Congratulations to the winners of the 2021 Senior Prize in Literary Translation and the Classical Translations Contest

Senior Prize in Literary Translation

The Senior Prize in Literary Translation is an annual translation contest hosting by the Department of Comparative Literature and open to all graduating seniors at the University of Michigan. Annika Hoffmann was awarded the 2021 Senior Prize in Literary Translation for her translation from German of the short story “Seegeister” by Ilse Aichinger. 

The prize committee admired Annika’s haunting translation of a haunting story about mysterious happenings at a lake. In an eloquent translator’s preface, Annika explained how her translation “heightens” the atmosphere of the German text, “coming at the story through a veil” through the stylistic strangeness of English that “enhances the mythical and supernatural elements of the tale.”

20th Annual Contexts for Classics Classical Translations Contest

To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, Contexts for Classics expanded its annual Classical Translations contest to include a wider range of languages taught in the departments of (I) Classical Studies, (II) Asian Languages and Cultures, and (III) Middle East Studies. Graduate and undergraduate students from across the University of Michigan were invited to submit literary translations of texts from (I) Latin, Ancient Greek, and Modern Greek; (II) classical Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit; and (III) Akkadian, Assyrian, Coptic, Syriac, Biblical Hebrew, Hittite, Middle Egyptian, Sumerian, and Classical Armenian, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Here are the winners in each category.

(I) Classical Studies

  • Hussein Alkadhim translated an excerpt from the Iliad by Homer from Ancient Greek.
  • Anna Cornel translated Bion’s fragment 8 from Ancient Greek.
  • Joshua Johr translated Rudens by Plautus from Latin into a short film.
  • Isabella Reacher translated Aeneid, Book 12, Lines 930-952 by Publius Vergilius Maro from Latin.

(II) Asian Languages and Cultures

  • Jahnabi Barooah Chanchani translated from the Classical Sanskrit excerpts from a Sanskrit anthology of devotional poems called the Bālagopālastuti.
  • Elinor Lindeman translated Kankyo no tomo by Priest Keisei from the Classical Japanese.

(III) Middle East Studies

  • Sara Yeager translated Ecclesiastes 4 from Biblical Hebrew.
  • Allen Kendall translated Hymns to Senwosret III from Middle Egyptian.
  • Mehrdad Kavani translated excerpts from Sacho Sarmast’s Masnawi from Persian.

Now accepting translations for the 2021 Senior Prize in Literary Translation!

Senior Prize in Literary TranslationThe Department of Comparative Literature is pleased to invite graduating seniors in all departments at the University of Michigan to submit entries for our annual prize in literary translation. This prize is open to translation studies minors as well as all other students and is intended to encourage undergraduate students to develop projects (through previous coursework or on their own initiative) in translating into English a literary text originally written in another language.

Submissions are due before winter term examinations, and will be judged by a team of faculty members in Comparative Literature. The prize will be awarded before graduation at the end of winter term.

The deadline to submit entries for the 2021 Senior Prize in Literary Translation is Thursday, April 15. Visit the Department of Comparative Literature’s website for rules and instructions.


Upcoming Event: Translation and Memory: Hispanofilipino Literature and the Archive in the US Midwest

The second seminar in the Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest Mellon Sawyer Seminar series is Translation and Memory: Hispanofilipino Literature and the Archive in the US Midwest. This seminar will be held virtually on March 12, 2021. Learn more about the events and workshops for this seminar on the Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest website.

Hispanofilipino Literature and the Archive poster, Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest, 2021

If you are interested in keeping up with Sawyer Seminar news and event announcements over the next two years to sign up for the mailing list here.

Upcoming Event: Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience

Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience is the first Mellon Sawyer Seminar in the Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest series. The seminar will be held virtually on February 4-5, 2021. Learn more about the events and workshops for this seminar on the Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest website.

Jewish Multilingualism poster, Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest 2021

If you are interested in keeping up with Sawyer Seminar news and event announcements over the next two years to sign up for the mailing list here.

