“Humble beginnings to something quite remarkably wonderful”:
A Short History of the BU Translation Seminar
For over thirty years, Room 625 in BU’s School of Theology has been home to the same seminar, offered every year, “The Theory and Practice of Literary Translation.” The Seminar has served not only as a means of training BU students in the theory and practice of translation, but also as a regional forum for the discussion of all manner of problems connected to literary translation. The weekly lectures by translators and translation theorists – practitioners and scholars from all over the globe, working in an ever-expanding array of languages, from ancient Hebrew and Greek to modern Turkish and Chinese – drew, and continue to draw, large audiences from BU, the surrounding academic community, and the general public. Local literary figures have frequently attended, and presentations have often been broadcast by WBUR. Many of these talks have been recorded and, in recent years, videotaped, resulting in a unique historical archive of conversations on translation. Over the decades, the Seminar has gained the reputation as one of the most distinctive courses taught at the University, “a jewel in BU’s crown.”
How did it all begin? This question occurred to me originally in 2009, when I was invited to teach the seminar for the first time. However, I only began to look into this issue after Professor Rosanna Warren, who gave the Seminar its present form and taught it for many years, had left BU for the University of Chicago in 2012. When, in 2015, I was given the opportunity to teach the course a second time, I decided to pursue the matter of the Seminar’s origins more seriously: combing through the “Seminar Archive” Professor Warren left behind, corresponding with colleagues who have led the course in the past, looking in the BU Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, contacting different units at the University involved with the Seminar in one way or another over the decades. The present essay attempts to sketch the history of the BU Translation Seminar from its modest beginnings in the late 1970s to the present. Doubtless it has its weaknesses and omissions; in some cases I found that records were incomplete or lost and posters were not preserved. I welcome corrections, additions, and comments from readers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For decades, the BU Translation Seminar was known simply as “Rosanna’s Seminar,” because of the seminal role played by Rosanna Warren in its evolution and popularity. However, the origins of the class date to before Warren’s arrival at Boston University as a visiting assistant professor in 1982. The story in fact begins in the late 1970s with an informal series of talks started by Professor Rodolfo Cardona. Cardona came to BU to serve as a Director of the University Professors Program with an appointment in the then Department of Modern Foreign Languages, where, as a specialist in 19th and 20th-century Peninsular literature, he taught Spanish and comparative literature. Most of the organization of those early talks seems to have been done by one of his graduate students, Von Underwood. Cardona, himself a translator of Galdós and Gómez, describes the Seminar’s beginnings as follows:
I am happy that the Translation Seminar is still going strong. I started it, informally, in the spring term of 1978. With the help of one of my doctoral students, we announced (not with posters), that a group of people interested in literary translation would gather every Friday to present and discuss translations. People from greater Boston and all the various educational institutions came to the Friday meetings and it became a success.
Early in the ’80s I went to the Mellon Foundation to try to get a grant for the University Professors Program, which was a unique educational departure from the standard approach. They were impressed and gave me a $3,000,000.00 grant, which they allowed me to invest. The ’80s were bullish and the grant grew during the term stipulated to around 5 million. With that money, I was able to launch the Seminar with the unusual feature that it was, at the same time, a public gathering as well as a course for credit for those who wanted to do translations.
Within three years of these initial meetings, the Seminar appeared for the first time as UNI HU 540 in the 1981 Graduate School Bulletin.
As mentioned above, in these early years, Cardona enjoyed the assistance of Von Underwood, then one of his doctoral students, now a Professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Cameron University in Oklahoma. Underwood offered some detailed recollections that fill in more of the picture:
Basically, I started the thing off as a series. I had a BU Master’s in Creative Writing and was in a UNI [University Professors] doctoral program, which means I had worked out a set of interests with the professors in the program. I was at work on that when Professor Cardona took the helm at UNI and I worked closely with him and an administrative assistant named Zara Chapin. I had taken courses in the master’s program and in the doctoral program with Michael Hamburger, a British poet and translator of German poetry. I was also studying German with Harriett Watts, who was a student of Christopher Middleton (also a British poet and translator, at UT Austin).
The problems and the wonderful complexities of translation interested a number of graduate students and writers. I started a series, or was allowed to, because I was so interested and I wanted to bring some communities (translators, writers, theorists, students of literature) together. We had some success, and it really was interesting on so many different levels. I worked with Dr. Cardona to push it to a course.
