Teaching Translation as Art

Translation as Art. That’s the name of the class I’m starting tomorrow. I’m very excited – I’m teaching at my alma mater, in my field, a course of my design. It’s the dream, or at least, my dream. Summer session is condensed, seven weeks of two long meetings a week, and of course when I started the syllabus I was overly ambitious. I thought we’d do a book a week, and in my crazy head that made sense. I’ve come to my senses, and now we’re doing selections from three books plus some assorted other selections. But I was sad to drop books that I really like from the list.

One of the things I’ve thought a lot about over the last few years is the power and politics of translation. This is something a lot of translation theorists have written about, but perhaps none so interestingly to me as Venuti in The Translator’s Invisibility (we’re doing some excerpts of the first chapter of that book). He writes about publishers, specifically, having a lot of power in forming the field of contemporary world literature, and the dismal percentage (that everyone knows is about 3%) of translated literature published in the U.S.

Though this is a workshop course, political concerns underpin all literary actions and even more so when those actions involve translation. So we’ll be working in a lot of discussion about norms, standards, hegemonic discourses and cultural politics. But even more so, something the amazing Anna Guercio said at the last ALTA conference really stuck with me. Teachers are in positions of power, too, because we can create a (sometimes minor) demand for certain kinds of texts, and use our assigned books to support independent presses who are more likely to publish works in translation, and works in translation that challenge the market-based norms for translation. So I decided, back in October, that I would only assign books that were published recently by small presses.

Originally, these were the books I thought I would use:

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer Press, 2010).

Bhagavad Gita translated by Mani Rao (Autumn Hill Books, 2010). 

The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson, translated by Lytton Smith (Open Letter Books, 2010).

Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito translated by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009).

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010).

I quickly realized that was too much, so I dropped The Ambassador, the longest book at 298 pages, despite the fact that is a fantastically fun read about a poet going but not going to a literary conference. It deals with translation, plagiarism, authenticity and authorial integrity, theft, and all sorts of other things that would have been fun to talk about. But oh well. After reading through Killing Kanoko a third time, I realized that it was probably too intense for this course, and so dropped that too (but we’re still going to read the title poem and maybe one other).

I had thought about adding some stories from The Rest is Jungle by Mario Benedetti, but they were so terribly translated that the only way I could stand to teach them would be as examples of bad translation choices, and realized that would be a waste of the class’s money and time. I’ve left the last week of the course open, so may add The Literary Conference by César Aria translated by Katherine Silva (New Directions, 2010).

Anyway, my point is, I used my modicum of power to assign books where the purchases will actually make a difference to the publisher, and support the independent publishers who look for interesting works of literary translation rather than the next big seller. Publishers who take risks with foreign literature, risks with artistic translations, risks with innovation and experimentation.


  1. Ilaria

    Hi Erica,

    I love the list of books and now I want to go out and buy all of them. Just another way you can support small publishers and literary translators: talking about them in your lovely blog!

    Good luck with your course, I’m sure it will be wonderful and your students will adore you!


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  3. Kazim Ali

    Sounds like an interesting set of readings– will your students be engaged in translation projects or will you focus on theory of translation instead? I love to teach Nathalie Stephens’ Je Nathanael and Erin Moure’s O Resplandor in my translations classes–

    • We’ll be doing some exercises, and they’ll have the opportunity to bring in their own translations for workshop, but we’ll be doing a good amount of reading and theory too. I don’t know either of those texts – I’m going to check them both out! Thanks for sharing them!

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