Days in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, are like living in an eternal spring and summer, and the people are as warm and sunny as the weather. Ancient shrines jostle for space alongside modern malls, and elderly locals practice tai chi in the parks while their grandchildren play around them. Nights are abuzz with motorbikes zipping past night market vendors and bubble tea shops, and some of their drivers pause their homebound commutes to say a brief prayer at one of the many colorful shrines in the city.

In the middle of it all is a small converted garage serving as a makeshift classroom. There’s about seven of us tonight, staring at a Word file projected onto a large screen, pondering how best to translate the words on it. Master Benkong, our teacher, starts to read the next line of the text, but is interrupted by the crashing sound of gongs and bells outside. There’s a festival this week honoring the patron spirit of a neighborhood temple, and people outside are parading around a statue depicting said spirit. Benkong smiles and jokes, “Oops, gotta pause for a sec – we’ve got God coming down the street now.”

Life can take us on many wonderful and fulfilling paths, if only we say “yes”. That’s how I, a white guy in a Protestant family from Queens, ended up connecting with a Chinese Buddhist translation group in Taiwan.

As a legal and medical translator, I work from Spanish and Japanese into English. Japanese language and cultural studies were my introduction to Buddhism, and embracing Buddhism was my bridge to a local Buddhist Meetup group here in New York, and the meetup group was how I met Master Benkong. Our Meetup group leader took us on a walking tour of temples in Chinatown on a cold winter day several years ago. At one of them, Grace Gratitude Temple on East Broadway, we were greeted and given a brief introduction to the temple by Benkong, who was its vice abbot. The temple was home to a couple dozen monks and nuns, mostly from Fujian province in China, but Benkong was a tall white man with a wry sense of humor to match his New Jersey accent. He had come to Taiwan fifty years ago to study Chinese in college (one of the first American students to do so), then  worked and translated for various NGOs around the world for many years, and eventually joined the monkhood in Taiwan later in life.

After he gave us a tour of the temple, Benkong mentioned that he was a translator before donning his monk’s robes, that he translated Buddhist texts with a group of friends and colleagues, and that we were welcome to join his group if we were interested. Intrigued, I immediately introduced myself to him, and passed him my business card. That was the start of a years-long collaboration and friendship. He and his team would translate a wide variety of Chinese Buddhist lectures and sutras and commentaries into English, send them out to the rest of us on their mailing list, and I would read through the translation and make suggestions and comments for the team. They are all native Chinese speakers who are practicing Buddhists and/or interested in learning English. Meanwhile, with my Japanese abilities I could sometimes read and understand bits and pieces of the original Chinese.

Those who are native English speakers and aren’t translators or language teachers may find it hard to appreciate just how difficult English is, what with its crazy spelling, grammatical complexities, and slang. So when I edited the team’s work I would do my best to explain things clearly and offer helpful suggestions so they could learn and improve upon their good work, even as I deepened my knowledge of Buddhist concepts by reading their translations. After two or three years of doing this editing, at Benkong’s suggestion (“three years of indoctrination”, as he jokingly calls it) I decided to formally study Chinese through a combination of in-person and remote classes and self-study using textbooks, podcasts and videos. I’m now studying to eventually take the HSK qualification exam and add Chinese as a working language pair.

This has culminated in two long-term visits to Taiwan, where I got the chance to meet his translation team in person and get to know them, explore their charming home city of Tainan with them, and actually put my budding Chinese skills to use in daily travel throughout the rest of the country. I still have a ways to go before achieving fluency and the ability to translate proficiently, but the more I learn, the better and more useful my editing collaboration becomes for the team. Besides sessions with his team in Tainan City, Benkong also leads discussion groups about their translated texts with friends of his in New York and Taiwan via Skype, connecting us with the Buddha Dharma over time zones and space. Here too, we can all offer our own translation suggestions to each other in English and Chinese on the spot, as we ponder the ideas in the materials we study.

