The Price to the Artistic Community of Closing Our Borders

When President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban was signed into law weeks ago, many people instantly realized the deleterious effects it would have on citizens of the banned nations, in addition to other vulnerable populations who are now regularly harassed by emboldened officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

What was perhaps not so clear was its effect on seemingly disconnected groups—for instance, those who have dedicated their lives to the study and promulgation of great literature.

So, to help make that more evident, I give you outstanding translator and academic Shelley Frisch.

When I saw that Trump’s border-closing activities had been having an adverse effect on Shelley’s ability to bring her fellow translators and academics into the United States to help spread great literature, I asked her to explain in her own words what was going on. You will find her remarks below.

At a time when we are getting shifting rationales for Trump’s Muslim Ban—first it was to protect us from terrorism now it is to protect American workers from competition—and also when Trump is directly assaulting the arts by attempting to cut off government funding to the NEA and NEH (despite the $702 billion the arts are estimated to bring to our economy, to say nothing to the benefits to our quality of life and national culture), I feel it is important to show some of the real ways that our Federal government’s policies are harming our community.

While reading the below, bear in mind that just last week, a highly respected French academic was held for 10 hours in detention at threatened with deportation while trying to enter the United States. Similarly, Muhammad Ali Jr was racially profiled and held in detention at an airport and demanded to explain his name and religion, despite being a born U.S. citizen.

So here is what Shelley has to say about her colleagues’ willingness to come to the USA. If you have a story of your own to share, I urge you to share yours.

For many years now, a German colleague, Karen Nölle, and I have been co-directing international workshops that bring together established translators from German to English and English to German. We have been convening in a variety of venues in Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Ireland) to discuss our participants’ translations-in-progress. Here’s the wording of the first paragraph of the announcement we send out to solicit applications, to give you a flavor of our approach:

We invite translators from German to English and English to German to apply for our eighth translators’ workshop, which will provide the opportunity for ten translators (five German-English and five English-German) to present and discuss their translations-in-progress. We will spend one week working in depth on the submitted texts to scrutinize problematic passages and hone our translations. Most translators find it invaluable to work with colleagues on concrete textual issues—sentence by sentence and word by word, in a constructive environment. We also anticipate the formation of lasting collegial bonds between professional literary translators in English-speaking and German-speaking countries. In addition to our work on the texts, the program will include meetings with literary movers and shakers.

We had always dreamed of holding the workshop in the United States, but, as is well known, funding for the arts is very poor in our very rich country. When we held the workshop in Ireland in 2010, that country was in dire economic straits, yet Irish arts funders displayed extreme generosity in promoting our effort to further cross-cultural literary exchange.

Finally, this time around, for our eighth workshop, and after years of planning, we have secured a wonderful venue in upstate New York, Ledig House (aka OMI), which has extended a generous helping hand and all manner of good will in making our translation workshop possible on American soil, and so all is well—or so we think and hope.

When we drafted the workshop announcement back in the fall, we could not have imagined a Trump presidency, and even once we learned the outcome of the election, we could not have pictured the deleterious effect it would have on international gatherings of the kind we were planning. We quickly discovered that some potential participants from Europe decided to forgo applying altogether in view of the current administration’s policies, and even those who did apply were now wary of entering the United States. These are people who, in the past, regularly traveled to the United States for both professional and personal reasons, and have a long history of pro-American sentiments, coupled with their professional commitment to promoting American culture. Under ordinary circumstances, they would be thrilled to be attending a workshop in our country.

The circumstances are no longer ordinary. With each passing day, we learn of new restrictions: on international travel, on personal freedoms, on a sense of comfort in this country. Our own workshop’s participants happen not to hail from the “seven countries” this president seems intent on identifying as his primary target, at least for the moment, but all travelers to the US may be asking themselves whether they really want to visit a country that would display this degree of xenophobia, and do little or nothing to speak out against a new wave of hate crimes. Moreover, who’s to say what further restrictions the government may decide to introduce, as randomly and unfairly as the ones so far?

I am hoping against hope that our upcoming translation workshop will run smoothly against these new odds, but even if all goes well during our week in April, there is no denying that our country’s image, at home and abroad, has been greatly—perhaps indelibly—tarnished.

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