From 'a lonely passion' to 'an exciting educational experience'

When internationalism found a foothold inside the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Edmund "Mike" Keeley is a prize-winning novelist, translator, and essayist, a poet, and Charles Barnwell Straut Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University. He is a noted expert on Greek poets C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, and on post-Second World War Greek history.

Nataša Ďurovičová divides her time between editing, teaching, scholarly work, and translating. The house editor of the IWP,   she has also co-edited World Cinemas,Transnational Perspectives  (2010) and At Translation's Edge  (2019).


A cottage industry has been devoted in the past decade, in the wake of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2011), to the institutional history and impact of American creative writing programs. The Writers’ Workshop at UI is doubly interesting in this regard because of its early, active, and intentional international component.

Beyond admitting, and in some cases actively recruiting, students from overseas from the late 1940s on, provided they were writing in English, its director Paul Engle aimed to give a more defined shape to their presence in the Workshop.




Undated brochure, Foreign Writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, probably from 1963-4.


To that effect, having recruited the young poet and novelist—and incidentally, by then, a seasoned translator from the Greek—Edmund “Mike” Keeley from Princeton for the academic year 1962-3 to teach a course in “Forms of Prose & Poetry,” Engle also assigned him to organize a “workshop in translation” for the Spring semester of 1963.  “What’s that?” Keeley is rumored to have asked; “Don’t know, make it up,” was Engle’s apocryphal answer. And indeed, each of the two men may have had a rather different idea in mind as this improvised pedagogical enterprise took off that spring.

As Keeley has it, the course was aimed as much, if not more, at the Workshop’s regular American students, as much to stretch their poetry range as it was to release into English the international participants’ own work or that of their literary tradition.1  Hence Keeley’s four—five, really—principles under which such a workshop, and literary translation in general, should operate. At least as he described it two decades later, in a 1980 ALTA conference keynote:

I think the moment has come for me to move out of the purely autobiographical mode and to generalize a bit about the condition of translators in 1963. […]  In 1963, there was no established and continuing public forum for the purpose: no translation centers, no associations of literary translators as far as I know, no publications devoted primarily to translations, translators, and their continuing problems. The National Translation Center in Austin, Texas, the first of its kind, I believe, was established by the Ford Foundation in January 1965, and the Center’s “Journal on and of Translation,” Delos, first began to appear in April 1968. […] And, as far as I can remember, there were no grants, prizes, or other non-commercial rewards for excellence in the profession, though it was at about this time that the PEN American Center began to recognize the craft of translation as an art in several substantial ways, first of all by permitting translators to join the Center along with the poets, essayists, novelists, and editors, and by giving the translators’ cause a sympathetic hearing. […]. In short, there was not much more than a very modest return and a lonely passion for the craft to sustain a literary translator in 1963, though the march of time had subtly, almost invisibly, begun at that point to angle off in a new and more propitious direction.

Evidence of an imminent turning point as the second revelation of my year in Iowa, namely that there were students of writing eager to learn about the craft of translation while they were also learning about the craft of poetry or fiction. Paul Engle, then Director of the Writers’ Workshop, was responsible for this revelation, because he approached me one day with a startling suggestion that I consider announcing a workshop for translators during my second term of teaching at Iowa rather than the designated workshop in fiction, just to see if there was sufficient interest in this creative enterprise to establish a new possibility under the Writers’ Workshop curriculum. He said that if there proved to be an adequate enrollment—something around ten students—I could go ahead and organize the new workshop any way I chose, propose any principles and guidelines that seemed to me appropriate, admit anybody I thought acceptable. Since I had no principles at that time, also commanded few languages known by others in Iowa, but had a clear need for the companionship of those suffering from my more or less secret passion, I opened the workshop to anybody interested in translating any language into English, that being the one language I was fairly certain would be a language common to all and one that I had some degree of confidence in speaking and writing. As I remember, about twenty students—mostly graduate students—signed up for the new workshop, offering to translate a variety of languages from Europe, Asia, and Africa (the latter represented by Arabic, a language I myself spoke between the ages of one and three according to my mother, this by way of a series of accidents that I won’t go into here, but a language that apparently did not stay with me in comprehensible form beyond the age of five.)

The translation workshop proved to be an exciting educational experience, as the current jargon might put it, a kind of Tower of Babel with a central loud-speaking system in English that kept trying to establish order by insisting that everybody pay attention to that one language at least: “NOW HEAR THIS. English is the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, or if that is too remote for you, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, and your favorite current author, so you must pay it due honor…etc.” And though the workshop began without principles, at least four emerged during the course of the term. These I’ve held to with some consistency since, that is, subject to the wishy-washiness in this area that I admitted at the start. I will now bring them forth with some shame that I’ve come down to this after all.

Principle1: Anybody who translates out of the translator’s native language – what some call the “mother tongue” – into a second, adopted language, is reasonably sure to get himself or herself into trouble, unless he or she is a genius. And sometimes even if he or she is a genius. I’d say, for example, that this principle holds even in the case of a master of adopted languages such as Vladimir Nabokov, whose trouble is not the normal one of faulty usage and unnatural syntax but of excess chauvinism regarding the mother tongue, a problem that can easily lead to reactionary literalism, barren style, and rampant footnoting, at least in the translation of poetry. One sometimes gets the sense that Nabokov felt the Russian text was really too sacred to be violated by a rendering into any foreign language, even the English he commanded with such grace, and that the Russian therefore had to be protected by vast scholarly paraphernalia and the absence of any pretense that the translator might be offering a poetic equivalent since such pretense would somehow dishonor the original. […]

Principle 2 : Those with a poetic gift in their native language but limited knowledge of the language they’re translating are likely to produce better work than those with little poetic gift and a thorough knowledge of the language they’re translating. Several of the better Iowa poets of that year took the translation workshop despite their shakiness in French, Spanish, German, what have you, yet by working closely with a native speaker of the language they were translating, produced some fine versions.

