One of the great joys over more than three decades working with developing writers is teaching literature in translation—world literature made newer and stranger by its expression in English. What’s most gratifying is to guide discoveries of original international voices, our focus on structure and language, and on how stories can transition from native sources into our own. Translators are the mediums, the scholars, the ghostwriters whose task it is to revise, line-by-line, in the purest sense of re-vision, and then the best of them pull off a magic trick—they disappear. Translation can be a mystery as profound as the creative act itself, nothing less than inventing new art from an original and combining both into one. Developing writers who search deeply into this mystery, especially those who try translating themselves, learn not only about craft and technique and the variety and beauty of sentences and narratives, they can take on voices other than their own, let strange new language possess them. One happy result is how these voices can correspond with a writer’s own original art, shape-shifting into a transformed identity.

Cultural assimilation is a part of this, too—gaining knowledge of foreign places and people. And that the students I work with are writing in English is essential, as English has become like a Grand Central Station for great world literature to journey elsewhere. Much like Latin in the age of Cicero, only more so now, multiplied in scale almost unimaginably because of internet possibilities for panglobal publication, English is the destination where a novel or story or poem can be internationally recognized, or can arrive enough so that it travels everywhere else. The currency of English to the broadest numbers and kinds of readers is due to more than its global dominance as the language of capitalism—it’s the nature of English itself, its qualities of openness and linearity. Like a long train onto which an infinite number of new cars can be attached, English has an astonishing capacity to absorb elements from other languages and just keep moving. English is accused for this, too, and resisted for its dominance in the Third World, perhaps best exemplified by the stance of Kenyan author and literary activist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (writing now almost exclusively in his native Gikuyu), who advocates as a matter of cultural responsibility that global resources should be invested in new publication ventures and translating world literature into endangered native languages to preserve them.

This preservationist issue is a serious one, as global access to international writing increasingly happens mainly by translation into English first (or this can happen also first into French, but then the most common route for a book’s global journey carries it straight to English next as the gateway). Many international readers experience writers first in English before their own languages, so much so that editions in translation can become signature publications, as is the case for novels by Mo Yan, the recent Chinese Nobel Laureate, who benefitted from inventive versions in French, and in English by translator Howard Goldblatt, before his books journeyed elsewhere (and perhaps, as Mo Yan has suggested, significantly improved). How much of the Latin American “boom” of the 1970s and ’80s was set off—detonated—by Gregory Rabassa’s legendary translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? How much new interest in East European writing was stimulated by enthusiastic critical responses to the late great Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which took the scenic route (as have books, for example, by the Albanian satirical master Ismail Kadare) by being first published modestly in French editions before taking off globally from the launching pad of English?

As literature in translation leads to their broader global understanding, developing writers should become aware of what a special privilege it is to write in English, what a gift to stand at the red hot center of something, what inspiring opportunities to make use of almost every kind of writing there is to shape and transform their own visions. Being at this red hot center also carries a special responsibility. In his essay “Des Tours de Babel” (translated by Joseph F. Graham), the late theorist Jacques Derrida writes that, before the destruction of Babel, “the great Semitic family was establishing its empire, which it wanted universal, and its tongue, which it also attempted to impose on the universe.” In a witty play of deconstruction of the tale in Genesis, Derrida suggests that rather than for blasphemously attempting to deify ourselves by building a tower high enough to reach the heavens, God instead cast mankind into a confusion of tongues for the greater sin of trying to conquer the world with a single dominant language.

In 2002, at a reception before a presentation by Jacques Derrida and scholar-translator Peggy Kamuf at UC Irvine, during which there was much discussion of the concept of the ever-present “other” possible to subvert an established order directly linked to literary translation (the event marked the launch of UCI’s International Center for Writing and Translation), I joined a loose conversation circle that gathered around the scholars. I raised the issue of the dominance of English as a possibly destructive world hegemony (which seemed timely, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o would soon join the UC Irvine faculty). Trying to be funny, I likened English to that cult 1970s horror film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes—a language slurping and swallowing everything in its path. I quoted a sentence to demonstrate this, written by Christopher Towne Leland, taken from his lively craft book, The Art of Compelling Fiction. (I imagine this sentence spoken by a Brooklyn apartment dweller, a Jewish-mother type with a strong city accent complaining about her noisy neighbors): “She’s a diva and he’s a macho poseur—all that kvetching over a pair of khaki mukluks on the futon!”

