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English Professor Wins Prestigious Humanities Grant to Study Melville Translation

Life in Paris in 1940 was anything but normal. The German army had just marched into the city and would proceed to occupy it for four years.

And yet, one aspect of life did continue relatively unabated: The translation of the works of the deceased American author Herman Melville. Melville, who is best known for penning the classic tome Moby-Dick, had been a commercial flop during his life, but he experienced a posthumous comeback in France in the 1940s.

Next summer, Jordan Alexander Stein, Ph.D., will try to find out why.

“Translating Melville isn’t the most obvious thing for people to be doing when the Nazis are occupying France. I’m just trying to figure out what people were up to and why this seemed like it was worthwhile,” said Stein, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature.

Stein just received a National Endowment of Humanities grant for his project Pequod on the Seine: Translating Melville in War and Peace. He’ll use the grant to travel to Paris; Tallahassee, Florida; and New Haven, Connecticut to research the subject. Originally scheduled to take place this summer, his trip has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan is to examine the personal papers of people such as Pierre Leyris, who translated Melville’s Pierre: Or the Ambiguities, and Jean Giono, who was part of a team that translated Moby-Dick. Although much has been written about how Melville experienced a revival some three decades after his 1891 death, Stein noted that it has only been written about from an American perspective. Why French citizens were enamored with his writing during such a stressful time is less clear.

“Part of why Melville was a commercial failure in his life and a critical success in our time has to do with the fact that he was somebody who told hard truths. That’s not usually the best recipe for commercial success, but in retrospect, he’s somebody who understood something about the culture of the United States that now are seen as really keen insights,” he said.

Stein, whose recently published When Novels Were Books (Harvard University Press, 2020) explored how the novel genre came to be, said that when compared to its peers, Melville’s story about the hunt for a great white whale still retains its mystique almost 150 years after it was first published.

“In Moby-Dick, there are all kinds of questions about what kind of morality should be governing our actions,” he said.

“To pursue the white whale is to pursue certain death, and is it worth doing? Is Ahab somebody who just goes for it, or is he somebody who endangers his crew? The answer is kind of both, and the novel is very interested in that kind of dilemma.”


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