Translating Diversity

Radcliffe Institute Fellow and Harvard Students at the Intersection of Languages and Culture
Ashford King '15, Ben Miller RI '15, and Nan Baker. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerAshford King '15, Ben Miller RI '15, and Nan Baker. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
@ The Radcliffe Institute
January 22, 2015
By Karla Strobel

French. Spanish. Japanese. Mandarin. Romanian. These are among the 142 languages that the Harvard student Ashford King ’15 is working with as he helps locate translations of the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. The massive translation hunt is part of a project that King, a romance languages concentrator, is undertaking in his senior year at Harvard. He is working on a project called MuralSpeaks! with the writer and Radcliffe Institute fellow Ben Miller through the Radcliffe Research Partnership program.

“When I came to college, I realized there are a lot of misperceptions about where one is from, and I saw how important it is to spread the message of cultural diversity,” says King, who brings a little of his Kentucky upbringing to campus with his country band, The Cantab Cowboys.

“I’m interested in the preservation of multilingualism in the United States,” King added. That shared fascination and the Radcliffe Institute connected him with Miller.

Miller works in many genres, including an ongoing collaboration with the painter Dale Williams. His nonfiction often studies the urban Midwest of his childhood. At the Institute, he is completing a draft of a manuscript that extends the exploration he began in his first book, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, 2013). This writing portrays life during the 1970s and 1980s in five hilly cities clustered along the Mississippi River.

Miller offers a sneak peak of his work-in-progress in the following excerpts, from his essays “Cinema B.C.” and “El Rancho Villa.”


But Miller’s work transcends his unconventional urban Midwestern background. He undertook an additional project this year as a Radcliffe Institute fellow to help connect readers to today’s Midwest. In downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a mural celebrates the diversity of the city, where more than 140 languages are spoken. Miller says the mural “represents a collaboration across generations and borders.” He conceived of a public art project in which residents will recite the same poem in each of the many languages that reflect the diversity of Sioux Falls.

“In terms of the MuralSpeaks! project, I would never have taken on anything like this, given its complexity, if I didn’t have the support of strong research partners like Eliza and Ashford,” said Miller.

Ashford King '15 at a recent planning meeting. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerAshford King '15 at a recent planning meeting. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer“I was immediately drawn to the project,” said King, who partnered in 2013 with the musicologist Anna Zayaruznaya, the Suzanne Young Murray Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. When applying for Radcliffe research opportunities for the current year, King knew the project with Miller would be a perfect fit.

Working together at the Radcliffe Institute, Miller, Ashford, and Eliza Pan ’15 are orchestrating the translation of the poem across the more than 140 languages spoken in Sioux Falls. They hope that, in May 2016, citizens from many different countries will stand in front of the Meldrum Park mural created in 2013 by the renowned artist Dave Loewenstein and read “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends 

a red wheel 

glazed with rain 

beside the white 

Radcliffe’s own multidisciplinary and multilingual community has proved valuable to the team: the Harvard musicologist Alexander Rehding helped with the German translation, the biologist Itai Yanai translated the poem into Hebrew, and the historian Tyrell Haberkorn added a Thai translation to the mix. A number of other fellows and staff are tinkering with translations in Finnish, Hungarian, Mayan, and Spanish.

Ben Miller RI '15 and Nan Baker discuss the Sioux Falls mural reading project. Photo by Kevin GradyBen Miller RI '15 and Nan Baker discuss the Sioux Falls mural reading project. Photo by Kevin Grady

The success of the project requires close collaboration with the Sioux Falls Arts Council and community. The power of the mural reading project is that it can “change how we think—or don’t think—about diversity in the Midwest,” said Nan Baker, who served on the Sioux Falls Arts Council.

Readers can keep pace with the project’s progress by visiting

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