Teaching Translation: Annie Janusch

Teaching Translation is a series of interviews with translators who also teach. For this installment, Exchanges spoke with Annie Janusch whose translations include works by Jürgen Goldstein, Wolf Haas, Anja Kampmann, Heinrich von Kleist, and Uwe Tellkamp. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Robert Bosch Foundation, and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Chicago, where she teaches workshops in literary translation. Janusch was a 2019-20 Translator-in-Residence with the Iowa Translation Workshop.

How would you describe the translation classes you teach?

My classes are premised on the idea of translation as an act of reading. If every translation is an embodied reading – a text that bears the unique fingerprint of the reader who wrote it – then, it’s vital that translation students develop strong reading practices. In my own experience of reading translations-in-progress, as both a teacher and an editor, I’ve found that a translation’s vulnerabilities almost always expose questions, issues, or problems of reading. Sometimes, yes, this means reading comprehension – the translator hasn’t fully made sense of a passage in the source – but more commonly, the translator knows what the language is saying but hasn’t yet worked out for themselves what the language is doing, i.e. what its narrative or poetic function is. And so, the translator has to go back and perform a closer reading of the source so that they can make not just sense, but meaning from it. Ideally, we’d practice a kind of slow reading that encourages students to carefully and critically reflect on their experience of the source before they even start translating. But often it’s through the process of translation that their readings emerge.

By the time a translation goes before a workshop, so much time and labor have gone into just producing a draft that what makes it a work of literature can get somewhat taken for granted. (This is perhaps compounded by an unfortunate tendency to copy edit translations rather than really, truly read them with the pleasure and rigor of art.) For this reason, I take an expansive approach to workshops and start by talking about a work’s macro-level concerns before delving into anything on the level of the line. I work with students to form a coherent reading of the work under discussion by first untangling the relationship between content and form – what a work seems to want to be “about,” and how that gets enacted in its writing. Only then do we examine how a work’s about-ness gets enacted in writing whose compositional material is language – which is all a way of saying, we practice reading like translators.

Sometimes people say creative writing can’t be taught. Do you think that’s true of translation?

Well, I teach translation in a creative writing program, so, I suppose I’m inclined to think that creative ability can be cultivated. Workshops aren’t designed around rote content mastery, of course; they’re meant to create space for students to have an experience with something – in this case, with translation. But the contours of that experience get drawn and populated by each translator and each work under translation. After all, what distinguishes craft workshops (from their more conventionally “teachable” counterparts) is that the course content is overwhelmingly generated by the students. And when those students are translators, this involves a formidable range of critical and creative skills, spanning the domains of language, reading, and writing. So, the workshop might lead one student to experience translation in terms of escaping the gravitational pull of the source, while another student’s experience may expose the gaps in their reading knowledge of the genre they’re translating into. These larger experiences become particularized through the project each student chooses to translate and are further configured around each student’s unique relationship to the source and target languages and cultures they’re working between. As a teacher what this means is that I’m always weighing the unique needs of the work – what it demands of the translator in order to become more itself in translation – against the unique needs of the student – what they require of the experience in order to find something out about themselves as translators.

If this all sounds broadly undefined, though, it’s because it is. After all, translation is movement, a state of flux. So, wherever students can be allowed to feel the seabed shifting underfoot, so to speak, that’s where the real learning occurs – and I tend to think the workshop environment is especially conducive to fostering and withstanding that movement in a way that perhaps a course with more conventionally conceived learning outcomes cannot.

What role does translation theory play in your classroom? How about the practice of translation—what translation exercises do you have your students practice?

Translation is inherently interdisciplinary – which means it can and should be taught in multiple disciplinary contexts because each is particularly suited to instructing in a particular facet of translation. I happen to teach translation in the context of a creative writing program, and although translation theory is a critical part of a translator’s overall education, it’s just not what the disciplinary assets of creative writing are best suited to teach. However, how to approach translation as a mode of writing, how to become writers of literary texts in English – these are vital skills for any translator to develop, and creative writing provides the optimal disciplinary home for them. In practice, this might mean doing exercises in stylistics or emulative writing, as well as generative exercises that treat the source text more as material in the making of translations (rather than some rarefied standard by which to measure them).

How has your translation teaching pedagogy changed in our current COVID-19 era of online education?

Like a lot of people, my work life has become mediated almost entirely by Zoom. Although my first impulse was to decry it as somehow lesser, the translator in me had to recognize that, although it may not be the same, it’s also not supposed to be. To this end, I’m interested in the possibilities that Zoom might allow for – it’s certainly forced me to view screens as conduits, instead of barriers, to participation. But I’m also finding that it’s conducive to a highly directive approach to discussion which just doesn’t allow for the intangibles of being in a room together over time.

What I can say is that there’s a kind of social contract underlying any good workshop. And so, my main concern has been how do we foster a collective sense of responsibility on a platform where we can elect to not be seen, where paradoxically we default to muting ourselves – and at a time when we’re experiencing screen fatigue more than ever. That said, I’ve been impressed by the degree to which students have attentively shown up for each other’s work and managed to create a real sense of social presence amid social distancing. I attribute that to the students, though, and not the technology!

How has teaching informed your own translation work? Has teaching translation helped you discover things about your own translation practice?

Teaching and translating are mutually sustaining practices. Teaching routinely forces me to articulate what my frameworks are for thinking through the questions, puzzles, problems, and predicaments that are posed by translation – and are made particular by my students’ work. The same issue can manifest differently depending on the unique contextual factors that give rise to it in the source, but the framework for thinking it through is roughly the same – even if it results in different treatments with different implications across different students’ translations. Being able to break down decision-making into something resembling a method that students can then use in their own translation practice is arguably the most valuable skill that can be taught in a craft workshop.

I also find it personally valuable to be reminded of the many uncertainties, discomforts, and imprecisions that students experience in their development as translators. There’s just always this ineffable something that we find ourselves chasing and, regardless of how closely we read, endeavoring to get just a little bit closer to – to what? Ungainly as it is, this mode of wanting and questing is just where we dwell as translators. To see students experience it for the first time, though, often with frustration, is a bracing reminder of our own negative capability, as it were. Especially because it often comes just before students throw up their hands and let go – let the source dissolve away just enough for the prow of their translation to tentatively emerge.

Finally, one of the most unique aspects of teaching translation is that I leave every workshop with the most richly unexpected reading list, and it’s been nothing short of exhilarating for my own translation practice to spend time with writing that I never could have discovered on my own – until my students made it available to me in their translations.

Do you think it’s possible to fully evaluate a translation from a language you don’t know?

Well, there are instances when knowledge of the source can be disadvantageous, too, when it’s difficult to read in a facially neutral way without imposing one’s own interpretive choices on another translator’s work. But it all depends, of course, on what the translation is being evaluated for. If ultimately a translation is to be received as a literary text in the target language – which is to say, as a work of literature, of art – then, it’s arguably more important to have expertise in the language and literature it’s being translated into. Either way, though, I can’t help but think it has little to do with language itself and everything to do with how language gets used by its writer to make a literary text. In which case, it’s not enough to merely know a language if you don’t have the acuity to work with language as aesthetic material. After all, a sculptor who works in granite can still evaluate a sculpture made out of marble – and without any knowledge of geology. And so, perhaps the most salient qualification to evaluate a translation is simply to be a reader and writer of translations oneself.