Project Description:

Only 18% of US citizens speak a foreign language, putting the country at a significant competitive disadvantage. As Arne Duncan, US Secretary for Education, has pointed out, this is “a high-stakes issue … to prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.” While American monolingualism indeed poses urgent problems, the Midwest is home to a wealth of foreign language speakers, many of them immigrants who, we argue, constitute a tremendous resource that can help position the region as a nexus of global networks, both economic and cultural. Our project, “Multilingual Midwest,” seeks to marshal this resource for a number of initiatives related to engaged translation.

We consider successful translation -- broadly construed as the mediation between languages, media, cultures, and discursive systems -- the very condition of possibility when it comes to addressing global, national, and regional challenges. In an increasingly transnational world, deficiencies or failures in translation jeopardize the outcome of intellectual, cultural, political, and economic projects alike. English has dominated as a lingua franca in a number of multi- or transnational contexts (particularly in research and business), but significant language barriers remain, and English monolingualism threatens to render cultural and discursive differences invisible and for that very reason all the harder to detect, analyze, and address. In the age of increasingly sophisticated machine translation, effective translation in the full sense of the word continues to require human intelligence, expertise, skill, empathy, and creativity, all of which are abundant at the public universities we represent.

As we develop cross-institutional collaboration, we seek to articulate the leading role that public universities can (and should) play in reaching out to diverse language communities, in supporting innovative translation research that integrates theory and practice, and in developing new pedagogies that encourage students to pursue engaged learning through various forms of translation. By highlighting translation in the Multilingual Midwest, our project defines an emerging field in the humanities that can connect scholars, translators, and educators to an enlightened public, attuned to both the challenges and opportunities opened up by translation as a mode of social interaction and cultural exchange.

Project Initiative:

Translation/Interpretation for Social Justice
The United States suffers from a dire shortage of court interpreters. According to a statement by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators a few years ago, there were only 3,000 court interpreters, 2,500 of whom worked exclusively in Spanish. As a result, immigrants with limited English skills who find themselves mired in the criminal justice system are often ill-served by uncertified interpreters. This situation presents a clear failure of social justice. Fortunately, colleagues at the University of Chicago at Illinois and at the University of Minnesota have begun, or are in the process of instituting, training in court interpretation, and we are seeking to find a way to partner with these institutions, possibly via online collaborations.
We have been in touch with Daniel Bauer, responsible for the Michigan Courts Language Access Program at the Michigan Supreme Court, where there is keen interest in collaborating with us. Bauer reports that “the supreme court may create rules and provide guidance to local courts in their foreign language interpreter needs, but each court is responsible to identify their individual needs for each trial/hearing/interaction, and address those needs as they see fit (e.g., hire their own interpreters). There are over 240 courts in Michigan. Currently, there is no clearly defined minimum standard to serve as an interpreter for a court.” The Supreme Court is, however, offering testing and certification in 17 foreign languages (Arabic, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Ilocano, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish). We would use the funds we are applying for to explore the possibility of preparing students for a career in court interpretation. The intersection of translation, law, immigration, and social justice is also at stake in our preliminary conversations with the UM Law School’s clinical programs –a grant from the “Global Midwest” initiative would enable us to pursue a collaboration that will serve as a model for the other universities we will partner with. A number of the law school’s clinics serve an international clientele: Child Advocacy, Pediatric Advocacy, Domestic Relations Mediation, Juvenile Justice, and Human Trafficking, Michigan Clinical Law, Michigan Poverty Law, and Family Law. While they have language support with regard to Spanish and Arabic, our colleagues at the Law School cannot offer translation or interpretation services to native speakers of other languages, and they have reached out to us to find a solution.


Yopie Prins (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Michigan)

Silke-Maria Weineck(Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Michigan)

Imke Meyer (Professor of Germanic Studies, Director of School of Literatures, Cultural Studies and Linguistics, University of Illinois at Chicago)

Shaden Tageldin (Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature and co-convener of ITSU, “Interpretation and Translation Studies at the University,” University of Minnesota)

This project was developed and proposed by Yopie Prins and Silke-Maria Weineck. For more information about translation initiatives at the University of Michigan, visit: Translation at Michigan.