Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: The Public Lecture Series ‘Tarjamat – ترجمات’

As part of ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation, we spoke with Prof. Rana Issa, at the American University in Beirut, the founder of “Tarjamat Series: ترجمات.”

The “Tarjamat Series: ترجمات” is a series of public lectures on topics on and around translation, held at the AUB. The series launched in early 2017, headed up by Prof. Issa, and is a key part of how Arabic literature in/and translation is taught at the AUB. In its first year, 12 events were held, featuring a diverse group of writers and translators, including author-translator teams such as Hisham Bustani and Thoraya El-Rayyes, and Hilal Chouman and Anna Ziajka-Stanton, as well as publisher-translators such as Sleiman Bakhti and translator-authors such as Lina Mounzer.

Here, Prof. Issa talks — in a discussion conducted partly over email, partly over Skype — about why the public lecture is such an important part of teaching with Arabic literature in translation.

What were the origins of Tarjamat? How did you decide the shape and focus the series would take? How long is it set to run, and how many talks a year? What were the initial hopes behind the series — pedagogically and otherwise — and how have they shifted?

Rana Issa: I joined AUB in Jan 2017. As soon as I arrived I began working with colleagues interested in translation to set Tarjamat up. The kick off event took place mid March, and it concentrated on introducing young authors and their translators to a larger public. Tarjamat is a low budget, slightly ad hoc affair, but we try to pack 6-7 invitations each year with a mix between international and regional guests and local writers and translators. Its mission is to create a conversation about the histories, theories, and techniques of translation.

It is an important part of my job to create a public discourse that moves beyond thinking of translation simply in terms of techniques. Technique is important, but only in context of larger historical, ethical and theoretical questions. Emphasis on translation partially responds to Edward Said’s essay “Return to Philology.” Like him, I am interested in cultivating  a philological sensibility, to be specific, an interdisciplinary historical, linguistic and literary methodology that manages to navigate between the micro and macro levels of a text.

Tarjamat is a platform that introduces my philological approach to translation that I developed during my doctoral studies and I hope that more students will be inspired to do research in translation that goes beyond the technical transfer of a text from one language to another. I would like to see more research on translation as a genre of world/global literature. Since the nineteenth century, translation has been key for constructing a culture of globalization. We can see this in the change in techniques of approaching the text, as well as in the choice of texts, and the role that translators began to play as conduits of modernity. Tarjamat encourages an approach to translation as its own genre. Framed thus, we can begin to interrogate the cultural relations between the local and the global. Also it allows us to reexamine technique not solely within the paradigm of linguistics but as these satisfy particular paradigms of ideologies of text.

Could you talk more about approaching translation as a genre?

RI: If we understand genre as a social act, when you decide a group of texts belong to a particular genre, it’s because you see them as performing a similar social act. I find translation what tries to do is to open the horizon of a particular society to literature or new ideas. And this idea that we have to look elsewhere for new ideas, we have to bring ideas from around the world—in that sense, translation becomes a genre.

And what’s important about working with young writers? The energy of their emerging-ness, their resonance with students?

RI: They definitely have more resonance with the students.

It’s also that they have fewer opportunities to show their work. Especially working in the Arab field — and this is something I didn’t think about before coming to Lebanon — there are many fewer opportunities for writers to travel and show their work and engage with others within the field. So Tarjamat is a platform for those people to showcase what they do.

Younger writers also have fresh ways of looking at things. We are in a fast-paced environment, with social media and new publishing venues. The new generation is very quick on picking up on those technologies. So it makes sense to have them come, rather than focusing on the safe and classic names.

And this sets up a system that’s mutually beneficial, or multi-directionally beneficial: to translators, authors, scholars, and students.  

RI: Exactly. And it also shows that there’s a living discourse on translation. It isn’t just translators slaving away on their laptops, doing their work, but they’re engaged and reflecting on the profession.

Especially because globalization has come now as a new stage, and things are being re-arranged. Translation is crucial for understanding how knowledge production works. We underestimate, at the university level, how much we rely on translation, and the politics of that.

We sometimes don’t realize what we’re doing, so a critical reflection on translation is relevant to everyone in the university, not even just in the humanities, but I would say — perhaps almost more importantly — the sciences. 

Do you get people from the sciences coming to your events?  

RI: A lot of my students are from the sciences, and this is a development that I think also has to do with the crisis n the humanities, if you will. Fewer students are interested in the humanities because they cannot see how it translates into a lucrative future in the labor market, so they do veer toward the sciences. And when they come to me, it’s because they’ve always had a passion for the humanities, and they felt like translation becomes a way where they could link a study of the sciences with an interest in reading literature.

I had three computer-science engineers last semester, and one was very vocal, and he said the reason he was there was he wanted to understand whether he could produce something for the humanities through what he was doing in engineering. And he found translation as a platform for thinking about how to link the sciences to the humanities. Because students definitely go after the money, when they plan out their futures, but their passions are with the humanities.

That’s part of the importance of the public events, draw students who wouldn’t have thought of allowing themselves the…luxury of humanities?

RI: And then I have students who come, now we’ve been doing this for a year. I have students who took a course with me last semester, and they miss it. And they bring your friends. It becomes a way for them to introduce others — their friends and cohorts — to ideas they think are interesting. So as a public event, I think it’s very important, because it allows us to assume that there is wider interest than just the classroom.

Do people come from beyond the university?

RI: There have been, although usually they are either academics or culture producers or interested in a particular speaker.

How do you choose the authors and translators? How influential are concerns like regional and gender balance, a diversity of genres and translational styles, books that will be attractive to students, ones that fit with the wider curriculum?

