Blog #5: War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria.

I have so many thoughts and emotions after reading “War in translation.” It is heavy, yet inspiring.  It is saddening yet yields a sense of hope and urgency. It is beautiful, yet tragic.

It hits home to a kind of trauma I have been intimately familiar with; yet never experienced in its entirety.  I have experienced bits and pieces of what is discussed in the article, but nowhere near as traumatic.  Keep in mind, when I say bits and pieces, what I really mean mind altering traumatic experiences that never stop haunting you.

I have stood at checkpoints for hours in 90 degree weather only to be turned back because my “American passport meant nothing here”. I have experiencing waking up in the dead of the night to the terrifying sounds of homes being crushed to rubble, unsure if war had been unleashed while the whole world slept in its oblivion. I have witnessed the utter sense of loss on the faces of families that were collectively punished. A loss of property, humanity and dignity. I have experienced the aftermath of night raids, wherein the inside of homes were destroyed and vandalized.  And all this, experienced during summer “vacations” during times of “peace”.  I dare not imagine how derelict circumstances would be during times of declared war.

I leave an occupied homeland with scarring memories only to go back to the only home I have ever known that denies the existence of those I have left behind.

I have the language to describe these doses of trauma, yet there has always been a lack of audience.  My trauma is rare type of trauma; one that is deemed offensive.  Therefore both are incredibly vital to the telling of stories; both language and a listening audience.

There is so much more to language than translating words.  The real goal is to transfer meaning.

How can translation embody an entire experience?

This article reveals both the strength and fragility of language. What empowers language often is the human connection. The willingness to put in the dedication when translating the stories of others so that the voice is authentic and the experience is somehow transferred through the words used.

Language is deeply intimate.  Tearing away language from its origin is a violent act as the author suggest because there is a process of shedding that occurs; a layer of depth is removed.  There is something – something that is embedded in the soul of author’s original language that is lost in the attempts to translate.

Perhaps a deep sense of empathy and compassion can help us accurately translate not only the words but the trauma of the experience.  But how can language embody trauma? Especially a language not native to the tongue of the victim? A language that is not only foreign to the culture but to the metaphysical experience as well.

To share stories of trauma is to re-live them, therefore it is an act of immense bravery when survivors of trauma speak out. Therefore I can only describe the ability to accurately translate the stories of others as an act that encompasses some sort of divinity.  A talent that requires a great deal of linguistic proficiency intertwined with empathy. Those who do it well, not only carry the burden of ensuring the translation is authentic, but reliving each trauma one by one.

This type of work connects humanity.  It is a reminder of the fragility of our existence, when all that’s needed to divide us are words with imposed meanings and barriers that impose a sense of exceptionalism.

The Process of Writing (and Annotating)

Lina Mounzer’s “War in Translation” is a moving exploration of the power of stories and language. I won’t go into too much detail about the content of the article here, because everyone in the Equity Unbound Hypothes.is group can see my reactions to the piece in my annotations. Instead, I’d like to discuss my feelings on annotating for an audience via Hypothes.is. The process of scribbling notes in the margins is one I’m familiar with, but leaving public comments on the article and reading other people’s annotations was a novel experience. 

Honestly, I wasn’t a fan. Of course, there were some aspects I enjoyed; it was fascinating to see different perspectives and interpretations of the same article, especially when so many annotations came from a global network of readers whose experiences are vastly different than my own. However, I’m not a skilled multitasker, so splitting my focus between reading the article, scanning other people’s annotations, and recording my own thoughts meant I couldn’t give Mounzer’s powerful piece the attention it deserved. 

Posting (relatively) public annotations also felt stressful in a way that reading normally doesn’t for me. Usually, my annotations are nonsensical, unpolished notes hastily scribbled without attention to spelling, grammar, or even legibility. It takes awhile to review them and then shape them into a coherent argument. With Hypothes.is, though, I felt pressured to make intelligent (or at least intelligible) commentary because I knew others would see it. I normally annotate during my “prewriting” phase, but Hypothes.is turned my annotations into a final, published draft. 

