The Playlist: Teaching Translation, Curating Texts

By Richard Lee Pierre

In teaching undergraduate courses on literature in translation at the University of Michigan, I encourage students to engage with our readings in creative ways. I periodically like to treat class time like a studio session or editorial workshop, stressing that what we do with what we read is just as important as how we read. 

For instance, I like to run a “theme and variations” activity, where I select a short passage from the text we are discussing, and ask students to produce a number of paraphrase “translations.” This provides critical insight into the variability of translation, destabilizing the presumption that a single, immutable translation exists. I especially like to first have students attempt variations individually, and then collaborate on a set in small groups. Evaluating other budding translators’ efforts—and justifying one’s own—can be an electrifying moment, when the readerly intimacies of translat-ing a text pass over into the public discourse around translat-ed texts. 

I think it is equally important to continue a hands-on approach when introducing translation on this broader, more abstract level. I want my students to get a sense of the complex ways in which a world of literature develops and circulates through translation, energized both by individual and systemic forces; I want them to see how correspondences (or contrasts) are drawn between texts when they are related to each other as translations

In order to give students firsthand opportunities to develop such correspondences—a kind of introduction to editorship—I have developed activities based upon the concept of the playlist. A playlist, I propose to my students, is a curated collection of music (organized by theme, style, genre, etc.), often designated for a specific purpose: ambience for studying, motivating songs for a workout, mood music for an assignation, the agreeably bland sounds of a waiting room, a carefully-chosen mix to share with a friend, and so on. If a playlist is simply a way to organize music according to preference, circumstance, or purpose, then it is not so different from methods of arranging texts. Since students are often familiar with a wide array of media platforms, they might have novel ideas about what constitutes a playlist; we can apply that knowledge to thinking about new ways of organizing translated texts.

I show students examples of existing translation “playlists,” like Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series (1974–89), edited by Philip Roth. We take a moment to review the principles of this series, which organized “outstanding and influential” works by authors including Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bohumil Hrabal. These varied authors are united, for the purposes of the list, by their origins in the contentiously-defined Eastern (here equated with “Other”) Europe, and by their relative unfamiliarity in the English-speaking world at the time of their publication in Penguin’s series. Roth’s own literary tastes might also be implicit in the series’ composition, we admit. Finally, since we are dealing with texts in translation, I ask my students to think about where and how the translators are credited in the series.

I have drawn on this list while teaching one of its “tracks,” short stories by Bruno Schulz. Referring again to the playlist concept, I stress the implications of list editorship for the circulation of translated literature. When listening to a playlist, one imagines that by continuing through other tracks, even unfamiliar ones, we will discover an underlying sense of cohesion, or else judge the playlist unsuccessful. Since students are familiar with Schulz, they rightfully wonder if other texts included in “Writers from the Other Europe” are similar; if they seek them out, they can evaluate the list on these terms, and ponder any emergent affinities, including and beyond the notion of “otherness.”

The next step is to ask students how they might “shuffle” the playlist. What “tracks” would they add to the “Writers from the Other Europe” series? All of its authors are male—are there works by female authors that belong to the “Other Europe”? What if the list included poetry, in addition to prose? How might the list be shuffled, geographically or otherwise, by comparing it to another series, like Northwestern University Press’ “Writings from an Unbound Europe” (1993–2011)? Students might also ask why someone like Franz Kafka wasn’t included, though his name is often dropped in the company of Kiš, Schulz, and others. Was he omitted because of his relative renown? Because Penguin could not secure publication rights? Because he wrote in the more “familiar” German language instead of Polish, like Schulz, or Czech, like Hrabal?

Pausing over such questions offers a point to critically engage with the list, to demonstrate that questions of inclusion and exclusion in such “playlists” are not merely matters of taste and preference. Instead, they gesture toward what is at stake in the very categories (like the “Other Europe”) that we use to contextualize translated literature as it is transported from the unknown to the known, from the faraway to our native ground, and from the foreign language to the domestic idiom.

Following this analysis, I ask students to design their own playlist of texts, drawn from assigned readings or beyond them, as befits the course. I have students select parameters for their lists: they might choose according to a specific theme, form, or geographic region, compose a list of different translations of the same work, and so on. Drawing on their familiarity with varying playlist formats, students may suggest additional organizational modes, like a “celebrity playlist”: for example, what would Bruno Schulz’s own “Writers from the Other Europe” list look like? Students also write rationales explaining the principle(s) of their playlists, and how their selected works relate. Just as we critically review Roth’s “Writers from the Other Europe,” I then ask students to respond to each other’s lists—to evaluate their composition and goals. Thus, our classroom develops its own discourse community around translated texts.

The playlists that students create are a modest version of a literary series, like “Writers from the Other Europe.” By creating their own lists, in addition to reviewing existing ones, students think actively about questions that inform the circulation of translated literature, which makes for a critical supplement to close readings and class discussions of individual texts. This approach is by no means limited to the specific case I have discussed here. Anthologies, literary journals and websites, critics’ reviews, literary prize winners, book series, recommendation lists (whether computer- or human-generated), a syllabus for a course on literature in translation: all of these collections are playlists, of some kind, and all of them await the next sophisticated shuffler to share them with the world in new forms.

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