Student Translators Face Ethical, Lexical Challenges

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

The Annual Student Translation Symposium, a celebration of language, culture and the art of communicating, allows students to present their original translations and give short talks on their personal translation processes. It has taken place at Oberlin every year for more than a decade.

This year, the Translation Symposium will be hosted Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Craig Lecture Hall. University of Michigan Professor Benjamin Paloff will deliver the keynote lecture, “The Universal Translator,” on Thursday, April 7, at the same time and place.

“It’s a gathering for translators of all kinds, people interested in foreign languages,” said double-degree senior Aaron Wolff, who will be presenting two poems translated from Canadian French at the Symposium. “What happens is that about … 20 people give five minute presentations on a text they’ve translated. It has to be a short text. They read the original, they read the translation, then they talk about … how they came to translate the [work] the way they did. It’s supposed to be celebratory and fun.”

Director of the Comparative Literature Program and English Professor Jed Deppman, the faculty sponsor of the Translation Symposium, also emphasized the entertaining nature of the event.

“It’s not a dry lecture,” he said. “There’s very little that’s dry or traditionally academic about it. It’s where philology meets the heart. … It’s the most exciting intellectual event at Oberlin every single year.”

Deppman, who started the Symposium in 2003, spoke to the passion and creativity of the student translators who participate in this event.

“When I got here in 2003, … I realized there was a booming interest in translation at Oberlin,” he said. “I want people to recognize how enthusiastic students are about translation. [The Symposium] involves lots of students bringing their passions for … all kinds of original works from other languages into English and meeting the challenges that are required from other languages and literary traditions. Every single move into English is different, has different challenges, different opportunities [and] different possibilities.”

College senior Samuel Morrow, who will be presenting a short story translated into English from Russian, reflected on this passion for language and the art of communication, as well as how this work fits into the broader context of academia.

“Translation is an excellent way to broadcast why the humanities are important,” he said. “The act of translation reveals a lot about the thought processes in writing. You’re writing your own piece in that it makes sense to you, but you’re also reading and interpreting somebody else’s work. The Translation Symposium showcases the kind of fluidity of thought and expression that goes into reading and writing.”

Deppman elaborated on the delicate balance that translators have to strike between the authenticity and comprehensibility of their texts.

“There are ethical implications in translation,” he said. “If you whitewash the original [text] and make it sound like it was written in your language, you do a great disservice to the original. If you stay absolutely literal to the original, … you run the risk of your target language audience not being able to understand.”

However, these challenges are part of what makes the process of translation so interesting, according to Wolff.

“I guess I’m just interested in translation because it’s an art form, actually,” Wolff said. “It involves making choices with something that inspires you and making a new thing out of it. Creating something that’s your own out of something that inspires you, but also [maintaining] the integrity of the original thing. That’s the challenge.”

In an age where machine translation continues to improve and the click of a button can generate text in another language, the Translation Symposium emphasizes translation as an art form rather than as a utilitarian process.

Morrow gave a reason why human translations are still relevant today.

“Machine translations, at this point, simply fail to translate long blocks of things,” he said. “They don’t capture the context and the thought underneath the words. They also have a really bad sense of humor, and there can be a lot of humor in translation that a machine really can’t get across. Machines just do it phrase by phrase or word by word.”

A brief look at the pieces that are going to be presented at the Translation Symposium indicate that this is going to be a whirlwind tour through genre and form as well as language.

“There’s poetry, there’s prose, there’s drama, there’s a science fiction novel piece, there’s an extremely vulgar Latin poem [and] a Japanese pop song,” Deppman said. “We have some graphic novels [and] someone is going to be singing. … There’s also an interesting experimental translation that’s using English to English translation, and a student who is doing homophonic as well as semantic translation.”

The languages represented include Japanese, Spanish, Turkish, French, Latin, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese and Greek.

“It’s exciting … seeing who knows what languages and learning a little bit about each language,” Wolff said.