U-M scholars to explore multilingual Midwest in Sawyer Seminar


The Midwest, to many Americans, is either “fly-over country” where not much of interest happens, or “the heartland,” nostalgically framed as an ideal, homogenous America.

A group of U-M scholars has secured a $225,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore the Midwest instead as a multicultural, multilingual region shaped by successive waves of both international and domestic migrations.

Focusing on the question of translation — broadly understood as complex mediations and negotiations between languages and cultures — the group of humanities scholars will organize a series of events under the Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminar program.

“We’ll be exploring diverse cultures of translation in various Midwestern sites,” said Yopie Prins, Irene H. Butter Collegiate Professor of English and Comparative Literature and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature in LSA. “Who translates what for which purpose and in whose interest? How has the region been defined by the interaction of multilingual communities?”

Translation, the scholars stress, is not merely a process between national languages, but an everyday web of encounters among citizens who bring different backgrounds, expectations, fears and dreams to the table.

The multidisciplinary U-M team of scholars is led by Prins, who also is a professor of comparative literature, and English language and literature; Marlon James Sales, postdoctoral fellow in critical translation studies; and Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of Germanic languages and literatures, and comparative literature.

Collaborators include Kristin Dickinson, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures; Maya Barzilai, associate professor of Middle East studies and Judaic studies; Benjamin Paloff, associate professor of comparative literature, and Slavic languages and literatures; and Christi Merrill, associate professor of Asian languages and cultures, and comparative literature.

Titled “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest,” the project will run for two academic years, starting in fall 2020 and culminating with a conference in spring 2022. It will bring together community organizations, as well as researchers and scholars from U-M and other Midwestern universities and colleges for a series of public events and seminars.

They will explore topics as diverse as translation initiatives for local communities; U-M archives that preserve histories of translation in the Philippines and Filipino diaspora in Michigan; photojournalism that visualizes interaction among multiple languages in the industrial cities of Detroit and Dortmund; the place of Eastern European literature in Midwestern cultural networks; Yiddish translations of urban experience; the promise of translation networks enabled by Hathi Trust; and the challenges and promises of Hamtramck, Michigan’s most linguistically diverse city.

Additional meetings are planned on Native American languages and the role of Arabic communities in the Midwest.  

Sawyer Seminars are, in effect, temporary research centers that connect faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students — mainly in the arts, humanities and social sciences — for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants.

“The recognition of the Mellon Foundation and the intent of this seminar series exemplify the incredible work of U-M faculty members taking an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing multiple histories and practices of translation in the Midwest,” said Martin Philbert, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

“These events and the conversations that come during them will spark important dialogues about the pivotal role translation plays in today’s multicultural and multilingual society.”

It has been a decade since U-M last received the prestigious Sawyer Seminar grant from the foundation’s invitation-only award process.

“We are thrilled to be supported by The Mellon Foundation and excited to be given this opportunity to make possible more collaboration with scholars working around issues of translation within and beyond our university,” Prins said.

“We see translation not as an academia-led practice of language, but as a community-centered encounter with its own multilingual realities.”


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