Category Archives: Conferences

A Particular Place and a Particular Time: Communism, Science Fiction, and their Co-Constitution

In his contentious 1972 description of science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment,”¹ Darko Suvin ushered in an era of renewed debate about the classificatory role of an historically malleable genre. Yet, the central tenant of this categorization—estrangement of cognition from the known—is drawn from the Russian остранение (ostrenanie, or defamiliarization), itself already a central tenant of Russian Formalism as a genre. Ostrenanie, a central concept in Russian Formalism’s attempt to describe and define what constitutes literaturnost’ (литературность, or literariness), already functioned as a linguistic neologism with the double meaning of “making strange” and “putting aside.” To embody literariness at the level of the text is to inherently make strange and to decenter, to make the art itself recognizable as such. Thus the terminology of definitions utilized by Suvin already glosses its origins and, in doing so, elides any new formal definition of SF as a genre in and of itself, existing outside of—if contingent on—the realm of literature formally defined. To locate SF’s defining characteristic in the exact same categorization schema as those outlining literature as a whole, without allowing for additional classificatory markers, allows SF as a genre to remain in the liminal genre periphery that no amount of theorizing has yet been able to satisfactorily crystallize into a rigorously-definable framework. If, then, the defining features of SF as such are estrangement from the known taking place within a framework outside the author’s extant circumstances, then such estrangement may occur at the level of text, through technological extrapolations, or by transgressing or presenting unfamiliar national boundaries.

  Each of these potential avenues for estrangement—textual, technological, national—were explored, analyzed, and problematized at the first annual International Conference on Science Fiction and Communism, held May 26-27, 2018 at the American University in Bulgaria (AUB) in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. The conference’s focus on communism as a modifier of and literary foundation for the development of science fiction offered an ideological avenue into the question of estrangement—if we in the West are used to thinking of SF as an inherently Western genre, what happens when we decenter it from those national, linguistic, and ideological boundaries? How does it change the nature of the questions being asked or the methods used to analyze its output, reception, and conditions?

As a unifying framework, the conference postulated SF not as an outcome of state policy or propaganda, but rather as an active agent in a complex and (in many cases) ongoing relationship between various communist regimes and public reception. As a genre often credited with voicing political and social critiques not possible in more “realist” genres, the conference took as its a priori theoretical positioning that SF is uniquely positioned to directly engage with the polemics of ongoing clashes between capitalism and communist ideology.

Yet it is not only the case that SF was and is uniquely positioned to comment upon ideological regimes, but also, numerous conference presentations recognized that as a mediated ideology, communism itself borrowed heavily from futuristic and technologicized visions of alterity, utilizing SF images, metaphors, and tropes to position itself as “the bearer of a bright future that had already arrived.” In adopting SF as a source of political discourse and as a framework for the communication of political ideals, various communist regimes were complicit in popularizing the genre itself. 

In addressing such a broad spectrum of interests, the conference—which was a multi-city affair—opened in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, a country with a surprisingly science fictional history of robotics and cybernetics. To celebrate the opening of the conference, a cocktail party was held at a downtown gallery, including a meet-and-greet with local academics, science fiction experts, writers, artists, and fans. The exhibition on display was appropriate for setting the mood; “Fantastika in a Time of Communism” displayed archival and artistic SF works from the socialist period in Bulgaria. There was also space wine!

Following the close of the first night’s party, participants were transported two hours outside of Sofia to Blagoevgrad, a city in southwestern Bulgaria that is home to the American University in Bulgaria’s campus. Over the following weekend, participants presented on a variety of fascinating panels, beginning with “Science Fiction East and West: Communication or Divide?,” “Soviet Science Fiction,” “Space Conquest in Communist Children’s Literature,” “The Film Perspective,” and “No God in Cosmos.” Perhaps of most interesting note during the first day was a notable divide between those participants who took it as a given that communism as a system was irredeemably corrupt (if not outright evil) and their occasionally vocal clashes with the conference hosts, who attempted to steer the discussions towards a recognition of the ways in which communism was (or could be) beneficial despite the harm that its implementation had caused in the past. Disagreements along these lines led to volatile and exciting exchanges between participants.