There’s a saying in Chinese: 教学相长 (jiào xué xiāng zhǎng), which means “when you teach someone, both teacher and student will benefit”. I’ve been helped by many people and had many teachers in my life and career, and I enjoy taking chances to give back to others and mentor up-and-coming translators, whether it’s through Master Benkong’s Buddha Dharma translation team or NYCT’s or the ATA’s Mentorship Program. No one is an island onto themselves, so saying “yes” to such opportunities lets us all learn from each other, make connections we never expected before – such an important thing in a world of increasing tension and strife.



On December 17, 2020, the Circle celebrated its annual holiday get together which this year was held virtually. Hosted by Serene Su, Program Director, the event gathered together about 35 members of the Circle. Despite the limitations of the online format, the event was extremely enjoyable and collegial.

The event began with the announcement of the results of the recently held elections.  Milena Savova, our current president, was reelected and will continue to serve for an additional two years. Milena mentioned how much she has enjoyed working with the current board members Matt Goldstein, Sepideh Moussavi and Natalia Postrigan as well as yours truly, the Gotham Translator editor. Milena also acknowledged with thanks the major contribution made by outgoing vice president Kate Deimling,  one of the most proactive and successful VP’s in the history of the Circle.

Marcel Votlucka, the newly elected Vice President, then gave the members an overview of his very strong and diversified background which includes working as a project manager for LSP’s for 10 years before transitioning to full time translator. Marcel translates from both Japanese and Spanish into English and soon hopes to add Chinese as a third working language pairing. He is a past participant in the Circle’s mentoring program which was spearheaded by Kate Deimling. Marcel looks forward to developing new initiatives in 2021.

Milena announced that 2021 will see the introduction of the Circle’s re-designed website which is about one to two months away. The new website will include an integrated payment function, something that the current website lacks. In 2021 the Circle will move to a calendar year membership formula which will begin on January 1, 2021. The new website will have the membership renewal functionality built into it.

Serene then led a very enjoyable networking event which gave the attendees the opportunity to introduce themselves to the group.  Serene suggested that the members give the attendees clues about their language pairings or their cultural backgrounds as a means of introduction. Some of the members did provide clues but others found different ways of introducing themselves, such as Maria Teresa Acosta Jacobs who sang a beautiful Venezuelan song while playing a traditional Venezuelan instrument.

The general introductory session was followed by three breakout sessions led by Milena, Marcel and Serene. The breakout sessions provided the members with the opportunity to get to know each other better and to share the challenges and achievements of  2020. It was very encouraging to hear that the general consensus was that our members continued to work and develop their careers in 2020 and that they maintain a generally positive outlook about the future.

Serene is to be congratulated on her mastery of the webex funtionalities which enabled her to provide our members with such an enjoyable and upbeat start to 2021.



The Center for Fiction is a not for profit organization founded in 1820 that is devoted to celebrating the art of fiction. The Center recently announced a monthly series of Literary Translation Clinics for literary translators of all experience levels and others who are interested in translated works. The clinics are being held on the third Thursday of each month at 7pm and are co-sponsored by Cedilla & Co., a translator collective which provides literary translations and market intelligence in support of literary works from around the globe.

The first online clinic was held on January 21, 2021 and featured Thierry Kehou, writing programs manager at the Center. Mr. Kehou is a writer and translator with roots in Cameroon, the US and France. A lifelong reader of translated works, he taught in the New York City public school system where he realized the importance of giving the City’s diverse student body access to books which reflect their own lives and experiences. His other teaching experience includes teaching high school in Cameroon and teaching English in France as a Fulbright scholar.  The moderator of the event was Allison Markin Powell, a member of Cedilla and the 2020 recipient of the PEN America Translation Prize for The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami.

The event took the form of a question and answer session. The first question directed to Mr. Kehou was about how he got started in literary translation. He explained that one day when he was leaving the Cameroonian school where he was teaching,  he happened to stop at a vendor’s stall that sold school supplies outside the school. There he came upon a first edition copy of the Cameroonian writer and acclaimed composer Francis Bebey’s short novel Trois petit cireurs (translated in English as Three Little Shoeshiners). He immediately fell in love with the book and was inspired to start translating it into English. Fortuitously, several years later he was introduced to Mr. Bebey’s daughter and learned that the family owned the translation rights to the book. He is currently seeking a publisher for the eventual publication of his translation.

