LitTransformer, a translation workshop in Lviv, connects UNESCO CITIES OF LITERATURE

An Interview with Professor Aron Aji

by Hanna Leliv

This is how the story goes.  It starts with two people having an idea in Iowa City, and ends with a one-of-its-kind translation workshop in Lviv involving people from ten different countries. One of these is a Fulbrighter who wants to share her experience and give back to the local community, and the other is an American professor, with the enthusiasm and good will to to share his knowledge and expertise to contribute to the global progress of the ‘little art’ of literary translation.

 July 8, 2019. Lviv, Ukraine. Aron Aji, director of the University of Iowa Literary Translation Program, welcomes participants of the inaugural LitTransformer, a UNESCO Cities of Literature translation workshop. Eight translators, seasoned and emerging, representing six countries—Czech Republic, Great Britain, Iceland, the Netherlands, Romania, and Spain—are about to spend ten days together at the Lviv Ivan Franko National University.  

Rewind back to January 2019. Iowa City (USA)—Lviv (Ukraine). Aron Aji, Bohdana Brylynska from the Lviv UNESCO City of Literature Office, and Iryna Odrekhivska from the Translation Studies Department of the Lviv Ivan Franko National University are talking on Skype, putting together the program of a unique translation workshop that would take place in Lviv in just a couple of months. How do you make it work with  translators at different stages of their careers, who translate between different languages? Should they work in groups, or pairs, or maybe solo? Are they going to translate a piece of their choice (through English as a bridge maybe?), or work on several pre-selected texts? Poetry, or prose, or both? What about a play? Dozens of hard questions fly back and forth between Iowa and Lviv. 

Rewind to May 2018. Lviv, Ukraine. Aron Aji and I are drinking coffee at a little coffee house in Lviv. We’re about to meet with a group of Lviv-based translators, translation studies faculty, people from the Lviv UNESCO City of Literature Office, and other local activists and translation enthusiasts to talk about this crazy idea we have—to organize an international translation workshop. Aron and I just came back from Kyiv, where Aron gave a talk about global literature and hosted a translation workshop at the International Book Festival. His visit is a spontaneous giving-back-to-my-home-country result of my nine-month-long Fulbright scholarship at the University of Iowa Literary Translation Program. 

Rewind to December 2017. Iowa City, USA. I am five months into my scholarship as a participant of the Fulbright Research and Development Program at probably the best literary translation program in the United States. I’m sitting at the office of my faculty advisor and mentor, Aron Aji, and in the middle of our conversation, Aron suggests that we could organize something together after my scholarship ends and I go back to Ukraine. Something that would contribute to the Ukrainian literary translation scene and spark conversations about up-to-date global trends in translation. It doesn’t sound like a project that’s going to be easy to pull off, but after a series of emails with the Kyiv book festival people in Ukraine who embraced the idea, it’s beginning to look more realistic. We all get down to work.


Hanna Leliv: Professor Aji, let us start with the facts: can you tell us more about the LitTransformer program - who was doing what, and when, and where? 

Aron Aji:
LitTransformer is an international translation workshop, hosting translators mainly from the UNESCO Cities of Literature. The workshop was designed by me in cooperation with the outstanding faculty of the Ivan Franko National University’s Translation and Contrastive Linguistics Program, Iryna Odrekhivska, Yuliya Naniak, Anna Halas, and others.  All the event planning and logistics were managed by the super-creative team of the Lviv City of Literature, including Bohdana Brylynska, its Director, and Anna Khriakova, Pavlo Koriaga, and Mariana Zagoruiko.  Myroslaw Trofymuk served as the photographer and official chronicler of the ten-day gathering. I am particularly indebted to Iryna Odrekhivska who played an indispensable role in the concept and design of the actual workshop program: how we weaved the seminars and the work sessions into a meaningful whole.

