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European Studies, German and Russian Departments host talk with translator Damion Searls

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the European Studies, German and Russian Departments hosted award-winning translator Damion Searls for a conversation with Dr. Laura Goering, professor and chair of Russian and German at Carleton. Damion Searls is the preeminent translator of Jon Fosse, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2023. In April 2022, Searls’s English translation of Fosse’s novel “A New Name: Septology VI-VIII” was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Searls’s repertoire of translations also includes the works of Proust, Mann, Rilke, Wittgenstein and many more authors. He is also the author of “The Inkblots,” a “history of the Rorschach Test and the first-ever biography of its creator, Hermann Rorschach,” which was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by National Public Radio (NPR).

The conversation featured an hour-long conversation  between Dr. Goering and Mr. Searls and a thirty-minute Q&A with the audience. First, Dr. Goering asked about how Searls got his start in translation. As a Harvard undergraduate with a focus on philosophy, it was not until his senior year — with his thesis on German philosophers — that he began focusing on German, the language he currently knows best besides English. From there, something clicked and Searls’s love for languages blossomed. He now translates from German, Norwegian, French and Dutch.

Dr. Goering then prompted Searls to speak about his philosophy when it comes to translating the “untranslatable:” words or phrases that do not lend themselves to an easy English translation and require a nuanced understanding of the source language. “Translation is about sharing your experience of the text, and of the world,” said Searls. His philosophy is that there is no one “best” translation; one does not translate a book, but their reading of it. 

“Yes, you have to stay true to the ineffable aspect of the book. However, being a good translator has more to do with being a good writer in the target language than it does with boasting a native-level fluency of the source language.” Indeed, this sentiment is corroborated by Marcel Proust, a twentieth-century French literary giant who translated the  [JUMP] 

English author John Ruskin from English into French: “I don’t claim to know English: I claim to know Ruskin.”

Searls went on to describe his experience of translating Jon Fosse, the Norwegian 2023 Nobel laureate in Literature. When an American publisher asked Searls to write  a report of one of Fosse’s shorter works, but ultimately decided not to pursue the project, Searls elected to do the project himself. To do this, he needed to learn Norwegian, so he got help from a Norwegian co-translator. Despite not being fluent in Norwegian, Searls’s translation of the third volume of Fosse’s three-volume masterstroke, “Septology I-VII” was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. 

The talk between Mr. Searls and Dr. Goering  was well attended and an entire lecture hall in Boliou was filled with attendants. Many of these were students of  Dr. Goering’s current Cross Cultural Studies course, “The Art of Translation in the Age of the Machine.” This course, which has a prerequisite of proficiency in a modern language offered at Carleton and a native or near-native fluency in English, focuses on the history and theory of translation, practical translating skills and the role of human translators in “an era when AI tools can produce a translation that is indistinguishable from the work of a professional translator.” Dr. Goering thought to pair the Searls conversation with a class discussion on Lawrence Venuti, an American translator whose theory of translation differs significantly from that of Searls. “Venuti thinks translations should sound foreign, almost as a political statement,” says Professor Goering. Venuti sees ‘foreignizing’ as an ethical imperative for translators: the translation in the target language should in some way register linguistic and cultural differences with the source language as a form of respect for the source text and culture. Searls, on the other hand, “is completely opposed to the idea that it is the translator’s job to fight the linguistic hegemony of English,” said Dr. Goering. Indeed, as Searls said at the event, “it is not my job to make people eat their vegetables. My job is to read really well and then write well in English.” 

Dr. Goering was pleased with how well the conversation fit with the ongoing discussion in her class and, as a scholar of Russian and German, could resonate with much of what Searls was saying: “There is a virtual workshop that I attend on Russian translation, and problems come up all the time. Sometimes we spend thirty minutes on just one word.” Dr. Goering also agreed with Searls that one’s skill as a writer is the main qualification for being a good translator, not how well one knows the source language. 

The event was well-received by the attendants. “The talk was super interesting. He is a very engaging speaker and was certainly knowledgeable about the field,” said Celia Vander Ploeg Fallon ’25. 

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