“Translating the Midwest” at 2021 American Comparative Literature Association – Translate Midwest

“Translating the Midwest” at 2021 American Comparative Literature Association

Yopie Prins and Silke-Maria Weineck convened a two-day virtual seminar on “Translating the Midwest” at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association. 

The seminar explored how different language communities in the Midwest represent themselves in various forms of literary production and translation, and considered why this “regional” perspective should change how we think about the “worlding” of Comparative Literature as a discipline.

The first day of the seminar focused on nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples of translation in (and of) the rural Midwest, and the second day focused on the production of heterogeneous forms of translation in urban spaces., concluding with discussion and ideas for collaboration on future research projects among colleagues across the Midwest.

Day 1 (April 9, 2021)

1. Philip Round (University of Iowa): “Translation as Disinterment: A Lakota Letter from Wounded Knee, 1890”

In this paper, I discuss the politics of translation that attend a letter written in Lakota in 1889 that was subsequently stolen from the body of one of the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre at Pine Ridge in 1890. We will examine the original Lakota language text, a translation made in the 1970s, and my own analysis of the letter’s meaning as an affirmation of kinship ties (a central Lakota social principle), as an example of how a formerly unwritten language came to be transformed into an alphabetic script, and how written Lakota quickly became (within the first twenty years of its existence) an integral part of one Native community’s social fabric. 

2. Chris Meade (Appalachian State University): “Toponymic Code-switching:  From Minnesota to Mnisota”

Historian Nick Estes describes the difference between a settler nation’s and indigenous conceptions of time: settlers conceive of time as linear to distance themselves from historical atrocity while indigenous people conceive the present as inseparable from the past which has structured it. The ability to forget the past, not to be reminded of it every day, is contiguous with white privilege as more broadly defined by Nell Painter: “whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.” In this paper I will consider how one contemporary Native poet circumvents the settler’s historical amnesia through code-switching. Minnesota is a white land in the popular imagination by association with snowy plains, Nordic immigrants, and Garrison Keilor. By rendering the vowel-raised “Minnesota” as “Mnisota,” Layli Long Soldier makes her depiction of the Sioux Uprising and the execution of the Dakota 38 resonate on the cartographic register. The Lakota pronunciation and alternative orthography can attach to the standard English pronunciation of the word in the mind of the poem’s audience. I argue that thus enacted, estrangement can show the names on the map to be unstable palimpsests rather than fixed identities. The past which was far-distant for the settler reader may come to be seen in the progressive past, inseparable from and still structuring the present.

3. Birger Vanwesenbeeck (SUNY Fredonia): “The Great Epic that Wasn’t: Land and Language in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia”

“I’ve forgot my English so,” Ántonia tells Jim near the end of My Ántonia, “I don’t often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speak real well.” While it is tempting to read this development as yet another example of a dialectic that pits Ántonia’s (lyrical) rootedness in the land (and her corresponding illiteracy) against Jim’s (epic) liberation from it, as ushered in by his study of Latin, a closer look soon reveals this schema to be inadequate. As it turns out, Ántonia is able to converse with Jim just fine, making it so that she has not so much “forgotten” her English than that it has assumed a less prominent role in comparison with her native Czech. Contrary, then, to how Cather’s novel is often received, there is nothing American about Ántonia. She is “ours” only to the extent that we are Midwesterners (or Bohemians). What the novel suggests moreover is that Ántonia’s multilingualism—as opposed to Jim’s—is a direct consequence of her non-identification with the nation, a point that is not only echoed in some of Cather’s lectures from this period (such as her response to the 1921 Siman Act) but that, perhaps paradoxically, also makes the novel hover all the more closely to its would-be epic subtext, Virgil’s Aeneid.

4. Iida Pollanen (University of Oregon): “Immigrants in the Rural Midwest: A look at Willa Cather and Ole Rolvaag” 

 With his 1920 novel Main Street, Sinclair Lewis coined the “village virus,” a diagnosis which came to associate rural small town America with conformist, backward, and anti-modern tendencies. As scholars like Ryan Poll have pointed out, twentieth-century modernist authors such as Lewis and Sherwood Anderson subverted the nation’s ideological identification with the dominant village imaginary in order to highlight the dark features of Midwestern small town psychology. As a counter-lens for the largely white-centered village virus discourse, my talk will focus on transnational representations of the Midwest in the works of Willa Cather and Ole Rølvaag. I will draw from Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse’s work on feminist regionalism, where regional writing becomes newly defined as a minor literature that focuses on rural spaces and the political critiques and counter-hegemonic narratives such spaces bring forth. In the writings of Midwestern modernists such as Cather and Rølvaag, region becomes diagnosed as one of the intersections of identity along with gender, race, class, and language, and their understanding of the nature and future of the Midwest is contingent upon the intersecting identities of the minority characters they portray. Far from being antagonistic to modernity and cosmopolitanism, rural regions were used in these Midwestern texts as sites for considering political questions of immigration, (trans)nationality, and community.