The inaugural event in July 2019 involved eight translators from a number of European cities, including Utrecht, Reyjkjavik, Barcelona, Norwich, Bucharest, Vigo, and Lviv.  Four outstanding graduates of the Ivan Franko National University’s Translation program also participated in the workshop. Just as importantly, we had guest speakers – Olena Haleta, Ostap Slyvynskyi, Marta Hosovska, and, of course, you, Hanna Leliv – whose lectures encouraged self-reflection among participants on the ethical issues of translation. 

The program combined extensive daily work periods and seminars on methods, theories and contexts of translation.  Each translator brought a short literary text in their native language and a draft translation of it into English. During the workshop, the translators collaborated in groups, and across four languages: their three native languages, and English, the bridge language between them. During the collaboration, each translator functioned as both the capable guide (in their native language) and the novice traveler (in their peer’s language).  The practical goal was to get the literary texts translated into each native language represented in the groups.

This process also engendered significant reflection and discovery among the participants about their own translation practice and the function of translation in their artistic and social environments.  Moving between familiarity and estrangement, interrogating what felt like confident, well-practiced answers with fresh, often unexpected questions, the participants experienced languages vividly and reflectively. Because they depended on each other to access the sense and literary scope of the original text they had to engage in intense conversations on every facet of literariness, from the lexical and phonetic dimensions of the text to the formal, empathetic and rhetorical ones.

HL: What are the goals of the program? What does the program aim to accomplish? 

At one point, Bohdana, Iryna and I were discussing the familiar metaphor of translation as a bridge between languages and cultures that facilitates the international circulation of literature.  Iryna offered a wonderful insight: LitTransformer is about what happens on that bridge. The workshop is the space where explore how translation might function as an inter-space—a creative, regenerative commons—that fosters genuine dialogue and discovery not just across but also because of the diverse languages and cultures that coexist in our cities.  Indeed, LitTransformer afforded us constant glimpses of what happens on the bridge, in that inter-space as we observed our translators, who did not speak each other’s native languages, collaborate on several rather sophisticated levels of linguistic exchange.

Let me cite just two reasons—among many—that make the LitTransformer so timely and worthwhile.  First, even though our so-called global society has become increasingly interconnected, our ‘closeness’ does not by itself ensure that we actually understand each other any better. The prevalence of English as the go-to language of communication risks reducing our cultural complexities to what is communicable in the second language. Yet, to truly understand one another, to welcome the other and enter the relation with his/her otherness, we need to foster intersections where our native languages—immensely rich reserves of culture and character—are interwoven in the very fabric of co-existence: where they are not just overheard, tolerated, or exoticized, but also integral to the experience of creating things together.  

Second, international literary markets today are saturated with works translated from English and four or five other ‘major’ languages—a condition that probably influences what else we translate and how we translate it.  In this context, how ‘foreign’ is the foreign? How much do we encourage the foreign to become intelligible to us on its own terms? Conscious of these questions, we tried to design our workshop project in ways that amplified the ‘instrumentality’ of English as a useful means to making the foreign itself the principal object of discovery and aesthetic appreciation.

HL: When did you first get the idea to organize something like this? Many ideas start different from what ultimately happens - so what was the original thought?

As you know, Iowa City is also a UNESCO City of Literature, and the University hosts the International Writing Program (funded to a significant extent, like the Fulbright program, by the U.S. Department of State) that offers fall residencies to around thirty writers each year. These are important assets for our MFA in Literary Translation. In fact, the idea of international collaborations was among the first initiatives that I had discussed with the directors of these programs six years ago.  When we hosted the Cities of Literature directors’ meeting in Iowa City three years ago, I had the chance to propose the idea to the international directors—who received it enthusiastically.  

I should add, however, that ideas don’t get realized unless there is a catalyst for action.  And thanks to you, Hanna, our visit with the Deputy Mayor of Lviv in 2018 was that very important catalyst.  The enthusiasm and active commitment shown by Lviv was extraordinary. That’s when I thought we had work to do!

HL: The participants came from many other UNESCO Cities of Literature - what is the effect of this network on the workshop? 