Following a productive first day of presentations, the second day opened with a panel on “Narrowing the Dialogue: Case Studies” and concluded with “Science Fiction and Ideology.” I’m biased, of course, since this panel included my own presentation, but obviously they saved the best for last.

My presentation—“The Quotidian Utopia of China’s Lian Huan Hua”—was unique in that it was the only conference presentation dealing with a communist regime outside of the Soviet and Eastern European context, focusing instead on literary ephemera popular in mid-20th century communist China. As an explicit tenant of Mao’s modernization strategy during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, literary strictures produced a mode of narrative utopianism that Nathanial Isaacson has identified elsewhere² as a “quotidian utopia.” The quotidian utopia was a mass-produced vision of a utopian future brought about through decidedly non-fantastical means and promulgated to the public as a mode of implied development, rather than a narrative centered around an advanced technological system—that is, a utopian future for the nation was not described nor presented to the public as science fiction as such, yet retained its eye for future progress through quotidian means. 

What’s important to note here is the fact that such literatures have not, historically, been recognized as belonging to the strictly-defined genre of science fiction because their setting is firmly in the present. One valuable example of this mass production of quotidian utopian literature were the serialized booklets known as lian huan hua (连环画) or “linked serial pictures.” The lian huan hua were used as a tool of education and propaganda in the state’s move towards modernization, and as a result there were innumerable examples of the impact of trains, mining, agricultural improvements, electricity, telephone lines, and shipping techniques on the development of the country and on individual lives. By combining public health and public works propaganda with narrative and images, the lian huan hua were used as pedagogical tools for children, peasants, and the illiterate, and as such the narratives being presented are idealized in the extreme. This does not detract from their value as historical artifacts, however, and indicates the method by which the publishers sought to establish and shape mass opinion of the nation-building process.

In my presentation, I argued that the lian huan hua are no less science fictional simply because their future utopian dreams now seem to us to be rather commonplace for having (largely) been achieved; on the contrary, their use of innovative technologies to bring about a scientifically-advanced modern Communist society and their wide dissemination to the people renders this brand of quotidian utopian fiction an unparalleled attempt to bring the masses to the future through literary means. The fact that much of this body of text is dismissed as propaganda or not treated as worthy of academic investigation is an oversight on par with the dismissal in the Western canon of science fiction as an inconsequential genre literature. The shift in emphasis to the utilization of mass technologies exemplified by the lian huan hua is symptomatic of a still-extant utopian drive in Chinese Communist literature that, despite increased state crackdowns on the freedoms afforded authors and the broad social denigration of non-realist imaginaries condemned as bourgeois, the science fictional imaginary continues to produce.

Finally, the conference concluded with a keynote speech by Darko Suvin himself. Professor Emeritus at McGill University, Canada, Darko Suvin is widely recognized as one of the most prominent figures in the development of science fiction studies, and as previously noted, is responsible for the development of cognitive estrangement as a method of categorizing and analyzing science fiction as a genre. Over a conference call, he engaged with many of the papers that had been presented and additionally shared some of his own thoughts. As had by now become characteristic of this conference, the exchanges were often contentious—both intellectually-grounded and deeply emotional, many participants had significant personal stakes in their ideological positions. For many, the realities of extant communist regimes could not be discussed with any sort of cognitive dissonance—far from being fictional, they were real, lived experiences that, no matter how strange or estranging they might be, did not offer insight into a world that wasn’t, but a world that had been and continued to be a possibility. Their arguments served as a reminder that what makes something strange or fantastic is often as much a matter of historical positioning as technological development. 

A complete video of each panel can be found at the American University in Bulgaria’s website here: https://www.aubg.edu/news/aubg-hosts-inaugural-science-fiction-and-communism-conference-1465 or on youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJhqXzj2SATibzhnJ8KOE1RL6GgpR_s2i

Notes
¹ Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979)

² Isaacson, Nathaniel. “Science Crosstalk in China’s Shifting Cultural Field.” Talk given as part of the Science Fiction and Asian Histories panel at the 2016 ACLA Conference. Harvard University, 2016.

