With the popularity of translating apps and instant-translate options, translation is accessible at the speed of a tap. However, machine-generated translations often overlook subtle meanings and textures that bring language to life. These instances usually require a human touch. On Friday, Feb. 22, roughly 20 Vassar community members attended a workshop on the art of translation, hosted by the Africana Studies Department to give attendees a small taste into the work that goes into translating poetry. The event itself was coled by Lecturer in Arabic Mootacem Mhiri and Professor of Sociology at Simmons University in Boston Becky Thompson. The workshop focused on refugee experiences, as Thompson recently published a poetry anthology called “Making Mirrors”—to which Mhiri contributed—that highlights writing by refugees.
Mhiri and Thompson began their discussion with a music video made and sung by a refugee, during which Thompson emphasized the importance of hearing the song in its original voice and original language, rather than an English dub overlaying it. “The art of translation, for me, begins with recognizing people as language,” Thompson shared. “Translation starts with people’s first languages.”
As she quoted statistics about how many translations were published in the United States each year versus abroad, Thompson added, “Translation is a deeply political act. Who is translated is a decision that determines who is visible and who isn’t.”
While Thompson framed her translating process through anecdotes describing her experience managing poetry workshops and teaching yoga abroad, Mhiri spoke about translation as an art and the ways in which a translator becomes a co-author through the creative process. Speaking on the traits a translator should harbor, Mhiri emphasized, “Empathy is in fact a crucial human feeling and a translator’s guide.”
After, Mhiri and Thompson invited the workshop attendees to partake in a writing and translation activity intended to provide real-world experience. Everyone paired up and sat facing one another, knee to knee, and each person in the pair had three minutes to answer the question “who am I?” to their partner.
After everyone had responded, Mhiri and Thompson challenged attendees to write a haiku about their partner. A haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with rigid syllable requirements: five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second and five in the third. Mhiri and Thompson asked workshoppers to write their haikus in their first languages and then translate them into another language afterwards.
The task presented unique challenges, especially when trying to preserve the syllabic structure in the second language, while simultaneously working to convey the original message. These hard decisions gave insight into the types of compromises real translators make.
Soon after, willing participants shared their haikus and translations. The languages represented included Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Romanian, Spanish, Vietnamese and others. The room also discussed lessons learned during their haiku translations. Many students voiced difficulties with languages that do not lend themselves neatly to a rigid syllable count and finding the exact translation for words that do not exist in other languages.
Students appreciated the experience and insight that the workshop provided. Nahid Mahmud ’21 illuminated, “Attending the workshop showed me a different side of the work that goes into translation, one that transcends the practical and instead concerns itself more with conveying things like emotion, narrative and perspective.”
Reflecting on how he can implement the learnings of the workshop into his personal life, Mahmud continued: “Exploring nuances hidden behind what seemed like an exclusively utilitarian practice to me gave me a newfound appreciation for the work, especially since I hope to use my growing proficiency in Arabic to communicate and—more importantly—empathize with the Arab and Muslim communities back home and in Jordan where I’ll be going abroad my junior year.”
The workshop was not just applicable for students wishing to study abroad. Matthew Au ’19 added, “Translation is difficult. As a Linguistics major, I often grapple with the question of what ‘translation’ means, especially for text as deeply profound and personal as poetry. This workshop provided hands-on translating practice, and allowed one to learn more about the process and art that is translation.”
Overall, the translation workshop was a valuable practical experience and a small window into the work that translators of literary texts do everyday. The workshop imparted a new appreciation for the art upon attendees, and skills that will potentially carry them beyond language borders.