When asked about the relationship between translation and the writer’s craft, Mr. Kehou mentioned that translating has slowed down his own approach to writing fiction. It has helped him to recognize the benefit of taking more time with word choices and other editing requirements. He believes that by doing translations writers can see the process of writing more clearly and may better understand how a writer builds a story.

Mr. Kehou’s advice to budding literary translators includes the following:

-find a text that you love and just start translating it, although it is preferable to find out whether the translation rights for the work are available before devoting a lot of time to a project.

-consider starting small with a short story or poem and submitting your work to magazines and journals specializing in translated works.

-college students can seek out professors who translate and try to do an independent study with them.

-attend translation-related events such as the Center’s upcoming April 20th panel on Izumi Suzuki and the widening body of Japanese-to-English translations (see Center for website for registration information).

-check out organizations such as the British Center for Literary Translation and ALTA which can be of  great help to new literary translators.

-keep in mind that fluency in the source language is not a requirement for literary translation and a lack of fluency should not deter native English speakers from pursuing this discipline.

Based on the enthusiasm of the online attendees, the future of literary translation looks bright.   Members of the Circle may want to check out the Center’s next three literary clinics which are scheduled for February 18, March 18 and April 15th. The Center’s Brooklyn headquarters also houses an independent bookstore and an extensive library with many translated works. Other Center offerings include author panels, lectures and conversations on the craft of writing, reading groups, and grants and workshops to support emerging writers.



Letter From The Editor

Greetings, fellow translators and interpreters. I hope everyone is staying healthy in this difficult environment.

I also hope you will enjoy the new edition of the Gotham which begins with a profile of our President, Milena Savova. I think you will agree that her multi-faceted translation career is impressive.

To celebrate Women in Translation month (August), I am also including a write up of an online bi-lingual reading sponsored by PEN AMERICA which occurred on August 27, 2020. This event featured readings by authors and translators from around the globe in five different languages. I found it to be a unique and inspiring evening.

Finally, for all of us, but particularly for those who could not attend the Circle’s September 21st online meeting, I am including a write up of Professor Graham Neubig’s highly informative presentation on machine translation.

As the year draws to a close, please keep the Circle in mind for any articles that you might have written on industry issues or on your own personal experiences. We always look forward to receiving submissions from our members for eventual publication in the Gotham.

With best wishes,

Patricia Stumpp, Editor








Meet Our President: Milena V. Savova


Milena V Savova

A native of Bulgaria, Milena brings a wealth of language experience to the Circle. Interested in languages from childhood, she learned French at home, studied English, Russian and German in high school and went on to study English philology at Sofia University. After graduation, Milena became a graduate assistant in the English Department at the University. She then progressed to a full time faculty position in translation studies and earned a PhD with her dissertation on Translation Theory.

She got her start in professional translation and interpretation when she applied for a job at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linguists were needed to assist in diplomatic contacts with other nations. During one assignment with a Danish cultural delegation, she began asking questions about the Danish language, which so impressed the Danish representatives that they invited her to attend a one month course in Danish language and culture in Copenhagen. She participated in this course every year for four years and then was awarded a one-year scholarship to study in Copenhagen, an experience that she remembers fondly.

In 1987 she was awarded a Fulbright to study linguistics at Berkeley. Various U.S. academic posts soon came to her. After working as adjunct faculty in the English Department at City University in New York, specializing in ESL, she answered an ad for a position as head of the Foreign Languages and Translation Department of N.Y.U.’s School of Professional Studies. The position was particularly attractive to her since it encompassed her three main areas of interest: translation, foreign languages and administration. She spent 19 years at N.Y.U. in that capacity.

In 2015, always interested in the culture of the Far East, Milena attended a translation conference in Qatar. This led to a two year position in the Translation and Interpretation Institute in Qatar which began in 2016.  As Director of the Language Center there, she modernized the curriculum and developed a professional development workshop for language instructors.

Milena is currently an adjunct faculty member in Hunter College’s new translation and interpretation Master’s program where she is teaching a course in Theory of Translation, a subject that is near and dear to her. She also maintains a busy Bulgarian translation practice.

