What Is the Word Session Abstracts & Presenter Bios

The “What is the Word: Celebrating Samuel Beckett” Colloqium will take place November 7 & 8, 2019 at Washington University Libraries. Full colloquium schedule and further details.

Session Abstracts

Thursday, November 7

1:00 (Room 142): “The Chinese Translation of Samuel Beckett: A Critical History:” Bo Cao, professor of English language and literature at the College of Foreign Studies, Hunan Normal University, Hunan Province, China  

The reception of Samuel Beckett in China has undergone a dramatic transition from “intentional misreading” to “purely aesthetic appreciation.” In the 1960’s he was introduced ironically as a “negative example.” During the three decades of political manipulation, very few of his works were translated owing to his profundity and the Chinese literary taste. The transition took place in the 1990’s as a result of the inward turn of the intellectual circle. The 2006 publication of the 5-volume Collection of Samuel Beckett translated from French marked the rise of Beckett in China, and the 2016 publication of the 22-volume Complete Works of Samuel Beckett witnessed the climax. The current “Work in Progress” is The Letters of Samuel Beckett being translated more for scholarship. For a nut as hard to crack as Beckett, research goes ahead of translation. And the history of the Chinese translation of Beckett is a mirror of the dramatic reception of other Western “non-progressive” authors in China.  

2:00 (Mendle Room): “Self – Translation – Poetry: A Roundtable Talk:” A conversation with the poets and translators Katja Perat, Xuela Zhang, Karlis Verdins and Matthias Göritz

In Beckett’s writing people hear voices, have visions – his plays and prose works have been hailed as the exploration of the human condition, where the line between memory and fiction is often blurred. The Language, in Beckettian sense, and even sometimes the Word is a labyrinth with no exit. Why then has his poetry so often been neglected?  

During this roundtable talk, four poets from the International Writers Track in Comparative Literature discuss Beckett’s poetry, its place in the field of experimentation and the neglect of subjecthood, and Beckett’s role as a self-translator. Three selected poems from Beckett’s oeuvre will be exclusively translated by all the participants into their mother tongues.  

3:00 (Mendle Room): “Beckett’s German Fever: A Journey Through Beckett’s Encounters in Germany:” Matthias Göritz, professor of practice of comparative literature at Washington University 

German Writer Matthias Göritz offers a hybrid text, sometimes a long poem, sometimes an essay, exploring Beckett’s long-lasting love affair with German literature and culture, his travels through Germany between 1928 to 1937, at first incented by a love affair with his cousin Peggy Sinclair, who lived in Kassel. Beckett immersed himself in the works of Goethe, whom he found too wordy, and Hölderlin, whose poems left many traces in Beckett’s plays, and translated satirical poet Ringelnatz 

Beckett spoke and wrote an idiosyncratic German, his self-translation of the poem Cascando is an example of what Raymond Federman called “no longer an approximation of the original but a continuation of the work” and the workings of the text. The hybrid form is meant as a comment on Beckett´s multilingual approach and will include some of Göritz’s recent translations of Beckett’s poems. 

5:00 (Room 142): “The French Language and Its Esthetic of Disembodiment in the Trilogy:” Nadia Louar, associate professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh 

In this talk, Louar reconsiders Beckett’s practice of self-translation as the hermeneutic paradigm for the study of an œuvre conjugated in several genres and situated at the crossroads between three national cultures, histories and traditions and two languages. Skirting the vexing issues of national filiations and literary affiliations in his works, Louar focuses on the pivotal role of the body in the novels to interpret the switch to French as both a linguistic and somatic ‘turn.’ 

