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Many Languages, a Common Passion

An unusual collaboration at UC Irvine aims to elevate the art of literary translation.

April 12, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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