By Robert M. Croll ’16, Cedric Duquene ’15 and Ilan Stavans
From the 19th century to today, Amherst has trained a large and influential cast of translators. A professor and two students went deep into the archives to find out how this came to be, and why it matters now.
Amherst is superb at producing translators and spies. At least, that’s what Ilan Stavans heard before he joined the faculty 20 years ago. The College counts three former CIA directors among its alumni. The list of translators is perhaps even more illustrious, and it dates back to the College’s very beginning.
Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a foreign text, transporting its rhythms to another language and becoming intimate with its meaning. But it’s also much more than that, Stavans insists: Putting any idea into words is an act of translation. So is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen today can exist in isolation—that is, untranslated.
Throughout this academic year, Amherst held a festival of translation sponsored by the Copeland Colloquium. Activities ranged from a theatrical adaptation of The Odyssey, to a symposium on Middle Eastern literature, to an NPR-produced oral history of local immigrants. The festival led one faculty member—Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture—and two of his students, Cedric Duquene ’15 and Rob Croll ’16, to the College Archives in search of the history of translation at Amherst. They tracked down letters, manuscripts, books and course catalogs spanning almost 200 years, and here they describe their discoveries.
Missionaries had a problem. Early alumni had a solution.
Cedric Duquene In the early 19th century there was a churchwide initiative to export Christianity to all corners of the world. An overarching problem was the language of the sacred text. The Scriptures were widely available in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and several aboriginal languages, but not in most other modern languages. This is where Amherst stepped in. Students in the 1820s were required to study Greek and Latin; they used these languages to translate Biblical passages.
Ilan Stavans At Amherst’s founding, Protestantism was the organizing force in Western Massachusetts, and religion was the College’s center of gravity. Amherst trained young men in the art of living. Prayer played a role in that art.
Duquene The Hebrew Bible had been largely written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Gospels in Koine Greek with portions in Aramaic. In 600 A.D., Latin was the only language allowed for the Scriptures. Translations into Anglo-Saxon became available in 995 A.D. The King James Version of the Bible appeared in 1611, five years before Shakespeare’s death—a fertile period in the consolidation of modern English.
Rob Croll Amherst emphasized mission work and Christian moral instruction. Translation exemplified a deeply held religious side to the motto Terras Irradient. This principle of intellectual duty would alter in application over time. Yet in its inception, the concept of spreading knowledge, of enriching the life of the mind, used translation as its engine.
Duquene The Amherst curriculum quickly expanded to include modern languages. Already then, students came from multiple backgrounds and spoke a variety of languages. With the tools taught to them, students were encouraged to translate the Bible into other tongues. Elias Riggs, Class of 1829, rendered the Bible into Bulgarian. He also aided in a translation into Armenian.
Croll Another early graduate, David Oliver Allen, Class of 1823, supervised and contributed to the first Bible translations into the major central-Indian Marathi language. He was a missionary and leader of the Bombay printing establishment.
Later, his work was updated by Ebenezer Burgess, a language tutor at Amherst. (Burgess also did early English translations of Sanskrit texts on astrology.)
Isaac Grout Bliss, Class of 1823, broke new ground in 1844 with the first Bible translations into Kurdish.
Stavans The objective was not to understand other cultures but to make them like our own—translators as linguistic evangelists.
Croll Absolutely! To promote Christian beliefs, early alumni grappled with translating parables into new cultural contexts without altering their fundamental moral principles.
Robert M. Croll ’16
Majors: Spanish and Architectural Studies
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Activity: Jazz Ensemble
Cedric Duquene ’15
Majors: French and Economics
Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Activity: Club Soccer
Lewis-Sebring Profesor in Latin American and Latino Culture
Recent translations into English: Pablo Neruda: All the Odes (Farrar, Straus, Giroux); The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela (Norton, with Anna More); The Plain in Flames, by Juan Rulfo (University of Texas Press, with Harold Augenbraum)
BRIDGES TO OTHER COUNTRIES
Soon there was an Amherst translator at Versailles, as well as a new goal: to learn about other cultures.
Croll Greek and Latin were mandatory at Amherst throughout the 1800s. Hebrew and Sanskrit were electives. While experiments in teaching modern languages showed up as early as 1827, the Department of Modern Languages did not become a mainstay until the 1880s.
Duquene At that point significant changes in language learning took place. Being a native speaker was no longer enough; teachers needed to know how to motivate students. (Lack of interest in foreign languages is not new in America: Apathy was even stronger in the 19th century.) Students did not always see the need to learn a modern language other than English, unless they considered traveling to Europe.
Stavans With the rise of nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, countries wanted to distinguish themselves through classic works that defined their uniqueness. The United States was committed to forging its own literary canon. Think of Hawthorne, Thoreau, Dickinson, Emerson, Melville and Poe. But think also of Washington Irving, whose interest in Spanish civilization allowed American readers to get acquainted with foreign cultures.
Croll Amherst became instrumental in making other cultures accessible in English. This happened first in the political realm. After World War I, Harrison Griswold Dwight, Class of 1898, served as translator for the Supreme War Council at Versailles. It became clear to the College that, in the wake of global conflict, people versed in modern languages were of prime importance in diplomacy.
Language courses now encouraged students to become bridges to other countries, to travel physically and intellectually. An exemplar of this trend was Parisian student André du Bouchet ’45, who studied at Amherst in order to evade the German occupation in World War II. He returned after the war to his home country, where he produced translations of Pasternak, Shakespeare and Faulkner, among others, into his native French.
