Importing a Translation Culture to the Illinois Cornfields

Importing a Translation Culture to the Illinois Cornfields: Starting a Translation Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

by Elizabeth Lowe
Associate Professor and Director
Center for Translation Studies
, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Translation at Illinois must seem like an oxymoron to those whose image of the Midwest is a bland homogenous mix of people, landscape and culture. Yet a surprise for skeptics waits in the middle of the corn and soy fields. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign houses a School of Literatures Cultures and Linguistics (SLCL) that contains nine academic departments with established interests in translation practice and research. The University libraries have a robust acquisition program in place to continuously build on translation resources, both print and online, including a rare book and manuscript library containing manuscripts of W.S Merwin’s translations. The University is also the home of Dalkey Archive Press, the foremost publisher of translations in the United States, and an educational partner with the Center. We are fortunate to have the newly established Lemann Institute of Brazilian Studies as a partner, as well as a dynamic Creative Writing Department. The University has nine funded Title VI National Resource Centers, which have been highly supportive of contributing to the start-up of the Center for Translation Studies (CTS). The European Union Center recently was awarded the prestigious designation of “Centre d’ ’Excellence” and CTS will participate in a three year grant associated with this program.

The vision for the Center at Illinois originated with Professor Douglas A. Kibbee, the first Director of the six year old School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics. A specialist in the history of the French language, language legislation in France, and terminology, Kibbee convinced the University Administration that a comprehensive research university was the logical place to advance the growing field of translation studies and interdisciplinary teaching and research in the School. Indeed, the field of translation studies seems to be growing even as other areas of the humanities show some decline. Translation courses or programs are typically located in humanities or independent units and they transcend departmental lines to appeal to students with a range of career goals. Since MLA 2009 that featured the Presidential Forum Theme of “The Tasks of Translation in the Twenty-First Century,” the theme of translation as a transformative force of the humanities has surfaced in international and national conferences. In 2010, the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with the Universite Denis Diderot (Paris VII), co-sponsored an international conference titled “Shifting Paradigms: How Translation Transforms the Humanities,” attended by one hundred scholars and graduate students from around the world. This conference sought to assess the extent to which academic disciplines comprising the humanities consider translation to be constitutive of their practice by reviewing how the shift of translation theory away from a Eurocentric perspective may impact the various disciplines in the humanities that work on and with cultural transfer; and the ways in which translation itself transforms the humanities.

The mission of the UIUC Center for Translation Studies is to “serve students, faculty and academic professionals from across the University of Illinois campus, along with communities from across Illinois and the Midwest, by providing world class translation education and training, and innovative interdisciplinary research linking translation to the humanities. CTS is also committed to public engagement that models best practices, raises awareness of the translation and interpretation professions, and demonstrates how the profession serves a critical need in the United States and the world.”

The Midwest and the University of Illinois offer fertile soil for growing a translation program. Many multinational corporations located in the state, including Caterpillar, McDonald’s, Kraft, Archer Daniels Midland, John Deere, and Abbott, need language specialists with knowledge of terminology and localization practices. The large immigrant population in Illinois has created a demand for translators and interpreters in the courts, hospitals and social agencies. The Illinois state educational system needs the help of multilingual and multicultural experts to make their materials available to parents and students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. CTS has endeavored to create a flexible and robust program that meets the interests and career goals of its talented multilingual student body and that also is aligned with trends in the translation and localization job market. Our curriculum includes instruction in computer-assisted translation tools and localization software. We are forming educational partnerships with a variety of businesses, community agencies, NGOs and government agencies. Currently available are graduate and undergraduate certificates in translation studies and an online program in “Applied Literary Translation” in collaboration with Dalkey Archive Press, which prepares participants for careers in translation publishing and editing. The MA in Translation and Interpretation should be launched in 2012 and will offer tracks in translation for the professions, technical and commercial translation, interpreting and applied literary translation. We will have fully equipped interpreter booths thanks to a partnership with the University of Illinois Fire Services Institute and its international conference center. We recently piloted a course in Arabic translation in collaboration with the SLCL Summer Institute for the Languages of the Muslim World and plan to add more translation courses in these critical languages to the Institute offerings.

CTS was designed to act as a catalyst to stimulate teaching and research in translation, and thus it is not a department but a program in the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics. We work actively with the nine departments in the School to promote course development, to co-sponsor events and conferences on translation topics, and to interest students in the field. Current courses under development are “Translation of Sacred Texts” and “Translation of the Classics.” In Fall 2011 we are piloting a new course in “History of Translation” taught by David Cooper in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and a graduate course offered by Marcus Keller in the French Department titled “The Oriental on the European Stage from Shakespeare to Voltaire,” which will have texts in Spanish, French and German side by side with English translation. Recent conferences co-sponsored by CTS have included “Geographies of Risk” (Department of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), “Translating the Middle Ages” (Program in Medieval Studies) and a forthcoming conference titled “The Dialectics of Orientalism in Early Modern Europe” (French, Spanish Italian and Portuguese). We have collaborated with consulates and cultural agencies in Chicago to create opportunities for our students, including participation in the annual translators’ workshop at the Goethe Institute. The Brazilian Consulate in Chicago co-sponsored a conference titled “Brazilian Writers and their Translators” in 2009.

As incongruous as it might seem, the Land of Lincoln offers a wealth of opportunities to rising translators and translator scholars. We aspire to build on the tradition of great translators who have practiced in this state, including Samuel Putnam and William Gass, to create a culture of translation in the cornfields, as diverse and accented as the ever changing skyscape of the prairie.


About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and book artist. Pronouns: they/them.
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One Response to Importing a Translation Culture to the Illinois Cornfields

  1. M Lee says:

    For this alone: “raises awareness of the translation and interpretation professions”. Wonderful news.

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