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

During his lecture, Professor Rafael introduced his thoughts on translation by asking the audience first to reflect on what it means to experience translation. He likened translation to movement, reminding us that to translate is to transport or to transfer. For Professor Rafael, zigzagging is his preferred method of translation, moving in different directions through a text to grasp its meaning and understand its purpose.

Professor Rafael then explained the four spheres of translation of most interest to his work: personal, imperial, subaltern, and authoritarian populist. The personal sphere brings to the translator the initial question that Professor Rafael asked: how do we encounter and experience translation on the level of the body?

The imperial sphere is concerned with how language is treated as an object of conquest and control. In the context of the Philippines, European empires have historically invested in resources like translators to further their colonizing missions. Language is a tool imbued with power that permeates histories of Indigenous subjugation, racial formation, and imperialist politics.

In the subaltern sphere, translation appears as a never ending demand. To deal with foreign rulers and settlers, subaltern subjects have had no choice than to be innovative with language, hence the emergence of creole and pidgin languages. To colonize is to creolize or pidginize a language, linking people horizontally and vertically within the imperial project.

Finally, Professor Rafael presented his experimental ideas on the authoritarian populist sphere of translation. Given the viral spread of authoritarian speech, he explained, we can imagine translation as productive of a certain kind of autoimmunity: the body at war with itself. Language communicates by attacking itself.

Under an authoritarian populist system like that of Duterte’s in the Philippine, language is deployed to confuse, misplace, and destroy shared meanings. A dictatorial force may speak in the languages of his populace, traversing linguistic spaces in order to broadly enforce his tyranny—and to sound like he belongs to every community. He uses language and translation to behave like a sovereign trickster.

We’re grateful to Professor Rafael for spending time with us and answering our many questions about translation across multiple levels. His creative approach to translation allowed us to think through the simple yet challenging question: what is language, and how is it related to power?

Looking forward, the Translation Studies Hub is preparing for its winter quarter colloquia. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on upcoming events.

Human + Machine Translation: A TSH Colloquia with Dan Liebling

The Translation Studies Hub hosted its second colloquium event of the year on October 30, featuring a lecture from Daniel Liebling on the relationship between human and machine translation systems. As a Staff Engineering Manager at Google Research, Liebling works on human language technologies, including speech recognition systems and translation engines. During his talk, he acted as a historian of the development of machine translation systems, taking the audience from ambitious beginnings in the 1940s to contemporary goals for the future of neural machine translation.

The first posited concept of automatic translation arose in 1949, when scientists became interested in the idea that machines could learn to “speak” many different languages if they could simply receive a structure of the fundamental aspects of language. Early forays into translation engineering were inspired by US imperial interests during the Cold War. By 1954, Georgetown University and IBM had built a computer that could translate Russian into English. At the time, it was an impressive accomplishment; the machine held a dictionary of 250 words and was capable of looking up individual words, ignoring those it did not know. In total, it stored 9000 bytes of memory. (For comparison, the average smartphone now contains 14 million times that amount.)

In the US, the CIA drove machine translation projects for several years, until the government determined in the mid-1960s that flawed computational systems weren’t necessary to do what human beings could do with far more skill and accuracy. Nevertheless, developments on translation engines continued internationally and eventually made their way into the homes of everyday consumers. For example, the 1980s Canadian innovation METEO translated weather bulletins between English and French and was the first translation system to run on a personal computer. METEO remained in popular use until 2001.

As access to the internet became an increasingly normal part of everyday life in the mid-1990s, so did access to online translation systems. Many of us remember the humble beginnings of websites like Babelfish, which used a translation engine called SYSTRAN to perform instant translations between 36 language pairs. Today, the predominant web translation system is Google Translate, which was developed in 2006 using SYSTRAN but now exclusively uses Google technologies.