Richard Wilbur ’42—accomplished translator and former U.S. poet laureate—developed a serious interest in French translation as a result of his friendship with du Bouchet. They used to sit in Wilbur’s Cambridge apartment, translating each other. Wilbur says that du Bouchet made him sound as good as Baudelaire.
CAPTURING VOICE AND STYLE
Can a translated work be better than the original?
Croll Amherst welcomed and took part in a new era of artistic expression: the goal of translation refocused on capturing voice and style, a departure from the practical and ideology-based work of the previous century.
Stavans I had a public conversation at Amherst with Gregory Rabassa, translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the 1990s. He talked about rendering Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork into English—and his reaction to García Márquez’s comment that Rabassa’s version might be better than the original.
Croll Emeritus Professor Howell Chickering—author of one of the most successfully executed translations of Beowulf—presented his text in a dual-language edition with guides on pronunciation and recitation, explaining that “the greatness of the original” depends on its language, that it “cannot be duplicated in any other words.”
Stavans Other translators on the faculty include Catherine Ciepiela ’83 from the Russian, James Maraniss from the Spanish, Donald White from the German and Laure Katsaros from English to French. Among alumni, Bruce Allen ’71 translated Ishimure Michiko, who is often identified as the “Rachel Carson of Japan.” Robert Fagles ’55 translated, among other classics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.
Croll Fagles said translation “is meant to be a thing of love and homage.” Whereas Amherst, through translation, used to ask what of ourselves we might impose upon the rest of the world, it now ponders what we are able to learn from it.
Stavans There is also Texaco, a lucid novel by French author Patrick Chamoiseau. Rose-Myriam Réjouis ’94 and Val Vinokurov ’94 translated it into English.
Duquene Chamoiseau’s novel is about a shantytown suburb near Martinique’s capital. From the point of view of a daughter of a freed slave, it recounts her family history and the changes taking place in the town. In translating Texaco, Réjouis and Vinokurov provided non-French speakers the chance to delve into Chamoiseau’s postcolonial world of Martinique, where the social hierarchy between French and Creole was evident. Réjouis was a French and English major at Amherst; Vinokurov majored in political science.
Croll In 2007 Adrian Althoff ’04 published his rendition of American Visa, by Juan de Recacoechea. To my knowledge, it is one of only two fiction books from Bolivia translated into English.
MAKING ACCESSIBLE THE INACCESSIBLE
To know a culture, become fluent in its language.
Stavans When I arrived at Amherst in 1993, the objective of foreign-language teaching was to make students fluent. This had not always been the norm.
Croll Course catalogs from the 19th century say that “no attention is given to the spoken language” in Italian and French instruction. Today that seems preposterous. What better key is there to understand a culture than to be fluent in its language?
Stavans We exist in a Tower of Babel, one where disparate languages are always interacting. I don’t mean to suggest that polyglotism is a divine curse, as suggested by certain interpreters of the Bible. My own view is the opposite: Multilingualism is an opportunity to live life in different realms.
Croll At Amherst I have translated authors Julio Cortázar, from Argentina, and Ana María Matute, from Spain, into English. Each translation has given me a window into another way of seeing, further insight into the choices through which we define ourselves. I love the singular feeling of being able to read and understand something in a second language that I cannot adequately express in my first.
Stavans I was born in a Yiddish-language milieu in Mexico, but I was never attracted to translating until Amherst students encouraged me to translate from Yiddish, Hebrew and Spanish. I also translated portions of Don Quixote and other canonical texts into Spanglish.
In the digital age it is easier—and faster—to disseminate translations. It is also more treacherous, with quality becoming a casualty.
Maybe spies are the best kinds of translators: they seek to perform their job invisibly, and a successful career is defined by never having been caught.
Croll The practical side of translation now defines Amherst in decisive ways. Take Zalmai Yawar ’06, an Afghani student who came to Amherst in 2003, after serving in the pivotal yet extremely dangerous role of interpreter during his home nation’s fight against extremism.
Duquene Translation at Amherst is no longer bound to just books. Amherst strives to translate other cultures—to understand them better and look at the comparisons among them. In my view, one of the ways it does this is through the recruitment of international students. More than 50 countries are represented on campus.
When international students come here, they are metaphorically translating American culture for themselves. Likewise, when non-international students interact with them, we have a feeling of “building a bridge.”
Study abroad is similar. Students experience another way of life, another language. This allows them to reflect on their own environment, to make accessible the inaccessible. Isn’t this what translation is all about?
Some alumni and faculty translators
Elias Riggs, The Bible → Bulgarian
David Oliver Allen, The Bible → Marathi
Ebenezer Burgess, Astrology texts, Sanskrit → English
Isaac Grout Bliss, The Bible → Kurdish
André du Bouchet, Henry VIII, English → French
Richard Wilbur, The Misanthrope, French → English
Howell Chickering, Beowulf, Old English → Modern English
Catherine Ciepiela, Poetry of Polina Barskova, Russian→ English
James Maraniss, The Sea of Lentils, by Antonio Benitez Rojo, Spanish → English
Donald White, The Island of Second Sight, by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, German → English
Laure Katsaros, Poetry of Franz Wright and Jack Gilbert, English → French
Illustration by Oliver Munday