Found in Translation: Embarking on a new venture with the IYWP

By IYWP Intern Camellia Pham

Draw a diagram of some of the possible relations between facts, fiction, fake news, and translation. 

The squeaky-short sounding of the white chalk scuffing against the blackboard had got its cold, sudden stop. Here was my first quiz, due in two days, after three weeks in a college translation class. As much as I was perplexed by the intimidation of the diction, “diagram” (who would, to get it straight, guilt a literature student like me into working with any kind of drab geometry simply because I need to pass a college gateway course of my minor in translation?), I was hesitant to approach the very strange notion of translation. Why is translation there in the first place, nicely arranged alongside facts, fiction, and fake news?

A diagram indicates relations between Fact, Fiction, Fake News, and Translation by the author from the Translation and Global Society course at the University of Iowa

After three more courses in translation in different kinds of “languages,” two workshops with multiple peer-reviewed projects, and one semester away from completing my minor, I am still doing my utmost to answer the mind-boggling inquiry. 

And it is no different than the time I was trying to grasp the muttering words of linguist Louise Banks, in the film Arrival, on her phone call to the Chinese General Shang to persuade him to stop the war, after he issues an ultimatum to expunge the extraterrestrial spacecraft unless the alien Heptapods willingly make their way out of this Earth. As a translator and linguist herself, Banks deciphers the language of the aliens, the palindrome phrases written in circular symbols with black liquid ink that the Heptapods splash out with their multiple tentacles. She translates their message as “offering weapons,” while China, by communicating with the Heptapods through mahjong, a highly competitive winner-take-all game, interprets it as “using weapons.” As Chinese linguists and researchers get lost in translation, they assume that the world is threatened by the bizarre Heptapods and, based on the zero-sum theory of mahjong, the opposite stance between two mutually unintelligible sides rules out all the possibilities of collaboration and communication beyond unfathomable languages.

Poster of Arrival (2016)

The conversation of being lost in translation keeps coming back to us urgently, as if getting anchored by a weighty question mark, and even on the further side of the film Lost in Translation, in which the two estranged American, named Bob and Charlotte, fall in love with each other against the backdrop of cultural and linguistic displacement of Japan. We usually nag over the proverbialized “lost in translation.” Chantal Wright in her essay “Where Is My Desire once asked, “can the act of translation be viewed more positively, as a process of gain?” As the IYWP continues pondering over the stimulating realm of translation, we reckon that Found in Translation would be the new gratifying venture of writing and generating arts that we want our students to embark on.

Lost in Translation (2003). Image from Our Golden Age website.

Found in Translation is a collaborative effort between the IYWP and the Translate Iowa Project to introduce the crafts and arts of translation to Iowa City’s young writers and, at the same time, ignite meaningful conversations about writing in a diverse range of languages/non-languages and thinking in medium and linguistic multiplicity. Featuring four different talented translators of Korean, Indonesian, German, and Italian from the University of Iowa’s Literary Translation and Harvard University’s Comparative Literature, the project will have four separate modules of various translation crafts and activities. By the end of the module, students will have the opportunity to submit their work to the IYWP and, with the generous effort of providing equivalent translations for each piece by the Translate Iowa Project, the works of students will be anthologized in a variety of languages. 

Here are the blurbs of our four amazing translators: 

  1. Julia Conrad (MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa):

2. Caroline Froh (MFA in Literary Translation and Provost Visiting Writer in Translation at the University of Iowa):

3. Lizzie Buehler (MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University):

4. Lara Norgaard (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University):

It has been so long after I first watched Arrival and Lost in Translation, and yet, I can’t quite get myself out of the puzzling matter of the mutual intelligibility between humans and our attitudes towards the unknown. What are Banks’ last words to General Shang that make him stop his initiation of the war, and what is Bob’s final whisper to Charlotte in the crowded street compressed by people but not their languages?

Lost in Translation (A scene in Tokyo) and Arrival. Image from Paramount Pictures and goodforonegalaxy.com.

The IYWP hopes that through Found in Translation, young writers and creatives will enter the far-reaching inquiry into the fascinating and kaleidoscopic sphere of letters. So buckle up writers, have fun, don’t get lost, and enjoy the ride! 

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