The following post by Alex Niemi is the first in a series entitled “Origin Stories.”  Alex is our associate editor.


My mother’s good friend Bonny once told me that I became interested in languages when I heard her blithely chatting in Mandarin at Hunan Spring with Uncle Peter.  This was a favorite restaurant with a killer crab special and Uncle Peter was always smilingly generous with shots of whiskey.  Bonny informed me that up until knowing her, I had only been interested in video games, which, given the hours I spent playing Zelda as a child, could be entirely true.  I’ve slowly started telling this story myself and over years of doing so, it is the only genesis story I remember and hence the one I’m telling here.  But I loved languages early.  I read my high school French textbook out loud in my room (we sadly didn’t offer Mandarin).  I argued with my counselor to let me take more languages instead of computer tech.

While studying Romance languages in college, I somehow cultivated a desperate desire to become an Early Modernist.  I studied travelogues from the sixteenth century.  I’m not really sure why the sixteenth century, other than the fact that my advisor was a very kind man who loved Montaigne and something about spending a lot of time in archives seemed sort of dreamy.  I was distressed to notice, however, that spending a lot of time in archives and rewriting the politics of Jean de Léry made me unexpectedly sad.  I didn’t think Jean de Léry would appreciate my views on the body and empire.  I felt a little like I was being rude, telling my two readers what his descriptions of cannibalism really meant.  I still loved French, though, and abandoned my archival work for a seminar on translation.

At this point my language wanderlust had also gotten me tangled in Russian because I was dating a guy who told me that Russian poetry was, in no uncertain terms, the best poetry and that my poor Anglophone brain would never get it (I know that sounds like an irrational reason to learn a language, but I don’t think any of us got here through our staunch utilitarianism).  So I tried very presumptuously to translate Pushkin for my first ever workshop.  This professor was also kind and encouraging, telling me to try my hand at some simpler texts and maybe, if I had the drive, apply to a master’s in translation.  And I did. There I was, having been told to do many things, deciding myself to abandon many others, toting strange language books around in my bag in Iowa on days when the weather depressed me, but mostly overjoyed.  Translation is such a love thing.

But now that I’ve shared my origin story, we at M-Dash would like to know, how did you wander into translation?         

Alex Niemi, Iowa City, IA



“Origin Stories” is a series on M-Blog about how people find translation as a hobby, love, or vocation.  If you would like to contribute an “Origin Story” to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.