May 9, 2023

Translators in the Digital Age: Interview with Faculty Member Elizabeth Lowe

MS in Translation and Interpreting faculty member Elizabeth Lowe recently published her chapter "Author, Reader, Editor, and Translator in the Digital Age: Changing Norms of Production and Reception" in The Routledge Handbook of Latin American Literary Translation. 

Could you describe what you mean by "changing norms of production and reception"?

I was invited by the editors of the volume, Denise Kripper and Delfina Cabrera, to contribute a chapter to the book. It is the product of my research and translation work over the past ten years. Mine is the last chapter, and I think that the editors placed it there because it addresses one of the most contemporary issues of translation, the importance of translation in the context of digital humanities.

The digital environment has had a significant impact on the way literary texts are produced and consumed by readers. Writers are using various forms of digital media to write and disseminate their work, and readers are invited to engage with it in new ways. For example, one writer I mentioned, J.P. Cuenca, creates fictional alter-egos and creates social media accounts for them, which his readers and fans follow. Their reactions shape the destiny of his characters and thus readers become co-authors, in a sense.

Why did you focus on the specific writers you use as case studies?

I chose these writers because I know them well and have translated all of them. Their work provides concrete examples of the ways that young authors have creatively adapted digital platforms to produce fiction that reaches audiences in new ways and that responds to how young readers interact with social media in particular. I try to show that the translator of this type of literary text must closely follow and participate in the author's use of these tools, in order to convincingly recreate the texts using the same strategies. J.P. Cuenca was an early adopter of blogs to create fiction and in his more recent work has worked with Facebook and Twitter to create spaces in which his characters move and project their "lives." He also has adapted his most recent novel, I Found Out I Was Dead, to film and he acts as himself in the movie. This fragmentation and refraction of the author as his own character, a technique known as autofiction, resonates with audiences who "consume" his texts through multiple media. Since his works carry a strong political message, against the former Bolsonaro government and populism in general, the media serves as his platform for combining activism with writing fiction.

Noemi Jaffe, a young Jewish Brazilian feminist writer, similarly uses Instagram to post almost daily snippets of fiction that gradually form the thread of a cohesive narrative. Her posts are also political statements. During the Covid-19 lockdowns she grew her audience with posts that were testimonials against the horror of the death toll in Brazil, which was largely attributed to the negligence and active anti-vaccine propaganda of President Bolsonaro and his administration.

This is her post of June 20, 2021:

quinhentas mil escovas com cerdas gastas. quinhentos mil travesseiros mais fundos no lugar da cabeça. quinhentas mil canetas com carga pela metade. quinhentos mil pares de meias com um furo. quinhentas mil carteiras de identidade com plástico amassado. quinhentas mil fotografias não muito boas. quinhentos mil projetos sobre o que fazer nas férias. quinhentos mil emails apagados. quinhentas mil raivas não transmitidas. quinhentos mil erros gramaticais. quinhentas mil coceiras, barba por fazer, cabelos tingidos, estojinhos de maquiagem, prestações a pagar, prateleiras com fotos, o que não foi dito, o que ainda deveria ser. quinhentos mil silêncios sobre o que, de tanto ódio, não se consegue dizer mas que vai ser dito por quinhentas mil pessoas e mais quinhentas mil e mais quinhentas mil a cada vez que o genocida matar mais uma escova de dentes.

[five hundred thousand brushes with worn bristles. five hundred thousand pillows with deep hollows instead of heads. five hundred thousand pens with half-full cartridges. five hundred thousand socks with holes. five hundred thousand crumpled plastic identification cards. five hundred thousand not very good photos. five hundred thousand vacation plans. five hundred thousand erased emails. five hundred thousand angry messages not sent. five hundred thousand grammar errors. five hundred thousand itches, beards to shave, hair to dye, makeup cases, installments to pay, sideboards with photos, what wasn’t said, what should still be said. five hundred thousand silences about what, because of so much hatred, you can’t say but will be said by five hundred thousand people and five hundred thousand more and five hundred thousand more every time a genocide kills one more toothbrush].

Why is it so important to center Latin American viewpoints in discussing “the digital age”?

Latin America is commonly viewed in terms of old stereotypes and not often recognized as a leading player in the world of contemporary letters. I think it’s important to demystify Latin American literature as largely exotic and regionally based, marked by magical realism and the fantastic. The new literature of Latin America, and Brazil in particular, is plugged into the global dialogue on art and culture, and this occurs primarily online.

In what ways did writing this chapter inform your teaching practices and vice versa? 

I have taught Translation for New Media in the NYU SPS MS in Translation and Interpreting, among other courses, for several years. The course is a product of my research and translation work, and my daily experience as a translator and scholar is always in conversation with my teaching and what I do with students. In Summer 2023 the program is launching a new course, which I developed and will teach, in Transcreation, which is translation for global marketing purposes. The field of transcreation is firmly anchored in the digital world, since most marketing is done with digital media. In Spring 2022, I was appointed Endowed Chair of Portuguese Studies at UMass Dartmouth for one semester, where I taught a course titled Digital Brazil. We studied many of the contemporary writers whom I work with, and we invited them into the class with Zoom. The students, who are all PhD candidates, embraced the work and many are following up by incorporating what we did into their dissertation projects.

I encourage students in all specializations to master the technologies at our disposal that are continually advancing, and to work with them creatively. I also believe that all translators, and literary translators in particular, need to cultivate good reading habits and excellent writing skills. Those are the bedrock of our practice.

Elizabeth Lowe was the founding director of the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has taught and lectured on translation at universities throughout the United States, South America, China and Europe. She is a specialist in translation pedagogy and theory. A literary translator, Elizabeth translates Luso-Afro-Brazilian fiction, as well as works from Latin American and peninsular Spanish. The Brazilian Academy of Letters recognized her translation of the canonical work Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha (Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, 2010). She is the author of The City in Brazilian Literature (1982) and Translation and the Rise of Inter-American Literature (with Earl E. Fitz, 2007), along with many articles in journals and book chapters on translation criticism and theory. Elizabeth is a recipient of the NEA Literary Translation grant and Fulbright grants to Colombia and Brazil.

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