Translation at AWP

By Michelle Kyoko Crowson

Last week’s AWP conference featured an impressive array of panels on translation’s growing presence in the creative writing world. Among those was a panel titled “Double Lives: Writer/Translators,” moderated by WWB editorial director Susan Harris, in which poets who translate discussed how they move between their dual identities. Easily, it seems. Rather than isolating the writer-self from the translator-self, each panelist comfortably inhabited a rich and multivalent writing life. As Idra Novey put it, “We’re not blue and not green—we’re grue.” These poet/translators take on different shades of color, depending on their writing context. For Lawrence Schimel, such a multifaceted life is an important part of “being a good literary citizen.”

In fact, the general consensus among translation panelists was: we need more writer/translators in the world, and more creative writing programs to make a place for translation in their curricula. Translation panelists pronounced the creative writing MFA as the natural home of translation, though, as Geoffrey Brock pointed out, few programs teach translation on equal footing with prose and poetry tracks. Notable exceptions are Queens College and the University of Arkansas, and these programs just might be the vanguard of a new institutional dwelling for translation.

This recent visibility is striking when put into perspective: translation panels occupied eighteen slots in this year’s AWP schedule, and only four slots at the 2006 conference. In 2006, when I was an MFA student at Vermont College, translation was a casual component of a study abroad residency—optimistic but anecdotal, geographically removed. Now my alma mater offers a fifth-semester concentration in translation, mentored by writer/translator faculty.

But if the MFA is indeed the natural home of translation, many practical questions remain about the move-in process. For example, what kind of requirements will students need to fulfill in order to follow a translation track? “Double Lives” panelist Sholeh Wolpé argued that all students should be required to take language and translation classes. But what level of language proficiency is necessary for such classes? Will MFA programs teach both theory and practice? What interdisciplinary doors will open as translation nestles into the MFA?

Or perhaps it’s better to ask: what interdisciplinary doors should we keep from closing? I ask because so many of these articulate, excited advocates spoke of translation as a practice in need of asylum from scholars. Given the choice between a scholar and a writer/translator, Sidney Wade said, “give me the dumb poet any day,” and Wolpé pounded a table, railing against the many scholars who have “killed the poet” with their dull renderings. “It’s time,” she declared, “for poets to take translation back from the scholars!”

But translation need not be exclusive. As Susan Briante noted, “the best place for translation is where there’s funding and mentorship.” Like the lives of writer/translators, the institutional home of translation might also take on many shades of color.


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