In Fall 2019, MLL’s German Studies Program welcomed a new faculty member, Dr. Robin Ellis. We asked her a few questions about being a Professor of German Studies at W&M:
1. How did you become interested in German?
I don’t have German heritage, but I do have a family connection to Germany: my mother lived in West Germany for many years, and I was born in West Berlin. We lived there until I was three, when we moved to California. English is my native language, but I learned some German from family friends, neighbors, and daycare. In the U.S., I promptly forgot everything I’d learned, so my mother enrolled me in Saturday morning German school. At the time, I did not think this was so great, but I begrudgingly attended until I could switch to German classes at my high school. In college I started taking German literature and film classes, and two study abroad years in Berlin (one my junior year and one right after college) sealed the deal. That’s when I became interested in literature by Turkish-German writers such as Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoğlu.
2. What is the focus of your research?
Today my research still involves migration and the negotiation of various borders, but I approach these issues through the lens of translation. My book project deals with fictional interpreters in literature, film, and theater, and it examines interpreting as an embodied act of translation. I’m interested in the tensions and possibilities that arise when a human individual is employed as a supposedly neutral medium of communication. For example, when two people communicate through an interpreter, they have to trust that the interpreter will relay their messages accurately and won’t intervene due to a secret allegiance or other ulterior motive. Fiction provides the opportunity to explore anxieties about potential betrayal, as well as a way to imagine alternative forms of linguistic encounter and exchange.
3. Have you ever worked as a translator or interpreter yourself?
I’ve only dabbled in literary translation, although I’d like to do more in the future. As for interpreting, not at all! Part of my fascination with interpreting comes from how unbelievably complex a process it is—interpreters must be skilled linguists and virtuosic performers. I am frankly in awe of both their amazing cognitive powers and their ability to perform under intense pressure!
4. What kind of classes do you like to teach best?
I enjoy teaching a variety of classes at different levels: Research seminars offer a great opportunity to think deeply about a particular topic, but I also love the fun and excitement of working with students in the earlier stages of language learning. In its best moments, foreign language learning opens up new perspectives not only on the new language and culture, but also on your own native language and culture, too. As for particular class sessions, some of my favorites involve teaching poems. Poems prompt us to concentrate intensively on what language can do, while thinking collaboratively and building on each other’s insights. Each person brings a unique background to their reading and will see different things in a poem. You never know whose question about a particular word or line will open up a whole new perspective.
5. How would you describe your approach to German Studies?
Two things especially important to me are 1) attention to linguistic specificity and 2) a commitment to diversity, anti-racism, and decoloniality. First, it’s important to recognize that what we call things matters, and that language shapes our realities in powerful ways. There’s a difference, for example, between “overcoming” (bewältigen) the National Socialist past and “working through” it (aufarbeiten).
Second, it’s crucial that scholars and instructors in German Studies continue to diversify our field and the voices that we amplify. As we move beyond ethno-national models of what counts as “German,” we also highlight transnational connections and questions of global relevance, such as the legacies of European colonialism. In my class on “Minorities in Germany,” for example, we examined connections between German colonialism and National Socialism, as well as anthropological models of European superiority and constructions of Germanness as whiteness—two ideas rooted in the colonial period that continue to resonate into the present.
6. What’s your favorite part of campus?
I still have some exploring to do, but so far, my favorite discovery has been the bird-watching armchairs at the back of Swem’s first floor. When I sat down in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, I was delighted to find binoculars and bird guidebooks there. What a great space to take a break!