Found in Translation

June 11, 2014

By Matt Hawkins

Though she has two English degrees, Leah Abel MA ’14 spends her free time immersed in Russian culture. The Caterpillar Master’s Fellow immersed herself in all things Russian this year to translate a collection of Dr. Kevin Stein’s poetry from English.

The work, for her master’s final project, earned the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Award at the 2014 Scholarship Expo. It also set Abel on a journey to make more of the Illinois Poet Laureate’s work available to another culture.

“You can get an understanding of how people think through poetry. It’s important as the world shrinks,” Abel said. “It’s a fun entry point because people read it all over the world. I’m getting a chance to experience the language, and through that a different culture affects the way I think about English.”

Abel chose the cross-cultural final project to continue a dialogue with Russian culture that began as an undergraduate, where she first discovered the language and culture. Hours spent visiting with international faculty, students and guest musicians broadened her horizons and opened the door to the finale.

Through the process, Abel realized her work expanded Stein’s role as a cultural educator.

“His mission is to try to make poetry accessible to American readers, and that’s an interesting parallel to the goal of translation,” Abel said. “I’m looking to raise broader consciousness of American culture. With any piece you translate, there is going to be a cultural exchange.”

Despite easy access to several Russian dictionaries, language differences and Stein’s writing style posed significant hurdles. For instance, the English use of indefinite articles (a, an, the) and Russian gender-based nouns and verbs required attention. Additionally, Stein’s reliance on American cultural idioms such as Oprah’s talk show, Nielsen ratings and baseball’s World Series made contextual explanations difficult at times.

Meticulous attention to detail reinforced the importance of accuracy in translation for any purpose.

“It’s important to get the material right whether it’s a Caterpillar manual about machinery or a book of poetry,” she said. “It’s culturally valuable in the latter and essential in the former.”

After focusing on the project for a year, Abel emerged with greater respect for non-English speakers trying to learn the language.

“Those things heightened my appreciation for people’s ability to become fluent in English,” she said. “It made interpersonal communication so much better.”

She also gained respect for Bradley’s collaborative research environment, which allowed her to build a relationship with her mentor professor.

“Stein is a very down-to-earth, grounded individual and a wonderful guy,” Abel said.