Launching the Mellon Sawyer Seminar: Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest

Map of the MidwestThe Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan will launch the 2021-22 Mellon Sawyer Seminar: Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest on Monday, February 1 at 2 PM EST.

Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the seminar series draws on interdisciplinary resources within and beyond the University of Michigan to explore various midwestern histories, practices, and cultures of translation.

Join us via Zoom to meet the Sawyer Seminar team, learn about our shared project, and hear about this semester’s seminars: Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience and Translation and Memory: Hispanofilipino Literature and the Archive in the US Midwest.

Learn more about the project and upcoming events by visiting the Mellon Sawyer Seminar: Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest website.

If you are interested in keeping up with Sawyer Seminar news and event announcements over the next two years to sign up for the mailing list here.

Announcing Absinthe, vol. 26: VIBRATE! Resounding the Frequencies of Africana in Translation


Image of the cover of Absinthe Issue 26.

Absinthe: World Literature in Translation is happy to announce the print release of volume 26, our 2020 issue contemplating the implications of Africa and its diasporas in translation.

Co-edited by Frieda Ekotto, Imani Cooper Mkandawire, and Xiaoxi Zhang, the Africana issue features contributions across various languages and media, including Lugos, Kamba, English, French, Swahili, Arabic, Adinkra Symbols, visual codes, digital languages, digital collage, and photography. Absinthe is edited and published by the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, in conjunction with MPublishing.

How to order :
Order directly from the publisher
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A note from the guest editorial team for VIBRATE!
We began working on this issue of Absinthe to draw attention to the politics behind language in African literature, and to move toward envisioning a more equitable and linguistically inclusive publication environment for African and African diasporic voices. We reached out to writers of African descent using both colonial and local African languages, as well as translators and artists interested in the poetics of translating blackness and Africanity.

We previewed the Africana issue in a December 2019 Absinthe Reading, where we had the pleasure of hearing select works from faculty and students at the University of Michigan alongside renowned African writers. The reading was dedicated to cultivating spaces and practices in which black voices are heard within the academy, to prevent experiences like #blackintheivory and to eradicate institutionalized forms of inequity in our own profession.

VIBRATE! also resonates with the June 2020 Open letter: African writers in solidarity with African Americans, written in response to unarmed Black Americans who had fatal encounters with the police. Like those writers (some also contributors to our issue), we choose to “recognise the alliances and connections” throughout black diasporas within and outside of Africa, as part of a global upheaval to eradicate anti-blackness.

And now in our Covid-19 context, where the welfare of marginalized communities is rendered further at risk along with the viral display of violence against Black bodies, we understand our work for this issue of Absinthe more profoundly: the Africana issue questions the inner workings of power within language and extricates Africana expression, to support the right to tell a story in your own words, without having a fatal encounter. It is about the quiet revolution that happens when systems and practices are put in place to listen to Afro voices.

–Frieda Ekotto, Imani Cooper Mkandawire, and Xiaoxi Zhang

See table of contents


Happy International Day of Translation!

September 30 is the International Day of Translation, which the UN General Assembly formally recognized on 24 May 2017 through Resolution 71/288.

This year, the work of translators and interpreters becomes even more important because of COVID19. The COVID19 pandemic is not only a health crisis; it is also a linguistic crisis, described by one source as history’s biggest translation challenge. In many places overseas, and even here in the US, access to healthcare begins with access to proper information delivered in the languages spoken by diverse linguistic communities. It was for this reason that the theme the International Federation of Translators (IFT-FIT) has proposed for this year’s International Day of Translation is “Finding the Words for a World in Crisis“.

Happy International Day of Translation to everyone!

International Translation Day poster for 2020

From the Archive: Alexandra Niemi translates Dmitry Golynko

This week, we take a look at Alexandra Niemi’s searing translation of Dmitry Golynko’s poem “Government Funding,” which deeply resonates with our uncertain moment.  Read the poem in full at The Offing.

