BU Today

In the World

Words at Work

UNI seminar and lecture series explores art and process of translation

“Translating is like a literary illusion, like an actor performing a role,” says Rosanna Warren, who teaches UNI’s Literary Translation Seminar. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Translating a work of art to another language is itself an art. “You can be word-by-word accurate, but produce an absolutely horrendous translation that has no life in it,” says Rosanna Warren, a UNI professor and BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, who teaches the University Professors Program Literary Translation Seminar.

Warren’s students are learning that there is much more involved in the process than picking up a dictionary. The course consists of an intense three-hour writing workshop on Mondays and a Friday lecture series featuring professionals in the translation field, which is open to the public.

There is no language prerequisite for the course, but students must be able to read in a second language and to understand its grammar for an independent translation project. The first seven weeks of class are spent translating from ancient Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, languages Warren is proficient in, but many students don’t know.

“The exercises work to see in practice what sorts of problems crop up and what kinds of principles we can call up to solve those problems,” says Warren. “I start with poetry because it focuses on the problem of form and meaning more intensely than prose does.” To translate a poem by Sappho, Warren gives students the original in Greek, a transliterated version, a word-for-word translation under each Greek word, and a sample of English translations spanning 400 years.

“Professor Warren has emphasized the subtleties of every word choice, teaching us that words mean far more than the dictionary reports,” says Paula Brady (GRS’07), a master’s student in the Creative Writing Program. “Each word or phrase carries with it cultural and literary allusion, connotations, tone, the poet’s voice, and many other elements that produce a matrix of meaning and wealth of nuances in a poem.”

Students discuss word choice, how to balance tone, style, and form, and how the translator’s attitudes and background influence the final product.

“I’ve learned that you don’t have to know the language you’re translating from to have both big successes and big failures,” says Hannah Weaver (UNI’09).

During the second half of the semester students work on an independent project they’ve chosen. Warren finds each student a mentor fluent in the language they’re translating, whether it is German, Chinese, Finnish, or Albanian.

Some students have gone on to publish the work they began in the course, including Don Share (GRS’88), who won a TLS Translation Prize for his book I Have Lots of Heart: Selected Poems by Miguel Hernandez, and Amanda Powell (GRS’83), whose critical edition and translation of the work of the 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana de la Cruz, The Answer/ La Respuesta, was published in 1994. However, says Warren, translation “is an art, not something you can suddenly be a master in after 13 weeks.”

“One exciting aspect of having a course with so many visitors is that students see for themselves that there is no right way to do it,” she says.

The lecture series, which is free and open to the public, is from 1 to 3 p.m. every Friday until April 27 in Room 625, 745 Commonwealth Ave. The next lecture, My False Friends: Translating from French, by David Pellauer of DePaul University, is tomorrow, February 9.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.