Friday, November 8

1:00 (Room 142) “Decoding Citical Secrets in the Beckett Archive:” Christian Jacobs, French teacher and world languages chair at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis 

In this presentation, Jacobs highlights the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project, an international collaboration that creates “genetic” editions of Beckett’s works. He also draws attention to the unique factors that distinguish Beckett in the field of genetic criticism: his notebooks, typescripts and personal library were meticulously preserved and challenging to decipher; he served as author and self-translator; and he continues to be praised for a meticulous, “minimalist” style that was not easy to [de]construct. Throughout the talk, Jacobs will discuss how manuscript study and the nature of this work, especially in the context of Samuel Beckett, dramatically altered his personal and professional trajectory in life. 

 2:00 (Room 142): “‘Wild and unintelligible:’ Making Sense of Beckett’s ‘unreadable’ Watt:” Anna Teekell, assistant professor, Department of English, Christopher Newport University  

Written in “dribs and drabs, on the run” while Samuel Beckett was hiding from the Nazis as part of the French Resistance, Watt, his last English-language novel, bears the scars of its traumatic composition in its hysterically disordered language.  Stan Gontarski has called the resulting manuscript “the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it,” and the same might well be said of the published novel, a disarranged – or deranged – text that constitutes a trace of Beckett’s wartime experience.  This talk maps the history of the novel: composed in secret, seized by both UK customs and the Paris vice squad, finally published after eight years, and banned in Beckett’s native Ireland. The galley proofs of the novel are housed in the Olin Library.  In tracing the novel’s journey from wartime France to Washington University, this talk offers a way to read this famously “unreadable” book through the lens of the trauma its language encodes.

3:00 (Mendle Room): The Chinese Translation of a Samuel Beckett Letter: Bo Cao 

The Letters of Samuel Beckett is different from his published works of fiction: written impromptu for the purpose of personal communication, these letters show a real and changeable author rather than a unified persona. They contain many more puzzling word games, coinages, mis-spellings, fragmentary sentences, and languages other than English, and are followed by detailed scholastic notes through which the editors aim to “establish the context”.  

These features put up new and even greater challenges to the translator. Yet they may be faithfully and flexibly rendered if the Chinese translator is aware of the differences between Chinese as a paratactic language and English as a hypotactic one, and make a full use of Chinese homophones, homographs and sentence patterns. The translation may even be better if the translator can modify it culturally according to the historical context. The letter selected here is an interesting example. 

3:00 (Room 142): Rationale and Demonstration of the Location Register and Linked Data Project of The Letters of Samuel Beckett in Public Archives: A User’s Guide: Lois Overbeck

The Location Register of the Letters of Samuel Beckett in American Public Archives is an open-access website listing the archival descriptions and locations of the letters of Samuel Beckett. Users can browse the Location Register by recipient, physical description, sender and recipient addresses, language, repository, collection and previous publication.

The Linked Data Project of The Letters of Samuel Beckett  is the next phase of the project. It builds upon the Location Register’s record of the physical features of each letter, and indexes the content of each letter: persons, places, organizations, productions, publications, and Beckett’s writing, translating, directing, reading, attendance at events. The curated data will be enhanced with chronologies, profiles of major recipients, filmed interviews, finding aids, and visualizations to invite inquiry and new research.

4:00 (Mendle Room): Nohow On: Beckett in the Classroom: Erin Finneran 

Martin Esslin [’s introductory advice to new readers] underscores why many of Beckett’s works are rarely taught:  “[In the general remarks that precede his film script for Project I] […..] Beckett drops at least something like a hint as to the possible direction from which we might try to elicit a glimpse of an answer.”  

Embracing alienating literary devices and correcting a limiting reputation of existential darkness, this workshop explores ways to break down potential barriers to teaching Beckett’s life and work, so as to offer students a rich and transformative experience of his drama, fiction, poetry, and critical writing. 

4:00 (Ginkgo Room/Special Collections Reading Room) Connecting Contexts: Exhibit Viewing: Joel Minor and Kyle Young

Get a tour of the two Beckett exhibits in Olin library. “Connecting Contexts: the Modern Literature Collection and The Letters of Samuel Beckett” spotlights manuscript materials and published texts from the University Libraries’ Modern Literature Collection (MLC), one of the foremost Beckett repositories in the world. It connects these materials with information and excerpts from The Letters of Samuel Beckett, the first comprehensive edition of Beckett’s letters. “Connecting Contexts: Self-Translation” showcases from the manuscript and rare book collections Beckett’s work written in French and his English translations of them. Both exhibits are on view through December 2019.

