This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.


Growing up, LSA senior Anjali Alangaden understood language could bring people together. Alangaden’s parents were from different parts of India; her mother’s family spoke Konkani and her father’s family spoke Malayalam. Alangaden’s mother also spoke Portuguese—a common language for people in the area she grew up in, since Portugal had colonized parts of South Asia. And when Alangaden and her brother spoke English at school and with each other, they added another language to the mix. 

“Because we spoke so many languages, we had a lot of moments of casual translation around the house,” Alangaden says. “Especially with my parents and grandparents, we would often be in one language for one conversation and then suddenly we’d switch to another.” 

When Alangaden arrived at U-M, she embraced her history and interest in languages by majoring in linguistics and minoring in translation studies. 

“One of the things that makes translation studies at U-M distinctive is that it’s a very interdisciplinary model for understanding translation across languages, media, cultures, and disciplines,” says Professor Yopie Prins, the chair of LSA’s Department of Comparative Literature, which oversees the minor in translation studies. “Integrating theory and practice is really important to our department at every level of the curriculum—in our research and our practice, in our graduate-level classes, and in our undergraduate courses. Our faculty are very committed as teachers and translators to thinking critically about translation.” 

Launched in 2014, the minor in translation studies is open to undergraduates from any department. It gives students like Alangaden the opportunity to learn about multiple histories, theories, and practices of translation, and to do a final capstone project. Some minors choose to translate literature for their capstone experience, while others pursue translation projects related to internships, study abroad, volunteering for community organizations, collaborating with faculty on campus, or working for local businesses.

Alangaden had picked out a few Portuguese and Brazilian writers to translate for her capstone project when her advisor made a suggestion. “Professor Prins, my capstone advisor, suggested that I consider doing something broader that would feed more of my interests,” Alangaden says. She opted to make her capstone into a survey of big and small translation projects across campus.

To begin, Alangaden spoke with students who were running their own projects. One was translating German prisoner-of-war documents. Another was an accredited interpreter for Michigan Medicine—helping people with limited English speak to their doctors and nurses. She also made sure to check out some of the larger, more established translation projects around campus, including sitting in on editorial meetings for the academic publication Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation. 

And Alangaden got to interview participants in probably the most visible translation event on campus, LSA’s annual Translate-a-Thon.

Ready, Set, Translate

The Translate-a-Thon, a collaboration between LSA’s Language Resource Center and the Department of Comparative Literature, featured more than 128 participants this year. (The first event, in 2013, had 48.) Over the course of three days, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty participants translate material from nonprofit organizations and community partners, sometimes into English and sometimes from English into something else. 

The event has produced translations for local nonprofits, such as Food Gatherers, Ozone House, Safe House, and Recycle Ann Arbor. It translated World War II–era postcards and propaganda for the Blavatnik Archive, a nonprofit foundation that preserves and disseminates materials pertaining to twentieth-century Jewish and world history. But the Translate-a-Thon doesn’t just serve organizations. 

“One year we worked with a local family who had adopted a child from China,” says Julie Evershed, director of LSA’s Language Resource Center. “They had received this beautiful diary of their child’s life in the adoption agency prior to coming to America, but it was all in Chinese. And so we had our volunteers work on translating it so that this Ann Arbor family could have a personal record of their son and share it with him, and that was really, really great.”

“Another thing that’s great about the Translate-a-Thon is that we can integrate our international students, who can sometimes feel isolated or lonely at U-M,” says Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German studies and comparative literature and currently serving as faculty translation advisor. “It can sometimes be difficult being a non-native speaker here. But the Translate-a-Thon is a chance for everybody to realize that being a native speaker of a language other than English is actually an asset, an amazing resource. The event builds community in that way, too.”

Alangaden attended the Translate-a-Thon, including a session run by staff from LSA’s Opportunity Hub on how to explain one’s translation experience in professional terms for future employers. Alangaden also interviewed two participants — an undergraduate from the School of Social Work and a graduate student in the Ford School of Public Policy — and added their thoughts to her project. 

The more she explored, the more Alangaden found translation all around her. In professors explaining complicated material, in doctors deciphering medical jargon for their patients, in multilingual friends illuminating cultural forces and foreign ideas for their classmates. And Alangaden hopes that as more people sign up for programs like the minor in translation studies, awareness of the power of translation can grow. 

“The biggest thing I took away from this project was that translation could be anything and could happen anywhere,” Alangaden says. “We often have this very specific idea of what translation means, that it’s this formal process of choosing a word and then finding its exact copy in another language, and it all goes on from there. And I think translation is just so much bigger than that.”

“Restating content in a different form is a critical skill in the twenty-first century,” says Weineck. “Translation is at the heart of de-escalating international conflicts, and it’s also at the heart of explaining science to the general public. I personally believe that translation is nothing less than the condition of possibility of all progress.”

“Even if it’s intra-language—just translating from jargony English into conversational language—translation is one of those key skills that people don’t think about but that they should appreciate more and more,” Alangaden says. “At least, I know I’m going to.”  

 Illustration by Becky Sehenuk Waite