People in our little circle laughed. So did Peggy Kamuf. But not the 
grand Jacques. The sentence is over the top, sure, with its Ellis Island absorptions: Italian, Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hindi, Inuit, and Japanese, all held together by a few stocky Anglo-Saxonisms (the articles and conjunctions, the prepositions and determiner), yet it’s still a comprehensible sentence. It shows off the versatility of English in its freedom to absorb nouns and verbs, its easy fluidity in making present participles, and maybe what makes English so all devouring. Derrida paused a moment—I recall him dramatically putting his hand to his chin with a sly smile, then he waved it over our circle in a dismissively amused gesture. “Well then,” he said. “We see by this how ‘the other’ has subverted English.”

Touché. And Derrida was right, not only about language but about writers. After all, isn’t what writers are after when we read world literature in translation, searching into its linguistic strangeness and cultural roots, somehow to allow ‘the other’ to influence us, even subvert us? And of course writers in English confront and absorb major influences by first reading deeply into American and British authors (this should go without saying), but from what sources are newness and strangeness most likely to be discovered? Russian Formalist thinkers defined literary writing (as opposed to any other kind of writing, or Literature spelled with a big L, as scholar-theorist Terry Eagleton puts it) as conveying a mysterious quality of language made strange, and I agree. As Mikhail Bakhtin asserts so eloquently in his essay “Epic and Novel,” it’s the fixed forms, the immovable, all too familiar genres, that should be considered dead. Engagement with the continuous present is what defines the new in the novel, what keeps the form alive. Writers should be taking on new voices all the time, challenging their language, seeking out their own subversions. With so much great Literature in translation available to us in the twenty-first century, standing as we are at the red hot center of things, aside from keeping up with the most ingenious of our contemporaries who write in English (most of whom probably crafted their voices and styles like great big killer tomatoes set loose into the world), why should serious, ambitious writers be reading much of anything else?

Contemporary world literature in translation wasn’t always this available in the United States. Fifteen years ago, the publishing and academic communities took strong note of a cultural crisis caused by a lack of new translated books making it into English. And this was happening during an unprecedented era of economic globalization when actually knowing something about the world should have been more important than ever before. This sad state of affairs in publishing reached public consciousness as the result of a white paper commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, a brainchild of its visionary literature director, the late Cliff Becker, an arts organization hero, a true pioneer. Cited in the November/December 2002 issue of Poets & Writers, of the approximately 70,000 published books from all fields in the United States in 2000, fewer than 300 were literary translations. (The study came up with 287 as a number, but this figure is still in dispute—the point is that shockingly few translations were being published, and many of this paltry number were updated versions of books already in English in some form.) Internal surveys of the memberships of PEN and the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) revealed the median age of literary translators to be about fifty. Few young scholars and writers were being attracted to literary translation.

Along with this, humanities disciplines in the academy were suffering from increasing assaults by marketplace ideologies demanding justifications for their continued existence related to “measurable outcomes” and “job placement” numbers in direct competition with the so-called “STEM” disciplines—science, technology, engineering, math—so hotly in demand by the global economy. Comparative literature departments were being steadily eliminated except at the best and most elite state and private universities. English departments were circling their wagons, so to speak, in a series of defensive maneuvers, reshaping and re-articulating traditional British and American canons using literary-philosophical, gender, and ethnicity based theories (“theory” the only texts in translation remaining on many reading lists, most of them translated from French, a few from German and Russian). Yet even the most renowned theorists from the elite universities began to experience this translation crisis. At his visiting lectures, preeminent scholar and theorist Peter Brooks, of Yale University, regularly had to ask audiences if they had read any work at all by Balzac, an author Brooks uses extensively in his scholarship. In reply, fewer and fewer hands were being raised, and among young people almost none.

