Jin Yun Chow

On November 29-30, 2018, something small but magical happened at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Trans;form was a two-day symposium featuring keynote speaker Emily Apter that sought to answer the following question: “How is Comparative Literature shaped by consideration of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?”

As a field that was born in Europe and largely shaped by European, and particularly French and German thinkers, Comparative Literature has long been held down by the shackles of Eurocentrism. This symposium had the purpose of bringing together scholars of literatures largely marginalized from the study of Comparative Literature to discuss how consideration of these languages, cultures and theoretical traditions might transform comparative studies. The conference was divided into four different sessions across the two days. The first session focused on the translation of theory and the consequences of moving epistemological and ontological priorities within the field. The second session bore the title Trans-poetics and explored the ramifications of transgender studies founded on experiences and epistemologies from Urdu and Arabic. This panel also asked whether play with grammatical gender and pronouns via translation can shed light on how language works. The third session mainly dealt with the challenges of translating literary form and genre; it asked how the epistemologies of these various languages offer conceptions of form that depart from traditional European notions. The last session of the symposium was a workshop where participants split into groups and experimented with translating two entries from the Dictionary of the Untranslatables, “Poetry” and “Politics,” into their languages.

One moment in our discussion during the second panel perfectly encapsulated the essence of this conference for me. At the time, we were seeking potential solutions in our highly gendered languages to the problem of inclusion of gender-nonconforming speakers. As a second-year doctoral student still learning the ropes of conference etiquette, I let my emotions take hold of me during the second panel and made a comment that immediately struck me as naive and “unintellectual.” I asked everyone to stop and think about how incredible it was to have Arab scholars sitting beside their Israeli colleagues in conversation with Pakistani, Turkish, British, American, Brazilian, and Chinese interlocutors. I asked whether it would be possible, given the linguistic similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, to encourage collaboration between Arab and Israeli communities and between scholars of Semitic languages to devise a set of pronouns and verb conjugations suitable for gender non-conforming speakers. The room grew palpably quiet after my comments, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when, to my surprise, the discussion resumed with participants commenting that it was nice to see “utopianism” still well and alive in academia.

While it was exciting to see my proposal gain currency within our discussions, part of me wonders: is such a collaboration really “utopian”? An inaccessible “no-place” only to dream about and never to be visited? Isn’t this very conference a first step towards a brand of collaboration that transcends geographical, political, and linguistic boundaries and that seeks to deconstruct preexisting notions of comparative literature? Aren’t we, the participants of the symposium, and our animated discussions living proof that the privileging of universal humanity in our intellectual discussions is not only desirable but feasible?

The proposal I have made may indeed be “utopian” if we consider academic and intellectual discussions apart from reality. If the kind of peaceful, constructive and fruitful cooperation can happen on an academic and intellectual level, then we owe it to ourselves to remain hopeful that it could happen on different scales in local communities. Academic conferences and academia in general may be bubble-like and ivory tower-esque, but they by no means have to be. These environments should not be treated as experimental vacuums where what happens “doesn’t count.” It does count, and what goes on behind closed doors at universities does matter. The question then becomes one of bridging the gap between academic discourse and wider social discourse. How do we speak and write in a way that is concise and accessible to a wider audience and that can make an impact on social movements and on life in society? How do we change academic culture from one where public readership is mostly an afterthought to one where communication and understanding are main goals?

Trans;form may be a small start in this “utopian” project, but it’s a start nonetheless.