Ongoing work on machine translation is now focused on neural machine translation. Neural translation systems are designed to search for patterns across language and to produce translations that capture the appropriate context and meaning of a sentence. A word for word translation falls flat if it doesn’t make sense; neural translation systems attempt to remedy the frequent awkwardness of machine translations by learning how to speak with accuracy as well as fluency.

As exciting as these innovations are, none of them will send human beings into complete obsolescence. Liebling enthusiastically reminds us that the human is always at the center of science. The complexity of language, its artfulness and inconsistency, is something that AI is still trying hard to master.

Don’t miss our next colloquia with Professor Vicente Rafael on Friday, December 4. Click here to register and learn more.

Classics of Translation = Translation of Classics

On October 9, the Translation Studies Hub was pleased to host its first virtual colloquium of the year. Two presentations, delivered by Professors Olga Levaniouk and James Clauss of the UW Department of Classics, made up a double feature on contemporary issues in translation and classical philology.

Professor Levaniouk began with a lecture on her practice of using multiple translations of Homer in the Classics classroom. Dozens of scholars have spoken their piece on these many centuries-old texts, and debates and discrepancies continue to arise as contemporary translators newly take up the task of translating the works of Homer. For students, this ongoing fascination with Homer means they can access a rich collection of translations, all of which inspire many questions about the process and problems of translation.

No two translations of the same ancient text are exactly alike. As the centuries pass and new scholars emerge with an interest in reinterpreting classic texts like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Professor Levaniouk recommends spending time with the sections on the periphery of the central text. It is in notes, forewords, postscripts, footnotes, and other such paratextual sites that translators will explain their choices for certain words and turns of phrase. For the Homeric scholar, these pages are sometimes more valuable than the translated story itself, as the translator’s stated influences allow us to better understand their decisions.

In his talk, Professor James Clauss explored the connections between multiple translations of the Bible—in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew—and the benefits of reading in each language, side by side. Professor Clauss spoke to his experience offering a class to students of both Greek and Latin to think through translations of the Old and New Testaments. By bringing students with varied language backgrounds to the same course, he was able to illuminate the messy process of translating the Bible from Classical or Biblical Hebrew.

As an example, Professor Clauss used the case of “shalom.” As a typical greeting in Hebrew, this word shows up in many texts with no reason for further inquiry. In the same context in the text of the Greek translation, however, the word for peace appears—a highly unusual, unnatural way of saying hello. When one learns that “shalom” translates literally to “peace,” and then reads the Greek word for peace instead of the Greek word for hello, many questions arise. What was this translator thinking? How can we know if a translation is correct? By negotiating translations of the same text from two or more languages, Professor Clauss explained, we can understand the value of either maintaining a faithful, literal translation or crafting a clear, critical, culturally appropriate manuscript.

The study and translation of classical texts is complex, and it is a challenge to judge what constitutes a “good” translation of an ancient text. However, as Professor Levaniouk stated in her presentation, it is always better to choose to read a translation—any translation—than simply not to read at all.

Our next colloquium will be held on Friday, October 30 from 12:30pm – 2pm PST. Click here for more information and to register.

A UW Translation Studies Summer Reading List

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 12-in-many-tongues.jpg
Image taken from EMP

We asked the members of our community what translated works they’d be reading in the summer. Here is what they shared!

You can send us the title, author’s name, and translator’s name of what you are reading these days via Twitter too! Remember to mention us (@uw_translation) and use the hashtag #uwtranslatorsread.

Michael Biggins
Slavic Languages and Literatures

My summer reading list of books in translation starts with three titles that will be featured at the July 26, August 30 and September 27 meetings, respectively, of Readings from the Heart of Europe, a UW- and Seattle community-based book discussion group, open to all, that explores great books from the many, mostly post-colonial and post-communist literatures of East Central and Southeastern Europe.  I’m a member and one of a team of four organizers of the group.  We’re particularly excited that at each of these summer 2020 meetings we’ll be joined by the translator of that month’s book in focus, as follows…

For our July 26 meeting we’ll be reading best-selling Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić’s highly acclaimed novel Fox, and joined by translator Ellen Elias-Bursać (Open Press Books, 2018).  