Indeed, it would seem that graduate students played a seminal role in getting the Seminar off the ground. As Underwood observes:
Until I started working with Rodolfo Cardona, nobody but Zara Chapin helped me to organize this, though I did have several fellow graduate students present in the series. Rudi may have had other graduate students help. [. . .] I was involved in the fall of ’79 and left for Berlin in January 1980. Mark Sanger, Henry (Hank) Morrison, and Dennis Looney were graduate students in the University Professors Program at this time and several of them may have presented at some point or gotten involved when I was gone to Berlin. [. . .] Dennis and I did a very intense study of Pound’s Cantos with Carne-Ross one semester. Carne-Ross was of course one of the speakers in the series from very early on. I know Carne-Ross and Herbert Mason were speakers early on.
The Carne-Ross referred to here by Underwood was Donald Carne-Ross, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Boston University. A scholar known for his translations of Pindar and Horace, as well as for his trenchant essays about translation (collected in the volume Classics and Translation), Carne-Ross came to BU from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1965, along with William Arrowsmith, renowned particularly for his renditions of Euripides and Aristophanes. While in Austin, Carne-Ross and Arrowsmith founded a National Translation Center and a translation journal, Delos. Both were recruited to BU by President John Silber, and became part of the group called “Austin in Boston,” the presence of which contributed significantly to the interest in translation at BU. Herbert Mason, also mentioned by Underwood, used to teach in the Department of Religion at BU. He was the author of many books, including the famous 1971 translation of Gilgamesh.
Underwood’s description of the structure for which the seminar became known makes it clear that this format was already established in its first years:
Dr. Cardona transformed what was a kind of uneven, ad hoc operation into a much better organized series and students enrolled with Dr. Cardona as professor of record. My part for the students was to organize weekly meetings, apart from the guest speakers’ sessions, for them to discuss the presentations and to read from and discuss their own translation projects and to explore how the presentations and the projects connected. The students each had a faculty mentor who was a language professor. Dr. Cardona oversaw and reviewed all the work and collected evaluations from the mentors and assigned grades. I was sort of a Teaching Assistant and facilitator, though I don’t know that I had any title.
Publicity for the seminar was also begun at this time, with the aim of bringing in audiences from around Boston:
Dr. Cardona obtained the grants that made it possible to bring in speakers. Before that, I had just opportunistically invited people coming to campus or Boston for other reasons and of course invited regular faculty with projects. I also advertised the sessions before Dr. Cardona came with hand-drawn flyers on colored Xerox paper that I posted all around the campus. There was not a poster that presented the whole series as a unit until Dr. Cardona brought that and the funding about. Dr. Cardona saw how this could be developed and it made a quantum leap from an animated interest group to a course and public series through his leadership and efforts. I think it made another quantum leap when Rosanna Warren became involved. Humble beginnings to something quite remarkably wonderful.
The earliest informal posters announcing the speaker series we have are from 1979, like the one above. The first recordings available at the Geddes Language Center date back to 1978 and can be found here.
The Warren Years
Renowned poet, writer, and scholar Rosanna Warren came to BU in 1982 and spent thirty years here as Emma MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, University Professor and Professor of English and Romance Studies before accepting an appointment as Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Under Warren’s steady hand, the Seminar achieved its current shape and gained wide acclaim as a premier academic venue for the serious discussion of literary translation. During her career at BU, which coincided with a period of crucial development for the field of Translation Studies, Warren taught the course twenty-one times and brought countless fascinating speakers to the Friday lectures. Her contribution to the Seminar has been invaluable.
This is how Warren remembered her entry into the Seminar:
When I joined the faculty as a young assistant prof in 1982, the first thing Rudi [Cardona] asked me to do was to organize a translation seminar as a full-fledged course, which is what I did. And then of course it went on every year after that. I usually taught it, but in those years when I had leaves, others stepped in.
The interest in translation at BU in those years was unusually strong, according to Warren:
You can see that the climate in the Uni Profs [program] was hospitable to translation: and of course I consulted with my elders, Rudi, Donald Carne-Ross, and later Bill Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck when they came. In those years, the Uni Profs was electric with translation and translators. It was a marvelous time to be teaching there.
Roger Shattuck, also from the University of Texas, taught in the University Professors Program from 1988-97. A specialist in French literature, Shattuck is the author of seminal books on French modernism and Proust.