From “Government Funding
(Translated from the Russian)

a rusted-out sedan stuck in traffic, they arrived
in droves from the rebel region to enroll, life
embittered in solid chocolate, an osteopath
found signs of pelvic dislocation in a laborer
from the mining sector, in government funding,
the inevitable bankroll of negative emotions,
siphoned for military use with third-party
government assistance, cooked up Turkish style

white supremacists, approaching
a migrant, don’t break a sweat slapping
your noble visage, called that old-hag baby
momma the proprietress of the paunch, get to the top
thanks to brain excision, fast-tracked
by government funding, an armored security vehicle
cut off by a station wagon, going out with bats
for a good thrashing, practically clinging to his leg

a shabby drone takes off from a war base
acting the false target, instantly shot down
by the powers of the Protective Ground Forces,
rebels fall around the fucked supervisory mission,
pouring rain fills the government-funded
UAV, the rocket bombardment of enemy
supply stations was memorable, the likelihood
of missing utterly low, the time has come

an overgrown manchild importantly spitting
his wild image, going shopping along the main
drag of city life, greedily bringing his lips
closer to the bottle to get to the bottom
of non-things, government-funded
direct shipments of liquid soap are held up
en route, caught him red-sleeved, rubbed
his nose in what he’d done, toasted to the deal

sucked down a liter of brown liquor
in one swig before boarding, the microflora
turned out badly by all accounts, delayed
release didn’t earn any fans, thrown under
the bus on bad advice, with government funding
the formula of modernity isn’t manifesting
at all from the desired preconditions, a jacked
motionless body, risked a step aside

two thugs carrying a stereo system, the climax
of the shopping riot at the looted corner
store, the night before the savage collapse in prices
the cash machine was ramped to full speed, looks
dead on its feet, the government funding
includes educational developments, raises
tuition, the dodo bird’s getting fat, started
hiccupping from the booze, yawns sweetly

Alex Niemi currently teaches Russian at the University of Iowa where she received her MFA in Literary Translation in 2014. Her writing and translations from the French, Russian, and Spanish have appeared in Drunken BoatAsymptoteAction YesHorse Less Press ReviewPreludeDusie, and others. Her translation from the French of The John Cage Experiences by Vincent Tholomé is forthcoming in 2018 from Autumn Hill Books.

Dmitry Golynko’s books of poetry include Homo Scribens [1994], Директория [The Directory, 2001], Бетонные голубки [Concrete Doves, 2003], As It Turned Out [2008], Что это было и другие обоснования [What It Was and the Other Arguments, 2012], Приметы времени [The Signs of Time, 2017]. Golynko is a recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including CEC ArtsLink Residency at UPenn, DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, KulturKontakt Austria, International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Ventspils Writers’ and Translators’ House residency. Currently he teaches film theory at St. Petersburg University of Film and Television Studies and works as an independent scholar in the field of contemporary visual culture, biopolitics, accelerationism and object-oriented poetics.

2020 Senior Prize in Literary Translation: Congrats Lauren Levitt!

Lauren Levitt’s translation of “Las Cartas de Gerardo” won the Senior Prize in Literary Translation! We interviewed Lauren about her experience translating this short story.

Briefly describe the short story you translated.
La isla de los conejos [Rabbit Island] is a collection of short stories by the distinguished Spanish author, Elvira Navarro, published in January 2019.  I translated the first short story in the text, “Las cartas de Gerardo,” which centers on the long-awaited fallout of a young couple, Natalia and Gerardo, while they take a trip around their native country of Spain. Much of the story’s setting is within Natalia’s mind, as her questions about her relationship with Gerardo, past feelings, memories, and confusion consume her during the trip.

Why did you choose to translate this particular short story?
I chose to translate this short story out of the collection due to its cultural similarities to young American adults’ quests, in terms of relationships, growth, and self-exploration. Aligning with many American interests of romantic betrayal and a questioning sense of self, the translation of this text allows Navarro’s craft and narrative to be enjoyed across the Atlantic, an audience I perceive as one to appreciate this text, both as entertainment and as an intellectual pursuit.

What sort of challenges did you come across while translating?
My priorities when translating this text were fidelity to the source text and readability of the target text, a coexistence that required me to  overcome multiple challenges. Achieving fidelity to the original text in my translation involved retaining Navarro’s elegant yet succinct use of prose to convey the emotional turbulence of her characters. Doing so would provide American readers with the same sense of discomfort and disorientation provided to Spanish of the original text. However, this aim interacted aggressively with the additional objective of readability. The original text could be argued to lack readability because of the confusing nature of its style, but it is important to note that this complexity is not the result of a cultural disconnect. I was resultantly charged with the task of creating a linguistically legible and intelligible text that maintained the story’s sense of confusion, while meticulously doing so not through cultural differences, but rather through style.

How did the Minor in Translation Studies prepare you for translating this story?
This process required careful consideration and took much of what I learned about translation theory in my classes into account in order to solve issues that presented themselves throughout the process. In my coursework for the Minor in Translation Studies, I learned about a multitude of phenomena and methods to employ and consider while translating. I used many of these including literary estrangement, dynamic equivalence and domestication/ foreignization. This toolkit allowed me to successfully translate not only the words in the text, but all of the meaning behind it as well.

What do you like most about translation?
I enjoyed translating this text, as it required me to be creative and try to find different solutions to convey metaphors and emotions from one language to another. I was able to use some creative writing techniques in re-creating these literary devices, which added an artistic element to the work of translating. Additionally, I enjoyed reading and dissecting Navarro’s text, as I found many experiences in the narrative similar to my experience studying abroad in Spain. I was able to draw real-life connections between my experiences in Spain to those in the US, and I thought it was super interesting that Navarro studied at the same university I did when abroad, la Universidad Complutense de Madrid!

Congratulations to Lauren and thank you to all of the seniors who submitted their translation to the contest this year.

Translators at Work: An Interview with Kelsey Trotta

In anticipation of our 2021-22 Mellon Sawyer Seminar on “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest,” we are proud to highlight members of our own translation community.

For our first interview in this series, we had the chance to talk with Kelsey Trotta, a University of Michigan graduate and full-time freelance translator. Kelsey’s prior work includes translating interviews for The New York Times, subtitles for National Geographic docu-series, training videos for multinational corporations, USAID interviews, United Nations documents, legal, medical, and technical documents, vital records, as well as interpretation for asylum seekers. You can find more information about her work here.


Meg Berkobien: When did you first become aware of translation as a process or a concept?

Kelsey Trotta: Well, I suppose this is more a memory of interpretation than translation per se, but when I was 12 or 13 years old, I was watching a newswoman reporting in English from abroad. When someone approached her, she said something in Arabic or Dari, then she went right back to her report. I didn’t know much about code switching until college, but at the time I remember thinking, Ok, that’s what I want to do.

MB: What about that exchange felt so vital to you?

KT: I think it was the fact that she transitioned so smoothly from one language to another. I grew up in a monolingual household so I’d never seen anything like that before.

MB: I know you translate from Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Which language did you learn first? How did you go about learning each of them?

KT: I started with Spanish. I remember telling my parents that I wanted to study French and they said to start with Spanish and move into French in high school. So I did. And then when I was in college, I took an Italian class because my grandparents speak Italian, and then I learned Portuguese. After college, I decided to apply to teach English in Brazil for a year. And what really kind of did it for me was being able to be fully immersed in the culture there because very few people spoke English. Most non-Brazilian people were from different parts of Latin America, so I got a lot of great experience with folks speaking different dialects of Spanish and Portuguese and really learning how to communicate in a language that wasn’t my own beyond theory.

MB: Yeah, I mean, it’s such a powerful thing, not having that English crutch.

KT: You fall into learning the hard way. And that can be fun—it’s kind of like learning how to ride a bike. You’ve just got to get back on if you’ve fallen down.

MB: When did you start getting curious about translation as a field of study? In undergrad?