On August 30 we’ll be discussing Romanian author Mircea Cărtarescu’s novel Blinding, Book One, and joined by the book’s translator Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books, 2013).  

Then on September 27 we’ll explore Book Two of Slovenian author Lojze Kovačič’s wartime trilogy Newcomers, translated by yours truly (Archipelago Books, 2020).

Our book club welcomes new members and even one-time participants, so I encourage everyone to follow our group on Facebook and join us for any or all of these book discussions, as the spirit moves you – not to mention our other fall 2020 and subsequent meetings in 2021.

Other books in English translation that our group has recently discussed have included 2018 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times (from Polish), 2019 Austrian Nobel Prize Winner Peter Handke’s A Sorrow beyond Dreams (from German), 2009 Nobelist Herta Müller’s (Romania/Germany) The Land of Green Plums, a novel by Romanian author Max Blecher and, most recently, on June 28, Bulgarian prose writer Georgi Gospodinov’s Physics of Sorrow, for which the author’s American translator Angela Rodel was able to join us from Bulgaria as our featured discussant.
We would be honored to welcome our UW Translation Hub colleagues and friends at any of these upcoming events over the summer.  You can register for them from our Facebook page to receive a link that will connect you to each meeting on Zoom.

Aria Fani
Near Eastern Languages and Civilization

The Story of Layla and Majnun 

Leyli o majnun (Persian), Nezami Ganjavi, 12th century ADc. 

Trans. Dr. R. Gelpked. London: Bruno Cassirer, 1966e.

This is the most successful love story that has emerged from West, Central and South Asia. It has been composed, rewritten, and circulated in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindi and so many other languages. I am rereading it to prepare for a fall course titled “Radical Routes of Love: Reading Leyla and Majnun in Five Iterations.” This story is a great entry point to dispel our current anxiety about imitation and obsession with tracing and examining influence. 

Jesús Hidalgo
Spanish and Portuguese

La montaña mágica

Der Zauberberg. Thomas Mann, 1924.

Trans. Isabel García Adánez, Debolsillo, 2020.

My wife has read many canonical texts by Latin America authors. So, in order to reciprocate her interest in the literary texts written in my own language, we have agreed to read at least one canonical novel in her mother tongue (German) every year. In 2019, we managed to read Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and this summer we chose Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

It’s been years since I wanted to read Mann’s 1,000-page piece (the first time that I heard about it was back when I was an undergrad, as it inspires a character in a short story by one of my favorite Peruvian authors) and it just seems to be the right time to meet Hans Castorp, Settembrini, and Clawdia Chauchat.

Emily Thompson
Samuel & Althea Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín

La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile, Gabriel García Márquez, 1986

Trans. Asa Zatz (2010), New York Review of Books

Gabriel García Márquez’s journalism is a hidden treasure of Latin American literature. The style is more testimonial than reportage, with stories that are full of unverifiable facts. I haven’t stopped thinking about Relato de un náufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor) since I read it for a class with Edgar O’Hara in 2013. That testimony is another case in which the government tells a different story than the person at the center of the narrative. García Márquez has a history of revealing, through testimonial journalism, the things that governments fight to hide. In light of that, and in light of America’s current citizen/government tensions, I look forward to reading Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín. The translator is Asa Zatz. His New York Review of Books bio page reveals that Asa has translated around 100 books, and this is the first of his work I will read. Clandestine in Chile is the story, as related to García Márquez, of the filmmaker Miguel Littín’s undercover return to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the mother country from which he has been exiled. The Chilean government seized and burned almost 15,000 copies of the book. As a librarian, book bannings and burnings fascinate me. As a translator, I’m curious to find out how many footnotes it takes to explain the political minutiae of a Latin American dictatorship to U.S. readers. Maybe we’re prone to understand it without extensive notes, these days.