December 3, 2021

MS in Translation & Interpreting Student Spotlight: Ben Delfs

How did you begin studying Japanese?

Although I dabbled in learning occasional phrases and characters from Japanese during high school, I didn’t actually start learning it until college. I started studying it very intensively once I declared my undergraduate major as Japanese Studies, and my studies were backed up by social activities at the Japanese university I spent one year at. Realistically, I didn’t gain any professionally workable competence until I had lived in Japan for a year or two.

What was your history with and journey to translation?

I started my career teaching English in Japan, which is not unusual. But once I started my own conversation classroom there, I began to admire the intricacies and intuitive structures of language, in particular comparing Japanese and English. Moving forward, I worked at a couple of Japanese organizations where translation abilities were called for now and then. Translating brochures, websites, emails, things like that. I somehow knew at the time that my approach to translating these documents was misguided - I tried too hard to reproduce the source culture in my translations. But I didn’t have the training or insight to fix this. That was the beginning of my appreciation of the art of translation.

What’s your favorite thing about translating?

I love making visible what was invisible. I love looking at a polished translation and thinking, “whoever reads this is going to rethink their assumptions about Japan.” That the reader will get a window into a society that functions differently, but is just as sound and sensible as their own. And I like being the ambassador of cultural encounters like that. I think I always have. There’s something exciting about negotiating between two different systems for conveying meaning, nuance, and human feeling - and having something to show for it at the end.

As the Online Writing and Language Society (OWLS) President, you recently hosted an event with literary translator Allison Markin Powell. 

Yes, I was so excited to get the opportunity to even meet her, let alone host a conversation between her and my peers. She’s a superstar in the literary translation world, and on top of that, she works between Japanese and English like me!

MSTI students on a Zoom screen

MSTI  students on Zoom with Allison Markin Powell

What professional advice did Allison share for translators and writers?

Allison spent years in the publishing world, gaining familiarity with the way books are chosen for publication as well as translated. So, students from the MS in Professional Writing program, which OWLS represents in addition to the Translation and Interpreting program, had takeaways too. As for aspiring translators, Allison shared that the most important thing is finding the intersection between what you like and what you’re good at. You want to have the skill at something, and like doing it too, when you choose the niche that you’re aiming for in the industry.

What were any big takeaways from the discussion with Allison?

Plenty of us translation and interpreting students dream of translating great literature. That’s certainly the part of the industry that society heaps the most glory on. But she was clear that it’s not an easy path there. Allison also spoke of how difficult the publishing industry can be for writers, too. But I digress, because her message was overwhelmingly encouraging and positive. She’s also a great communicator. I think we all came away more knowledgeable in a holistic way from the discussion, about the art of translation as well as the profession.

Where can students interested in OWLS connect with the group? Any upcoming events you want to promote?

Thanks for asking! We’re always recruiting new members. Students can register as a member on the Online Writing and Languages Society page in the NYU Engage portal. That way they can receive our online newsletter and invitations to events. We also have an active social media presence. We have opened up our Facebook page as a forum for informal as well as professionally and academically-related discussion, because remote students like from the Center for Applied Liberal Arts don’t always have the chance to connect with their peers outside of their courses. A blog is in the works, too. Keep your eyes open for our next events!

Anything else you want to share?

I’m just a big admirer of this program. I came in a year and a half ago not having a clue, and now I have workable skills and a sense of professional direction. The courses are well organized, and NYU has great resources to avail oneself of. I would advise any of my fellow students to take the chance to get involved and connected however they can, because the academic experience can be a great opportunity to expand one’s community, and to enjoy being a student!

A translation and interpreting degree can help you to take charge of your career, whether you are new to the field or already working in the language professions. Apply for CALA’s MS in Translation & Interpreting, a fully online, 36-credit graduate program.

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