Love in Translation: The Conference

A Report by Thato Magano, Paulina Barrios, Shawn Gonzalez, Rafael Vizcaíno, Rudrani Gangopadhyay, and Penny Yeung

On March 2nd and 3rd, 2018, the graduate students of the Rutgers University Program in Comparative Literature organized their biennial conference on “Love in Translation.” The co-chairs, Rudrani Gangopadhyay and Penny Yeung, hoped that the conference theme would foster conversations about how love figures in and is transfigured by translation by way of thinking about how love disrupts and transforms the ways in which literary imagination functions across languages, time, space, borders. Some of the questions the conference hoped to (and did) address were the following: How is love translated? Can love be a methodology in translation? Is it a hindrance or is it generative? Is love a theme or a product of translation?

The first panel of Friday, on the “Poetics of Translation,” commenced after introductory remarks by the conference co-chairs, by the Program Chair Prof. Andrew Parker, and the Graduate Director, Prof. Anjali Nerlekar. The first paper was by Paul Franz, a doctoral candidate at the Department of English at Yale University. His paper, “To leave my love – alone: Alliances and Realignments in Geoffrey Hill’s versions of Anne Hébert,” examined the complex history of the English poet Geoffrey Hill’s translation of a poem by the French-Canadian poet Anne Hébert, by studying the affiliations between Hill and Hébert as an effort to create an international counterpublic resistant to American hegemony. Paul explored the fact that Hill typically performed Hébert’s poem alongside Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66, which employed a similar litany structure, yet which introduced the key term—“love”—absent from Hébert’s account of popular resistance to Fascist authority. The other two papers were presented by Rutgers Comparative Literature’s own doctoral students, Josué Rodriguez and Penny Yeung. Josué’s paper, ‘The Ethics of Translation in Vicente Huidobro’s “El Hermoso Juego,” or “The Beautiful Game”’,  examined Vicente Huidobro’s microficción, or micro-fiction, “El Hermoso Juego,” or “The Beautiful Game,” (1940) as an example of how Huidobro’s movement, Creacionismo, is able to performatively render Surrealism’s aesthetic, cultural, and political codes in its playful appropriation of automatic writing. Huidobro’s familiarity with the stylistic and cultural codes of the French movement allowed him to playfully build what Gayatri Spivak called an inhabitable textual world for the other in her 1992 essay “The Politics of Translation.” This ultimately embodies a shift from the ideals of revolutionary love towards an ethical relationship to the other, one that foregrounds a text’s access to all through its universalized translatability.The last paper of the panel, presented by Penny, was titled “Partial Translation and World Building,” and argued in favor of “partial translation” through theoretical and creative engagement, by way of her own translations of several poems lifted from French academician Dany Laferrière’s book, L’art presque perdu de ne rien faire (The Nearly Lost Art of Doing Nothing), an untranslated work. By considering Dennis Tedlock’s proposition of a poetics of translatability in his eludication of Mayan poetics, and KE Bishop’s argument that a relationship of metonymy and contiguity, and not metaphor and comparability, underlies a written text and its invisible, unwritten text, she argued that rather than destroying networks of signification, a partial translation can partake in a more hopeful endeavor of world-building.