Here are my annotations of Murray’s article. In a way, they prove his argument; turning these notes into a coherent blog post is definitely a process.

Donald M. Murray describes this prewriting phase as integral to the writing process in his article “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” Murray advocates for teaching students the process of writing—which includes prewriting (research, notes, outlines, etc.), writing (first draft), and rewriting (revision and other edits)—rather than expecting them to create, without guidance, a product worthy of being called literature.

Although Murray explores some of the implications of teaching writing as a process, he never gives concrete strategies for implementing his theory in the classroom. Though his argument is a bit simplistic and outdated (there’s no mention of the recursive nature of writing, for example), it has obviously been influential; all of my own high school English classes taught writing as a process similar to the one Murray describes. 

Nancy Sommers takes a more nuanced, detailed approach to exploring the writing process. Her article “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers” examines how student writers focus more on lexical concerns during the revision process, whereas experienced writers revise by reshaping or restructuring their arguments. Sommers posits that students are restricted by the linear model of writing; the prewriting, writing, and rewriting process, she claims, is based on speech, which can’t be revised. I find this idea to be incredibly interesting, and I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing so much; writing—unlike speaking—allows for making mistakes, reimagining ideas, and rewording arguments before it’s made public. 

I was also fascinated to read the students’ very limited and linear perspectives about revision (although, the simple crossing out and rearranging of words they describe sounds more like editing to me). I’d be curious to see what today’s students would have to say about their own revision processes, as I feel that modern day English teachers provide numerous strategies for not only editing and proofreading, but for reorganizing and restructuring written work. 

Something that stands out to me from both Murray’s and Sommers’s articles is the idea that writing is a form of discovery. Writers must always be open to exploring new ideas, even if it means scrapping the page we just wrote or rewriting entire paragraphs. Each step in the process—from research conducted during prewriting to the reimagining and revision of ideas in rewriting—is another way to make new discoveries and to share them with the world.

Revision and Stories of Trauma: Theory in Practice

The readings for this week emphasize the power of finding voice through the discovery process of writing, and how product focused revision and writing strategies destroys the ability to discover. Donald Murray’s essay served as a very concise overview of the concept of rethinking how revision should be used to teach writing. As I read his essay, I thought to myself, “All he does is repeats what Bean, Elbow, and Lauer said in past readings…,” but when I looked back at Lauer’s essay, “Rhetoric and Composition”, I realized that she is actually referencing Murray’s essay to support her section on revision (119). That said, as a quick review of what all these authors are getting at – student writing doesn’t develop when it is a) written for (and at times by) the teacher and b) critiqued in a way that focuses on grammar and “mechanics” (Murray 3,6). Furthermore, students need time, patience, and freedom to write through their difficulties because that is where they will find their voice, what they care about, the style of writing that fits them, and how to correct the mistakes they make (Murray 5-6).

Interestingly, one thing that stood out in Murray’s essay like a sore thumb was his advocacy for the formulaic prewrite-write-rewrite process. Returning to Lauer’s essay, we see this process critiqued as too “rigid” (113) and that the research that has emerged around the revision process has tried to get away from such linear forms (113). Among the research that has contributed to new ideas around revision is that of Nancy Sommers, another author that should be familiar from Lauer’s references. Her essay “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers” serves as a perfect pairing to Murray’s essay as she breaks down why the prewrite-write-rewrite model isn’t well suited to writing.