RI: I often invite authors that I teach on the syllabus. Tarjamat is designed to closely follow my classes and its most basic function is to provide a platform for students to become more intimately acquainted with authors and translators. It links my pedagogical responsibilities to larger concerns at the university level. Based as I am in the English department allows me to move beyond Arabic literature and to invite guests who work between other languages, such as Spanish, French and English and hopefully at some point we will expand more. The point of this multi-linguistic axis is to allow  for a theory and a history of translation to emerge from work that is firmly close to the text. I like to think through translation about larger issues: for example we had Samia Mehrez visiting us to discuss the revolution and translation. Meanwhile in class she workshopped with the students about gender and translation. Happily for my generation, some of the most cutting edge work in literature and translation is being done to break identitarian boundaries, and in that sense we end up with a gender balance, but it is not the main concern of Tarjamat to be mindful of gender problematics. The more interesting question is how to navigate the politics of identity in techniques and choices taken at the textual level.

What difference does it make to students that these are not only real flesh-and-blood authors but also real flesh-and-blood translators? And not separate, but together.

RI: I think the corner stone of a good academic experience is the public lecture. Through the public lecture, the university asserts curiosity as the most essential feature of learning. When I was a student, the public lectures I attended were the key that opened the world for me, and I hope Tarjamat will open translation as a problematic for a much larger community than specialist interest in the field. My courses often cater to students from outside the Humanities, and the public lectures follow the spirit of reaching out to them and expanding their horizons beyond what I can cover throughout the semester. Meeting the translators (and not just the authors) has had great impact on the students, and on the conversations I have with colleagues about the function of translation in the world.

Translators are often invisible beings. That is not to say that they are weak, on the contrary, the power they exert on our experience of worldliness has shaped the world we inhabit. Inviting them to a platform and asking them to reflect on their profession has meant bringing this power and its responsibilities to bear on how we think and read. It enables us to become more critically engaged in the texts that we read: what has been selected for translation, how it has been rendered, and what are the limits of this power? all these are essential questions for academics and the communities they work with. Acknowledging the translator as an equal partner in the production of culture has also revealed to all of us the extent to which translation is a creative endeavor, and the extent to which authors are dependent on their translators to move their voices beyond the local languages they write in. These have been productive pairings, that have also made authors think about this dependency and how to navigate/negotiate it.

What advice would you give if a university wanted to set up their own series like Tarjamat?

RI: I would definitely focus on the young generation more, but I also find it very important to keep a connection to the big names in translation studies. We focus on the young professionals because they have fewer opportunities to show their work, but also to anchor that new energy the new professionals bring with them within the tradition.

This is why I had, for example, Samia Mehrez coming, and we will have other people coming who are very big names in the field.

 What are some successful moments you can talk about?

RI: We had a really wonderful moment when Hilal Chouman & Anna Ziajka Stanton came.

When they were there, and they realized that Hilal’s a human being, they liked him. So they liked his character, and it was interesting to see how when they start liking an author, they start reading him more. Now because they liked Hilal, and connected with him, they got his latest book and they were translating for me.

And then with Anna, she has a particular method as a translator that she followed with Limbo Beirut, and my students started using it because they thought it was very interesting. It had a direct impact on them. But also I think once you make the process visible, you allow for critical reflection.

I really appreciate [Lawrence] Venuti’s contribution to making the invisibility of the translator something we pay attention to, but I would like to emphasize it even more. At some level, the translator is more powerful than the author. When we had Hilal and Anna on stage, this is what they were discussing. He becomes very dependent on his English translator for his voice to come across, and she is very well aware of that.

Where I think you have no awareness of this, people who are less ethical in their treatment of the text will go undetected.

How would you like to push this further, our interrogation of the role of translation? 

RI: People have been working in translation studies for more than two decades, particularly focusing on the politics of translation. But bringing the discourse further, beyond postcolonial studies, are there other ways to talk about this? Is there is a way to talk about the politics, the ethics, and the technique of translation all at once? How do we do that?

How do you gauge the pedagogical success of public events (what does success look like)?

RI: With the classroom, you can give them exams, and they come back with answers, and you can gauge what they’ve learned. In public events, I rely on my experience of public events. I have enjoyed going to public events, although now when I’m going to have to write a report, I need to report on how many people go to those events. And it varies a lot, depending on the speaker. If a speaker is well-known, like Samia Mehrez, people were sitting on the floor. When you have someone young and relatively unknown come—once, we had eight people in the audience. Although when Lina Mounzer was there, the room was full of people. It depends on a combination of what the topic is and who is talking.

And your funded for next year?

RI: I hope so.

Even if it’s not, I think we’ll go on, as we rely a lot on the local scene, which has much to offer. I haven’t even begun asking the Lebanese translators to come in. We also have a partnership with Rusted Radishes, and it’s another way to solicit good writing for their magazine, and it has been successful so far.

We don’t get a big budget, so I also rely on local talent. It’s important for me to rely on the local community, to highlight who we have in Lebanon. And I hope we’ll do more.

Rana Issa is Assistant Professor of Translation Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research interests include 19th century Arabic literature, translation studies, philology and the Bible. Some of her recent publications include “The Arabic Language and Syro-Lebanese National Identity: Searching in Buṭrus al-Bustānī’s Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ.”  “Rakākah and the Petit Quarrel of 1871: Christian Authors and the Competition over Arabic.” “The Fallibility of Tradition in al-Shidyāq: The Case of Islam,” and “Missionary Philology and the Invention of Bibleland.” She has also published translations of the Syrian author Yassin Hajj Saleh.

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