New initiative focuses on translation

Photo by Kai Nip
March 7, 2019

Last fall, the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies piloted the Yale Translation Initiative, an interdisciplinary program aimed at facilitating conversation among scholars and students working on translations in different fields.

The initiative was spearheaded by French professor Alice Kaplan GRD ’81 and Harold Augenbraum, the acting editor of The Yale Review. Kaplan serves as the initiative’s inaugural director, while Augenbraum is the associate director. Serena Bassi, a postdoctoral associate at the MacMillan Center and a lecturer in the Department of Italian, coordinates the initiative’s events for working groups.

“We started by making a map of all the faculty and staff who do translation, and we came up with more than 350 people,” Kaplan said. “We realized that translation is an ever-present and very little understood process on campus. Yale is very famous for literary translation … but we also want to study translation in all its facets.”

According to the Translation Initiative’s website, it is unique in its breadth of focus, aspiring to encompass translation work done in a wide range of fields such as politics, medicine and computer science. The initiative has already held working group meetings on topics such as machine translation and the role of translation in political mediation.

“Translation happens everywhere, all the time around us,” Bassi said.

According to Robyn Creswell, assistant professor of comparative literature and a member of the initiative’s steering committee, the initiative is still in its “experimental phase.”

“We are really just trying to capture the energy that we identify,” said Kaplan. “We’re not trying to impose translation from the top down. We want to provide a gathering place and a resource for people working on translation.”

Creswell said that the “enormous corpus of thought and practice” in literary translation, as well as the historical and political significance of translations, offer “accumulated wisdom and a great resource” for translation currently being done in other fields.

According to Bassi, one of the Translation Initiative’s objectives is to promote interest in translation among students.

“We want to make the claim to students across different fields that they should be more interested in translation,” Bassi said.

Bassi stressed that it was important for students interested in questions of identity, politics and representation to “tackle the urgent question of language” and take part in a “series of conversations about democracy and citizenship and access that are also questions about language and translation.”

Bassi explained that translation is important in granting linguistic minorities access to hospitals, voting rights and participation in politics. She added that the Translation Initiative hopes to establish a “world-leading translation program that thinks about translation across lots of different social spaces” by inviting guest speakers from places “where translation studies is most innovative and original” at Yale.

According to Kaplan, the initiative hopes to connect undergraduates to summer internships in publishing houses that publish translations so that students can be “involved from the ground up in the acquisition and editing of a translation.” Kaplan said that students can check the initiative’s website for internship announcements this spring.

Kaplan said that the initiative also looks to connect students to other translation-related opportunities. Chie Xu ’21, a research assistant for the initiative, encouraged interested students to sign up for the initiative’s mailing list and to participate in its working group events, which she described as a “nice change of pace” from usual undergraduate academic work.

The Translation Initiative’s upcoming events include “Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry” led by Adrianna Jacobs on April 3 and “Translation and Sexuality” led by Bassi and Brian Baer on April 8.


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