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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Scholars at Work

Illustration by Olaf Hajek for The New York Times, 2012

In this time of upheaval and vulnerability, the Simpson Center is committed to fulfilling its mission of fostering crossdisciplinary exchange and building intellectual communities across the UW and beyond, while also working to secure much-needed resources for our faculty, students, and staff in the present moment. The current crisis has, in so many ways, laid bare the mutuality and interconnectedness of our well-being towards which the humanities so often gesture. 

I am in admiration of the spirit of collaboration and inventiveness on the part of our faculty and graduate students who have embraced the commitment to online instruction and generously shared their resources and knowledge with the wider teaching community. I can also report that our intrepid faculty have turned to imagining new ways of recasting the in-person research conferences and workshops they had planned for this spring. We have postponed the majority of our spring events until next academic year, including the visit of Ruth Wilson Gilmore as our Katz Distinguished Lecturer. But this quarter at least four events will be moving online, enabling us to learn how best to create and support remote as well as hybrid events in the future, drawing inspiration, too, from the Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference we hosted this past September.

At the Simpson Center, we envision our space as one that brings people together to think through pressing concerns and lines of inquiry shared across disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes we transcend them—in enlivening conversations that are themselves events of research. We did so this past February when the anthropologist Anna Tsing was here, inviting us to think with her about world-building projects. “It takes concrete histories to make any concept come to life,” she writes in her intellectually exhilarating and sobering book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which offers an anthropology of “always–in-process collaboration” among humans and non-humans in what Tsing describes as the “more-than-human” Anthropocene.

I think of the mushroom book, as it is affectionately called, and Richard Powers’s magisterial novel The Overstory as companion species, books to carry with us in our minds and as memories. Both portray a sprawling and interconnected posthuman world. Tsing and Powers share a deep feeling for forests and believe trees serve as protectors of humankind—and other species—even as they are at terrible risk of mutilation and murder, subject to clear-cutting for so-called economic development that can contribute to disastrous unintended effects, including events like our current pandemic.

I think of these two books themselves as protectors, gifts of the humanities, offering us equipment for living—renewing our...

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#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

Aria Fani is Assistant Professor of Persian and Iranian Studies. His research focuses on modern Persian literature and traces transnational literary connections, particularly between Iran and Afghanistan. He also engages in social advocacy for non-citizen Americans, particularly Mexican and Central American asylum seekers. 

Tell us about your research in the NELC Department.

I am working on my first book project, tentatively titled Making Persian Literature: Iran and Afghanistan in the Age of Romantic Nationalism. It analyzes the historical inauguration of literature as a discourse of nation-building in early twentieth-century Iran and Afghanistan. It draws from a largely unexamined corpus of Persian-language newspapers and literary journals from 1890s to the 1940s. What is at stake for me in this project is to critically put two so-called non-Western case studies in conversation. In doing so, I hope to move away from the tired model of influence that traces the transmission of knowledge from an active and undifferentiated source (West) into a passive recipient (East).

For me, “influence” as a category of analysis —or even of description— is vague and meaningless; some fields have done a better job of displacing it than others. My readers might disagree with some of my conclusions, but I sincerely hope that they come to rethink this period in Persian literature as an age of intellectual inventiveness and collaboration across national and linguistic boundaries. The project’s bottom line is simple: literature did not become a social enterprise in national contexts that are sealed off from one another. We need to continue challenging methodological nationalism through collaborative and comparative work across national and disciplinary contexts.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

I am amazed by how vastly diverse the field of Translation Studies is, especially if you consider studies that deal with translation’s extended metaphorical meanings and its relation to discourses of power. In my classes, I insist on a pedagogical model of translation —its theory and practice— that highlights the most salient aspects of humanistic inquiry: the notion that there is no such thing as unmediated knowledge and the idea that an act of interpretation is decidedly a labor of intellectual and empathic engagement with a given text and culture, not the outcome of being rooted in an ethno-nationalist community.

One particular book that really gets me excited in class is Finbarr Flood’s Objects of Translation (Princeton University Press, 2009). Flood employs translation as an analytical model to better understand...

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As we find ourselves in the throes of social distancing, we asked Simpson Center-affiliated scholars and staff what books they recommend. Here's what they suggested:  

Dan Berger, Associate Professor, Comparative Ethnic Studies, UW Bothell:

"I am reading two book of great political urgency: 

A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos is a concise, hopeful look at the ambitions of the Green New Deal. The writers examine a maximalist version of what a Green New Deal could mean for energy, labor, development, and internationalism.

I am also reading the posthumously published anthology of writings by scholar Cedric J. Robinson, who coined the term racial capitalism. Covering everything from global historiography to Blaxploitation cinema, media criticism to organizing against police violence, the essays showcase the stunning depth of Robinson’s ideas. His approach to Black studies was always global, democratic, and transformative."

Jesse Oak Taylor, Associate Professor, English: 

"I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth (2015), the omnibus version of his "Science in the Capital" trilogy. Weighing in at 1000 pages, it's a hefty tome, at home on a shelf next to Dickens or Tolstoy. It's also spectacular—the most ambitious (and successful) work of 'cli fi' I've read to date, insofar as it explicitly takes up the challenge of modeling the Earth System in fiction. While KSR is known for science fiction, what I love about this novel is its realism: despite some improbable events, it also seems so very plausible. Indeed, while reading it, I found myself forgetting that the political mobilization to address the climate crisis it describes was *only* happening in the novel, and wondering why they weren't cropping up in The Seattle Times. As such, it makes for fabulous reading during an election cycle when we all need a little help imagining that response -- and the planetary future that goes with it -- into being."

...

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The Simpson Center for the Humanities is pleased to announce that Gozde Burcu Ege and Mediha Sorma will be joining the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Humanitarianisms: Migrations and Care through the Global South as pre-doctoral fellows for 2020-21. Led by Arzoo Osanloo (Law, Societies & Justice) and Cabeiri Robinson (Jackson School of International Studies), Humanitarianisms seeks to decolonize the rhetoric and understanding of humanitarianism by examining the histories of forced migration and practices of humanitarian care for forced migrants, including both ‘conventional’ and ‘humanitarian refugees’, that developed outside of Europe and North America.

Burcu Ege is in the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Near and Middle East Studies. A Fulbright-Hayes DDRA fellow, Burcu’s research examines how Palestinian refugee-citizen youth who have long been conceived as recipients of humanitarian aid are themselves practicing voluntary care and relief work in a context new waves of refugees coming to the long-established refugee camps of Jordan. Her dissertation, “From Crises to Ordinary Precarity: Palestinian Youth as New Practitioners of Humanitarian Governance in Amman, Jordan,” focuses on local humanitarianism in the context of long-term displacement. Her project challenges the assumed link between refugees and aid by examining how refugees themselves engage in forms of humanitarian practice under condition of long-term displacement and precarious legal status.

Mediha Sorma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Her dissertation, “Subaltern Mothering and Political Elsewhere: Militant Mothers of Kurdish Resistance Towards a Stateless Freedom,” is a study of Kurdish women’s reproductive and mothering practices as a form of care-based resistance in contemporary Turkey, where war and state violence figure as a normative social condition for Kurdish people instead of a state of exception. It examines gender and sexuality as central to the construction of migrant subjectivities and seeks to understand how Turkey manages its humanitarian obligations with its drive to extinguish Kurdish autonomy “within” its borders in ways that are different than the biopolitical logics of the Anglo-European liberal nation-states.

Both Burcu and Sorma will be in residence at The Simpson Center for 2020-21, working on their dissertations and participating in the Sawyer Seminar Series, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, with support from the Simpson Center for the Humanities and the Graduate School.

Congratulations to Burcu and Mediha, and our warm thanks to...

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#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

Trained in Southeast Asian history, European intellectual history and anthropology, History Professor Vicente Rafael's research interests include language and power, the politics of translation, comparative colonialisms and nationalism, the social history of media and mediation, critical theory and anthropology, empire, race and gender. Much of his writing has been on the colonial and post-colonial Philippines and the United States.

How did you become interested in the Translation Studies field?

My interest lies less with translation studies as a field and more with translation as a historical practice. I got interested in it starting with my first book on the role of translation in the Christian conversion of Tagalogs during the early Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

How is your work in the field of Filipino Studies connected with Translation Studies?

Filipino Studies is a very interdisciplinary field that involves a plurality of languages and long, unfinished histories of colonial rule that also involve multiple languages. To track and analyze this history, one needs to take translation seriously, both as a way of reading documents and as a way of understanding how people deal with plurilingual worlds.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

By talking about language as a whole or history as a series of discursive regimes.

Why are Translation Studies still relevant in our contemporary society?

The question should be: why is translation at all still relevant? Or better yet, could there be a society where translation did not exist?

Do you have any upcoming projects related to Translation Studies?

Yes, a project on the role of English in the production and maintenance of linguistic hierarchies in Southeast Asia and the United States; and the emergence and role of creole languages in disrupting linguistic hierarchies.

What translated works are you reading nowadays?
Gina Apostol, "Insurrecto"

By Kathleen Woodward

The numbers have mounted every day since China first began announcing them. As I write this, the New York Times reports that in China deaths from the coronavirus—named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization—have reached at least 1113, with the number of cases confirmed rising to 44,653. Where can we turn for an informed and compelling perspective on what will almost surely become a pandemic? I recommend science writer David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, a book written for a broad public that was published in 2012.

The foundational questions of Spillover are these: Where do these diseases come from? Can they be predicted? Why do they subside? Drawing on the conventions of the detective story and citing academic research, Quammen explains the science in an intelligible voice, patiently introducing us to vocabulary I suspect is unknown to most of his readers (reassortment, reservoir hosts, anthroponosis). He devotes the chapters of his book to outbreaks of specific diseases around the world—Hendra, Ebola, Lyme disease, and AIDS, among them, with influenza taken up primarily at the end. He tells us about people who have died from these diseases and introduces us to people who have survived them, including scientists pursuing research and medical personnel caring for those who fell sick. He vividly illuminates the threat of diseases that are zoonotic— that spill over, jumping from animals to humans. Through the very accumulation of these stories, he shows us that these diseases are significantly on the increase. It’s a big book. Read it from beginning to end. But ignore the threatening image of a crazed primate on the cover. Designed to elicit fear and sell copies, it doesn’t resonate with the tone of the book whose purpose is to engender heightened understanding and informed concern.   

Throughout his book the word risk rings like a bell. But it is the concept of unpredictability—the unpredictability of catastrophic global biological risk—that is at the heart of his book. Spillover is a history of the present and a speculation about our biological future. But in fact, it offers not so much speculation as a confident prediction that there will be—there is in David Quammen’s mind no doubt about it—an outbreak of an infectious disease devastating to humans.

Crowded Conditions

Quammen argues persuasively that we are in a new era of ever-emerging zoonotic diseases. Over the course of Spillover, he builds a powerful case that outbreaks of pathogens—his emphasis is on viruses— are growing more and more common around the world. This elevated risk, he argues, is due to increased...

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Professor Heidi Pauwels (Asian Languages & Literature) was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on her book, The Voice of India’s 18th-Century Mona Lisa: Songs by Rasik Bihari of Kishangarh. Pauwel’s project explores the poetry of an 18th-century woman known as Bani-thani or Rasik Bihari, who was a court performer and favorite of the Indian ruler Savant Singh (1699–1764) of Kishangarh.

In 2017, Pauwels led a Simpson Center funded symposium, Memory Construction and Emotion in India, Past and Present, that examined how Hindu, Muslim, and Jain cultural self-understandings were shaped in India’s past and how that relates to the present. That same year, Pauwel published Mobilizing Krishna’s World: The Writings of Prince Sāvant Singh of Kishangarh (University of Washington Press), which discusses the political and religious upheaval of sixteenth and eighteenth century northern India through the life, devotional poetry, and paintings of Savant Singh, the Rajput prince unseated by his younger brother. 

The NEH announced this round's grant winners on January 14. The federal organization awarded $30.9 million in grants to support 188 humanities projects in 45 states and the District of Columbia. An additional $48 million was also awarded to fund 55 state, territorial, and jurisdictional humanities councils, which serve local communities through a range of state-focused humanities discussion and educational outreach programs. You can read more about this year's awards and see a full list of winners here.

Congrats, Heidi!

Congratulations to UW Professor Naomi Sokoloff (NELC/Comparative Literature), who, along with Washington University in St. Louis Professor Nancy Berg (Hebrew/Comparative Literature), won a 2019 National Jewish Book Award for their co-edited collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (University of Washington Press).

The volume gathers twelve essays, chiefly from the May 2016 UW conference Hebrew and the Humanities: Present Tense, which was organized by Prof. Sokoloff and the UW’s Dr. Hannah Pressman, along with Prof. Berg, in conjunction with the 2016 Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures and with the support of the Simpson Center. Like the book, the conference explored the state of Hebrew language studies in contemporary America and beyond. Keynote lectures were delivered by Dara Horn and Ilan Stavans, who both contributed to the collection (along with Dr. Pressman) and whose talks you can view here.  

Inaugurated in 1950, the National Jewish Book Awards is the longest-running North American awards program of its kind. The Awards are intended to recognize authors, and encourage reading, of outstanding English-language books of Jewish interest. Past notable win­ners include Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt, Bernard Mala­mud, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deb­o­rah Dash Moore, and Sandy Eisen­berg Sasso.

Sokoloff and Berg will be honored on March 17 at an awards dinner and ceremony in Manhattan, New York. Next year, Sokoloff, along with UW Professors Gary Handwerk (English/CHID) and Gordana Crnkovic (Slavic) will also be leading Global Literary Studies, a Simpson Center funded project that will work towards developing a new Global Literary Studies major at the UW.

By Jesús Hidalgo

As part of its fall events featuring researchers, activists, and artists whose practices and work are connected to translation, the Translation Studies Hub hosted a two-part talk on Nov. 22, 2019. Profs. José Alaniz (Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures) and Jason Groves (Department of Germanics) gave presentations on translating Russian comics into English and the applicability of the term “weak” in the Translation Studies field, respectively.

Prof. Alaniz spoke about his experiences as a translator of Russian comics, and mainly about his current project: translating Lena Uzhinova’s 2014 graphic memoir My Sex. He described the book as the representation of Uzhinova’ sexual experience as she grew up as part of the last Soviet generation; a generation that had to deal with inadequate sexual education, child abuse, and rape culture.

After speaking about his other translation work (including being a consultant for an exhibit about Russian comics in the U.S.), the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures professor also used some examples from Japanese manga, Conan the Barbarian, and Mandrake to talk about some of the visual challenges translating comics poses. Some of these challenges, he said, are usually related to how panels and vignettes are contextualized, how the composition of speech balloons is formatted, and the adaptation of speech balloons for a new audience. He is facing similar challenges while translating Uzhinova’s memoir.

In the second part of the talk, Prof. Groves spoke about some of his past translation past translation work in both the U.S. and Germany. including translating bureaucratic events, writing the captions for a punk film, and working on a map about immigration in Germany.

He used these experiences to introduce the term “weak translation,” a term he adopted from other fields, such as “weak theory” and “weak environmentalism,” for example. The latter has been used to refer to small-scale actions and ideas, low-intensity affects and social ties, and the precariety of subjects.

The Department of Germanics professor said that the word “weak” in the Humanities is originally derogatory, but recently it has been recovered to push back against its opposite: the affective value of “strong.”

In that sense, Prof. Groves says that “weak translation” is “non-normative, non-derogatory, evacuated of any ableist connotation. It marks the partial, the provisional, the leaky, in-promptu, the centrifugal, but it’s not ‘weak’ in the sense of deficient at all.”

To end his talk, Prof. Groves showed a few exercises he does in his undergraduate classes (including a translation of a poem in German using the voice assistant Cortana) to talk about the “weak” barriers of languages and what a “bad translation” would mean...

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A Look at the Simpson Center’s Next Generation Humanities PhD Special Initiative

By Rachel Arteaga

*You can also read this story over on Medium.*

In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced a new program directed at change in doctoral education. The projects to be funded by Next Generation Humanities PhD grants would bring humanities PhD programs into alignment with a true diversity of possible career outcomes for their graduates, integrate the humanities more purposefully into the public sphere, and ultimately “transform what it means to be a humanities scholar.”

The program was, in part, a response to widely-circulated reports from major professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014). Indeed, “No More Plan B,” (2011), the American Historical Association’s summary statement on the academic job market for historians, had gained currency in the vocabulary of the academic humanities. When Next Generation Humanities PhD appeared, the profession was already in a moment of intense self-reflection, its focus cohering around a single question: what was the meaning and value of the humanities PhD?

The NEH announcement offered an opportunity to rigorously pursue that line of inquiry and sparked an exciting possibility for us at the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Usually, our mandate is to support crossdisciplinary research and inquiry in the humanities, meaning that the vast majority of the projects we support involve faculty from multiple departments. But doctoral education is almost always defined primarily by cultures within departments, not across them. So we took an unusual approach, resolving to directly support degree-granting departments in imagining the futures of their disciplines on their own terms. In February of 2016, we announced our own Next Generation Humanities PhD special initiative, inspired by the visionary leadership of then-NEH Chairman William “Bro” Adams.

From 2016 to 2019, this special initiative supported eight projects involving ten doctoral degree granting departments and programs at UW, among them English, History, and Philosophy. Doctoral education in the humanities is unique in its capacity to prepare students to undertake projects of...

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