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Found in translation

UNI literature lectures explore methods, challenges

Literature enthusiasts often assume that the keys to creating an inspired translation are a serious understanding of linguistics and native fluency in at least two languages. William Waters, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of German and comparative literary studies, says that’s not so.

“The most important thing about being a literary translator is your command of the language you’re translating into,” Waters says. “It’s not very difficult, in the case of most writers, to figure out the dictionary definitions of their sentences, but if you translate a novel, a play, or a poem with dictionary definitions, you will end up with something quite wooden.

“It’s always an act of imaginative re-creation,” he adds. “To do that, one needs imaginative flair and sure-footedness.”

Eight scholars who have demonstrated these qualities will share their experiences with the BU community this semester as part of the Literary Translation Seminar offered by the University Professors Program. The seminar, with 25 students enrolled, consists of a closed workshop on Mondays, and a public lecture on Fridays, in which that week’s scheduled translator will discuss the challenges associated with a particular work or genre.

“It’s a mix of some guests who have been here before, several new voices, and in some cases, we’ve invited someone who is translating in a different way from any of our previous guests,” says Waters, who is teaching the seminar this year. “For the students, it’s primarily about listening to people who are masters of this difficult craft.”

This semester’s guests include Peter J. Novak of the University of San Francisco, who will discuss the process of translating Shakespeare into American Sign Language; Robert Henricks of Dartmouth, who recently translated the oldest known version of the Tao Te Ching; Gideon Lester, the associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, who will speak about translating for the stage; and Laurie Patton of Emory University, who will talk about translating the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit.

The series begins on Friday, February 10, with a lecture by Ulrich Baer of New York University; his topic will be translating the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke. All lectures are held in Room 625 in the School of Theology building, beginning at 1 p.m.

The Friday, Feb. 3 lecture has been cancelled. For a complete list of lectures, visit the Literary Translation Seminar Web site.