Newswise — EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s diverse and growing community of literary translators are among leading scholars who play an indispensable role in bringing alive critically acclaimed works across all kinds of boundaries at a time when national borders are closing down around the world.

Clare Cavanagh, an award-wining professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern, has received extraordinary acclaim as a longtime translator of the late Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, a gentle and reclusive Polish poet, who had a tendency to be playful and invent words, making her work very difficult to translate. Cavanagh’s latest translation is of Adam Zagajewski’s “Slight Exaggeration.”

Laura Brueck, as cofounder of the new Global Humanities Initiative, amplifies literary translation within and beyond the academy, and, as a translator and professor of Indian literature, takes English-speaking audiences into the world of India’s Dalits, to the very bottom of India’s caste system.

And Andrew Leong, assistant professor of English at Northwestern, sheds light on a forgotten, vibrant early 20th-century Japanese-American literary tradition in his translation of works about the lives of early Japanese immigrants in 1920’s Los Angeles.

As refugee bans, Brexit and border walls dominate today’s headlines, Northwestern is increasingly engaging in literary translation through its faculty, programming and partnerships.

Intercultural communication is important in any age but particularly in times of political tension and increased isolationism. The artistry of translators, who engage in bold, complex and often-beautiful interpretative acts, enables important texts to travel where readers cannot.

“In a day when our national borders are becoming ever more closed, the stories of human experience can travel across borders,” Brueck said. “Translations enable the circulation of compassion and understanding.”

More on Northwestern’s translators

Clare Cavanagh, professor of Slavic languages and literatures

The longtime translator for poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska has been carefully solving confounding language problems since she began translating Szymborska’s work in 1985.

Cavanagh worked on the final translations of the Polish poet with her longtime editor Drenka Willen and her co-translator, the late Stanislaw Baranczak.

If there was a Nobel-like prize for translators, Baranczak and Cavanagh “would have been awarded it at once,” wrote Richard Lourie in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. “Cast your eye back up on any line quoted (in the article.) Every one seems to have been born in English.”

Cavanagh received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her most recent book, “Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland and the West” (Yale University Press, 2010.) She is currently working on an authorized biography of another Nobel Prize winner, the poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004).

Laura Brueck, cofounder of the new Global Humanities Institute and professor of Indian literature

As cofounder of the new Global Humanities Institute, one of Brueck’s main priorities at Northwestern is to amplify literary translation. The institute showcases the arts and culture of the non-West and the ways in which those traditions contribute to a more tolerant and interconnected world. It awards the annual Global Humanities Translation Prize, a translation-in-progress of a non-Western literary or scholarly text.

Brueck has translated “Unclaimed Terrain,” a collection of seven short stories by Indian writer Ajay Navaria that reflect the lives of the Dalits, a group of about 200 million people at the bottom of India’s caste system, who face intense discrimination, abuse, and harsh living and working conditions. 

Andrew Leong, assistant professor of English

Leong is the translator of Japanese-American author Nagahara Shōson’s “Lament in the Night,” a collection of two novellas about the lives of early Japanese immigrants in 1920’s Los Angeles.

His work helps to correct a common misconception that Japanese-American literature began after World War II. His translation sheds light on a vibrant early 20th-century Japanese-American literary tradition.

Literary translation, he says, asks readers to sit with individual lives that are connected to culture but also move beyond broad stereotypes. He believes that translation — and telling the stories that aren’t told across cultures — offers the best way to cross both physical borders and ideological barriers.