KT: Yes, I would say I had a few different classes that were particularly impactful. Translation as a full-time job kind of fell into my lap, but I started being interested in translation probably around my junior year of college. I had a couple of classes, one, for instance, with Professor Christi Merrill, called “The Truth Claims of Indian Literature,” where we spoke about rendering certain concepts untranslatable and not having them conform to European ideals, which was beyond fascinating. There was also another with Professor Catherine Brown on Don Juan where we discussed untranslatable concepts, specifically untranslatable words. I also took a class with Professor Teresa Satterfield that really helped me break down sentences, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but learning to do that was indispensable to translation because it’s what I do literally every day.

MB: I know you focused on Latin American literature in college. Did you also study a specific national literature?

KT: Not exclusively. I definitely read Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez. But I don’t think I was really able to fully appreciate the beauty of Latin American literature until I went there. Once I went, though, everything just kind of fell into place.

MB: Where did you go?

KT: After living in Brazil I travelled to Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. I only got to spend one night in Uruguay.

MB: Ah, Uruguay! The author I primarily translate, Cristina Peri Rossi, is Uruguayan. Which leads me to another question—do you do any literary translation, by chance?

KT: To be honest, it’s not my strong suit, so I’m more on the translating content and technical side of things. But I really have so much respect for literary translators because that’s a whole other level of getting into the author’s head. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope and describing it clearly, and I have so much respect for it as an art and profession.

MB: Did you do translation in any community capacity while you were in undergrad?

KT: I translated a bit to make money during college, but it wasn’t until after graduation that I started working in the community.

MB: Ah, I ask because I know you’re connected to the Language Resource Center here at the University. They love your work. And they’ve been doing the Translate-a-thon here at the University for a while now, and I was wondering if you had participated in that.

KT: Oh! Yes, I participated in that a year and a half ago.

MB: So after you graduated. You came back!

KT: It was really cool to be able to do it, because it felt like an honor to be back and help other people. The person we were translating on behalf of was a Mexican journalist, Emilio Guttiérez, who was fighting the good fight and letting people know about what was going on. He has been seeking asylum for the past ten years.

MB: Can you say a bit more about that project?

KT: The project was to translate Guttiérez’s newspaper articles. He was exposing human rights abuses and being threatened for it, which is why he crossed the border to seek asylum. Michigan’s Language Resource Center took up his cause and made translating his work the focus of the 2018 Translate-a-Thon. I was very lucky because I’ve worked with a fair amount of asylum cases, so I had translated similar things before. It felt great to be able to do that for someone, especially someone who was fighting the good fight.

MB: Exactly. And I think that’s important because when you’re a freelance translator, you don’t always get to take on that kind of work. Often, the people who often pay best are businesses.

KT: I’ve been very lucky in terms of clients. I’ve been able to make a living without working with companies I disagree with, those committing human rights abuses or whose practices go against what I believe and that I’d have to go against my conscience to work for…

MB: That’s honestly so great to hear. I guess this would make a good pivot point–what do you translate in your day-to-day?

KT: Half of my work is translating legal documents, vital records, and technical translations. I do a lot of work for immigration law firms. And I do a lot of work for different companies that work with Latin America and Europe. And then a big part of my work and also what’s called localization. Localization is basically where you translate copy and then you tailor it to a local market in a way that the content will appeal to a local consumer. I really love it. Occasionally, I’ll get academic journal articles and technical documents but my bread and butter are localization and legal documents.

MB: So what kinds of technology do you utilize? What makes the difficult work of translating easier?

KT: Lots and lots and lots of dictionaries. The WordReference forum is one that every professor I’ve ever had recommends, and I use it every day. Linguee is another good one. And if I’m really, really stuck on something, I’ll go to the DRAE (Spanish), the Priberam (Portuguese), or the Larousse (French).

MB: Ah, I use all of those online resources, too! I don’t have any physical dictionaries around anymore. I just keep asking myself–what happens if the Internet goes down? Will I still be a translator? (Laughs.)

KT: I have at least two or three dictionaries on my phone, too!

MB: Have the classes you took at Michigan had any bearing on your professional work?