Over the years following this crisis, the literary landscape in the United States has been changing. Though there is no current figure for the number of books in translation to argue about from any follow-up white paper since the turn of the millennium, the situation has greatly improved, no doubt due to unprecedented efforts by the literary community as a whole—arts organizations such as the NEA and PEN increasing their support and fellowships for translation; private foundations, most notably the Lannan, but others, too, making significant new grants to nonprofit publishers; many sponsored prizes and awards from journals began to include translation; academic organizations such as the MLA and AWP increased their inclusion of translators and translation panels at their conferences; and several tier one universities, such as Columbia and UC Irvine, launched centers for translation. Whereas fifteen years ago, it was tough to find more than one or two new books in translation on any mainstream publisher’s seasonal list, these days we can note an increased investment in world literature by most major houses: Knopf, Pantheon, Picador, Viking-Penguin, FSG, on and on; and there are excellent new nonprofits, such as Archipelago and Zephyr, publishing translated books almost exclusively; plus we see redoubled commitments to translations by the more established smaller houses, such as New Directions and Graywolf, among many others. But even more significant to renewed interest in translated books has been the growth and influence of the creative writing programs (academics have long complained about this as “the creative writing industry”). Even while it was being marginalized in other disciplines, literature in translation continued to thrive and find a home in workshops and classes for writers. And these writers, in turn, have been spreading the global good news.

Developing writers don’t discover original voices out of nothing, or by just themselves; one truism about becoming a good writer is that it’s necessary to be a good reader first. As that ingenious phenomenon of world literature, the late great Roberto Bolaño, kept saying: “reading is more important than writing.” (And how interesting in this context that almost the whole of Bolaño’s oeuvre is shaped around writing about writers). Writers gravitate toward other writers with whom they feel mysterious affinities, or like kindred spirits. They learn how to read for technique, for structure, for innovative language, for models they can use and assimilate (or appropriate) into their own writing; but more than this, they are naturally interested in the lives and habits of other writers, especially world-level masters, as if to unlock out of their biographies the secrets of the creative process.

Before an audience with dozens of young writers in it, I recently heard Aimee Bender give a lecture about creative process titled “The Question of Intention.” She read a translation (the older, better one, by Norman Thomas di Giovanni) of the Jorge Luis Borges essay “Borges and I” as an example and point of departure for her talk about her own unpremeditated process of writing stories and novels, like feeling her way through them. As Borges does in his essay, Bender identifies with a duality between her conscious self-in-the-world and her lesser-known, more subconscious writing-self who, somehow, mysteriously knows just what to do, what words should follow. Key in this for me is that Bender has developed her strikingly original, very American style from studied sources in Borges, and in Italo Calvino, with elements of García Márquez and Milan Kundera in there, too, and of course fully informed by her deep reading of her contemporaries who write in English. Her novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own and The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, read to me as especially inspired by influences from translated literature. Her talk (soon to be an essay) reinforces the importance of reading outside any narrow language or cultural tradition.

So it has been always with the best American writers. Who could imagine the poetry of Eliot and Pound (those biggest of the great big Modernist killer tomatoes) without finding early sources in French symbolism, or their obsessive compulsions to take from Renaissance Italian and Greek classics (and everything else, too, down to Eliot directly lifting or cribbing lines translated from the German in Marie Von Habsburg’s diary for The Waste Land—and on and on)? Who could conceive of the Beat Generation—Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Corso, Burroughs, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman, et. al.—without volcanic sources in Rimbaud and Apollinaire, tempered by classical Japanese and Chinese poems and philosophy? Ernest Hemingway drew from Spanish writers of the generation of ’98—from Pío Baroja, Vicente Blasco Ibañez, and Miguel de Unamuno—who, along with a generous tutoring in metronomic repetitions by Gertrude Stein, helped to shape his style. Who could envision a Raymond Carver without having read translations of the stories of Anton Chekhov? Writers of the Jewish-American emergence of the 1950s and ’60s—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Richard Stern, Irving Howe, and others—were strongly influenced by reading Proust, Flaubert, Stendhal, and, yes, Honoré de Balzac, along with models found in Isaac Bashevis Singer translated from Yiddish and stories by Isaac Rosenfeld, who wrote in English (in addition to their close study of the Moderns along with New Criticism in college classes). One key to fully comprehending what Thomas Pynchon wrote is to read Ralph Manheim’s translations of the “epic theater” of Bertolt Brecht. The young Robert Coover steeped himself in translations (and later, the originals) of Spanish baroque writers of the Golden Age: Cervantes, Quevedo, and Calderón de la Barca, among others. And so on: David Foster Wallace talked about influences from García Márquez and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, mixed in with Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo—what a combination. Rick Moody studied Thomas Bernhard and talks about this in interviews; Lorrie Moore absorbed Italo Calvino, Manuel Puig, Michel Foucault, and Giovanni Boccaccio in her years at Cornell University; the new young Hispanic-American phenomenon Daniel Alarcón talks up a combination of Roberto Bolaño, Heinrich Böll, and the longer stories of Anton Chekhov as influences; and we could go on here, citing examples almost as numerous and various as the books in that delirious Borges fiction, “The Library of Babel”—into near infinity.

