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In the Shadows of Words: Three Modes of
Literary Translation and the Bilingual Writer

Advisers: Sandra L. Bermann, Olga P. Hasty

Zachary M. Wieder

Comparative Literature

“The senior thesis requirement really epitomizes the unique culture of undergraduate education that exists at Princeton.”

wieder-zachary

There’s really no easy way to describe the experience of writing a thesis to someone who, quite understandably, may not have even begun thinking about it yet. As I’m sure you’ve been told many times, this monumental requirement that generations of Princetonians have had both the burden and good fortune of undertaking will require countless hours in the library and countless pages of reading and writing; it will bring you many frustrations and disappointments, but probably many more thrills and epiphanies. Even if I were to give a detailed description of every day I spent working on my thesis, however, it wouldn’t likely provide you with an accurate understanding of exactly what it’s like to channel so much thought and focus into a single project. Though you may not yet understand why the thesis: quintessentially Princeton is an appropriate title for this collection of essays—in other words, why the thesis really is the perfect culmination of the culture of rigorous undergraduate learning that is at the heart of Princeton’s institutional mission—I’ll do my best to give you a sense of what the experience of writing a thesis meant to me, and why I’m convinced that Princeton students are uniquely fortunate in being required to do so.

My thesis topic came more readily to me than most because my intention from quite early on was to expand my second-semester junior paper on Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov’s practice of self-translation. I had chosen this topic the spring before for several reasons: I knew I wanted to write on some theoretical aspect of literary translation; I was sure I wanted to deal with Beckett (who has been one of my favorite writers for a long time); and I intended to work on a subject that few had written about before so I’d have plenty of room for discovery. These intentions actually directed my research quite naturally toward a comparison of the self-translated works of Beckett and Nabokov—two of the only writers whose corpora exist almost entirely in two separate languages and who are equally preeminent in two separate literary traditions, but whom surprisingly few scholars have examined jointly. I ended up relatively pleased with the results of my labor and felt I had been able to rather successfully formulate a basic theoretical framework in which the guiding mechanisms of literary self-translation could be identified.

Only later, while thinking casually about potential thesis topics during the summer after my junior year, did I have a very strong feeling that, though what I had written may have been interesting and perhaps well argued, it represented only the beginnings of a much larger project and therefore warranted expansion. I should say that, for all independent work and particularly for the thesis, it’s very important both to choose a topic that you are passionate enough about to let it occupy the majority of your thinking for several months, and also to find a subject about which you can say something compelling and new. Personally, I was delighted at the prospect of expanding on research that had captivated my intellect for much of my junior year and, though I was confident that my junior paper could provide a fruitful basis for a thesis, I wasn’t sure exactly how to move forward. So, I hit the books once again and pored through critical texts on the nature of language and translation, examined works in self-translation by Beckett and Nabokov (whose play with language, particularly in translation, never ceases to thrill), and even looked at studies made by neurolinguists on the process of language transfer in the bilingual brain. When the time came for me to turn in an abstract to the Department of Comparative Literature sometime in November, I still didn’t have a definite idea of how I could expand on my previous work, but I did feel that things were beginning to come more clearly into focus.

As my thinking continued to coalesce, I decided that the direction I’d take would be to ground some of the analysis I had already done in empirical data from neurolinguistics and broaden the scope of the paper to translation generally (i.e., not just self-translation). Having already come across several detailed but fairly rigid theoretical models of the process of language transfer, I came to the realization that one way to say something new and possibly important to a discipline as vast as translation studies would be to adapt these models with reference to my own thinking; I’d then try to produce a new set of abstract theoretical models flexible enough to deal with the highly nonformulaic process of literary translation. Luckily, I could continue to use Beckett and Nabokov as a case study for the other types of translative activity I would examine (which I called “modes of translation”), as both writers were not only translators of their own work but also brilliant and prolific translators of the work of others. At this point, I felt as many of you will inevitably feel at some moment throughout this long process: simultaneously excited to continue working and overwhelmed by the scope of the project I had undertaken. Was it only a few months ago that I questioned whether I could ever complete more than 80 pages of original work? Now I’d have to contain my thinking in order to write something I could conceivably finish before the due date.

By second semester, I had compiled pages and pages of research notes—if anything, I tend to over-research at the expense of timely writing—but I didn’t have much of a thesis written at all. It’s important to remember that, particularly with larger projects like this one, everyone’s process of thinking and writing is personal and may differ significantly. In fact, your approach may end up depending a lot on the type of thesis you’ve decided to write (i.e., whether it is more descriptive than argumentative, or more creative than analytical). I had friends who were drafting as early as mid-fall and others who began in February, and both sets were able to produce quality theses. Obviously, there is a limit to how late you can begin the actual writing of your thesis before you’d find it difficult to complete in the time you have left. But—and your adviser may not agree with me here—as long as you aren’t delaying as a means of procrastination, and you feel that your research and thinking are progressing steadily, I wouldn’t be too concerned if you find that some of your friends are ahead of you in drafting their work. In fact, with regard to my thesis, I found that visualizing the entire scope of the work before writing was actually essential. Consequently, I ended up drafting a bit late as a result of all the thought and planning required simply to put something worthwhile on the page.

