In Conversation: Natasha Wimmer on Teaching Translation

Teaching translation feels like I’ve been lifting weights, and then I go to my own translation and it's like, whoa, these weights are so light!

What does it mean to teach translation? Many translators are self-taught, having honed their skills in careers as writers or editors, academics or language experts. But some universities in the United States also offer seminars in the craft of translation. The teacher-translator, then, takes on the unique challenge of developing new pedagogy for a field in flux, one that exists at the intersection of language study, theory, and the instructor’s own experiences in the creative practice of translation.

Today, translator Natasha Wimmer sits down with her former student and Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, to discuss her approach to teaching translation. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you begin teaching translation? What made you interested in education?

Natasha Wimmer (NW): Princeton approached me, actually. I had never taught a class. Not only that, but I also only have an undergraduate degree, so I had never even taken a graduate class. I was a little bit nervous about taking the job. A few years later I started at Columbia. In that case, I did a panel discussion with the other Bolaño translator, Chris Andrews, and the department heads enjoyed the discussion, so they asked me to teach.

LN: Was there a particular class you took or text you read that influenced the way you approached teaching for the first time?

NW: I actually imagined the course as the class I wish I’d taken before I became a translator. I had no formal education in translation at all. I had never taken a translation class and, in fact, I hadn’t even read anything about translation until about eight years into my translation career. When I was asked to give a talk about translation, I realized I had avoided reading about translation because I was afraid that I would discover that I had been doing it wrong, or that maybe I would mess with the instinctive approach that had somehow been successful so far. But then I found reading about translation really stimulating. I discovered that, not surprisingly, there was a conversation about the questions I had and about the things that I hadn’t articulated but had been working through as a translator.

I worked really hard the first year I taught the Princeton class. I spent a few months just reading translation theory and translation essays for material that I thought was interesting and put together a reading list. The first semester I taught at Princeton was very experimental. In retrospect, I’m surprised I survived. The format of the class changed a lot from the first year to the second.

LN: What was so experimental about how you started? What changed?

NW: Well, it was experimental in the sense that I had never taught before. Instead of having everyone translate the same texts at the beginning of the class as I now do, I had students work on a chapter from a collection of short stories by a young Chilean writer, who then came into the class halfway through the semester and we discussed the student translations. But it was a very challenging book and everybody was working on something different. Some people had a hard time with it. Then, for the workshop part, the students only got to present their work once. I also talked too much. That was part of the problem during that first semester. I felt that I had to give the students their money’s worth and lecture a lot. Later, I worked out a more collaborative workshop structure.

LN: When I was in your class at Princeton, I definitely noticed the collaborative focus. I thought it was a fantastic approach. It really worked for me. What do you think working collectively does for translation?

NW: The key to working collaboratively is having the students edit the submissions ahead of time, because that way everybody has looked at them thoroughly and carefully, and they come to class ready with substantial things to say. It’s the basis for a great discussion.

Translation itself is a medium that rewards a collaborative approach. Different people have different strengths. In your class, you brought in Argentinian insights and students who studied in different countries contributed other things. Some students might have been good at slang and others were better at sentence structure or historical or biblical language. I don’t know why this is, but there’s always someone in every class who got a Jesuit education and knows a lot about religious language. That always comes up, somehow.

LN: That challenges the idea of writer or translator as a solitary individual.

NW: Right. The writer is a sort of a world unto himself and draws on all the different facets of his or her own experience, but translators often work in teams.

LN: You mentioned that you had to read a lot of theory as you started to teach these classes. Something else that worked well in your class was the combination between theory and the actual practice of doing translation. How did you choose theory or essays that would be relevant to the practical translation work that students were doing? How did you make them applicable?

NW: Most of the pieces that I chose were not straight theory. They were reflections by translators who had practical experience. I suppose most translation theorists have done work as translators, but there is a difference.

