Reyes Lazaro | 2017 NEH Summer Institute for College and University Faculty: What is Gained in Translation? | Kent State University

My project for the Kent State NEH summer Institute "Gained in Translation" at Kent State was to include translation as an object of study in my Comparative Literature intermediate class on Don Quijote (fall of 2015). I had decided to highlight translation in this course for two reasons: first, because although my courses for Comparative Literature are all taught in translation, I had never included a section on translation as a cultural practice in them, and I considered this situation had to be both addressed and redressed. The second reason is that Don Quijote is a magnificent text to think about translation.

Translation in DQ can be studied at least from three perspectives: In the first place, the sheer numeric and cultural importance of translations of the novel into other languages; in the second place, the pioneering fictional presence of a translator as a relevant character in the novel--the story is presented as a translation into Castilian by a young Morisco (a Spanish descendant of Muslims) of a manuscript written in Arabic by a historian (Cide Hamete Benengeli). In the third place, the various commentaries on the practice of translation contained in the novel.

I intended to (and did) include three sections on translation in my class. At the beginning of the semester, we debated my selection of Edith Grossman's translation vis a vis other possibilities. My goal was to make the students aware, first, of the very existence of different translations, then of their differences and importance as tools for interpretation. This I achieved through comparisons in class and home assignments in which students were asked to reflect on the role of translation in their intellectual lives. They were shocked to discover that although translators had enabled them to read most books, they had been largely unnoticed by them. Throughout the semester we studied the translator as a character in Don Quijote, his active intervention and dilemmas. Finally, we debated the meaning of a statement by Don Quijote at the end of the book, namely a famous simile in which he equates reading in translation to watching the backside of a tapestry. Providing interpretations for it was a challenging and extremely valuable exercise that demanded of us to reflect on our findings during the semester, and to ultimately discuss the novel as a significant intervention in 17th century Spain. I am convinced that most, if not all, students in my class have become savvy about the cultural significance of translation and the extremely complex critical work that translators perform (a science student described a precious 'aha' moment by saying that before the class she believed that only the scientific method develops by differences in interpretation but that she has discovered that similar development in the understanding of texts takes place thanks to the accumulative wisdom contained in various translations. Her final paper was precisely on translation in Don Quijote, as were those of 25 percent of her classmates'). Most important, focusing on translation enabled us to discover exciting unexplored aspects of Cervantes's novel.

The Institute provided me with most useful pedagogical, scholarly and collegial support. Pedagogically, Francoise Massardier-Kenney, Brian Baer and the magnificent guest speakers (Carol Maier, M. R. Ghanoonparvar, Michelle Yeh, Ibrahim Muhawi) modeled for us teaching at its best; so did the discussions with and presentations of work in progress by colleagues from a variety of fields, as skillfully selected as successfully encouraged to interact. The Institute also provided me with an excellent introductory bibliography to include translation theory in my class and to demonstrate the hermeneutic usefulness of contrasting translations, even when we do not know the original language. In terms of my scholarship, the Institute, in addition to greatly enhancing my initial interest and respect for translation and translation theory, has inspired an article on the famous tapestry simile which I plan to submit to PMLA in the spring. I also shared the news on the lasting effects of the NEH Institute, and of the value of highlighting translation in our courses, with my academic community last fall, when in the company of three other participants from the Five Colleges we gave a presentation on the Institute to students and faculty at Smith College, which attracted much interest and elicited great response and questions. Collegially, the Institute has created an intellectual community that remains active online.

The "What is Gained in Translation? Learning How to Read Translated Texts" 2015 NEH summer Institute organized by Francoise Massardier-Kenney and Brian Baer was one of the most exciting and best organized intellectual, pedagogical and collegial activities in which I have participated in a more than thirty year-long career. It has deeply impacted my work as an educator and a scholar. If a second part were offered I would apply again and emphatically encourage colleagues to attend.

Reyes Lazaro, associate professor Spanish and Portuguese Department Smith CollegeĀ 

Back to Participants