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In Translation: Toni Morrison’s Works in Paris
By Marona Graham-Bailey

The Toni Morrison Society headed to Paris, France for its 6th biennial conference, “Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination,” Nov. 4-7. The move marks the Society’s first biennial held outside of the U.S.

In keeping with the its mission “to initiate, sponsor, and encourage critical dialogue, scholarly publications, conferences, and projects devoted to the study of the works of Toni Morrison,” the society reached new international status, simultaneously honoring the broad reach of Morrison’s work and the historical and cultural significance of Paris for people of the African Diaspora.

As participants in The Toni Morrison Society’s fourth Language Matters Institute learned– language really does matter. “This was the first international meeting,” Language Matters Institute director Maryemma Graham said, “but it also returns our focus to considering a wider range of language issues, translation in this case.” Graham, a professor in the English department at the University of Kansas, also served as conference co-chair.

Launched in 2001 as the Society’s first national service initiative, the Language Matters Institute brings together secondary teachers and university scholars to discuss the implications of teaching Morrison’s works in secondary classrooms. “Morrison is internationally known, but secondary teachers have less access. This gives them more and permits more collaborative working and thinking between scholars and secondary teachers,” Graham said.  

Teachers of literature in both French and English engaged in lively dialogue about the impact of translation from English to French on reading and interpreting Morrison’s texts, including “The Bluest Eye” and “Song of Solomon”. 

Krista Slagle, a PhD candidate at the Flemish University, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, arrived in Paris with detailed notes written in her French translations and English originals. “What I hoped to gain by attending was insights into the methods used by the translators and bringing Morrison's works to a French-speaking reader,” said Slagle, whose research focuses on translation studies in post-colonial literature.

Frazier O’Leary, a Language Matters participant since the very first was held at Cardozo High School, Washington, D.C., where O’Leary teaches Advanced Placement English, said each institute has had its own flavor. The Paris-based and fourth LM Institute will be remembered for the “intensity of the conversations,” he said.

“Talking about the translation problems [was] something that I had never thought about and something that becomes very important as we spread the word,” O’Leary said. “I doubt that this conversation would have ever taken place if we had not been in Paris.”

In the years since her earliest novels like “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970, and “Sula,” in 1974, first appeared, Morrison’s work continues to gain an international following. At the forefront of the Language Matters discussion was the question of, how much meaning is lost once a text is translated?
“It really demonstrated how compelling Morrison's work is to an incredibly diverse group of world readers, and yet how culturally rich and specific the narratives are,” said Giselle Anatol, a second-year Language Matters participant and also a professor of English at the University of Kansas. “Awareness of many of these cultural details is necessary for a fuller understanding of the work at hand.”

As if being in Paris would not have been memorable enough, Morrison slips into the room as the Language Matters participants begin to wrap up their workshop. “It really shows her dedication to the community, and investment in having her work taught at many different levels,” Anatol said.

Leaning in with silent yet eager interest in the conversation surrounding translation, it was clear­: Morrison was there simply… to listen.


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