Up until this point, my adviser, Sandra Bermann, a translation scholar herself, had helped me quite a bit in focusing my research. During our several meetings, she would often recommend sources she thought might be helpful and give her thoughts on which directions would likely prove fruitful and others that might not be worth pursuing. These are all very important ways in which your adviser may facilitate the process of research and thinking. However, as useful as Professor Bermann’s counsel was to me at that point, it never proved more crucial than when I came to her at the beginning of second semester with several aborted attempts at drafting portions of my thesis and very little coherent writing to show for it. It was because of her willingness to listen to me, and to prod me as I rambled until I could hone in on a worthwhile idea, that my next, and perhaps most important, step became very clear. I realized, then, that my thesis was basically one extended argument and that, as a result, I’d have to know the end—if only through the mist of dozens of unwritten pages—before I could really begin.

My subsequent course of action would have to be quite unconventional and, if your thesis is highly argumentative like mine was, you may find the strategy I ended up employing useful. I decided to buy several hundred note cards and go through all of my research notes until I could write down every point I intended to include in my thesis, no matter how large or small. I was glad, at that point, that I had taken comprehensive research notes, as in reviewing them I came across some insights from very early on in my thinking that were only clearly relevant to my thesis at this more advanced stage. I’m not sure I’d have been able to get past the frustration of writer’s block had I not kept a long record of my thoughts that I could rely on. Once I had all my ideas down on note cards, I laid them out on the floor (in the reserve reading room of Firestone Library, actually!) and began to organize them into a kind of physical outline, a skeleton of my entire thesis. Slowly, but surely, related ideas began to clump together, subheadings began to fit under headings, and conclusions began to follow from chains of reasoning. This process took many hours of effort and focus but by the time I was done, I was ready to type up a fairly detailed outline of my entire paper and begin writing.

The next few months would prove to be a real marathon but one that I was confident of finishing now that I could glimpse the last point of my argument even as I wrote down the first. Of course, the writing in such a lengthy assignment is never entirely linear, and when I finished working several months later, much of what I had initially jotted down on the note cards had been clarified, expanded upon, and even moved around or eliminated completely. However, because I always had a sense of where I was going next, even the small frustrations of writing—articulating certain complicated ideas clearly, sustaining interest and momentum, etc.—didn’t end up deterring the steady pace I tried to maintain until the final day. All the while, I was constantly helped along by the perceptive editing of my adviser and my second reader, both of whom were willing to read carefully and comment in detail on the lengthy excerpts I gave them. A brief word of advice—try to give your adviser as much as she or he is willing to read; there really is no substitute for the kind of insight an experienced mind can provide.

After finally turning in my thesis, I felt the expected sense of both relief and accomplishment, but not simply because I had completed something that was difficult and required a lot of time and effort. I remember feeling a strong sense of pride at being capable of producing a piece of thinking and writing that even those much older and smarter than I might take an interest in and be able learn from. It was in doing my independent work, and particularly my thesis, that I came to understand most clearly what my Orange Key tour guide had meant when she said that there is a “strong undergraduate emphasis at Princeton.” 

The truth is that here—unlike at most other universities, even very great ones—undergraduates are often treated like graduate students. They have access to resources commonly reserved for those with degrees much more impressive than theirs, they are given the opportunity to work very closely with expert professors by whom they are challenged to produce works of serious scholarship, and it is with the aid and confidence of these professors that they often succeed at doing just that. The senior thesis requirement really epitomizes the unique culture of undergraduate education that exists at Princeton. So, though it may seem a burden to you now, take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity, because it can turn out to be an incredibly rewarding one. And put enough time and effort into your thesis so that the finished product is something you are proud of—you’ll likely be proud of it for many years to come.

In the Shadows of Words: Three Modes of Literary
Translation and the Bilingual Writer

Zachary M. Wieder

Sandra L. Bermann

Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and
Professor of Comparative Literature

“He had a passionate commitment to his research, energetically pursued his ideas, and was always ready to rethink and revise.”

I have always enjoyed advising senior theses. The sense of discovery that bright undergraduates bring to their first major research project, the imaginative and often courageous questions they pose, and the unparalleled opportunities the thesis offers to explore a single topic over an extended period of time make this a particularly intense learning experience for professor and student alike. Though lecture courses, precepts, and seminars have the advantage of breadth and broad discussion, thesis advising has the contrary advantages of depth and dialogue.

Advising Zachary Wieder’s senior thesis fulfilled my every expectation as an adviser. Zack had an idea of his general topic from the first, because his junior paper had already focused on questions of self-translation in Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov. But he used this initial idea to launch a far more wide-ranging inquiry into the nature of literary translation and the ways in which it varied as bilingual authors translated their own works (as Beckett and Nabokov each did) or the works of others, or pretended they were translating texts that were in fact their own original creations (a not uncommon genre known as pseudo-translation).

