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Testimony to Mills College Board of Trustees: Distinguished Visiting Writer Achy Obejas, director of MFA in translation

(Photo courtesy of Chad Lutz) Director of the MFA in Translation Achy Obejas defends the program against its proposed termination before the Board of Trustees at Mills College on June 22, 2017.
(Photo courtesy of Chad Lutz)
Director of the MFA in Translation Achy Obejas defends the program against its proposed termination before the Board of Trustees at Mills College on June 22, 2017.

Dear Board Chair Sanborn and Board of Trustees:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Financial Stability Plan (FSP) and, specifically, the proposed cancellation of the MFA in Translation.

First, I want to stress that I appreciate all too well the dire circumstances in which the College finds itself. I understand that in order to survive, and in order to survive in a healthy way into the future, decisions must be made now that may well prove to be painful to many of us. But it is precisely because of the Board of Trustees’ responsibility not just to cut, but to plan and prepare for a future that is both financially responsible and curricularly innovative that I hope to prevail upon you to allow the MFA in Translation to continue.

Let me say it plainly: cutting the MFA in Translation saves no money for the College. We have a budget of $138,481.32 and scheduled net revenue of $81.32.

Allowing the program to continue and to prosper — so far we’ve operated on an absolute shoestring — would be a strong signal that Mills still values innovation, and that it has a strong commitment to local community. It would also be a signal that Mills, no matter how fraught its circumstances, is an ethical and responsible institution.

I conceived the MFA in Translation in 2014 after being invited by then-President Alecia DeCoudreaux to an informal get together in which she asked a small group of professors to come up with new ideas to deliver education at low cost to the College. Alecia liked my idea for the MFA in Translation, encouraged me to develop it, and told me she wanted to give the program time to find its way and grow.

My idea for the program was simple: Use a cost-efficient, low-residency model that only uses campus facilities for 14 days out of the year to teach translation, both literary and practical. The time on campus is divided into two, week-long residencies per year in which locally based but internationally renowned translators give lectures, readings, demonstrations of both techniques and technologies, and serve as one-on-one mentors. The mentors serve as tutors (not adjuncts) under Mills faculty supervision during the semesters, working one-on-one with the students through various projects, including a critical and a creative thesis, as well as a separate, semester-long practical project.

The program offers online classes — without spending a dime on software or a minute of anybody’s time at Mills — by designing its own web pages and modules. In fact, I think we’re the only Mills program regularly offering online classes — and we’re willing to share our expertise.

We also work with faculty at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies to teach our students translation technologies and localization through an online class and residency presentations.

We work with the community, too — last winter we helped organize what turned out to be a magnificent Burmese bilingual poetry reading. We work closely with the Bay Area Literary Translators Group. We’ve included programming at the Bay Book Festival as part of our curriculum. And we’re diverse: More than half of our presenters, readers and mentors are POC; I believe I’m one of two Hispanics/LatinX currently directing a program at Mills, recently dubbed a HSI. Half of the students in  the program are Hispanic/LatinX.

We launched in fall 2016 with two students and have added two new students every semester since for a current total of six — all this with total past promotional expenditures of about $1500, which is an absolute bargain. We are not Mills’s biggest program but, in our second year, and operating almost as a parallel shop, we are not its smallest either. We are efficient and committed: I’ve specifically set my salary — I’m the only Mills contract employee in the program — to be determined by what our budget permits. I don’t think there’s another soul on campus that’s basically bet their livelihood on performance, is there?

Here’s the best part. What we’ve developed as we enter our second year is a singular program: a translation curriculum that emphasizes literary concepts and translation studies fundamentals but also includes professional development and a strong practical component that teaches technologies and localization. In other words, upon graduation, our students will know how to expertly translate a variety of texts, engage an agent or editor, understand a contract and their rights as translators, and also be able to step into a localization office at Google or Dropbox and know exactly what to do. They’ll also be familiar with certification and translation in the medical, legal, and other fields.

No other translation program in the country — and there are more and more of them every day — has the same literary and practical emphasis.

In other words, this is a unique program, a Mills program unlike any other.

And the thing is, Mills needs the MFA in Translation. The circumstances we’re going through now are not getting the kind of publicity that engenders faith in the College; the crisis is stimulating some of our best professors to seek other opportunities.

But allowing the MFA in Translation to continue, for at least three to five years as most new programs are allowed to do, would not only keep an implied promise but help balance the idea in the public eye that Mills is cutting down to the bone, offering only the most necessary courses. And it would permit us to continue working with translators and writers of note such as Cristina Garcia, Katrina Dodson, Dan Belm, and so many others whose association with Mills would be seen as an imprimatur.

And to reiterate: If the whole point of cutting programs and personnel is to get rid of the College’s $9-plus million dollar deficit, canceling the MFA in Translation would have zero effect. We have no tenured or tenure-track faculty. We don’t cost anything. We live and die by what we bring in.

And we’re doing a lot of what the college claims to want to do: to serve Hispanic/LatinX students, to be cost-efficient, to offer new educational opportunities in innovative ways, to teach new technologies, to work hand in hand with community.

Keeping the MFA in Translation would signal the College’s commitment to new programs, new models for education and innovation, and to the future.

I’ve attached our budget for the coming year so you can see our actual dollar figures, along with my CV. Please let me know if you’re interested in seeing anything else, and if you have any questions.

I’d appreciate the opportunity to engage the board on this subject at the June 22 meeting.

Gracias mil,

Achy Obejas


MFA in Translation