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Alumnus Reflects on Language Tutorials and Translation

June 25, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Garrett Phelps (A18) serves as an assistant editor at an international literary journal.

While all students in the St. John’s College Program learn the basics of Ancient Greek and modern French, the goal is not to master vocabulary and usage, nor to achieve fluency. The language tutorials are instead intended to teach students about the nuances of language, particularly for purposes of translation.

This work was “invaluable” for Garrett Phelps (A18), an alumnus and current University of London graduate student who now serves as an assistant editor at Asymptote, an international literary journal that publishes translated works.

“Michael Comenetz was my sophomore language tutor, and he was just one of the best readers I’ve ever met,” remembers Phelps. “The way he approaches language, even just a single word, is like opening a toy chest and pulling everything out. Even second semester, when we were doing primarily English-language [reading], he helped me see the parallels between translation and close reading—that translation is the best form of reading.”

Asymptote gets its name from the line that approaches, but never meets, a given function or curve (and, incidentally, is studied as part of the math segment of the St. John’s Program)—just as translation cannot fully reach the meaning and subtleties of text in its original language.

“It’s probably the cleanest analogy you could come up with for translation as an art form,” says Phelps. “A good translation is always an approximation, but you’re never satisfied became you are always aware of what’s missing. That’s the beauty of working with translation, but it’s also the most frustrating thing about it.”

Spending four years in the Program, however, made Phelps comfortable with lingual ambiguity and interpretation—not just in Greek and French, but in all primary texts. While he is fluent only in Spanish and English, he has considered poetry in countless world languages for the journal. Many people on his team speak multiple languages, but for works written in less-common languages such as obscure dialects or regional, slang-heavy vernacular, instinct and intellectual confidence are key.

“You can go down the rabbit hole with critical interpretation, but you just have to accept that you might be wrong and stick with it for the time being. You have to eventually stand for something,” he says. “In seminar, you’re forced to do that or your education, and your academic experience, noticeably suffers.”

“The main thing is to be a good reader of English writing,” he continues. “If the poem is good in English—or, even better, if it’s outstanding in English—then you can assume one, that the translation is good, and two, that the original poem is really good as well. My theory is that you couldn’t get a good or outstanding work of English out of some rubbish in another language. There has to be a symbiotic relationship.”

Alongside his work at Asymptote, Phelps is currently writing his comparative literature master’s thesis, which explores the oeuvre of provocative Argentine poets from the 1960s-1980s and their subversion of street slang (or, as he puts it, use of “obscenity as codified language”). He will be translating one of the writers’ works into English for the first time in recorded history—and Mr. Comenetz and his sophomore language tutorial won’t be far from his mind.

As he says, “the language tutorials aren’t there to [train] professional translators, but I think they give you an incredible set of tools if you ever do pursue it.”