Milena’s two year term as President will end in January 2021. During her tenure as President,   she has greatly enjoyed working with the other Board Members and is proud of the work they are doing. Milena was instrumental in organizing the highly successful fortieth anniversary celebration of the Circle’s founding and is currently hard at work together with the other Board Members on the redesign of the Circle’s website.

Thank you, Milena, for your service to the Circle. Your translation journey is truly inspiring to all of us in the profession.

By: Patricia Stumpp




Bilingual Reading to Celebrate Women in Translation Month

On August 27, 2020, PEN AMERICA sponsored an online reading by five authors and translators to celebrate Women in Translation Month. The event featured works in Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Sinhalese and Turkish.   After the author’s readings, English translations were read by the translators. The event was moderated by the poet, translator and editor Nancy Naomi Carlson.

The first author/translator reading was by the Hungarian poet Zita Izso whose works have been translated by Agnes Marton. Zita is the recipient of numerous awards and grants for her poetry. Agnes is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in the UK, is the reviews editor of the Ofi Press and the author of the recent collection Captain Fly’s Bucket List. The first poem, “Like Mouthbrooders,” is a devastating account of an attack on two sisters by soldiers of an unnamed army. As the elder sister is dragged outside from their hiding place and the soldiers force snow into the older sister’s mouth to mute her screams, the narrator recalls the taste of snow on her tongue when the two girls played in the snow as children. She thinks that God must be carrying her not in his palm as her mother used to say, but in his mouth since she cannot hear his voice, just as her own voice is silenced. The second poem, New Hope, is a brief elegy on the death of a beloved child.

The second pairing was that of Italian poet Mariangela Gualtieri and her translator Olivia E. Sears. Mariangela has published over a dozen plays and collections of poetry, among which is the bestselling book Bestie di Gioia. Olivia, whose translations of Mariangela’s poems have appeared in various publications, is also the founder of the Center for the Art of Translation and serves on the editorial board of Two Lines Press. Olivia read three untitled poems from “Beasts of Joy.” The first expressed the poets’ bond with the suffering of the animals of the world while yet acknowledging the moments of joy and lightness that still exist in the natural world. In the second poem, the poet used the metaphor of a goat to evoke the idea of sleeplessness while acknowledging that there is still happiness and light to be found in the darkness. The third was a beautiful evocation of a comet falling to earth from a distant star, bringing water, the source of all life, to the planet.

Natalia Rubanova and Rachael Daum then read from Natalia’s play which is tentatively entitled “Awesome” in English. Natalia’s plays have been performed in Russian and also in London, where she won the Best New Writing prize at the SOLO International Festival. Rachael translates from Serbian, Russian and German. She holds an MA from Indiana University and is the communications and awards manager for ALTA.  “Awesome” is an epistolary work told in the voice of a nameless young man who, like Goethe’s Werther, searches unsuccessfully for romantic love and ultimately destroys himself in the process. In the excerpt that was read, the narrator ruminates on some of his romantic encounters with women. The Russian text evokes the theme of the superfluous man prevalent in Russian literature going back to Pushkin while in the English translation there are echoes of the current incel and red pill movements.

The next paired reading was by the Sri Landan poet Thilini N. Liyanaarachchi and her translator Chamini Kulathunga. The first poem, “To be a Queen is a Sin” ponders the story of the sole female ruler in Sri Lankan history, Queen Annula of Anuradhapura. History portrays her as an “erotic being” who reputedly poisoned every man she married. At the same time, history ignores the fate of the many concubines of the kings of old. The poet wishes she could speak to the queen because only she knows what truly happened. The second poem, “Shall We Ask Time to Stop,” is a gentle musing on the poet’s aging mother and the poet’s desire to stop time and remain nestled in her mother’s arms. Also read was the brief and startlingly evocative poem “Inebriated Love,” which compares love to inebriation from substances like smoke and alcohol, a domain that is traditionally out of bounds for South Asian women.