Perhaps we can say then that it was the combination of a number of things – Rodolfo Cardona’s vision for the University Professors Program; his interest in translation, shared by his doctoral students, particularly Von Underwood; the flowering of Classics at BU, owing partly to John Silber’s recruitment of a number of key scholars from UT Austin; and Rosanna Warren’s charisma and expert running of the Seminar – that really propelled it forward and made it what it has become.
Another fact worth mentioning about those early years is the creation of Robert Fitzgerald Prize in 1985. Rodolfo Cardona and Rosanna Warren approached Robert Fitzgerald with a request to name a translation prize after him. He was happy to agree, as is clear from this letter. The judges of the first edition of the prize were: Donald Carne-Ross, Derek Walcott and Harriett Watts. The prize is still awarded annually.
In 1989, Warren published an edited volume, The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, based on speaker presentations of the initial several years of the Seminar, dedicating it to Cardona, “the godfather” of the Translation Seminar, as she wrote. The publication was celebrated together with the tenth anniversary of the “Translation Seminars” with a party on December 9, 1989.
The Translation Seminar Over the Years
Rosanna Warren is listed as the instructor for the Seminar for the first time in 1983. She taught the course (with occasional breaks for sabbaticals) until 2012. The course continues to be offered to this day and keeps attracting talented students year after year.
Since its inception, the Seminar has been lead by the following members of BU faculty:
|1993-1994||Mary Ann McGrail|
It is hard to decide where “history” ends and the “present” begins, but I have drawn the line at the year 2000 and asked for recollections from two more people who taught the Seminar back in the 20th century. One of these is Mary Ann McGrail, a Shakespearean scholar, the author of Shakepeare’s Plutarch, Tyranny in Shakespeare, and the co-editor of the The Arts of Rule. McGrail led the Seminar for three years, from 1992-1994. These are her recollections:
I taught the seminar for three years, while Professor Rosanna Warren was on leave. It was part of what was then known as the Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts program, though open to graduate students not in the program. We had a number of excellent guest speakers over the course of that seminar, including David Ferry (translator of Gilgamesh), and Harvey Mansfield (translator of Machiavelli’s work), along with Robert Pinsky.
I opened my version of the seminar by asking students to compare several different translations of a portion of the Bible. Though most (or none of the students) spoke Hebrew, I found that having students (potential translators) look at different translations of the same work (especially one so well known) gave them a sense of the challenges and difficulties of translation, and allowed them to begin to see the impact of subtle differences in translation. Translation involves more than technical skill, it requires interpretation – both of a language and of a genre (poetry, novel, play, prose). I also gave them several different translations of a portion of King Lear, for the same purpose. The work of the seminar for the students was to produce their own translations, having studied and heard from some masters. It was my belief then, as it is now, that learning to translate, to try to capture a voice, without condescension to the original or the potential reader, makes one a better writer and reader. Translation is an art. I enjoyed teaching the seminar very much, as I enjoyed listening to the many skilled masters of translation who stopped by to give us their insights.
Jeffrey Mehlman, University Professor and professor of French at BU, a literary critic, a historian of ideas and author of numerous books, taught the Seminar in 1997 and had a lineup of many famous names. In his recollections of the course, he had the following to say:
The pleasure—and honor–of conducting the Translation Seminar in the spring of 1997 prompted me to invite as speakers a number of distinguished guests to the Seminar who had established credentials in the practice or theory of translation, but were in fact known for achievements—quite frequently in poetry and criticism—beyond translation per se. The program read as follows:
Arthur Goldhammer on “Sculpting with Words: How to Do Things with Style”; Christopher Ricks, “Beckett’s Allusions, English and French”; Norman Shapiro, “Traduttore seduttore: On the Art and Pleasure of Translation”; Gregory Rabassa, “If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents”; Harry Zohn, “Jest, Satire, Irony: Translating Kraus and Tucholsky”; Jeffrey Henderson, “Grace and Gall: Aristophanes and His Modern Audiences”; Richard Howard, “The Inside of the Outside: Stendhal, Proust, and Others”; Paul West, “ ‘Bless Thee Bottom! Thou art translated!’ Grace Notes of a Bottom Feeder”; Linda Asher: “Kundera: In French into English”; George Steiner, “After After Babel”; Lawrence Venuti, “Translation: Writing a Minor Literature”; and Richard Wilbur, “Voltaire, Villon, and Others.”
Professor Mehlman’s complete essay may be found here.