KT: Oh, they definitely have. Like I said, I had a lot of great professors there, I can’t speak highly enough of them. The biggest thing that I took away was the ability to break a sentence down, work with the different meanings it contains, and doing a close reading of the source content in order to convey the message I want to convey.

I mean, I remember when I was working on my first asylum case and the person was granted asylum. I contacted a couple of my professors and just said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that your classes were really instrumental to my growth. I’m a full-time translator now and my client just won the asylum case I was working on. So, thank you.”

MB: What a feeling! I’m just thinking kind of back to what you said about the untranslatable—how does that work in a professional context? I mean, I don’t think that clients will tend to want you to keep things untranslated. I know that’s a bit of a high theory kind of thing, in the realm of literary translation maybe, but do you see the untranslatable at work in your asylum cases?

KT: Sometimes concepts don’t translate well. Usually when I encounter those types of concepts, I’ll ask if I’m allowed to adjust the content accordingly. This could be finding an equivalent situation, or finding a different way to explain something. I think it’s really important when translating, to know, understand, and respect your audience, because that’s primarily what we’re doing when we’re translating. Part of that obviously has to do with the word, but another part of it conveying the sense of the message in terms your audience will understand and respond to.

MB: Do you work pretty closely with lawyers or paralegals?

KT: I do. I work with a few different immigration law firms. Sometimes I do tricky things like articles of incorporation or business agreements, or MOUs (memoranda of understanding). I work with a fair amount of lawyers on various projects.

MB: So, I know that you can’t talk about any cases in particular, but, in general, has that work led you to do any community organizing around immigration outside of your translation work?

KT: Most of the work I do surrounding questions of immigration is my translation work. And I’m all for writing to local politicians to make sure they’re aware of what’s happening in our area. I’ll also post on my personal social media about orgs working on immigrant rights, why immigrants are so important in our communities, and how people can help. And I try to stay very aware of what’s going on by listening to different news outlets in the US and abroad.

MB: Exactly. That’s such an important aspect of our work, I think, because part of being a translator is being an advocate.

KT: Agreed. The way I see it, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited into these communities through language, and because of that, I want to use my platform in any way I can to pass the microphone so to speak and raise awareness about the issues that many are facing.

MB: What is your dream project?

KT: I wouldn’t say I have just one. I’ve localized content for hotel chains, and I absolutely love doing that. I worked in hospitality for a while after college, and I was a tour guide in Rio during the World Cup. I love being able to tell people about different places and different ways to travel, places to go and what to eat, etc. What was really cool about those particular projects was that I was able to learn more about my own country. I would love to be able to do more work translating in different areas of hospitality.

I would also love to translate food-related texts. In my spare time, I love baking and so I’ll go to popular foreign-language websites and translate recipes. I would love to be able to translate a cookbook or a book on the history of food and colonization’s impact on food systems that shape how we eat today.

I guess the last project would be translating a documentary about visiting different bakeries around the world, tracing the history of bakeries and different baked goods. For example, the history of different pastry work is fascinating; I’d love to learn more about how certain forms came to be and the impact that monasticism has had on it.

MB: I’m pretty sure everyone who subscribes to Netflix would watch that.

KT: I hope so! I’d love to do something similar to Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat but for baking.

MB: So, I was hoping we might end with the question of the untranslatable. What’s your favorite untranslatable word?

KT: Ah, that’s like asking me to name my favorite language or favorite book. In Spanish, I guess I would say “engañar” or “burlar.” Because this idea of an intentional and artful deception is something that we don’t really have in English. And it is an important concept because it informs certain ways of communication that I think to a certain extent, the English language is limited by. In Brazilian Portugese there’s the word “malandro,” which as a term is common throughout Brazil and can mean something to the effect of being savvy and sometimes untrustworthy, but the “malandro” archetype and the concept of “malandragem” are unique to Rio de Janeiro and “carioca” (from Rio de Janeiro) culture. Plus, there’s the subjective—it’s one of the coolest tenses in my opinion.

MB: Well, thank you so much, Kelsey, for sharing your story with us. I know I’m proud to be in community with past grads and translators like you.

KT: Thank you!