The last reading was from the Turkish writer in exile Nazli Karabiyikoğlu and translator Ralph Hubbell. Nazli is currently a full-time resident of Georgia and is the winner of the Writers-in-Exile Scholarship awarded by PEN Germany for 2021-2022. Ralph Hubbell’s fiction, essays and translations have appeared in numerous publications. He is currently working on a translation of Oğuz Atay’s short stories. Nazli and Ralph read from a yet unpublished novel which describes the experience of a gay woman who has not yet come out but whose family suspects the nature of her sexual orientation. The family brings her to an exorcist with the goal of cleansing her of the “demon” living inside of her. The reading is a harrowing account of the physical and emotional stress to which the woman is subjected at the end of which the exorcist proclaims that she should be “OK” now.

I found this event remarkable in the breadth and intensity of the ideas and emotions expressed. To hear five such diverse and intriguing voices from all around the globe was truly an inspiring experience.

By: Patricia Stumpp


NYCT’s Machine Translation Meeting of September 21, 2020

On Monday September 21, 2020, the Circle presented an online seminar entitled “Artificial Intelligence, Machine Translation and Future Linguists Like You.” The presenter was Professor Graham Neubig from the Carnegie Mellon Language Technologies Institute.

Professor Neubig’s background is quite diverse in that it includes both computer science expertise and experience in interpretation and translation. Fascinated with computers from an early age, he had the opportunity as an adult to live in Japan as a professor in the Agricultural College at Kyoto University. During his tenure at the university he not only taught but also was called upon to act as interpreter/translator for various visiting delegations from other countries who came to tour the college.

In this fascinating presentation, Professor Neubig gave us an overview of machine translation, its technological underpinnings and its strengths and weaknesses. His first example was of a fairly successful machine translation from Japanese into English in which the machine was able to correctly identify the two personal pronouns used in the sentences (he vs. she) based on its ability to correctly associate the proper names in the sentences (Tanaka and Taro) with the appropriate gender.

A second less successful machine translation involved the translation of the Japanese word ko-do that has three meanings: cord, code and chord. In the English translation, the machine used the wrong word (code instead of chord) in a sentence related to music and the wrong word (chord instead of code) in a sentence which involved computer programming.

The professor then outlined the four most common methods of translation, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses. They are:

-Rule-based method: based on linguistic analysis, syntax transformation and word replacement. Limited by the number of linguists available to provide the necessary linguistic inputs in every language.

-Translation memory method: looks up the most similar sentence in the database but cannot generalize to new sentences.

-Phrase-based translation: looks up small chunks of a sentence and combines the chunks into full sentences. May result in sentences that lack fluidity and contain mistakes in syntax.

-Neural machine translation: feeds inputs into a probability model that predicts the next word. Better at syntax and fluency but can also make major errors.

It is important to note that all four methods are data driven.  For widely diffused languages such as French and German, billions of sentences are available to pass through the machine translation process while lesser diffused languages have access to significantly less data. The disparity in available data may affect the quality of the resulting translations.

This led to a discussion of Artificial Intelligence which the professor defined as “the technology that does something that seems intelligent.”  He also defined Machine Learning as “technology that learns from data to do something that cannot be done easily otherwise.” With the use of graphs, the Professor described the basics of neural machine translation as a sequence of mathematical operations capable of predicting each word in a sentence based on the probability of its use in a particular context.

In conclusion, Professor Neubig summarized what machine translation can and cannot do at the present time. Machines are good at capturing associations between words but not so good in cases where more than one step of reasoning is required. He believes that machine translation is good and will get better. However, it is not perfect, particularly in situations where little data exists, where non-literal translation is involved and where there are cultural implications which ideally would influence the choice of a particular word in a given sentence. In other words, machines are good at memory and speed  but not as good as humans at reasoning. In the future, high quality translation may result from a combination of both human and machine translation.

The Gotham would like to thank Professor Neubig for this thought-provoking presentation. Thanks go also to Serene Su, Program Manager, for organizing this fine event.

By: Patricia Stumpp



[Unknown A1]Would be better to add “…so the overall translation quality of the latter is lower than that of the former…” or similar at the end of this sentence.


[Unknown A2]Would be better if we add “at this moment” at the end of the sentence.


[Unknown A3]“Speech” should be “speed”.