Last week in Vancouver, at the Modern Language Association’s 130th annual convention, an accomplished group of translators and scholars—Suzanne Jill Levine, Bella Brodzki, Mara Faye Lethem, and Sinan Antoon—came together for the roundtable “Fragments of a Vessel: Translation and Memory,” sponsored by the Translation Committee of PEN American Center and the MLA’s Office of the Executive Director, and organized by Mary Ann Newman and Heather Cleary.

The idea behind the encounter was that translation is not only a series of linguistic processes, but also calls upon the social and historical conditions in which a work was written, as well as those into which the translation inserts itself, multiplying a text’s sites of memory across languages and time. As Bella Brodzki eloquently asserts in her book Can These Bones Live?:

“Through the act of translation, remnants and fragments are inscribed—reclaimed and reconstituted as a narrative—and then recollected collectively; that is, altered and re-inscribed into a history that also undergoes alteration, transformation, in the process.”

In their opening presentations, the panelists demonstrated the breadth and depth of their engagement with translation: Brodzki discussed the cultural and political significance of the recent publication of On Leave (tr. David Bellos), a novel written by Daniel Anselme in 1957 about French soldiers returning home from the widely criticized war in Algeria, while Lethem addressed the way language itself can be a site of memory, describing the extensive and complex history of Catalan, its criminalization under Franco, and the role translation has played in recent years in keeping the language alive and evolving. Antoon then complicated the discussion of the cultural and political role of translation by pointing out that, after September 2001, interest in publishing works translated from the Arabic—though greater than it had been in prior years—had the distinct undertone, as he put it, of “cultural interrogation.” Levine, a celebrated translator and author of The Subversive Scribe, rounded out the discussion by expanding on translation’s complex relationship with the construction, perpetuation, and (occasional) dismantling of cultural myths, pointing out that the market—which tends to favor works that reinforce, rather than challenge, preconceptions—also plays a significant role in determining which texts are translated and how. In her closing call to action, Levine asserted that it is a crucial form of activism for the translator to bring works that challenge cultural and literary commonplaces to light.

When the floor was opened to questions the conversation grew even livelier, delving more deeply into the role of government funding and corporate interests in the cultural sphere, and invoking cultural referents ranging from Woody Allen to La Malinche, the young Nahua woman who served as an interpreter for Hernán Cortés. Though all too soon the room had to be turned over to the next panel, it was clear that the discussion would continue at other moments, in other venues, and with an even broader set of perspectives.