While living in Berlin, Jon Cho-Polizzi befriended a diverse collective of young authors—queer writers, Jewish writers, Muslim writers, writers of color—all of whom were working to push the boundaries of German literature. He fell in love with their writing, and began translating his friends’ literature into English on a volunteer basis to share it with a broader audience. Now a 2022 Collegiate Fellow in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures (GLL), Cho-Polizzi is bringing conversations about the humanities and contemporary German thought to LSA classrooms and creating spaces for difference.
LSA: How would you describe your field of study in GLL?
Jon Cho-Polizzi: My research focuses on topics of migration, diversity, and trans- and multilingualism in the contemporary German-speaking world. My book project, which is now titled Resistance, Resilience, Representation: Unmaking the Myths of Post-Wende German Identity, is about the networks of authors, activists, and journalists pushing to reimagine the multidirectional history of Post-Unification Germany. In addition to my teaching and research, I work as a literary translator of contemporary German writers, and I’m engaged in practices of radical diversity and public humanities.
LSA: What do the terms “public humanities” and “radical diversity” mean in terms of your teaching and research?
JCP: I will teach a class in the fall (Fall Term 2024) called “Radical Diversity.” It’s a literary buzzword in German studies now—and for contemporary scholars, it’s a condition of life. For a pluralist democracy to exist we need difference, and difference is a strength, not a weakness. Radical diversity is a different take on intersectional politics, one that emphasizes the differences—there does not need to be a coherent or overarching narrative of identity. I think radical diversity creates a space for us, as German philosopher Theodor Adorno described, “to be different without fear.” Right now I am a faculty sponsor for a graduate student working group and mentoring students, and our events are really well attended. I’m looking forward to teaching in the fall.
LSA: What inspired you to devote your research to these topics in Germanic languages and literatures?
JCP: In an abstract sense, translation has always been a part of my life. As a child, I was always between my mother’s family (who are Korean American) and my father’s family (who are Jewish Italian American), and I engaged in a lot of cultural translation. Being able to communicate is part of belonging. I was really interested in German philosophy and politics in college, and I took German language courses, studied abroad in Germany, and learned that the 19th century Germany I had read about is nothing like what Germany is today. I fell in love with contemporary German literature; it really spoke to me. I lived in Germany for many years, and did a master’s degree at the University of Heidelberg in translation studies. Rather than translating government documents, I really wanted to work on literary translations, maybe because I was a literature student as an undergraduate.
LSA: Can you share more about this translation work?
JCP: When I was still a grad student, I co-translated and and co-edited an essay collection called Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (Your Homeland is Our Nightmare). “Heimat,” which means “homeland,” in German, was also used during National Socialism, so the word often connotes a specifically Naziistic homeland. The writers in the anthology wrote on topics that have to do with home: food, language, family. The contemporary German literary scene is actually more diverse than many might think. I became involved in a Berlin collective of young POC writers, and when I started translating my friends’ literature, I really felt like I was doing something important. I was volunteering myself, and this was very much in line with the kind of DIY [do-it-yourself] ethos I grew up with. The Germans were psyched because I’m a native speaker of English, and, being from California, being Asian American, the German writers were like, “You get us, you can translate us.” They trusted me to be true to their projects, and to their multi-generational immigrant experience. Most of the writers I work with are in their 20s and 30s, and are immigrants and children of immigrants—so, contemporary German literature is something many young Americans in the classroom find very relevant.
LSA: And what do you hope students gain or learn in your classroom?
JCP: I hope my students come away understanding that the world is far more complex than any of us know. The things we do matter—here, and on the other side of the world. I hope my classroom gives students the opportunity to take a non-U.S.-centric approach to DEI, and to be part of a large, multilingual, global conversation.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jon Cho-Polizzi is an assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures and a 2022 Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.
Learn about the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures