Advising dean, professor collaborate on translation

Although Jonathan Culler’s “Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction” has been translated into 22 languages including Tamil and Macedonian, a French version had never been available.

That was true until this spring, when Presses Universitaires de Vincennes published “Théorie littéraire,” a French translation completed by Anne Birien, advising dean and director of the College Scholar program for the College of Arts & Sciences.

The collaboration began as a discussion between the two several years ago. Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, met Birien in 2003 at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell and then at later conferences on French literature, which Birien taught before joining Cornell’s Romance studies department in 2010 and moving to the Admissions and Advising office in 2011.

The omission of a French version of Culler’s popular book was understandable, Culler said, because a good portion of the book stresses the contributions of French theorists and there are other French sources on literary theory. The English version of “Literary Theory” was first published in 1997 and sold 114,000 copies. It was revised in 2011 and is often read by students and others seeking an accessible book on the topic.

Still, both Culler and Birien thought French speakers deserved their own translation of Culler’s book.

The translation process was more collaborative than others, Culler said, because he is fluent in French so he and Birien could go back and forth on some of the finer points of the text, something he couldn’t do with the Norwegian translator, for example.

Birien found that partnership to be very helpful.  

“Collaborating with the author made it possible to take some liberties with the original text,” she said. For instance, it made sense to replace references to American literature—which might have been lost on a Francophone audience — with familiar French literary examples.

“It is also quite nice for a translator to run options by the author of the original and have the decisions she made validated,” Birien said. “I’m still waiting to hear what Ezra Pound thinks of my translation of ‘Cathay.’ ”

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		 Jonathan Culler and Anne Birien