5:00 (Room 142): “Archival Re-membering: The Letters of Samuel Beckett:Lois Overbeck, co-editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett and director of The Letters of Samuel Beckett Project at Emory University 

Archival research is recursive. We approach the treasure trove with expectations: that study of a series of manuscript drafts will lead us to a discovery, or at least, illumination of the text. Editing Samuel Beckett’s letters was no different. As we gathered collections of letters from archives and from recipients, as we met recipients as well as colleagues who had helped Beckett direct his plays, the “impossible heap” grew and grew.  Even as we consulted, transcribed, translated, and prepared Beckett’s letters for publication, every day or so brought new light on our subject: something we had not known or did not weigh with the importance that a new angle of vision insisted upon. 

During the more than thirty years of work toward the publication of a selected edition of Beckett’s letters, we were daily chastened by its scale and proportion. Along with the need to penetrate Beckett’s awful handwriting, came the need to ask questions in as many ways as necessary to find a pathway to the past. With all this positive-istic effort came the humbling counterpoint: the need to change our minds, to bend to re-examination when new information challenged what we thought we knew, to re-order sequence, to reassess context. Discovery was counterbalanced by the responsibility to get it as close to right as we could so that future scholarship could approach Beckett’s work with fresh eyes.  

The assumption that brings students and scholars to the archives is that something can be found, well-found, or even discovered. When we are a bit honest with ourselves, we slip back a notch and hope simply for “illumination” of the text. But then, again, it is “our illumination” of which we speak. Jack MacGowran said of acting in Beckett’s play Endgame: “Every night one plays this play, more and more emerges from it. From the time I became deeply acquainted with his work, it has given me an absolutely new sense of values.” 

Presenter Bios

Elizabeth Allen (PhD in Comparative Literature, Columbia U, 1995), is a teaching professor in French at Washington University. She has taught a variety of classes, from French grammar and literature to avant-garde culture and film. She believes Samuel Beckett to be the most moving, poetic, and darkly humorous writer of the Cold War.

Bo Cao is a professor of English language and literature at the College of Foreign Studies, Hunan Normal University, Hunan Province, China. He works there as director of Center for British and Irish Literature, and Secretary General of China British Literature Association. Since getting a Ph.D. degree in 2005 at Shanghai International Studies University, he has written on Irish and British authors and English-Chinese translation. Among his monographs is A Study of Samuel Beckett’s Novels of Failure (Beijing: Commercial Press, 2015). Among his translations are Beckett’s works Murphy, Watt, More Pricks Than Kicks and Disjecta in The Complete Collection of Samuel Beckett in Chinese (Changsha: Hunan Literature and Art Press, 2016). Presently he is working on the Chinese translation Vol. 1 of The Letters of Samuel Beckett. He’s staying at Emory University as a J1 scholar sponsored by China Scholarship Council.

Erin M. Finneran, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Irish and British literature at WashU and has taught Beckett’s works for over a decade in a variety of courses—themed, survey, and single-author. Her love of Beckett began at Kenyon College, took root while she was doing a master’s in Anglo-Irish literature and drama at University College Dublin, and flowered into her doctoral work on Beckett’s Murphy.

Matthias Göritz is the author of three novels, two novellas and three collections of poetry. He was awarded the Hamburg Literature Prize and the Mara Cassens Prize for his first novel The short Dream of Jakob Voss (2005). In 2006 his second collection of poetry, Pools, was published. Göritz received the grant of the state of Lower Saxonia for these poems. He was the Winner of the Warsaw Haiku contest 2008. In 2011 Göritz was awarded the Robert Gernhardt Prize, and in 2014, Göritz was the first recipient of the William Gass Award. Göritz is Prof. of Practice in the Comparative Literature Department at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has been widely translated, and he translated several English and American Poets into German, among them Samuel Beckett. In 2018 Mary Jo Bang received a Gulf Coast Translation Award for translating Göritz’s Colonies of Paradise.

