Many Languages, a Common Passion


High-rolling Las Vegas casino executives, Nobel Prize-winning fiction writers and bad-boy French literary theorists don't always have a lot to say to each other. Which may account for why a new collaboration at UC Irvine involving, among others, Glenn Schaeffer, the president and chief financial officer of Mandalay Resort Group, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright and poet, and Jacques Derrida, founding godfather of deconstructionist criticism and a UCI philosophy professor, isn't easy to put into words.

Actually, the question of how things get put into words, and how words from one language get put into another language, is the raison d'etre behind the university's new International Center for Writing and Translation. Officially established last July and formally inaugurated last week, the center is being funded by a major financial contribution from Schaeffer, a UCI alumnus and bibliophile who attended the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and wrote his master's thesis on literary theory.

Acknowledging that literary criticism "is not the usual background of casino executives," Schaeffer said that his support for the center marks a return to one of "my earlier passions. I wanted a stake in the literary game."

In Las Vegas literary circles, Schaeffer already is a well-known player, having founded the International Institute of Modern Letters in Las Vegas, a partner to Irvine's new center. Other Irvine partners are the Iowa Writers' Workshop; the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand; and the International Parliament of Writers in Paris, an organization formed to assist writers after death threats were issued against author Salman Rushdie.

University officials said the center's purpose is to foster writing, translation and criticism in a variety of languages by funding fellowships and residencies and sponsoring readings, performances, lectures and international conferences. University officials believe the center may be the first of its kind anywhere in the United States.

But behind these formal academic goals lies a more far-reaching, even global, ambition: to gain attention and find publishing outlets for new literary voices. Schaeffer said that he hopes to target writers and translators who are laboring under authoritarian regimes and may be dealing with severe censorship and political restrictions, in places such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, Indochina and various Islamic countries. Writers in "minority languages" and languages threatened with extinction also will receive attention. "One thing is clear: We won't run out of political oppression or censorship anytime soon," Schaeffer said.

Last week's inaugural activities at Irvine drew Schaeffer together with literary lions Soyinka and Derrida and the dissident Chinese poet and editor Bei Ling, all of whom are on the center's executive board. Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner for literature, is a member of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, but writes in English. Intellectually, he said, he was weaned on Yoruba literature and the many great works he read in translation, such as the Bhagavad Gita and ancient Greek tragedies. As a citizen of an "ex-colonial society," and later a student at the University of Leeds in England, he said, he was exposed to a wide variety of world literature. Even today, he dreams in Yoruba and English.

By comparison, Soyinka finds the United States to be "one of the most insular, mono-linguistic communities I've ever encountered in my life." The translation center, he said, could help expose American scholars and the portion of the public that "at least regards literature as also a consumer product, like corn flakes or whatever, to different brands of literary corn flakes. And this for me will be a very good thing for this society."

Bei, founder and editor of the literary journal "Tendency," stressed that good translations can help popularize Western writers to audiences in countries such as China. "I do lots of work trying to introduce different writers, their intellectual work," Bei said, citing Vaclav Havel, Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney.

In a panel discussion, Bei also addressed the problem of "self-censorship" among writers with cause to fear political reprisal. He was arrested in August 2000 for "illegally publishing" his journal in China, and was later deported after briefly serving time in a Beijing jail. He now lives in Boston, where he is a research associate at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.

Bei noted the shortage of good academic translators in the United States. "In America, most intellectual scholars" don't do translation, he said. "They publish their own research, they want to write some papers. So they don't want to do translation. Translation is difficult [and] tough."

Karen Lawrence, dean of UCI's School of Humanities, said that investigating the theory, practice, aesthetics and politics of translation would constitute the center's broader mandate. "We're considering translation not merely as a practice of crossing language borders, but considering what it means, what do you lose, what do you gain, when a piece of writing travels, in a new language," she said.

Lawrence said that she and Schaeffer first began discussing the idea of a center two years ago. It's a natural fit, she said, given the university's existing scholarship and its diverse, polyglot student body.

Schaeffer said that he regards literature as a form of social capital, and believes that translated works are "a very underserved market of literature."

"I'm a believer that literature has a purpose in life, it's not only about aesthetics," he said. "History proves that wherever you have literary dissent you tended to have progress in society." Schaeffer's gift is the largest the School of Humanities ever has received from an alumnus, Lawrence said, though neither she nor Schaeffer would disclose the exact amount.

Soyinka and Bei emphasized practical issues of translation--how to get more books published by non-American and non-European authors, how to redress the balance of what Soyinka called the current "lopsided" global cultural exchange. Derrida, 71, a UCI faculty member since 1986 and author of more than 50 books on literature, Marxism, psychoanalysis and other subjects, elaborated some of his philosophical concerns with converting one language into another.

These stem from his influential theories about language in general, about the ultimate indeterminacy of what words mean. Of the hundreds of thousands of words he has written, Derrida's most famous undoubtedly are contained in his assertion that "there is nothing outside the text." That is, the words, and hence the meaning, of any given text--a book, a poem, a recipe, a computer manual--are, in a sense, self-contained and hermetically sealed. They can only be properly said to refer to themselves, not to the "things" in the outside world they supposedly refer to.

Translation, like any form of literary interpretation, is subject in Derrida's view to manipulation and "contamination" by foreign values and biases, whether by intention or subconsciously. Vladimir Nabokov memorably satirized this sometimes comically convoluted process in his novel "Pale Fire," in which a fawningly envious foreign-born editor willfully misconstrues a famous American poet's work. At the same time, Derrida has said, the only people who truly "know how to read and write are translators."

Looking natty in a gray pinstriped suit, Derrida spoke about translation at a free public gathering last week on campus. He was joined by his foremost translator, Peggy Kamuf, a professor at USC. "My English hasn't improved since" he came to the United States, Derrida joked to the crowd, "so I apologize for not being able to translate myself."

The paradox of translation, Derrida said, is that the translator must strive to be as faithful as possible to the original author's style and intent, while at the same time recognizing that it's impossible to reconstitute the unique meaning of the original words. The alchemy of translation, he said, occurs precisely at that point where an essentially new work is created. "A translator is a creative writer," Derrida said. "You have to find the best way to be untrue to the original, to perjure in the best way. This is the double bind."

Growing up in a Jewish family in French colonial Algeria, Derrida said, he always "had the vague feeling" that even his own native tongue, French, was a foreign language. "Even the native speaker can't appropriate his own language," he said. "It is always the language of the Other."

Schaeffer said that the center "in some ways will operate like a professional research firm: scouring distant countries for new voices; supporting writers and translators with grants; helping bring translated works to the attention of commercial publishing houses and academic presses; and helping to secure shelf space for works in translation in major bookstore chains.

Of the approximately 140,000 books published in the U.S. last year, Schaeffer said, only about 200 were works translated from languages other than English. One reason for this low figure is that the writer and the translator must be paid, raising the cost of producing a book. "Where we intend to insert ourselves is in that gap," Schaeffer said. "Where in some cases we know a writer can and should be published by a top-flight publisher in America or an academic publisher, we will pay the translator."

As an example of the need for good translation in the modern, high-speed world, several people mentioned the videotape that was released last fall by Osama Bin Laden, sending Western news organizations, politicians and military strategists scrambling to obtain reliable versions in their languages.

Soyinka envisioned a less dramatic demonstration of translation's potential to shape lives. "I'm looking forward to the day when one will enter an American hotel room and will see not just the Bible but, say, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ifa [a religious book of the Yoruba people], the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," Khalil Gibran," he said. "And at least we'll have a choice."

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