MFA in Literary Translation

For more than forty years literary translation has been an integral part of both curriculum and conversation about writing at the University of Iowa. Emerging from the idea that translation is much more than a matter of carrying a work from one language to another like so much coal in a tram, the translation MFA program, known popularly as the "Translation Workshop," encourages students to explore not only the form and content of works, but the context—literary, cultural, historical—from which original works arise. Translators in the program focus on creating works that convey both the timelessness of the original and the immediacy of contemporary language and literature. In the Translation Workshop and in a variety of translation-based seminars, students also examine ideas of literariness, cultural history, cultural politics, and authority as they relate to the relationship between authors and texts, authors and translators, translations and readers, and the media landscapes in which they circulate.

In addition to the comparatists with whom it most immediately shares its faculty and its curriculum, the translation program enjoys the distinction of a close relationship with the International Writing Program, which brings dozens of writers to Iowa City for a three-month fall residency, and with the other MFA writing programs at the University of Iowa (in fiction, poetry, playwriting, and non-fiction). Students in the program are able to collaborate on projects with colleagues in a variety of genres and disciplines as well as with visiting writers from around the world.

Students in the Translation MFA Program publish eXchanges, a journal of literary translation. A vibrant source of international writing in translation, the journal provides hands-on editing and on-line publishing experience, as well as an occasional venue for their works. The program also regularly hosts and co-hosts conferences, invites speakers from around the world for readings and short-term residences, and is a constituent unit of the Virtual Writing University.

Graduates of the program have gone on to work in the world of professional publishing, as free-lance translators, or have continued on to Ph.D. programs in related disciplines. In recent years their works have been published by Graywolf, Seven Stories, Autumn Hill Books, Melville House, Words Without Borders, The Iowa Review, 91st Meridian, TWO LINES, Circumference, The Literary Review, Passport, Absinthe, and many others.


Application to the MFA is judged mainly on the basis of a submitted portfolio of writing. Besides translations (including source texts) and original writing in English, critical or literary, the portfolio must also contain a statement of purpose and three letters of recommendation. The applicant should provide evidence of advanced competence in the foreign language (normally three years or its equivalent of college level work), and substantial preparation in English literature. A further consideration is the availability of faculty able to work with the student in the source language and culture.

Applicants whose portfolios are meager or inconclusive may be counseled into the MA program where they may take Translation Workshop and even do a translation thesis, as they build a better portfolio.

The MFA degree will not necessarily depend on the prior completion of an MA. Nor would a candidate be prevented from deciding on an MA after the MFA. Note, however, that the MFA is always 48 hours (24 at Iowa minimum), while any MA-MFA combination needs 60 hours.

Supplemental information form

The Advisory Committee

Every accepted candidate immediately takes on an advisory committee of at least two members. One of these is from translation; the other, representing the candidate's foreign literature, also comes from Comparative Literature. If no member of the Comparative Literature faculty is competent in the language area or period of interest, a third member is appointed to represent the necessary expertise. In any case the committee must expand to three members when the candidate submits his or her thesis proposal.

Program of Studies

The MFA degree comprises 48 s.h. and is typically completed in two to three years. The center of the MFA is the Translation Workshop, and every candidate must take a minimum of 16 hours of this.

While attention to translation criticism and theory is an integral part of the Workshop's procedures, MFA candidates are expected, in addition, to familiarize themselves with the history of translation in the Western tradition. This is normally accomplished through guided reading (Individual Study), or by taking available course work in the history and theory of translation, for a total of 3-6 s.h.

An additional 23-26 hours are taken from courses decided upon by the candidate and the committee, with an eye toward fashioning a coherent plan of study that corresponds to the student's interests and skills. Content areas include but are not limited to the following:

  • Foreign Literature(s) and Culture
  • Creative Writing
  • Criticism and Theory
  • Book Arts and Intermedia
  • Publishing and Professional Editing

Finally, students typically work with their advisor on their thesis project for the final 3-6 s.h.

Thesis and Examination

The thesis is a translation of a collection of poems, literary essays, or short stories, a short novel, or a drama, with an introduction that sets the work in context. The introduction, in addition to discussing problems of translation, should present a rationale for the strategies and techniques adopted, its point of departure being an analysis of the structure and style of the source text. An oral defense of the thesis examines in detail both the candidate's translation and the introductory essay.