Thanks to Paul Cunningham for taking up the very relevant topic of collaboration. I’ve been thinking and talking about translation and collaboration for some time now. These latest notes stem from a recent panel at AWP and a piece I wrote for Asymptote.




I began thinking about collaboration a few years ago when I was up for promotion at my university, which requires, as many do, an extensive piece of writing that details the scholarly and/or creative work professors have done in our fields since our last review. As I looked over my cv, I realized that on many occasions, with regard to scholarship (in my case poetry translation), I’d collaborated with someone.  I felt compelled to justify this collaboration, to explain why it wasn’t just my name there, to ensure that my reviewers didn’t think I was somehow cheating or not doing my fair share. It was dubious enough that I was translating rather than “really writing”.

It’s telling that I felt the need to justify. And, it’s not just the academy either. Institutions that pride themselves on supporting translation like the NEA and the NEH require some kind of explanation for collaborators applying for grants. PEN caps its translation prize at 2 collaborators, ALTA at 4. Whether implicitly or explicitly, collaboration is somehow suspicious, perceived as strange, an exception, not the rule. Can you easily name a novel or a book of poetry written by two (or more) people? No. But here’s the thing. Every single one was written (and published) in dialogue with other traditions and voices, not to mention with readers and editors. Every single one. All art, to a certain degree, is collaboration. For most creative writers this gets buried behind their “artistry,” unless they make it explicit [1]. For translators, it cannot hide. We are obvious collaborators. It is this wider sense of collaboration in our field that I want to address too; not just co-translators, but collaboration between, for example, translator of poetry and poet. What I call for in this brief note is the necessary redefining of the artist/writer and the creativity that is so much a part of how we go about our craft. Making our collaborations explicit is a fundamental aspect of this.




The sense that collaboration is suspect goes back to the widely-held belief that all translators (either individually or in collaboration) aren’t true artists. Our work is considered derivative, approached suspiciously, accused of misunderstandings.  These attacks often come from “outsiders,” but it’s important to highlight that our own discourse, the way translators speak to each other and about what we do, is made up of dichotomies. We seem to constantly talk about “lost/found” and “gain/loss.” Translation is considered to be a long series of choices that we, in turn, must defend in translator notes. (Do we ever see poet notes explaining in great detail why they did what they did?). Translation is seen as skill, something technical, and writing as creative and exploratory. They are two separate categories, two separate acts.  In other words, we translators are not afforded (and often don’t afford ourselves) the same privileges of creativity as any other creative writer.

Of course, there are many reasons why translators are considered artisans but not artists. On the one hand, if we think about it in economic terms, –and let’s face it, the bottom line is what matters most– when the translator is not considered an artist, when their work is not considered original but derivative (a mere copy of the original) then questions of copyright, payment, royalties become less complicated.  On the other, if we think about it in terms of what our society considers valuable outside (supposedly) the realm of the economic, it’s easy to understand that many of this country’s policies and laws represent a fear of the other, and translation is, in very general terms, being open to otherness.  What is more difficult for us to recognize as readers and writers is that this fear is also present in the literary world, often reflected in the chauvinistic notion that we don’t need to read from other traditions because our own in our own language is enough for us, and continuously proven by the very bleak number of literary translations published each year.

Still, there is one privilege in particular that speaks to modernity’s definition of the artist: inspiration. Inspiration –that unexplainable gift bestowed to the artist– is at the heart of creativity. While a concept that dates back to Muses and before, the modern idea of inspiration is often associated with the Romantics. It is no coincidence that Romantic poetry and poetics in addition to inspiration, also stressed originality, and that imitation, once considered “a beneficent and necessary corollary of creative genius” fell out of favor and was eclipsed by spontaneity and self-expression. It is also no coincidence that the movement comes about as the bourgeoisie solidify their power and as capitalism becomes the dominant economic system in the West. And yet, despite the literary world’s overvaluing of inspiration, no artist worth her salt would blindly refute the importance of other art for her own creativity. Ultimately, the idea of inspiration legitimizes something as “original” though no intellectual endeavor occurs in a vacuum.




Veiled behind “original” is “individual”. Just look at the definitions: “created directly and personally by the artist, not a copy or imitation”; “that from which a copy, reproduction or translation are made”; “a work composed firsthand”; and “a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity.” To openly acknowledge collaboration is to challenge the individualism that is so much a part of the conventional rhetoric of creativity. We must redefine what an artist is as well as the creative act that goes into that art. Openly recognizing collaboration is an integral part of this because it rejects the old dichotomies of original / copy and productive / reproductive that we are so used to hearing as translators. Thus, it allows us to expose originality for the myth that it is and to begin to dismantle the hierarchical relationships implicit therein. It allows us to consider all art as an act of collaboration, and ultimately, an act of solidarity.



  • [1] See J. Göransson’s “Summer Statement” on the Action Blog for an excellent example of making that relationship explicit.