Robert Henke is a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University, the author of several books on Renaissance theater and performance, and the director of the Washington University Prison Education Project. His a Acting credits include King Pelasgus in Aeschylus’ The Suppliants (UC Berkeley); Bernie in Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl (Actors Ensemble, Berkeley); Peter in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (Actors Ensemble, Berkeley); Richard in The Lion In Winter (Masquers Playhouse, Richmond, CA), Galen in Jim Leonard’s Gray’s Anatomy (Washington University), and Doctor Gratiano in Adriano Banchieri’s The Old Man’s Folly (Washington University). 

Christian Jacobs is a French teacher and the World Languages chair at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis. He is passionate about teaching French (novice to advanced) and an active promoter of Teaching with Comprehensible Input strategies in the world languages classroom. He completed his MA in French at Washington University in St. Louis in 2006. He continued into the doctoral program and focused on creating genetic editions of Le dépeupleur and Assez in accordance with the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscripts Project.

Nadia Louar is a professor of French and Francophone studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She specializes in Beckett studies, with an emphasis on translation studies and literary bilingualism, and on women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She is the author of Figure(s) du bilinguisme beckettien (2017), the guest editor of Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui special issue on bilingualism (2018.) She is currently working on Bilingual Beckett, an English version of her monograph, and on Black Men, White Gals: Sexual and Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Women’s Writing in France.

Joel Minor is the curator of the Modern Literature Collection and manuscripts at Washington University Libraries. In addition to curating the Connecting Contexts exhibit and coordinating the What Is the Word colloquium, he has curated exhibits and coordinated events on William H. Gass and James Merrill, two of the other authors in the Modern Literature Collection.

Lois More Overbeck is the director of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, \College Arts and Sciences, Emory University. She was managing editor of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Emory University (1990-2016) and has taught at  Emory University, Spelman College, Agnes Scott College, Georgia Tech University, Georgia State University, and Claremont McKenna College. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, a selected edition in four volumes, was published by Cambridge University Press (2009-2016); it received MLA Morton N. Cohen Award for a Distinguished edition of Letters (2012). She edited, with Breon Mitchell, Word and Image: Samuel Beckett and the Visual Text, a bilingual catalogue for exhibitions at Woodruff Library Emory University (1999), the Musée des Beaux-arts, Caen (sponsored by IMEC, 2002), and the Centre international  de poésie, Marseille (July 2002); it received an American Library Association Award. She edited, with Paul Jackson, Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, and has edited The Beckett Circle (1984-1989). She holds degrees from The University of Pennsylvania (PhD, English and History of Drama, 1979); The University of Chicago, Ford Fellow (MA, English, 1967); Beloit College, Porter Scholar, Newberry Library Fellow (BA English, 1966).

Educated at Trinity College Dublin and Washington University in St. Louis, Anna Teekell is an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where she teaches and studies twentieth-century British and Irish literature. Teekell’s first book, Emergency Writing: Irish Literature, Neutrality, and the Second World War  was published last year by Northwestern University Press, and she spent the autumn of 2018 as a visitor at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow. Teekell has published essays on the novels of Samuel Beckett, Kate O’Brien, and Elizabeth Bowen in Twentieth-Century Literature, the Irish University Review, Études-Irlandaises, and New Hibernia Review, and is currently co-editing, with Tina O’Toole, a special Elizabeth Bowen number of the Irish University Review (2021), as well as co-editing with Ellen Scheible a critical edition of John McGahern’s The Dark  for Syracuse University Press. She’s currently working on a new project, Border Bibliographies, that will consider the literature of the Irish border and the development of Northern Irish literary identity.