At a recent conference on literary translation, Arline and I sat in a beige hotel ballroom, listening to a panelist make painful, even nonsensical, generalizations about Panamanian literature. When the panel started taking questions, we escaped to the lobby and talked about whether it would be worth having a conversation with the woman, whose primary knowledge of the topic seemed to have come from one writer she was translating. Arline took a deep breath, returned to the room, and, after the session, gently asked the woman a question that might open a dialogue. But the woman retreated into defensiveness and said she had somewhere else to be. A later encounter was more disturbing; when we tried to explain what we had found problematic, she walked away.
This encounter was not what we had expected when we registered for the conference. We had wanted to think about ways to use translation in our classrooms. Arline, with her degree in Spanish literature, was considering translating some Panamanian writers. But as we talked that evening over quesadillas, we realized we had been naive. Of course, some of the translators would be white, U.S. Americans who, on the basis of a few projects, would present themselves as experts on whole national literatures. Of course, some of their generalizations would dovetail with old tropes about backwards banana republics, where no one reads and young writers don’t care about colonization because they want to “move forward.” These translators might even make strange slips like “Panama, of course, did not have to deal with Spanish colonization” when they probably meant to say that U.S. colonization loomed larger than Spanish in the recent past. They couldn’t know, of course, that a Panamanian might be sitting in the audience, cringing.
What was missing from the woman’s talk, Arline said to me, tilting back her beer on that warm Oakland evening, was an acknowledgement of how her position as a U.S.-born white woman reflected what she knew about the topic. Happily, Arline and I found many others at the conference engaged in nuanced self-reflection. At a session on “grassroots” translation called “Inheriting the Future: Cross-Pollinations of Race and Translation,” the panelists considered the complexities of identities and audiences — who are they and who are they translating for? – and talked about developing communities of readers, translators, and writers. Sawako Nakayasu, for example, talked about how her evolving identity as a transnational poet has affected her work. César Ramos, who publishes the journal, Raspa, described his efforts to nurture Spanish-English translations that can bridge U.S. and Latin American queer communities.
It was at this session that I began to envision a translation assignment for my students, many of whom are multilingual. What if they were to choose a text in their first language to translate? Teams of students could collaborate on revision, considering how their choices might affect different audiences. But how could I possibly find source texts in multiple languages? Arline suggested they do oral interviews with friends or family members. For heritage speakers with varying degrees of reading and writing skills in their heritage language, an oral interview would be more accessible. Great idea. But what would the monolingual English speakers be doing all this time?
I was still thinking about the conference when I returned to work. I shared with a colleague my question about what the monolingual students would be doing during the translation assignment. Avery pointed out that, because translation requires thinking about how much to explain about cultural references, the monolingual English speakers could “translate” their family stories, still in English, for different audiences. Arline had said something similar. I realized I needed to think more about how my own position, as a monolingual English speaker, not fluent in any of the languages I have studied, was influencing my framing of the assignment. What, in other words, was my own relationship to translation, as a writer and reader?
My first thought was this: I know that Arline courted me with a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. I can sometimes tell that a student is relying on Google translate for an English composition assignment. I know that “thank you” in Portuguese has both a masculine (obrigado) and feminine (obrigada) form because I looked it up in my guidebook this summer. That’s not much. I’ll have to think more about what I do and do not know. In the meantime, the conference made me want to read much more than I do in translation; I came home with a long list of books.