The second panel of the conference, titled “Queerness” saw two presentations from Duncan McKinnon, a Rutgers University senior in the Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, and Lubna Abdul-Hadi, a PhD student in the Translation Instruction and Research Program at Binghamton University. The panel kicked off with Duncan’s paper “Feeling the Erotics of Queer Diaspora: Translating the Sensorial in Zami by Audre Lorde and The Book of Salt by Monique Truong.” Duncan’s paper explored how the sensorial, as a medium that exceeds the discursive, can be translated to understand the meanings and experiences between bodies and subjectivities in relation to love and lovemaking in the texts. For Duncan, because the protagonists are often failed by the discursive as a result of the social and economic conditions that impact their lives, they see translating the sensorial facilitating an escape of the limitations in their experiences across linguistic, national and racial difference. Lubna’s paper “Love, Hatred, to Love Again – Translating Female Same-Sex Relationships in Medieval Arabic Literature” explored how the translation of Western hegemonic categories of identification presented limitations of language for non-normative sexualities in the Arab-Islamic community. Exploring the limitations of the western norms of sexuality identification as they have come to be understood under the banner of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans- gender, Questioning/Queer, + (LGBTQ+), Lubna turned to Medieval texts exploring female same-sex sexuality to show the expansive vocabulary that existed to think through and identify same-sex sexuality. Her work then, propositions how a turn to the past might be productive to contemporary conversations in the Arabic world in relation to same-sex sexuality. Prof Preetha Mani was the discussant for the panel and spoke to the interconnecting themes of both papers as it relates to translation. In one sense, there is an investment in translating what cannot be easily translated as it demands bringing the inexpressible to the fore, while in the other, there is a recognition of the limitations of bringing to the fore that which is translated. Prof Mani further inquired on what queering translation might look like and how scholars might relate to the practice of translation approached from a queered perspective. The panel engaged in a lively debate around temporality and periodization, translation in the Arab world and how translation might enable a return to the self. 

The third, and final, panel for Friday focused on the “Ethics and Politics of Translation.” The panel included presentations from three different graduate students: Coco Xu from Rutgers University presented ‘On the Ethics of Translation’; Ali Almajnooni from Binghamton University presented on ‘Empire, Drones, and the End(s) of Translation’; and Tuhin Bhattacharjee from New York University presented on ‘The Tragic in Translation: Planetarity and a New Ethics of Reading’. The three presenters shared thought provoking works that questioned the role of translator, how they build bridges, but also constitute threats; translation as an inter-cultural interaction, part of a ‘politics of love’; as well as reflections on temporality and translation. Ali began with his presentation, which focused on an analysis of the drones the United States has been using in the Middle East and how this may be a reflection of a transition from using translation as a form of conquest of ‘the other’ towards a complete rejection of comprehension, an annihilation of ‘the other’. Coco’s presentation followed, which sought to respond to the pessimism and frustration that oftentimes accompany translation studies with a refocus on curiosity. She focused on the idea of translation as hospitality, world construction, and productive curiosity. Thus, considering translation as the moment of reaching a new world and inhabiting ‘in-betweenness’. Tuhin closed the table suggesting a move towards a format of comparative literature that would be planetary instead of global. Through this focus connections with ‘the other’ would be through love and tragedy, with translation as part of this risk and tragedy surrounding the ethical and political connection with others. After the presentations, Prof. Janet Walker congratulated the presenters on their papers and followed with some comments on the panel as a whole, as well as specific observations for each of the presenters. She began by reflecting on how ethics surrounds translation, translators, and the praxis itself. Related to Ali’s reflection on empires, US imperialism, and language, Prof. Walker stated that his link to drones as well as the hierarchy and distancing from the other they establish was particularly interesting. She added also how critical languages are constantly being defined by the State Department and how U.S. citizens are incited to learn them, thus emphasizing the politics behind language. Regarding Coco’s work she linked the element of curiosity to subversiveness and how it was viewed as dangerous by empires throughout the world, connecting this text to the first presentation. Finally, she ended with comments on Tuhin’s use of Spivak, bringing in the tragedy of knowledge, the pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will. The questions and discussion that ensued were a testament to the quality of the presentations, focusing on broad topics such as machines/drones, mediation and distance in translation, the specificity of translation, audience and translation, bilingualism and self-translation, ethics surrounding translation, linguistic choice and the politics behind this, among many others.