Sommers begins her essay by saying models like Rothman’s prewrite-write-rewrite and Britton’s conception – incubation – production are misguided in their treatment of the writing process (378). The reason for these models being ill-suited to writing is because they are based on speech; as a result, they are built in a linear way that the writing process doesn’t naturally follow (378). Speech cannot be revised – once it is out, there is no taking it back (379). Writing on the other hand has the advantage of being revised. The problem is that because of these speech influenced models of revision, it has been taught to be an “afterthought” (379), with students using it as a basic clean-up process focused on grammar and word choice and hardly an eye towards considering the flow of their ideas (383). Sommers takes us through the research she has conducted on student’s writing to support her assertion that students aren’t thinking beyond the rules of writing in revision and juxtaposes it against how experienced writers use revision – and indeed, we find a huge difference between the two. Sommers’ research found that unlike students, experienced writers use their writing to find ideas instead of trying to build their writing around a preconceived idea, and they use revision to figure out how to fit the ideas together into a cohesive whole (384).

One of the most interesting points Sommers’ essay makes about the difference between students and experienced writers is how each approaches their audience. Students are more likely to be self-centered in considering their audience, as they expect their reader to understand what it is they are trying to say (382). Experienced writers, on the other hand, experience what Sommers refers to as a kind of “dissonance” between what they want to say and how their audience is really going to receive what they are saying (385). This dissonance is what drives them to revise, and it is only relieved when they feel like the clarity and presentation of their ideas can be understood by their reader (385). Therefore, Sommers says that students need to learn to center revision around discovering ideas, crafting their essay in a way that brings the ideas together, and a sense of dissonance about what they want to say and how it is being received to evolve into experienced writers (387).

Of the readings this week, Sommers’ essay stood out the most because it brings us back to the why behind writing. Once again, we are considering the questions Lauer brings up in her essay around whether writing is a solitary activity or whether it is collective and collaborative (121). Writing is engaging and creating in relation to the work of others, so how can it ever truly be solitary? This question became less about theory and more about reality as I considered it in light of the third reading of the week, Lina Mounzer’s “War in Translation”.

Put simply, her article is about being a translator who tells the stories of women who have been through the war in Syria. She speaks about the devastation of stories that cannot be told or translated into words that honor the reality of what she and these women have been through, but how important it is to tell them anyway. Lina uses her trauma and her words to give life to these other women who have also been traumatized and had to fight being stripped of humanity in one way or another. She goes on to describe the frustration of having her story and the stories of those who have gone through atrocities looked at as too “cumbersome” and treated in such a way that, “All the life [is] squeezed out of them so that they fit into one headline” (“War in Translation”).

As I read Lina’s article I thought of two things – how lonely it is to bear the burden of your story alone, and how devastating it is to have it received in a way that is invalidating. Lina’s article is incredibly difficult to read. Not because it isn’t beautifully crafted, with every line and paragraph thinking about the reader; it is difficult to read because it is filled with such longing for the reader to truly hear her story and those of these women. The longing asks for acknowledgement and response to the stories so that they can live on and not be lost to silence and indifference. Lina uses her writing to amplify the solitude of trauma so that it can be part of a collective conversation on war, the power of words, and the desire to have our stories live beyond us. Her essay is a very real example of how writing as an act may have an element of solitude – only Lina can process what she has experienced and find the words to express it – it is collective and collaborative in nature – she works along side these women to bring attention to their stories of survival.

If you are wondering how we went from talking about revision to talking about trauma, I felt the same way after going through all three readings. But I think that is the power behind the theories that are proposed in the writing of people like Murray, Sommers, and Lauer; when their ideas about considering audience and using writing as discovery are actually applied in ways that get in touch with our true and empathetic selves, it manifests in works like Mounzer’s.  

Works Cited

Lauer, Janice. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s), edited by Bruce McCominsky, National Council of Teachers of English, 2006, pp. 106-152.

Mounzer, Lina. “War in Translation,” Literary Hub, https://lithub.com/war-in-translation-giving-voice-to-the-women-of-syria/. Accessed 18 October 2020.

Murray, Donald, “Teaching Writing as Process Not Product.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 2nd ed.,edited by Victor Villanueva, National Council of Teachers of English, 2003, pp. 3-6.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no.4, 1980, pp. 378-388.