Creative minds gathered virtually to discuss the impacts and nuances of language and culture in literature across different written genres during a recent Visiting Writers’ Series event hosted by the University of Redlands Creative Writing Department.
Titled “Transmissions: Conversations Across Languages, Cultures, Borders, and Communities,” the event featured books translated by four different writers: Adnan Mahmutović, Olivia C. Harrison, Teresa Villa-Ignacio, and Brent Armendinger. “We wanted to feature a range of guests who explored these issues from very different vantage points,” said Creative Writing Professor Greg Bills.
The breadth of literature featured in the event considered examples and impacts of transnationalism in literature. The virtual format made it possible for international authors to share their lives and writing experiences—a unique opportunity for the students who participated in the discussion. Several of the books discussed were featured in Professor Youna Kwak’s writing seminar on translation, and many of her students were in attendance.
Adnan Mahmutović, a Bosnia-Swedish writer and lecturer of English literature at Stockholm University, read several segments from his book, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, an autobiographical story that spans from the 1990s, when he came to Sweden as a refugee of war, to 2012. His was full of poignant, visual language, accented by moments of sadness or sarcastic humor.
Another piece, “Mother Tongue,” explored the nature of the Bosnian language and the dialectic peculiarities that are recognized in different regions and often get lost in the translation. “In Bosnia, it’s possible to avoid pronouns because they are in the verbs themselves. In English, it is difficult because the verbs don’t work this way,” he said.
Authors Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, who collaboratively translated Hocine Tandjaoui’s book Clamor, took turns reading sections of the story. Originally written in French, the book focuses on Tandjaoui’s experience living in Algeria in the 1960s, during the country’s struggle for independence from France.
Harrison and Ignacio read sections highlighting the powerful impact of sounds and songs on emotions, especially as associated with past memories. The book examined the country’s popular music landscape to illustrate the chaos of the era, and its publisher created a Spotify playlist of the songs featured throughout its pages.
Throughout their discussions, each writer touched on the common theme of communicating powerful and complex emotions through writing, which is a difficult task. “The difficulty in trying to render a poem into another language is trying to stay faithful to the linguistics of the original, and to the music,” noted Harrison. Ignacio added, “There was that question between fidelity and creativity in translation. And in [one] case, we erred toward fidelity. You have to make decisions as you go through.”
Brent Armendinger, a self-proclaimed “experimental translator” and professor at Pitzer College, read from Street Gloss, a recent work that includes pieces by five Argentinian poets. His reading included the original Spanish poems and his translated versions.
Armendinger translated the poems using his personal Spanish vocabulary, then asked locals in his neighborhood to translate words or phrases he was unfamiliar with. This process allowed him to subvert some of the linguistic quirks that arose in the pieces while also revealing the language’s unique qualities. “I had no idea that it would become what it became,” he said, referring to his unusual writing process.
A robust question-and-answer segment followed the authors’ offerings. A few questions were about the differences between languages and how they affect translation. Panelists offered advice from personal experiences. As a third-year creative writing student, I appreciated learning about different writing techniques like Armendinger’s. I also learned how to utilize sensory details in a contemporary way.
Students and faculty engaged in a rich discussion with the speakers, touching on the nuances, power, and occasional transnationalism challenges in literature. While each of the works featured exhibited many differences – in language, location, time, and style—they came together with the common thread of expressing the value of exploring languages and cultures throughout the writing.
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