None of these influences (or appropriations) happened as simply as stating them this way makes them seem. And not all preeminent American (or Canadian) authors claim such global influences: Joyce Carol Oates speaks mainly of Herman Melville, James Joyce, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson as sources, only on occasion of Flaubert; Alice Munro points to Katherine Mansfield, and to her youthful shock at first encountering D. H. Lawrence, but she was drawn to translations of Chekhov, too, as early models; and Jennifer Egan only has two books in translation on her “most influential” list (as far as I know)—Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Still, how can developing writers not see how crafting an original American voice may depend on inspirations discovered in world literature?

For this reason, translated literature has long been a staple of reading lists taught in the creative writing programs. As examples (to add to the writers already noted), for thirty years, Tobias Wolff has treated Tolstoy and Chekhov as must reads for his students; Junot Díaz works from a shifting mix of titles in his classes, some written originally in English but most translated from Spanish (the Latin American landscape he knows so well) and also from other languages. George Saunders (whose innovative, surreal stories vibrate with influences drawn from such diverse sources as Donald Barthelme, Nikolai Gogol, and Dr. Seuss) famously teaches a course on “the Russians” at Syracuse University; and on and on (and we could make a longer list of teacher-poets here, too, who can be even more expansive and multinational with their reach into translated poetry in workshops because the intensity and brevity of poems makes this possible). Almost every creative writing teacher I know uses at least a few core works of world literature for craft and technique, and for models of the forms.

Over more than three decades devoted to teaching developing writers, I’ve used a series of must read lists of translated books and stories. Though the kinds of books and the source languages they are translated from keeps shifting, I always talk up cross-cultural and cross-language influences and appropriations by American writers. I tell the story of how young John Irving, fresh from his experience abroad in Austria, mainly in Vienna, studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Kurt Vonnegut and the Chilean surrealist José Donoso (not so much a magic-realist, though Donoso is talked about as a writer in that “boom” movement for his signature book, The Obscene Bird of Night). Also, Irving recently had read The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass, which had a transformative impact on his imagination. Somehow, out of this mix of influences—Vonnegut’s sharp wit and social farce, Donoso’s dark surrealism, and the boldly experimental language and highly politicized, baroque imagination of Grass—from these authors along with his deep study of almost everything ever written by Charles Dickens, John Irving’s own writing style emerged: developing first with Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man, building into The World According to Garp, that breakthrough book that set a very original John Irving voice, and each big new Irving novel still reads to me like a deepening experiment with and variation on these influences and assimilations.

A more recent, less well-known story I tell is about is Dan Josefson, whose first novel, That’s Not a Feeling—a book with multiple point-of-view characters set in a rich kids’ private school like something in between a reformatory and a treatment center for troubled youth—was published in 2012. Josefson had spent six years painstakingly working on the manuscript, then another four trying to get it noticed by editorial powers that be in New York without success, not even able to find representation by an agent. While a student in the MFA in Creative Writing International program at UNLV, Josefson had won awards and earned fellowships, among them a prestigious Fulbright for a year in Romania; and he had put a strong focus on reading literature in translation, most significantly novels by Thomas Bernhard, about whose work he wrote a scholarly essay under the guidance of a professor of German. One of the central characters in Josefson’s novel speaks in a quirky, obsessive voice that carries echoes from Bernhard, and there are other direct influences—I sense Milan Kundera; and Josefson mentions W. G. Sebald in an Atlantic interview with David W. Brown, adding: “A lot of what I read is European stuff in translation—for whatever reason, that’s the subset of works I feel most at home with.”