My worry about the readings is that writing about translation can be repetitive. I feel like the same idea comes up over and over again. So I try to vary the readings, at least in terms of voice. We have Lydia Davis, who is writing in a diary format, and then other more conventional pieces by Steiner and Neruda. Then there’s Octavio Paz, who maybe comes closer to the theory side of things, since he writes very abstractly about translation. I tried to have a couple more theory-oriented, more abstract, more cerebral pieces and a couple more practical things.

LN: With that diverse range, different students can pick up on what works for them.

NW: I’m curious, which was your favorite reading?

LN: I thought one interesting reading we had was Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

NW: Really? I’m glad you liked it. I think the connection to translation is there, but some people might not see it.

LN: I thought it was one of your bolder choices in the sense that it isn’t as explicitly about translation. But what was useful is how you timed it towards the end of the class, which helped students embody the feeling of being a translator, in a way.

NW: It was also supposed to be fun, since it was assigned for the last day.

LN: It was. The class I took was the Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation class, but now you’re teaching a class at Columbia on translation from various languages. What’s the difference between teaching a specifically Spanish-to-English translation class as opposed to a general translation class?

NW: The first time I taught the multiple language class there was a real range of languages. We had Russian and Mandarin and Danish, Spanish and French. In that case, the students who were translating from the less-familiar languages would also turn in a calque, a literal translation, so that we could look at the literal version and at their actual translation. That enabled students to ask questions about why their classmates made certain decisions. It worked really well.

Columbia encourages students who have very little foreign language skills to take the course, and I understand that. But I do think it’s important to understand the original text, and you just can’t pretend that step doesn’t exist. At Princeton a lot of the class was about comprehension and interpretation. It is in the Columbia class, too, but I feel more pressure to focus on the English instead of the foreign language side.

LN: Translation, like any creative act, involves a lot of interpretation and individual choices that require a certain amount of creative liberty. Aside from misreadings, which, of course, are a different story, how do you go about commenting on students’ work in that context?

NW: I try to think critically about the piece that the student is translating and identify the voice, the tone, the style, and the syntactical peculiarities. Then, I see how well I think the student has captured those qualities. Sometimes I have differences in opinion or interpretation with students. Sometimes I feel that a student is on the wrong track. But as long as they’re thinking about the text intelligently and can defend the way that they are approaching the translation, then I certainly won’t penalize them for that. That’s part of the goal of translation. Coming up with your own take on the text and making it your own. Unless it’s a case of serious misreading that’s completely misguided, I’m not going to fight against it.

LN: Do you think that teaching translation has in any way affected the way you work as a translator?

NW: Yes. Teaching translation feels like I’ve been lifting weights, and then I go back to my own translation and it feels like, whoa, these weights are so light! It’s a good workout for me as a translator. It’s been great for me to articulate the theoretical questions of translation, to think analytically about the process. There are certain things that, over the years, I gradually realized I do as a translator. Now I can articulate them, I can say what they are, and I can apply them more methodically to my own work. For example, using different parts of speech for a word, moving from a verb to a noun in a sentence. That’s something that I always did but never quite realized I was doing in a formal way. Now, when I’m having a problem in a sentence, I can automatically go through a list of things to do about it.

LN: If there were one text that you would recommend to a first-time translation teacher, what would it be?

NW: Definitely Susan Bernofsky’s essay on revision. It’s short, gets the point across, and really gets inside the mind of the translator. It explains what’s going on in your head when you translate in a way that’s usually difficult to put down on paper.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Natasha Wimmer is a renowned American translator best known for her English renditions of works by Roberto Bolaño and Mario Vargas Llosa. Wimmer began her teaching career at Princeton University in 2012. Some of her classes are specific to Spanish-to-English translation, while others are general translation courses. In all of her seminars, Wimmer uses her experience as a translator in tandem with translation essays and theory to instruct practical workshops.

Lara Norgaard was a student in Wimmer’s Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation seminar at Princeton University. A recent graduate in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America, she teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.


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