Seminar 7 on Translating Hamtramck (Fall 2022) – Translate Midwest

Seminar 7 on Translating Hamtramck (Fall 2022)

Seminar 7 coordinator: UM Professor Silke-Maria Weineck (German and Comparative Literature)

When Karen Majewski was re-elected mayor of Hamtramck in 2016, she thanked her audience in seven languages: English, Polish, Arabic, Albanian, Bengali, Bosnian, and Ukrainian. Hamtramck, all two square miles of it, is a city within a city. Like the neighboring Highland Park, it incorporated in the 1920s to fend off annexation by Detroit, which now surrounds Hamtramck on all sides. And like Detroit, its fortunes rose and fell with the fate of the car industry ever since the Dodge Plant attracted thousands of Polish immigrants in the 1910s and 1920s, pushing out the Germans who had dominated the community until then. Later waves brought Bangladeshi, Yemeni, Albanians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Ukrainians, Iraqi Chaldeans and others.

Little known outside of Michigan, Hamtramck made international news when it elected the first majority Muslim city council in the US in 2015, leading to breathless coverage not just in the right-wing media. On Breitbart, Pamela Geller warned ominously that “everywhere Muslims have held political power, non-Muslims have suffered – suffered loss of life, or property, income, social standing, or equal rights before the law.” Talk of “Shariaville” spread on social media, and even CNN asked Majewski, to her bafflement, if she was afraid of being in her own city. Hamtramck has reacted with equanimity, meeting the hostility with its sunny tagline, “The World in Two Square Miles.” In the session on “translating Hamtramck” we will seek to understand the opportunities and challenges of a small, radically multilingual, multiethnic, and multireligious community as well as its relationship to the City of Detroit, itself a global urban site.

In preparation, we would first seek to map the city’s unique linguistic and cultural diversity in granular detail. We hope to build, in part, on the results of the upcoming 2020 census, but also create our own maps based on distribution of houses of worship, ethnically specific local businesses, multilingual signage, and the like. Hamtramck is Michigan’s most internationally diverse town, with more than 41% of its residents born in foreign countries, according to the 2010 census. In 1970, fully 90% of the residents had Polish ancestry; now those with Bangladeshi roots are the largest group at 20%, followed by African-Americans, Pakistani, Polish, mostly Yemeni Arabs, Macedonians, Asian Indians, Ukrainians, Albanians, and numerous other smaller demographic groups. In the Census Bureau’s 2017 community survey, only 33.4% of Hamtramck residents said they spoke exclusively English at home. The difference from the largely monolingual neighboring Highland Park, which used to be a very similar community, is striking:

Figure 2 from Ljuba Veselinova and Jason Booza, “Using GIS to Map the Multilingual City,” accessed March 6th 2019.

A comparative history between the divergent developments of two towns that started out in very similar ways will shed light on the economic and political conditions that produce multilingual spaces. In seeking to understand Hamtramck, we will pay particular attention to practices of translation within the town, both narrowly understood (signs, city brochures, etc) and in the broader sense (i.e. collaborative community building between linguistically, religiously, and culturally distinct groups).

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