The first day of the conference concluded with a keynote lecture by Sandra Bermann entitled “Love in Translation: Let Me Count the Ways.” Professor Bermann’s lecture centered on tracing several trajectories for considering the relationship between love and translation. She began by introducing a poetic perspective on this issue through readings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.H. Auden, and Adrienne Rich. Then, she introduced a translation studies perspective, considering the role of love and gender in the work of various translation theorists. Next, she approached this question from the perspective of recent changes in the field of comparative literature. This portion of the lecture challenged the audience to question how translation has been marginalized by the field’s commitment to reading in the original and to reconsider the role of translation in future directions of the discipline. After establishing these different trajectories, Professor Bermann proposed migration both as a way of theorizing translation and of imagining how translation can contribute to the future of comparative literature. This case study drew on the previous trajectories to consider the role of love as a hopeful response to the contemporary linguistic landscape. Professor Bermann’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion that considered how these ideas related to the day’s other presentations. These questions continually returned to the role of translation in graduate students’ teaching, research, and plans for their careers.  

The first panel of the conference’s second day was titled “Transgressions.” Amritha Mohan from the University of Hyderabad (India) presented a paper titled ‘Love in the Call of God: A Translation of Sithara S’s Daivavili’ where she analyzed the task of translation as a “manifestation of the creator’s madness” and sought “to emphasise on the importance of translating non-mainstream love narratives, putting into context the resistance they face from the mainstream Malayalee society, thereby making them as an act of protest in itself.” Karen Jallatyan from the University of California Irvine presented a paper titled ‘Diasporic Love: Writing the Impossibility of Translation in Krikor Beledian’s The Palimpsest Man’, where he illustrated the “the impossibility of fully encountering, thus translating, the other.” For Jallatyan, “Beledian’s work suggests that in the face of catastrophe, love, as enchantment with, faith in and dependence on the other, consists in liberating the alterity of the other in one’s self and in others.” At last, our very own Maria Elizabeth Rodriguez Beltrán presented a paper titled ‘Decolonial love in the US Virgin Islands’, where she asked, “what happens when incest becomes a symbol of liberation from colonial powers and opens the possibility for decolonial love?” For Rodriguez Beltrán, Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning “makes use of several Biblical figures and transforms them by feminizing and reversing them as a way of decolonizing western religion.” The subsequent discussion, moderated by 4th year PhD Candidate Rafael Vizcaíno and started by the sharp commentaries of Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres, centered on the issues of love in the time-space of catastrophe, diasporic subjectivity, and secularism.

The last panel of the conference’s second day was titled ‘Task of the Translator’. Kiawna Brewster from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented a paper titled ‘Censoring Love in Translation: In Defense of the Translator’s Preface’, where she illustrated the importance of the Translator’s Preface by considering its role in rewriting the course of literary history and promoting cultural understanding. She examined the Prefaces to Lara Gochin Raffaeli’s translation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s decadent Italian novel Il Piacere in order to illustrate the morality of translations. Raffaeli tries to introduce the 19th century text for the first time without sanitizing or purging it in any way, thereby undoing the problematic liberties taken by translators. Mariam Rahmani from the University of California Los Angeles presented a paper titled ‘What to do when sexuality doesn’t translate? The Pitfalls of Pronouns and Other Questions’. Ther paper presented an excerpt from a work in progress —an authorized translation of Mahsa Mohebali’s award-winning novel, Don’t Worry (originally in Persian: Negaran nabash, 2008) —and reflected on the difficulties of translating with attention to the politics of gender and sexuality. Some of the questions she explored through her reading include: how English gendered pronouns limit narrative possibilities and unwittingly force an identity-based framework on texts that do not adopt such a conceptualization of gender and sexuality in the original? How does a translator negotiate questions of distance and familiarity? The final paper was presented by Jan Steyn from Cornell, whose paper was titled ‘The Conjugal Translator’. Steyn’s paper explored the Maryse Condé-Richard Philcox author-translator marriage, and reflected on how Philcox’s textual philandering shows how he justifies his infidelity through his conjugality. The subsequent discussion, moderated by 2nd year PhD student Rudrani Gangopadhyay, and was started by the sharp commentaries of Prof. Anjali Nerlekar, centered around the questions of the presence of translator as well the translator’s gender. Questions that came include: can the notion of conjugality in translation degendered? How can slangs and curses be translated? What is the role of paratexts in translation? 

