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Colonial Translations: Undergraduate Research, University Archives, and Digital Publication Platforms

Colonial Translations: Undergraduate Research, University Archives, and Digital Publication Platforms

I teach colonial literature to undergraduate students -- mostly texts from Latin America, but borders were pretty porous at the time. To my great surprise, not everyone loves the colonial period. In fact, according to their evaluations, most of my students expect a painful, 15-week slog. As one student in my survey recently put it, "I expected it to be rather boring. Yet, I found it interesting and learned how to be a better analytic reader."

I see many ways in which we continue to negotiate colonial legacies in our everyday lives, from #BlackLivesMatter to education programs and social services that marginalize speakers of Less Commonly Taught Languages, whether Nahuatl in Mexico or Spanish in the US. I find it profoundly sad and utterly fascinating, all at once. So it's my job to make these connections apparent to students, and to show them how a richer understanding of the past can be interesting in its own right, and important to the kinds of questions they will face when they graduate. I try to design assignment sequences that will allow them to build research, writing, and collaborative skills in multiple languages.

By partnering with the recently relaunched Early Americas Digital Archive, a free, online digital repository of colonial-era texts, undergraduate students in my seminar on colonial translation learn methods of historical translation and how to prepare digital critical editions for a public audience. I have now taught the class four times, twice at the College of William & Mary (where I was a postdoc, 2012-2014) and twice at the University of Virginia (where I am an assistant professor, 2014-present).

We spend the first six weeks of the semester working with primary sources (Columbus, Díaz del Castillo, and the usual suspects) that we analyze (per a traditional literary seminar) and translate (per a methods-focused workshop). Then, we partner with university archivsts in Swem Special Collections in Williamsburg, VA (pictured above, with credit to Steve Salpukas) and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections in Charlottesville, VA. Specialist librarians and I help students find texts whose translation would enhance English-language readers' knowledge of the colonial era, and make university archives more accessible to the public. Students defend their choices in proposals (due around the middle of the semester). I weigh in and put them in teams based on their interests. Then, the teams determine a manageable amount of text that they can transcribe, translate, and annotate. The foonotes here are no joke. I make the case that access to primary sources is part of the solution, but that as translators, we also have to give readers the tools they need to understand the source texts, and our interpretations of them.

Almost all of the translations have been from Spanish to English, with a range of social, political, economic, and religious topics, expressed in prose reports, royal decrees, legal discourse, first-hand diaries, histories, and pedagogical instructions.

At William & Mary, some students opted to work individually. Emma Merrill translated a 17th-century priest's reflections on women's roles in public life, Nueva premática de reformación; Hannah Berk produced what we think is the first fully annotated, open access bilingual edition of the King of Spain's order for Jesuit expulsion from the New World; Claire Gillepsie complemented her publishing internship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by preserving an 18th c. scientific manuscript from Mexico that has suffered from exposure to the elements over time; and Danielle Tassara translated a fascinating document that opens up more questions than it answers: a labor contract for indentured servitude in Cuba, signed by a young Chinese man in the port city of Shawtaw. Almost all of the students said that they appreciated the freedom to choose a topic that aligned with their interests, but they wished that they had worked in groups.

One PhD student also did an individual project. Patrick Johnson's fine rendering of Gálvez's command of indigenous natural knowledge in Native Southeast proved to me that an independent digital research project can work very well for graduate students, and that undergraduate students are better served by team projects.

The students who worked in groups appreciated having partners to brainstorm possible terms and search for secondary sources. They also noted the challenges of collaborating on a large, two-month project; many soon-to-be-graduating seniors remarked that they had never worked on a group project in humanities seminars. One noted that for this reason, the translation project was "extremadamente beneficioso." These teams included Abby Kamensky, Mae Flato, Molly Hepner, Kayla Pomeranz, and Karla Núñez, who translated a 17th century bishop's assessment of indigenous spiritualities; Sutton White, Matt Troppe, Anthony Correia, and Brent Nagel, who situated an 18th century Cuban military diary in the complex world of the Gulf Coast at a time when the British, French, and Spanish empires competed for control of natural resources in the extended Caribbean; and Ashleigh Ramos, Andreea Washington, and Vanessa Macias, who unpacked an 18th century Spanish retelling of John Smith's adventures in the Tidewater. I consult with groups during office hours, by skype, and by email. I also provide formal comments on the full draft a week before the due date (see attachment for sample comments).

One year, I assigned each student (including me and a graduate student auditor) a folio page of a single manuscript. I had been in the British Library that summer and stumbled upon a fascinating 17th century deposition of a Spanish colonial official and bilingual Arawak woman who reported on Walter Ralegh's sack of San Tomé de la Guayana. As a class, we had to come to consensus about orthography ("yndia" or "india"), tone ("ten o'clock," "ten of the clock," "ten in the morning"), and vocabulary (woman = wife, woman = woman, woman = concubine?). This format allowed us to discuss methods of translation with a deep level of detail -- one that I have not been able to replicate when I divide the class into 4 groups of 4-5 students. One downside is that we only contributed one text to the EADA that semester. If part of my aim as an educator is to train students to use their language and research skills to contribute to public knowledge, then a whole-class project is not as effective as small group divisions.

One challenge that I face is that my students' linguistic competencies often exceed my own. At William & Mary, a French-speaking student wanted to translate a Francophone retelling of Portuguese imperial history, but my reading knowledge of French has all but evaporated. So, Sarah Schuster collaborated with colleagues in the history department, who were able to help her with key terms and important historiographic debates. At UVa, a trilingual team of Farsi, English, and Spanish speakers picked a deeply complex, richly layered text: an early modern Frenchman's journey through Persia. The text had already been translated from French into English, and a host of other Indo-European languages, all of which seem to have preserved the author's misunderstandings of Farsi terms and Persian cultural practices. So, Taneen Maghsoudi, Kimia Nikseresht and Tara Shafiei proposed to prepare what is (as far as we know) the first critically annotated translation into Spanish of Tavernier's important travel narrative. As Taneen and I went back to the archive at the end of the semester to make sure that the transcription was correct, and the translation clean, she revealed a highly unexpected and very welcome benefit of the project. It had brought her closer to her parents, because she texted them so often to sound out words and try to guess what a particular term may have sounded like to a speaker of a Romance language.

On the whole, students speak positively of their experiences and their learning, calling the seminar "One of the best Spanish classes that I've taken at UVa but definitely one of the hardest," "This is a really good, high level spanish course that combines readings with actual hands on research experience," and " This was a very fulfilling course." Two and four years later, my students at W&M say, "Thank you so much for facilitating this project! I'm excited to see our work at the EADA," "I have one semester left at William & Mary, and I haven't found a more exciting class than yours so far; thank you!" and "It is very exciting to see my piece online and is still one of the coolest projects I did in school!|" Almost all of the students express pride in their work. They see their projects as part of a contribution to public knowledge -- as do I. For me, this is the best kind of learning (and teaching).

One semester, a small group of students complained heavily about the class. They were not used to working in teams on humanities projects, they were balancing many commitments with their other classes, and they did not realize how much work it takes to prepare texts for digital publication. I think these are valuable things to learn in school, so I will keep teaching the class. It did mean getting hauled into my chair's office, though, so I will probably wait until after tenure to resume the seminar.

I have learned a lot from teaching the class over the past four years, and I have experimented with a range of individual, small-group, and whole-class formats for the projects. I welcome feedback and ideas from the HASTAC community. Thanks!


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