Negotiating the Distance: Miami's Annual Translation Symposium

by Emily Corwin, Creative Writing Graduate Student

"Every translation is a gesture towards future translations of the same text," declared Kazim Ali, quoting translator and scholar Rainer Schulte.

Kazim AliAli was one of three writer-translators to visit Miami University on September 29th and 30th as part of the Creative Writing Program’s annual symposium on Literature in Translation.  The symposium, a two day event, focused on the translation practices, scholarship, and creative work of writer-translators Ali, an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College; Philip Metres, Professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland; and Nathanaël, a distinguished translator from Chicago. 

During the panel talks on translation—the first highlight of the symposium—Ali, Metres, and Nathanaël addressed the joys and struggles of translation work, articulating the difficult decision-making involved in translating a text from another culture.  Ali, the first presenter of the evening, shared a handout with the audience, detailing the revisions made in the opening poem of his book Water’s Footfall—a translated collection of poems from the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri.  Ali walked the audience through the various choices left to a translator with just a single word or phrase, and the range of methods used even in a single poem.  Then, Nathanaël presented a talk on the idea that translation “is a poetics of equivocation rather than equivalency,” referring to the re-transcription of poems and the double camera of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to discuss concerns of doubling and concordance in the process of translating a text.  At the end of the panel discussion, Metres more broadly called attention to the issues that can arise with accessing the temporal and cultural contexts of a work that is being translated.  With regard to his translations of Russian poetry, particularly the work of Lev Rubinstein, Metres explained the contextual knots that a translator can encounter, with neologisms, allusions, discursive registers, metrical tonalities, and the actual materiality of texts when trying to bring those texts to a different cultural audience.

Translation SymposiumIn all their panel talks, the visiting translators each shared concerns about what it means to translate texts from other cultures into English, the language of empire and imperialism.  Ali asked, “Do I bring the readers to the text or bring the text to the readers? Translation is the negotiation of that distance,” where the language and cultural barriers that exist for an English-speaking audience become a kind of “balancing act” in translation work. 

The visiting translators also addressed ethical issues involved with the desire to clarify or to “solve the problems” of a text through a translation.  Metres pointed out that translators often have this impulse to fix the “problems” existing in the text and that this impulse should be resisted because the “problems” are part of the idiosyncrasies of the original text.  Alluding to other translations of Sepehri’s work, Ali pointed out the common “problem” of the gender neutral pronouns in Farsi that refer to a “lover” in the Sepheri poems, and how this “problem” is resolved by some translators by using the pronoun “she.”  Ali chooses to leave the gender as “mysterious” in his own translation, to maintain the ambiguity that was there in the first place. 

Following the panel, there was a brief reception before Nathanaël, Metres, and Ali performed readings of their translation work.  Nathanaël read from her translation of the journals of French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, while Metres read from selections from the notecard poem sequences of Lev Rubinstein and modernist lyrics of Arseny Tarkovsky. Ali read poems by Sohrab Sepehri and Mauritian poet Ananda Devi. 

On the following evening, the translators read from their own creative work—Metres shared his long chapbook-length poem, “A Concordance of Leaves,” about traveling to his sister’s wedding in Palestine.  Ali read poems from his collection Sky Ward and excerpts from his hybrid-form memoir Bright Felon, highlighting the time that he spent living in Carlisle, PA.  Finally, Nathanaël closed the symposium with a reading of selections from her book Sisyphus, Outdone.

There was an excellent turnout for both evenings of the symposium, and the translators brought a tremendous energy and thoughtfulness to the panel talks and performances, asking deeply critical questions of the work that they do and of the implications, labor, and imagination involved in these gestures of translation.
Event Sponsors: The Humanities Center, the Havighurst Center, GRAMELAC, the English Department, and the Creative Writing Program.