A recent poetry event in the small Michigan city of Hamtramck featured music and the work of poets in a multitude of languages: Hmong, Polish, Macedonian, Ukrainian, English, Arabic, Bangla, Dutch, and Shona and Ndebele. The readings highlighted Hamtramck’s heterogeneity as well as something much more expansive than the voices embedded in this two-square-mile city inside Detroit.
The event was a celebration of “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest,” completing a three-year Sawyer Seminar series funded by the Mellon Foundation and coordinated by the Department of Comparative Literature.
From 2020 to 2023, a team of seven faculty members in comparative literature collaborated on research and public outreach in order to explore how diverse Midwest communities are entwined historically, culturally, and linguistically. And new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U-M Office of the Provost will support more collaboration through 2024.
Building on the Mellon Sawyer Seminar, Kristin Dickinson (associate professor of German and faculty affiliate in comparative literature) and Yopie Prins (professor of English and comparative literature) have worked with colleagues and students at U-M to launch “Translating Michigan.” The public humanities initiative includes a website that houses a growing collection of life stories by multilingual Michigan residents, and serves as a portal for archival and artistic projects that highlight histories of migration across the state.
Michigan is “a place that’s often glanced over as homogeneous, despite how rich and diverse it really is,” says Dickinson. Telling the stories of multilingual Michigan resists this narrative of homogeneity, and also works against negative images of migrant communities. “Multilingualism is part of our identity,” Dickinson says.
One story featured on the site is by Emmanuel Orozco Castellanos (who recently was named a Rhodes Scholar), who moved to Michigan from Mexico in 2017, attended Henry Ford College, and then transferred to U-M through the Summer Bridge Program. Since graduating in 2022 with a B.A. in international studies, he has worked as research assistant and community partner with Prins and Dickinson to develop projects for “Translating Michigan.”
During his undergraduate studies in LSA, he minored in translation studies through the Department of Comparative Literature, and he volunteered at Freedom House in Detroit as a translator for asylum seekers. To complete his capstone project for the minor, he led a translation workshop with the multilingual students of Ecorse High School, encouraging the practice of personal narrative writing as a way of reclaiming knowledge. Translating between English and Spanish, the class created a bilingual pamphlet, “Our Stories of Migration: Saliendo Adelante.”
From this experience Orozco Castellanos learned that translating can be liberating, and one way for a public university like U-M to live its values in the world. “Translation can be resistance, storytelling, and community,” he says. “Stories are acts of self-translation, of carrying the self across different cultural contexts. The gathering of these stories resists the idea that they are an exception to a monolingual norm.”
In summer 2023, Translating Michigan was awarded funding from the NEH “United We Stand: Connecting Through Culture” program (via the Michigan Humanities Council) and also a grant from the “Engage Detroit Workshops” (via the U-M Vice Provost for Engaged Learning), to expand its mission around the theme of “Visualizing Migration: Translating Detroit.”
The grants will support two projects with community partners based around Detroit—a city shaped in part by immigrants who were drawn to the area’s auto manufacturing and related industries. The interrelated projects are called “Multilingualism, Migration, and Muralism in Mexicantown” and “The Middle East in Metro Detroit.”
For the muralism project, Orozco Castellanos will partner with Mexican American artist Elton Monroy Durán. They will create a video interview about Durán’s murals as “visual translations” of the Mexican diaspora in Southwest Detroit. There will also be interviews with community members, to discover how they “translate” Durán’s murals into their past lives in Mexico and their current lives in Mexicantown.
The video will be posted on the Translating Michigan site, along with a bilingual guided tour of Durán’s murals, providing images and historical context about the long-standing contributions of Mexican Americans to Detroit’s economic and cultural growth. Funding will support archival research and a public launch of this project at Wayne State University.
For the project on the Middle East in metro Detroit, Dickinson came up with the idea to create an interactive digital map to integrate the different languages and stories of the region. “For example, if you hover your mouse over the Highland Park Mosque, you will be able to pull up pins with narratives about the mosque in Turkish, Arabic, or Kurdish, as well as older and newer images of the place,” she says.
Dickinson, who works in modern and Ottoman Turkish, will collaborate with Michael Pifer, assistant professor of Armenian language and literature, and reach out to other faculty at U-M Ann Arbor and Dearborn to identify historical resources. Funding will support archival workshops and travel for students to do research at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, the Chaldean Cultural Center in West Bloomfield, and other local archives, culminating in a public presentation at the Arab American National Museum.
Through collaborative projects that engage the community, Translating Michigan seeks to highlight the interrelationships among people who have migrated to Michigan, and not just the tensions. In addition, by connecting students and faculty to the multilingual communities around us, this public humanities initiative contributes to engaged learning at U-M.
To expand on the success of the minor in Translation Studies, the Department of Comparative Literature is proposing a new undergraduate major in translation in 2025. “With this translation major,” says Prins, “we will prepare students for a wide range of opportunities they might pursue as translators, interpreters, and mediators between languages and cultures. Translation has an important role to play as a professional skill, an art of resistance, and a daily practice of interpretation and mediation.”
As a recent LSA alum, Orozco Castellanos agrees: “Translation offers a chance to reflect on all the ways multilingualism and migration have shaped all of our own identities.” He hopes the new major will encourage students to consider their communities, all the people they interact with every day.
Learn about supporting the Department of Comparative Literature.
Cassidy is proud to be the first in their family to go to college.
Scholarship support made it possible for Cassidy to attend LSA. It also lets them explore everything else the university has to offer outside the classroom, like doing academic research and creating editorial cartoons for The Michigan Daily.
Your generosity helps students find their place at LSA.