Many authors and literary theorists have, of course, described various aspects of translation. Many have engaged in detailed, highly literary treatments of the translation process by creative writers as well as professional translators. Others have taken a more abstract, even scientific approach. Zack managed to draw these approaches together, offering a theoretical description of how a translation works in the imagination of a literary artist. Relying upon past research in translation studies as well as emerging evidence from neuroscience, Zack produced a genuinely new and persuasive description of this central literary phenomenon. In addition to presenting his original insights into translation, the thesis offered many intriguing, and at times humorous, analyses of Beckett’s and Nabokov’s translations. These examples have the advantage of supporting the theory he poses, while revealing in the process some salient qualities of the original French and Russian texts.

Zack’s interests in translation coincide with many of my own, and so his topic intrigued me from the start. But advising the thesis was particularly exciting because Zack proved to be an especially conscientious and inquiring advisee. He had a passionate commitment to his research, energetically pursued his ideas, and was always ready to rethink and revise. He also worked consistently throughout the year, meeting with me regularly beginning early in the fall. Because we discussed his work often, I was able to observe, question, critique, and encourage his developing ideas throughout the year. And I learned from him as well, often finding myself rethinking some of my own assumptions in the light of our talks. Because Zack was so fully engaged in his research, and so eager and adept at probing ideas of others and his own, I often had the impression I was in dialogue with a younger colleague or graduate student rather than an undergraduate.

To be honest, I had few worries about the outcome of the thesis. I knew it was well researched and carefully planned, with many fine literary examples to support it. I was at one point concerned that Zack might have waited longer than was wise to transform his many notes into good English prose. But he proved my worries groundless (and in retrospect, the elaborate chapter notes and outlines he showed me throughout the year were often tantamount to early drafts). Another difficulty, which I’m not sure anyone could easily overcome, was this: Beckett and Nabokov are extraordinary authors who make the reader eager for a more extensive treatment of their works than is possible in the scope of a senior thesis. Resolving this issue must be left, I’m afraid, to later recreations or extensions of the thesis. Though Zack is not in graduate school at the moment, but rather studying acting in Paris, I expect he may well want to pursue the topic of his thesis later on in graduate school. It certainly is worthy of further research and writing.

My experience advising Zack this past year reminds me of several things that I think might help any senior make the most of the thesis writing experience. First, try to see your adviser regularly, as he or she can become more involved with your topic this way and be more helpful to you as you think through specific issues or readings. It also will help you organize your research and writing schedule throughout the year. Second, begin your research early and outline your work as you go, developing your ideas in dialogue with your various sources and your adviser. Third, the sooner you can begin the actual thesis writing the better. So much of a successful thesis comes through the very process of writing and revising. But perhaps most important of all because it energizes the rest—choose a topic that is meaningful to you and pursue it with passion. The payoff will likely be an excellent piece of prose that provides new knowledge and a great sense of satisfaction to you, your adviser, and all who read your work.

In the Shadows of Words: Three Modes of Literary
Translation and the Bilingual Writer

Zachary M. Wieder

Olga P. Hasty

Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures

“Ideas crop up at odd times and places and, whatever else is going on, a corner of the brain remains engaged with the work at hand.”

Somewhere between the time when an idea emerges from the chaos of endless possibility to become a thesis topic and when the completed thesis is handed over—tightly bound—to the University, the project has a way of taking on a life of its own. It claims more and more of its author’s attention, demands that new questions be addressed and new areas explored, and insists on being the center of attention whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether appropriate or not. No longer a mere requirement, it becomes a necessity, an integral part of the student’s waking and even dreaming hours. There is good reason to call the thesis independent. On occasion, it can be downright unruly. This is when work on it is at its best. This holds both for the student who is swept up in the intellectual excitement that carries the thesis forward and for the adviser whom this excitement infects and who, in turn, helps sustain it. Meetings become lively exchanges to look forward to rather than academic obligations to be fulfilled. Ideas crop up at odd times and places and, whatever else is going on, a corner of the brain remains engaged with the work at hand. This is not to say that this work isn’t hard—only that ignoring it is even harder.

Zachary Wieder’s senior thesis evolved out of his junior independent work, which meant that for him and his advisers this golden stage of thesis writing was protracted. Focusing on “the process of language production and transfer in the bilingual mind,” Zack devoted himself to devising an elegant theory of translation that embraces, uniquely, nonauthorial translation, self-translation, and pseudo-translation. Balancing his theoretical chapters with illustrative material culled from those great auto-translators Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, Zack elaborated on the concept of “meaning.” His inquiry took him beyond semantics to consider acoustic and formal properties of language and to observe the effects that cultural context has on how texts are made, re-made in translation, and received by their readers. The theory Zack developed is impressive, particularly in light of its applicability to all types of texts. This adds up to an outstanding piece of scholarship. Yet perhaps even more remarkable than the impressive thesis itself was Zack’s total immersion in it and the self-perpetuating intellectual energy that he derived from this immersion. To work on a thesis like this, whether as author or adviser, is to learn a great deal and to experience even more.