A Semester’s Fruits: A Followup Report on the MFA Program at Queens College

By Susan Bernofsky

It’s been quite a fall.  Those of you who read my earlier dispatch about arriving at Queens College of the City University of New York last September to teach in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation there know how my semester started out.  Now it’s just ended, and I have all sorts of happy developments to report.

First of all, the eleven graduate students I worked with in the Translation Workshop surpassed my expectations with their talent and perseverance.  Of the eleven, six were on the “translation track” (some double-majoring in poetry or nonfiction) while the others were fiction writers and poets.  There was even a lone MA student from the English department wanting to translate some of the poetry she was writing about in her master’s thesis.  All of them were subjected to my regimen: One perfectly revised page to be submitted to workshop each week.  This worked out well, because the short length of the weekly assignments meant that each participant could really concentrate on perfecting the details of each passage and then immediately put into practice what was learned in each critique.  I ended the term with a pair of marathon workshops with longer texts in which everyone showed the work s/he had painstakingly revised over the course of the semester.

The single greatest challenge my students struggled with was this: Letting go of the original text (i.e. the details of its syntax and diction) enough to allow themselves to imagine corresponding sentences and lines in English capable of functioning aesthetically in their own right—without of course straying so far that the translation could no longer be considered a translation.  When you don’t let go enough, the translation comes out sounding stilted, something no one enjoys reading; but letting go too much gets you too far from the original; the trick is to find the sweet spot in the middle where the original text speaks through the translation even as the translation is speaking with a voice of its own.  There are many different ways to approach this challenge.  I asked one student who was struggling with this problem in her translations of the difficult Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes to experiment with homophonic translation as a way to approach Fortes’s highly sonorous lines; she then incorporated isolated words and phrases she’d discovered in this way into her translations of his poems, to excellent effect.  Other students I asked to take their eyes off the page and just report from memory what a sentence said; invariably they would find themselves using English phrases that pointed the way to untangling the sentence in translation.

One student who was working with songs written in Bhojpuri found his work complicated by the fact that each ostensibly simple line contained an entire world of implied references that were clear to hearers of the original song.  He wound up producing an entire cycle of poems riffing on different aspects of the originals.  The translations proper, then, wound up being accompanied by a series of glosses, each of which works as a poem in its own right.  In short, there is more than one way to get the job done.

Midway through the semester, a number of Queens MFA students joined me for an outing to Philadelphia to attend the American Literary Translators Association Conference, where some of them even presented their work in two panels organized by my colleague Roger Sedarat.  I was proud to be able to introduce them around, and many of them were able to make contact with established translators working in their language areas and attend panels relevant to their own projects.

By the end of the semester, most of the students in the workshop had produced at least one finished work of translated fiction or poetry of publishable quality; they are now in the process of shopping their work around to journals.  One of the students was even approached directly by a magazine publisher after she participated in a reading at the ALTA conference.  She will be appearing in the next issue of The Dirty Goat.  I expect there’ll soon be other acceptances to report as well.

For students wishing to combine studies of translation and creative writing, the program at Queens is an excellent choice.  It is in fact one of only two programs in the country at which it is possible to study towards an MFA in Translation within the context of a Creative Writing program (the other being at the University of Arkansas).  I am just in the process of writing an article for the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s journal The Writers’ Chronicle on the different sorts of programs in which literary translation can be studied in this country, and the process of writing about translation pedagogy has only solidified my belief in the joint MFA in Creative Writing and Translation model.  If you’d like to see the article when it comes out, watch my blog for updates.

Susan Bernofsky writes about all things translation at translationista.org.


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