Trans-Medievalisms at BABEL (Santa Barbara)

by JONATHAN HSY

Spanish Chaucer and BABEL Program
View from the moderator’s table. “Trans-Medievalisms” session at BABEL in UCSB, October 2014.

It’s been about a month since the Third Biennal Meeting of the BABEL Working Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Candace Barrington and I (on behalf of the Global Chaucers project) organized a session entitled “Trans-Medievalisms.” This session considered what happens when “the Middle Ages” (whatever we mean by that term!) traverses different cultures, languages, material forms, and media. The call for proposals and/or manifesto (previously posted on this blog) was as follows:

What happens to the Western Middle Ages when it crosses into diverse, concurrent times, languages, and cultures? How does “medievalism” take shape in multiple spaces across the planet—including cultural habitats where the Western Middle Ages are no longer the “‘zero point’ of orientation” (to reroute a phrase from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology)? What cultural work do “the Middle Ages” perform as they infuse modern-day modes of global media and cultural production—textual, visual, musical, performative, cinematic? Our session is inspired by our work on the Global Chaucers project, a utopian scholarly endeavor that seeks to gather, back-translate, and analyze all non-English translations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work. Our scheming with scholars around the world has so far revealed Chaucerian adaptations in places as far-flung and interconnected as Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia), East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), Europe (Denmark, Flanders, Spain, Hungary), the Middle East (Israel, Iran), and Africa (Nigeria, South Africa), as well as works in re/invented languages (Esperanto, Neo-Latin).

For this session we aim to gather participants working on Chaucerian adaptation in non-English contexts or any aspect of medieval appropriation in “global” contemporary culture (however conceived). How might plurilingual, transoceanic, and intercultural orientations provoke new modes of engaging with the past? How can we create a dynamic, multi-site community of cross-temporal scholars and enthusiasts, a fluid collective that thrives across disciplines and borders? We welcome non-medievalists, amateurs, and enthusiasts, including creative work by poets, playwrights, musicians, and/or interpretive dancers. We highly encourage collaborative submissions.

The session at UCSB resulted in four strikingly divergent yet enticingly intertwining presentations.

  • Raúl Ariza-Barile: Chaucer’s Spanish Accent: Impossible Poetry? Raúl’s paper offered a brief background of Chaucerian translation into Spanish, suggesting (among other things) how a careful consideration of Latin American contexts might shift our conversations about the aims and practices of modern translators; the presentation ended with a debut performance of his own translation of the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue into rhymed Spanish verse.
  • Shyama Rajendran: The Impossibility of Locating The Ramayana. Shyama’s presentation traced the movement of the ancient epic Ramayana across many cultural traditions and performance contexts beyond South Asia, attending to a plurality of reception histories across time and space; she ended with a careful consideration of the political implications of the Ramayana’s narrow appropriation for the purposes of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India.
  • Carol Robinson: Expressing Loathly Ladies—Explicitly Noncompliant. In this presentation, Carol featured the work of two of her former students who created a collaborative video adaptation of the Wife of Bath. Each student had recorded a dramatic monologue: one performance used ASL to engage with Deaf culture, relating the episode when the Wife is rendered deaf; a “political dramatization” by a queer student (in drag) incorporated contemporary debates about polygamy and marriage.
  • Elaine Treharne: TEXT Technological Transformations: the Inexactitude of a Medieval Unreality. Elaine’s talk suggested the possibility of cross-cultural comparative analysis across seemingly disparate contexts including medieval Western and East Asian (Chinese) texts. Her reflections not only considered the rich materiality of textual production but also suggested its importance as artistic performance.

These presentations richly showcased the heterogeneity of cultural/artistic/linguistic materials that we might call “medieval” (thinking expansively beyond the contours of Latin-speaking Europe). At the same time, these perspectives collectively invited us to think more creatively about what new modes of medieval appropriation and comparative analysis actually might enact and enable.

Medievalism studies has certainly “arrived” in the academy and it is also clearly breaking down the boundaries between what lies within and outside of institutional and traditional academic structures. Global Chaucers is one such community among many, including other digital spaces like Medievally Speaking, and the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization (MEMO). We’re in a very exciting time for medievalism studies now and I hope that these networked communities will continue to thrive, grow, interconnect, and adapt.

Visit In the Middle for a longer version of this posting that includes a brief discussion of an exciting new volume that may be of interest to our readers: Medievalism: Key Critical Termsed. Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz (Bodyell, 2014).

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