According to Josefson, without an agent, in despair about ever seeing his book published, he submitted it on his own to Soho Press, where it landed in the proverbial slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts that have at best a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting any further. However improbably, his manuscript made it to the desk of the new literary editor at Soho, Mark Doten. Long an enthusiast of Thomas Bernhard, the Bernhardian echo in That’s Not a Feeling caught Doten’s attention. Though Josefson invents several different narrative voices, a distinct one for each of his characters, crafting them together architectonically (one of the achievements of his book is how he pulls this off so naturally), it was the shape-shifting voice from Bernhard that initially moved the editor to consider the manuscript. Soho Press published the novel to enthusiastic reviews; it was selected for the Barnes & Noble “Discover New Writers” series; it earned profitable sales; and so a very talented, deserving author was launched. Josefson has just been honored with a prestigious Whiting Award. I find that telling this story ups the eagerness of developing writers to read literature in translation.

I like to talk to students cross-culturally, too, about what happens on the other side of the language barriers, and how this in turn reaches us, if we’re lucky. I tell the story and even project a timeline diagram to show how Gabriel García Márquez discovered anachronological novel structures and studied how to construct long sentences that feel like epic journeys by reading Spanish translations of William Faulkner; and I tell how, as a young journalist in Colombia, when he first read the translated first sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he realized he wanted more than anything to devote his life to writing fiction. I’ll sometimes play a game in class with the originals, too, discussing how Faulkner’s use of Southern dialect, especially in dialogue (or in internally voiced lines) has been by necessity made more neutral or “standard” in the language of the Spanish translations, more formal; and possibly how this strangeness in translation gave rise to a less quotidian formal tone for the epic voice García Márquez developed to write about even his most uneducated rural characters and the remote village life of his legendary Macondo. In other words, this linguistic strangeness arising from translations (or this treason committed on the original, to paraphrase the cliché that translation = treason) may be one of the primary influences for García Márquez to come up with such a charmingly dignifying, high-style authorial voice to tell his stories. In class, we consider this formality in tone, also the slightly elevated language Gregory Rabassa chooses for his translations into English (especially evident when undercut, often comically, by the more low-style, dialogued “topper” lines at the ends of long Marquezian paragraphs). We discover Faulknerian language reshaped and reprocessed, as if melted down in a crucible then re-molded through three creative assimilations into the translated passage we’re reading.

Recently, we played a similar game in a graduate seminar with passages from Thomas Bernhard’s Correction (translated by Sophie Wilkins) and Concrete (translated by David McLintock)—both absurdist novels of ideas written in the voices of obsessed intellectuals manqué. We considered these alongside passages from Katherine Silver’s translations of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror—dark, obsessively voiced testimonies of murder and cruelty set in Central America during the era of the dictatorships. When compared, these passages offer striking examples of how Castellanos Moya appropriated a whole manner of writing from Thomas Bernhard (mainly from reading the Spanish translations), especially in Castellanos Moya’s use of such quirky, paranoid voices written into breathlessly unbroken Bernhardian paragraphs that go on for whole chapters in solid blocks of prose. But students also see immediately how Castellanos Moya appropriated a Bernhardian style all the better to express his own dangerously lived and deeply felt subjects, working from searingly real tragic sources in the cruel political viper pit that has been the recent history of El Salvador and Guatemala, and how Castellanos Moya makes an art that is absolutely original and wholly his own, powered by a fierce necessity to witness.

Close readings of multiple translations alongside the originals can be useful, too, for students to uncover what may be most inventive about a writer we are reading. Good examples of this are available by taking passages from Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum from the early translation by Ralph Mannheim, rendered into a very accessible, easily readable American standard of the 1960s, and comparing them to the more recent translation by Breon Mitchell, one that’s closer to Grass’s original but chooses an English that is denser, more experimental, and more difficult to read. Mitchell’s “Translator’s Afterword” to the 2009 edition of The Tin Drum explains these complexities as arising from Grass’s own inventions and experiments with the German language, especially making use of German’s versatile capacity for compounding nouns into brand new words that keep repeating rhythmically, like steady drumbeats, throughout the whole texture of Grass’s prose. Mitchell highlights this with an example: And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. Mitchell also restores some of the poetic syntax and quieter repetitions in sentences to render the softer beats in Grass’s original, as in: He was also the Formella brother’s boss, and was pleased, as we were pleased, to meet us, to meet him. As complex as it is, Mitchell’s new translation lifts a veil to show more accurately how Grass’s original is a tour de force of inventive language.