Principle 3 : Those who have no knowledge of the language they’re translating are almost certain to make fools of themselves at some point and in any case have to possess more than a just share of luck in order to escape the gods out there whose job it is to avenge arrogance and presumption.

Principle 4: A translator who is a native speaker of his target language or close to it in proficiency but who neither knows nor loves the literary tradition of that language, including its contemporary phase, ought to be verbally horsewhipped for presuming to become a literary translator and he or she ought then to be sent back to school. It is probably unnecessary to be so violent with those who love the tradition of their target language but are not much moved by the literature they’re aiming to translate because they will soon give up the act of translation out of their own boredom or the boredom they bring to others, and return to domestic literary studies.

Principle 5 : Don’t let people like Paul Engle take advantage of your secret passions, because you may end up with yet another discipline to juggle to the end of your academic days. In my case, I resisted the temptation to begin a translation workshop at Princeton for more than ten years following my stint at Iowa, but I finally gave in to the inevitable, and I remained hooked until close to my retirement because I found that mode of teaching such fun, such an education, more stimulating than my fiction workshop, because in a translation workshop one is dealing both with the discovery and nurturing of young talent and, often, with the discovery or rediscovery of the best poems from another culture.

In the late years I changed the class procedure somewhat from that of my Iowa days. The members of the workshop still translated always into English, which means that it was a work of art in English that was our central preoccupation, but they were expected to present when possible a rival translation of the text they were rendering, so that those of us in the workshop who may have been inadequately familiar – if familiar at all – with the language they were translating had a second version of the text for comparison. And they were also expected to make a presentation that located their version in the context of the literary and cultural tradition that shaped the original. […]

Excerpted from Edmund Keeley, On Translation: Reflections and Conversations.
(Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000, 17-21).
Excerpt prepared by Lynn Xinian Wang


Engle, whose lifelong interest in internationalizing the American literary scene is well known and widely documented, seized on the success of that first season’s translation workshop and, true to form, sought immediately to rotate it in a direction of special interest to him, that of institutional grounding and expansion. While Keeley himself returned to Princeton in the summer of 1963, another translation workshop was offered in Iowa in the spring semester of 1964, this time led by the just-graduated poet Mark Strand (himself just returned from a Fulbright in Italy, and on his way to teach in Brazil in 1965). In the summer of 1964, Engle, drafting a proposal for a program that would include some 25 promising young writers “from abroad” on a year-long residency inside the Writers’ Workshop, rotates the budding translation effort outward, highlighting professionalization and publishing, as “team[ing] a foreign writer with an American counterpart. In process now… are a collection of new French poetry (to be published in the fall), a collection of Bengali poetry and an anthology of contemporary Chinese verse, some of which will appear in Poetry magazine.”2  And indeed things got underway quickly: in 1965, the volume Metaphrasis:  An Anthology from the University of Iowa Translation Workshop 1964-5, edited and introduced by Frederic Will and featuring a number of the “international” poets in the Workshop as well as literary classics apparently selected and (co-)translated by these writers, appeared from Verb Publications in Denver. By 1966, in one of the draft documents preparing administrative ground for what in a year’s time would become the International Writing Program (IWP), Will is already describing, more ambitiously, “the Translation Workshop, a program in the theory and practice in translation from foreign languages into English.”3

How in the subsequent years translation at UI migrated from (a) an imaginatively conceived service activity intended to enliven American poets-in-training within the fully Anglo-centric environment of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to (b) a core proof-of-concept, fundamental for the fundraising for and the establishment (with the active involvement of the Chinese novelist Nieh Hualing, then a fresh WW graduate) of the IWP in the fall of 1967 and then, a few years later, to (c) a stand-alone academic MFA in Literary Translation,  which has for 50+ years now been partnering with IWP’s own, separate, collaborative International Translation Workshop (ITW), still today conducted in Keeley’s improvisational spirit, is another, interesting, story.4 To tell that story would involve an account of Paul Engle creating an alliance for translation beyond its principally creative environment among the Workshop poets, with the academic disciplines on the UI campus, in particular with the then-nascent Comparative Literature program.  At that same time, Engle was looking inside the university and outside to generate support and partnerships for his dream of a cohort of international writers who would come to Iowa to both learn from and teach the American student writers.  

For now, and in the context of the current vigorous debates about literary translators’ training and authorship status, and about the open relationship between source/guest and target/host language competence (for instance in the so-called tandem translation format), the Keeley memoir excerpted above is simply meant as a reminder of Iowa’s original eclectic, fertile, commingling of Anglophone creative writing with world writing on a textual as well as personal level.


1) Personal interview, spring 2019, Princeton Windrows.

2)  “Battle to Engle,” July 1964, Paul Engle Papers,  Box 22, UI Special Collections.

3)  Letter from Fred Will to Paul Engle, 1966?, Paul Engle Papers,  Box 22, UI Special Collections.

4) Here is a placeholder for thinking about different scales on which to write institutional histories--histories that would allocate different weight to the various factors determining the cultural climate of the moment, e.g. international cultural politics (e.g. the Cold War), the post-war surge of radical modernism (the international avant-garde), regional competitiveness (Iowa against New York), etc.