Reading in Translation Blog Shines Light on Literary Translations

December 5, 2018

Hillary Hempstead

portrait of Stiliana Milkova
Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature Stiliana Milkova
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

The Reading in Translation blog, a nationally acclaimed resource for reviews of translated literature, was founded by translator Lucina Schell to address the dearth of translated literature in mainstream review publications.

In August 2018, Schell awarded management of the blog to Oberlin’s Comparative Literature Program, and Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature Stiliana Milkova now serves as the blog’s managing editor. Hosting the blog at Oberlin provides opportunities for students in comparative literature and literary translation, and fosters the visibility of translators and literary translation worldwide.

Learn more about Reading in Translation in this Q&A with Stiliana Milkova.

What is Reading in Translation?
Reading in Translation is a site dedicated to reviewing literary translations, and it’s a resource for readers of English translations all over the world. It was created to address the fact that there's little visibility given to literary translations within an English-speaking culture, particularly in the United States. Reading in Translation strives to bring more attention to books in literary translation—fiction or poetry translated from other languages—but it also strives to highlight the work of literary translators.

It’s  uncommon for literary translations to be reviewed at all. If you pick up the New Yorker and look at their book reviews, there are rarely reviews of works in translation. Reading in Translation is trying to address the lack of reviews in mainstream American media. The unique aspect of the site is that it is translators who write reviews of translations. The premise is that translators are best equipped to understand and evaluate the enormous intellectual and creative labor behind producing a literary translation.  
What’s the site’s primary focus?
Right now, the focus is on reviewing works in literary translation—both poetry and prose. We have more than 35 talented contributors (and we’re growing as I speak) from all over the world and we review diverse literary works from a wide range of languages. We also publish interviews with translators or other key figures in the world of literary translation. For example, we recently published an interview with Chad Post, the director of Open Letter Press. We will continue reviewing literature in translation and publishing interviews. But now it's up to both the comparative literature program and me to decide how we want to develop and grow the site and move it in a direction that we find productive and effective for our students and readers.

How did Oberlin’s comparative literature program come to host the blog?
Five years ago, a translator from Chicago, Lucina Schell, founded it to address the lack of translated literature in mainstream review publications. I wrote several reviews for the blog and Lucina really liked my work. Because I’m a translator as well—I translate from Italian—this past summer she approached me and shared that she had less and less time to keep the blog going and growing. She’s a literary translator and has a full-time job too; she wanted to transition the site to someone else who would continue to grow it and publish quality reviews. She was looking for someone with institutional backing that has involvement in literary translation and students who are enthusiastic and passionate about literary translation. She told me she was interviewing another small liberal arts college to host the blog as well. After several interviews, conversations, and brainstorming sessions about how this opportunity could be relevant to Oberlin—not only how our students can benefit from the experience, but also how we can grow the blog—Lucina offered me the job of managing editor.

How is Reading in Translation uniquely positioned to grow at Oberlin?
Oberlin just instituted a concentration in literary translation. We’ve been teaching literary translation as part of the gateway course to comparative literature for more than ten years. The study of comparative literature depends on translated literature, in our courses we teach world literature–in translation–so we can have access to works from a number of foreign-language literary traditions.. It’s unique for a college to have both a comparative literature major and a literary translation concentration. We are one of the few small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. that do this. We also have prominent alums who are translators, faculty and students who are translators, too. And we have an annual translation symposium in which students present their translations and for which we invite a prominent translator to give a keynote address and meet with our student translators. So there is already a literary translation infrastructure in place at Oberlin.

How can Oberlin students benefit from the opportunities the blog provides?
It’s really a professional development opportunity for students that will allow them to build skills to manage a blog or create a website. They can also manage and create content. We have extremely talented students, and I have already invited one current student and four alums to write reviews for the site. This blog has visitors from around the world, so it gives reviewers visibility. It also gives students the opportunity to network with publishers and translators.

What’s truly important is that students can obtain practical skills and apply their academic training in a real-world setting: because reading a literary translation and understanding its linguistic, cultural, political, and historical context is a complex task that requires a thoughtful and informed approach, students can use what they learn not only in their language and their translation classes but also in their comparative literature classes, history classes, politics classes, and so forth. Reading in Translation is a place where they can integrate their liberal arts education and produce something that’s concrete and can have an impact on what and how we read, and then of course it’s published on an internationally acclaimed site. I think it’s also great publicity for comparative literature at Oberlin. People both at home and abroad now know that we at Oberlin College are passionate about literary translation.

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