Day 2 (April 10, 2021)

5. Kimberly Clough (Texas A&M University): “Perfect Hoosiers:  Midwestern Muslims in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006) challenges stereotypes of two communities seen as monolithic and mutually exclusive—the American Midwest and diasporic Muslims. Kahf’s representation of the Midwest productively complicates the quintessential figure of the “Midwesterner,” often marked as white, rural, and Anglophone. In contrast to this stereotype, Kahf translates the Midwest through the eyes of her protagonist, Khadra Shamy, a Syrian-American. Khadra’s hometown, even in 1970s’ rural Indiana, is marked by diversity. Affiliated by religion, the Muslim community differs in background and interpretation of religious expression. At first appearing stereotypically Midwestern, the non-Muslim residents reveal suprising heterogeneity in their religious beliefs, ethical stances, and spoken languages. While Kahf subverts both Muslim and Midwestern stereotypes, her narrative uncovers pervasive racism as an ironic similarity within these communities. The Muslim community faces further division due to prejudices against varying Arabic pronounciations and different country-of-origins. Focusing primarily on the quarrel over veiling practices, I draw on the work of Saba Mahmood, Leila Ahmed, and Lila Abu-Lughod. Ultimately, the novel suggests that coexisting with diversity requires acceptance of unassimilable difference.

6. Renee Hoogland (Wayne State University): “Beyond Translations of “the Midwest”:  Visualizing Detroit and/in its Urban Everydayness”

Once the Paris of the Midwest, Detroit continues to be the subject of much obsession and contradictory sociocultural and political translation. Whether seen in terms of urban decay or as the epitome of a deindustrial sublime, the term “ruin porn” translates directly into Detroit, a recent Google search suggests. Detroit today is also cast as the proverbial “comeback city,” a narrative primarily fueled by corporate players like JPMorgan, Bedrock Detroit, and the Ford Motor Company. The city thus serves as at once dream and nightmare of American (white) identity and rugged individualism. Lost in these representations is the actual life “on the ground,” i.e. “Detroit” as something that constitutes itself as a singularity played out in the elusiveness of urban everydayness. It is in that which is familiar but not necessarily known, consisting in an embodied and automatic “knowledge” that is hard to describe since it can only be sensed, that Detroit manifests itself in all its multi-racial and multiethnic complexity. This paper explores the elusive everydayness of Detroit as a virtual site of intensity, whose “realness” may perhaps be (equally virtually) captured through the lens of the still camera. It will be organized around the work of contemporary street photographer Amy Sacka, who does not translate the city into something else but brings it into focus through its people.

7. Silke Weineck (University of Michigan): “Imported from Detroit”

I propose to analyze two famous Chrysler advertisements, both aired during Superbowls, both set in Detroit during the bankruptcy years: “Halftime in America” (2012), narrated by and featuring Clint Eastwood, and “Born of Fire” (2011), narrated by and featuring Eminem. Both negotiate, in distinctly different ways, the relationship between Detroit and the US. Between the two of them, Detroit emerges as an ambivalent space, both of and outside of America, representative of the country and foreign to it—the same ambivalence Chrysler’s tagline articulates: “Imported from Detroit.” Detroit’s oscillating status as the most and the least American city exemplifies, I will argue, the unsettled status of Midwestern urban spaces in the national imagination: while both East and West Coast cities such as New York or Los Angelos are identified with their respective regions and vice versa, a long ideological tradition has carved out the Midwest as a nostalgically framed rural space, identified with a fantasy of white America, which cannot be reconciled with its multi-ethnic, multilingual post-industrial metropolitan spaces.

8. Yopie Prins (University of Michigan): “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest”

This paper will introduce projects and proposals in conjunction with our Mellon Saywer Seminar, “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest.”  Funded by the Mellon Foundation for 2021-22 at the University of Michigan, the goal of this seminar series is to explore translational histories of diverse multilingual communities across the Midwest, and to develop an agenda for collaborating on research, teaching and public outreach around this topic with colleagues at other Midwestern universities.


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