Cross-cultural changes or omissions in a translated book offer fascinating views into source cultures, and how a translator solves problems of the untranslatable can reveal how the “other” really must retain its “otherness” in both languages. Translator Maureen Freely explores this idea in her essay “Misreading Orhan Pamuk” (published in the collection In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allan and Susan Bernofsky). Freely describes her process of working through different kinds of cross-cultural difficulties, collaborating with and at times sitting side by side with Pamuk over drafts of her translation from the Turkish of his signature novel, Snow. (I sometimes teach Pamuk’s masterpiece as an example of how a writer can pull off an occulted narrator, how such an approach can replace or become the major plot discovery that changes everything). Freely writes of a back and forth with Pamuk over omitting certain Turkish words that just don’t work very well in English, and also of her growth process as a translator: “While I refused to make any compromise that resulted in a sentence that sounded foolish in English, I grew to respect Orhan’s long, winding sentences as I came to better appreciate their cumulative effect.” She continues: “Our greatest area of difficulty was the language of emotion, which tends to be expansive and even anatomical in Turkish. Sometimes—as when Orhan decided that the hero of Snow went into a panic too often—he decided to change his own text.” Some scholars unjustly charge Freely with “Orientalism” because of Pamuk’s own rewriting into English of the untranslatable from Turkish.

Exploring these differences, even puzzling over them with a dictionary and grammar book in hand, can add revelatory dimensions to cross-cultural studies. Orhan Pamuk’s novels are so much about expressing the almost deliriously complex, colorful tapestry of political and religious relationships in a very diverse society historically. Looking at his language so closely can reveal ideas about Turkey’s “mid-East” position as a proverbial bridge between two worlds (or two empires) that still, perhaps for reasons of language as much as any other, continue to resist accepting one another. Students can learn a great deal about sentence structures in English by exploring both the original and the translation of Snow; the same with The Savage Detectives (investigating the untranslatable reveals the lively variety of different dialects and country-based rhythms in the many “testimony” voices Bolaño creates for the Spanish original, confirming his ambition to write the Pan-American novel); or writers can learn a lot about sentence rhythms and syntax in English by puzzling through the two translations alongside the original of The Tin Drum with a good Langenscheidt’s dictionary in hand. We can then take the further step of translating a passage or two ourselves, coming up with our own solutions; even better is to let ourselves work freely at this, too, making new sentences in the style or tone of the original that track off into our own experiments, into our own new writing.

Translation is all about choices, options, experiments with language in a defined field of possibilities marked out by the original text. This creativity in translation is the subject of Margaret Sayers Peden’s essay “Building A Translation, The Reconstruction Business: Poem 145 of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” (published in The Craft of Translation, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte). Peden highlights and discusses choices made by nine translators, some from different historical periods, including: Samuel Beckett, John A. Crow, Muna Lee, Kate Flores, Roderick Gill, and others, as well as her own. Though in so many word and line choices wildly different from one another, all versions of the poem at least make some sense when explained. Taken together, they reveal how there can be as many ways to translate a text as writers who try, how translation must rewrite the original, also why, due to the limitations and demands of the destination—in this case, English—the translator at some stage must feel free to make creative choices that leave the original entirely behind.

When working with developing writers who are translating, I ask them to go through a basic three-step process: first to make a stiff, literal version, listing possible alternate words they might have chosen but that might not be exactly right; second, begin to shape that stiff literal version into a smoother English, also now taking into account possible replacements of words and sentence structures that might be quite different from the original but in some sense conform to or at least don’t violate its intentions; finally, based on that second, smoother version, I require the student translator to leave the original text entirely behind, and, not even looking at it, to rewrite it all over again in her or his most natural voice. In translation, voice is crucial, as Susan Bernofsky emphasizes in her essay “Translation and the Art of Revision” (also published in the fine new collection on the craft, In Translation, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky): “Although the vision in revision implies something visual, revising has less to do with something seen than with something heard: the text’s voice. Voice is the crux of all translating.”