The conference concluded with a translation workshop led by Professor Susan Bernofsky. Professor Bernofsky led the group through a series of activities that engaged participants in thinking about translation from various angles. In one activity, sets of two texts—one original and one its translation—were placed side by side but unidentified, and participants were tasked to determine which text was which. More often than not the group was divided in opinion, and having access to both the source and target languages did not necessarily make the evaluation easier. This sparked lively discussion on what marks a translation, while also providing ample examples that counter the notion of translations as inferior texts. Another activity simulated the operations of an editorial board. The group was given different translations of the same text to look at and had to decide which was the preferred version as well as what editorial changes might be made to improve upon them. It was later revealed that all the versions were drawn from published translations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The group compared the strategies employed by different translators and reflected upon the varying aesthetics these decisions created. Professor Bernofsky also shared learning moments from her own wealth of experience as a translator, such as how to deal with rhythm, wordplay and repetition, and the glossing of untranslatables with no direct equivalent in the target language. The three-hour workshop provided a forum for conference attendees to reflect on translation theory through its praxis, and for those who are practicing and aspiring translators, it was an occasion to brainstorm strategies to deal with the many practical challenges of the craft.

 

Presenting at the MLA 2018

By: Shawn González

The 133rd MLA Annual Convention, on the theme of States of Insecurity, was held on 4–7 January, 2018, in New York. One of our recent PhDs, Shawn González, presented on her current work at the conference. The Comp Lit Blog editors interviewed Shawn about her experience:

Could you tell us a bit about the panel you were involved in and the work you presented on?

I presented on a panel called “Teaching, Theorizing, and Reading Caribbean Texts,” sponsored by the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus. The panel topic was unique, because it incorporated both literary criticism and pedagogy, which sparked some unexpected questions about genre and audience.

My paper “Theorizing Caribbean Multilingualism in the Classroom” emerged from my experience teaching the bilingual Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera in Latino and Caribbean Cultural Studies, a course cross-listed in Comparative Literature and Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers. I argued that Rutgers students who approached Laviera’s poetry from a variety of linguistic backgrounds offered an opportunity to rethink questions of ideal readership from the perspective of a multilingual community with a range of linguistic proficiencies. It is evident that the presence of bilingual students can enrich the reading experiences of monolingual students who could not otherwise understand Laviera’s Spanish-dominant poems. However, based on my observations of student discussions, I proposed that the presence of monolingual students was similarly productive as it prompted bilingual students to consider which portions of Laviera’s text were accessible or inaccessible to a monolingual readership. This paper is part of my developing interest in how undergraduate literature classrooms can be harnessed to consider issues of accessibility and readership in multilingual literature. My thinking on these topics was productively challenged through conversation with other presenters, both those who focused on pedagogy and those who focused on literary analysis.

Did you attend any other panels that were particularly interesting?

My favorite panel was “The Rise of Latinx Literature for Youth” moderated by Marilisa Jiménez García with presentations by Cristina Rhodes, Ashley Perez, and Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez. The panelists considered texts for young people ranging from Gloria Anzaldúa’s bilingual picture books to contemporary young adult novels. Each presentation posed questions about how authors represent the agency of young Latinx characters as they navigate difficult situations that might be considered age-inappropriate in mainstream children’s literature. The presentations were followed by a vibrant discussion that considered the role of the supernatural, authority figures, and the convention of happy endings. I left the panel with a list of new writers whose work I’ve been enjoying since the conference.

Are there other aspects of the conference that might be of interest to graduate students?

In addition to literary criticism panels, the MLA includes presentations about pedagogy, professionalization, and public humanities issues. MLA Connected Academics also hosts a variety of events at MLA including a career fair.

Finally, any advice for first-time MLA attendees?

Look out for the CFP from the Graduate Student Caucus. Their panels can be a welcoming forum to present at the MLA for the first time.