Language Webs: The Translation Network

Language Webs: The Translation Network

The original is unfaithful to the translation.

— Jorge Luis Borges

Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer's music into sculpture. (photographed by Hannah Walhout)

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer’s music into sculpture. (Photograph by Hannah Walhout)

It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?

With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.

Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?

Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.

Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.

ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?

MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.

CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.

ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?

CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.

MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.

CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.

MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.

CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.

ES: How should people use the Translation Network?

CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.

MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.

CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.

ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?

CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.

MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.

The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.

A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email