Now a translator, middle school teacher, and three-times parent, Emily Goedde’s eventful career path is a model for graduate students operating under the uncertainties caused by COVID-19. Following her heart’s desire at each step of the way, Emily let her interests be shaped by circumstances, finding new possibilities at each turnaround.
Emily’s passion for literature and translation began when, living in France during high school, she bought a second-hand copy of Baudelaire and decided to render his poems into English. Back in the US, a visit to the MET made her fall in love with Chinese calligraphy, and while the fascination for translation stayed with her, it was Chinese that she decided to study in her undergrad at the University of Michigan. With a major in Asian Studies and a minor in Comparative Literature, Emily’s first hands-on experience with translation was her BA thesis, written over the course of many early mornings at the Sweetwaters coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor, with the help of a tiny Chinese-English dictionary. From this fun, but challenging the first attempt at translating literature, Emily learned that she would have to live in China for some time if she wished to take that career path seriously. She then spent three years between Shanghai and Beijing, working as a journalist, translating and teaching English, before going back to school. She first did an MFA in Translation Studies at Iowa, inspired by the trajectory of Prof. Christi Merrill, one of her mentors at Michigan during her undergrad, and again in the Ph.D.
During her MFA and in her work as a translator, Emily became interested in authors, especially women authors, that were no longer alive. “I liked excavating their voices and working with them, showing that they had existed.” This same impulse towards translation as testimony drove Emily’s towards classical poetry and later contemporary Chinese literary nonfiction, 非虚构文学 (feixugou wenxue). With that work, Emily wanted to bring visibility to a China described from within, almost as a counternarrative to the more widely published Western travel logs that presented a picture of Chinese culture from the outside.
As she moved between her academic work and her various jobs as a translator, Emily began to develop an approach to both that centered on the idea of “listening:” Listening to the other, to different perspectives, but also to her own translation in its limits. “Because of who I am as an individual,” she explains, “when I translate, I’m always hearing a Chinese text that is in some way marked by that.” Her translations, then, are just that: how she hears the text. Emily also likes to listen for impossibilities in translation as “signaling a moment when something interesting is happening.” This idea, which also deeply informs her teaching practice, became central to Emily’s dissertation when she started working with WWII Chinese poetry written with the sound of air raids for a background.
While her work as a literary translator has always been rewarding, Emily realized early on that she would not be able to make a living out of translating literature. On the other hand, the tenure positions to which the Ph.D. seemed to prepare her did not fit her needs either, especially as she had become a parent for the second time during the program. Torn between translating and research, with two kids and a husband who had just gotten a job in Philadelphia, by the end of her degree, she decided to go into middle school teaching instead. Going against the current was made easier by the openness of Emily’s committee to her love of translation and teaching. . They helped her imagine a path that would suit her lifestyle and aspirations, and as a K-12 teacher, she is now actually able to use many of the skills acquired during the program, including offering students a more diverse set of texts than the traditional canon.
During her time at Michigan, Emily was especially glad for the support of the department, including faculty, staff, and other graduate students. In her year abroad in Taiwan, she remembers how Judy Gray in Complit made all the difference at an emergency when her husband needed medical assistance. Her committee and friends in the program were also important in her decision to have another child. Surprisingly, Emily found that being a mother actually helped her get through writing her dissertation: if she had all day long just for herself, she believes she’d have been much less productive. Being with her family gave her a space to rest her mind from the research, allowing her to be more focused on the next day. “One doesn’t need to have a baby to do that,” she jokes, “but people should know that it is possible and even positive to build a family during the Ph.D.”
Although she lucked out with Complit’s community, Emily believes it is important to look critically at academia when it comes to having children. Women are especially vulnerable in that situation, and universities end up losing a lot of interesting scholars because of the instability inherent to the job market. Still, while waiting for systemic changes that will improve parents’ and women’s conditions in grad school and in academia, there is the hope that listening to Emily’s story can inspire others to follow their desire to do a Ph.D., even when the path towards it doesn’t seem as clear-cut as one would expect.
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This interview was conducted and edited by Duygu Ergun and Luiza Duarte Caetano as part of their work as Graduate Student Diversity Allies in the Summer of 2021.