In order to come up with a newly re-visioned voice successfully, the translator has to commit something like a crime, the most blatant cross-language plagiarism, or an out-and-out literary theft: the ultimate act of appropriation. The many clichés about violation and betrayal and treachery by translators result from this last big leap they must take to make new art. Sometimes, the process of translation—making this leap—can seem as difficult and frustrating as it would be to describe the sound of a perfume or the shape of a taste. Still, it can be done, must be done, with care and artistry. In a successful final version, the result is a happy one. Its relationship to the original is something like what Don Miguel de Cervantes describes (and let’s recall how Cervantes sets up Don Quixote as a translation he is rendering into Spanish from the Arabic original written by an imaginary writer, Cide Hamete Benengeli): a successful translation is like looking at the reverse side of a beautiful tapestry, the figures, scenery and variety of colors clear for us to see and read only not quite as vividly; and here and there, threads are left hanging. Translations teach writers about the possibilities and limitations of language, in our case, of our all devouring, perhaps all too linear English. To translate fiction or poetry of necessity drives writers deep into a strange and vital source they must carry all the way through to a destination, which seems to me a lot like the imaginative process of storytelling and poem-making in the first place. In this sense, all creative writing is a process of translation.

Studying translated literature is like a garden of many forking paths, 
and with any luck at all, a writer will get lost among them and emerge transformed. There’s so much to read, so much coming at us from the world, so many gifts. For some years, I’ve been helping with an ambitious project for Words without Borders, the international online magazine of literature in translation, hoping to contribute in some way to an educational solution to the translation crisis evident at the turn of the millennium. Words without Borders is building a new educational venture, called Words without Borders Campus. Our intention is to make best use of the backlist of nearly 2,000 stories, poems, and essays translated into English, so far, from at least ninety-two languages from 116 countries. We’re busy selecting translations from the magazine’s vast multinational archive and crafting them into course-ready “units” drawn from world literature, organized by country of origin and themes from that country, introduced by essays on cultural contexts and made richer by video interviews with translators and writers, timelines and maps, chat rooms for student exchanges, hotlinks to supplemental sources, and just plain fun ideas. For most course units, we plan to offer at least one or two poems or stories in both languages—the translation in English side by side with the original. These “courses” will be available free for teachers to use in high school and college classrooms. And soon, after a testing phase, we intend to open up Words without Borders Campus to public access.

Our aspiration in doing this is not only to broaden the reach of Words without Borders but also to improve, hopefully, the basic cultural literacy and global awareness of young people. Students at this education level are at a stage of development when they come of age as citizens. We hope by reading world literature that young people will learn to see themselves more fully as citizens of the world, and that this more sophisticated worldview might even influence, over time, public perceptions that can impact individual behaviors and shift national policies. This may be a heavy burden to place on literature in translation, also for Words without Borders as an organization to commit to doing so much work. But maybe not so much, really, if we take into account our cultural responsibilities, standing as we do at the center of the language of empire.

Words without Borders Campus launched its first pilot courses for testing in fall 2014, starting with Mexico, China, and Egypt. This past October, a unit of contemporary writing from Mexico was taught at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, presented by a dedicated teacher, Caron Knauer. One of the translators of the units, Samantha Schnee, visited the class and discussed her translation of the poem “Sleepless Homeland” (“La patria insomne”) by Carmen Boullosa, a poem expressing a painful lament about the Mexican drug wars, their senseless violence, and the consciousness of thinking about home in this sad way even while the poet is away from home. (The class has since worked with other units on Mexico—one on immigration, “A Failed Journey,” and one on “Mothers,” with its main source text translated from Purépecha, an endangered Mexican indigenous language).

In a video of this class session, the Mexican-American students naturally embrace the validation of their heritage in living art, reading Carmen Boullosa’s poem, clear that some are experiencing this level of literary richness in both Spanish and English for the first time. But students from other ethnic backgrounds appear just as engaged and validated—the Chinese, the Asian-Indian, the Persian and Arab, the East European and Anglo background students, their classroom very much reflecting the energizing ethnic diversity of Queens, which is the diversity of twenty-first century America. The students all share in their discovery of difference, or what the grand Jacques might more broadly have called “the other,” and it’s as if the whole class really gets how this difference reflects their own. The class unites in a discussion of the poem in both its source and destination languages. By the end of the session, no student seems “other” with respect to its words and music—they have appropriated literature-in-translation into a new classroom culture they have made together. The video closes on an interview with an African-American student who, obviously moved, clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera, struggles for words to describe his experience, trying to come up with just the right ones, then he finds them: “It prepares you for life.”

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