For the fourth year in a row, Columbia University’s School of the Arts hosted a reading to celebrate Word for Word, an exchange program that brings together pairs of writers from different countries and languages to translate each other’s work. For the past three years, Columbia students collaborated with German counterparts. This year, they partnered with students from Scuola Holden in Turin, Italy and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. The American students traveled from New York to Europe in October, where they met their translating partners and began their collaborations. In the intervening months, they kept up the work online. Finally, in March of this year, the European students visited New York to complete their projects. This year’s exchange culminated in a Word for Word event at Columbia University on Wednesday, April 1, that included readings in English, Italian, and Catalan, as well as a short discussion by the participants on the topics of translation and cross-cultural exchange.
This year’s program paired Annalisa Ambrosio and Alessandro Bianchi from Scuola Holden in Turin with Columbia students Shane Michael Manieri and Kevin St. John, both translators from Italian, and Marta Carnicero and Aina Braldés from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona with Columbia students Alicia Meier and Scott Shanahan, translators from Catalan. The translations were published in two bilingual anthologies, which were distributed at the reading.
Susan Bernofsky, Director of Literary Translation at Columbia, opened the event by joking, “At first we thought we’d just bring these writing students together, and they would produce lousy translations, but the process would be transformative and have an effect on them as writers.”
Later, however, she recanted. “It seems we have failed at our initial goal, as some really great translations were produced here.”
Many Columbia University School of the Arts writing alumni—including former participants of the Word for Word program—have gone on to careers as translators.
During the Q&A portion of the event, the writers and translators were asked about their experiences collaborating on translations for the first time.
“I went into this not knowing much Italian, and I had to take a crash course, which was interesting. Mostly we translate dead authors, or authors who don’t have time to work closely with translators, so there is a certain silence in the process. But here, the whole point is collaboration. You are an author who wants to control the text, but you're also a translator who knows that (sometimes) it's better to ignore the author and do what serves the writing best. It was a very challenging, interesting tension,” Columbia student Kevin St. John remarked.
Another benefit of the partnerships was to establish a good rapport between writers and translators. As Spanish writer Aina Baraldés recalled, there were many conversations about meanings and interpretations of local expressions and idioms, which provided not only a greater understanding of the foreign language, but also its culture.
This level of trust between partners extended to the more literary aspects of translation. Alicia Meier and Marta Carnicero, from Columbia and Universitat Pompeu Fabra, respectively, had only praise for each other.
“Marta did a magnificent job preserving the musicality of my piece, which was really important to me. It made me conscious of what mattered to me, what I could live without and what she couldn’t change,” said Alicia.
Marta added: “When I hear Alicia reading my text, I feel that she made it better. Hearing it makes me know she did her job.”
In some cases, the process of being translated can even alter how one sees their own work, as was the case with Columbia student Shane Michael Manieri.
“I realized that certain words, when translated into Italian, made the line limited, less expansive. That only highlighted that it was also limiting and less expansive in English.”
This attention to language is one of the advantages of having the exchange program involve creative writing students. As Bernofsky noted, “They come to translation bringing the skills they already have as writers.”
The anthologies produced from Word for Word are not available commercially, but interested parties can inquire about copies at Columbia University’s School of the Arts Writing Program (firstname.lastname@example.org).