 AA: The Cities network is richly diverse, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, spanning an ever-widening geography. The European Cities of Literature, in particular, are in relatively close proximity to each other, easily and affordably accessible. These were very favorable practicalities.  But UNESCO Cities of Literature also serve as gateways through which international literature circulates across the globe. The fact that the UNESCO Network itself cooperates in translation—whether through global lingua franca or regional cosmopolitan languages—made the Network an obvious site for a collaborative initiative about translation.  Perhaps less often acknowledged but no less significant is the fact that the UNESCO Cities of Literature are themselves linguistically and culturally diverse spaces. We hope that the conversations and collaboration we started in Lviv will migrate to the individual Cities, encouraging programs and initiatives that foreground the crucial role that translation plays in so many facets of our co-existence.    

HL: What do you think the team learned from the whole experience? What are the plans for the future? 

Whenever a group of creative, driven individuals get together, there is bound to be disagreements and conflict.  I was quite amazed that we had almost none. On the contrary, the group bonded beautifully and collaborated with shared purpose. Lviv City of Literature team was, in one word, amazing!  We couldn’t have wished for a more professional staff who remained responsive to the participants’ needs and made the entire experience work beautifully. The veritable army of volunteers, students of Ivan Franko National University, was incredibly capable, prompt, and enthusiastic. If we consider that, all in all, around thirty individuals had a hand in making LitTransformer work, the most important thing we learned is that the magical combination of idealism, expertise and enthusiasm (characteristics also common to literary translators!) does spell success.  Our Lviv colleagues must have felt the same that they announced their plans to repeat LitTransformer next year in Lviv again!  

HL: What moments of the workshop most stand out in your mind

AA: Very difficult to pick one or two.  Our joint discussions and seminars were very stimulating; the cultural excursions were so meaningful and enjoyable; working with the dedicated group of undergraduate students was a true treat.  But perhaps what I enjoyed the most was eavesdropping on the group conversations during the daily work sessions, and witnessing the interplay of languages, the attentive care with which each translator tried to explain her/his native language to the others, the mixture of admiration and joy that accompanied each discovery, each moment of intelligibility. In short, vivid glimpses of the creative exchanges held on the bridge!   


LitTransformer: the Unlocked Post-History 
by Bogdana Brylynska and Iryna Odrekhivska

One of the participants emailed us after the event, saying that “the first-ever LitTransformer was one for the history books and this was largely due to the impeccable organization team behind it.” 

Indeed, it was one of our goals to make this event transformative for the participants, take them out of their comfort zones, “shake up” their routine practice by placing them in authentic diversity in which they collaborated, and foster their personal and professional growth. The debrief session at the very end confirmed that a program like this isn't just about going through the motions of a translation exercise but also about developing new thinking about translation. 

In their feedback, participants wrote they became committed to not taking any text at face value, but to always look deep in order to find what is being said beyond words. For instance, many of them were fascinated by the revealing aesthetic force of – as they called it – “the Aron method,” presented in one of the lectures by Professor Aron Aji, where he paid special attention to sounds and rhythm of the source text, breaking it down according to the frequency of certain sounds. Learning to work in such “double mode of translation” (again, here we quote the words of our participant) – through roots and routes – was one of the key ideas of the workshop’s design. 

Analyzing the role of translation practice in the national and city ecosystems that might appear quite insular and self-justifying was another priority of the workshop, since it cultivated the network of translators in the UNESCO Cities of Literature. The process of collaborative translation is an eye-opener to many contemporary societal challenges and cultural specificities, and LitTransformer gave all participants a chance to experience this. 

We are grateful to our participants for their extraordinary passionate translation work and the heartwarming atmosphere they created, which has already inspired many future plans.  Beyond any doubt, many sincerest thanks go to Aron Aji, who was a visionary of this event and played a leading role in its implementation. 

As we look back to assess our results, we are also looking forward – to developing  a new, 2020 version of the UNESCO Cities of Literature translation workshop! 

Stay tuned! 

Photos by Trofymuk Design & Photography

Caitlyn Garcia