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Interview: UW Librarian Michael Biggins

July 21, 2021

University of Washington librarian Michael Biggins wears many hats. In addition to fulfilling his role since 1994 as UW’s Slavic, Baltic and East European studies librarian, Biggins is also a language professor at UW, a renowned Slovene literary translator, the current president of the international Society for Slovene Studies, and the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Slovenia for Washington State. In January 2021 he became the first non-Slovene to receive the Primož Trubar Award, which recognizes major contributions to the preservation and advancement of Slovenia’s written heritage.

Earlier this spring I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Biggins to learn more about his work. Read on for our fascinating conversation.

Susanna Haley (SH): Primarily today I wanted to talk about your work, both as a Slavic librarian and the projects you’re working on. How did you get involved in this field?

Michael Biggins visiting the University of Ljubljana. Photograph (c) 2015 by Miran Hladnik.

Michael Biggins (MB): Well, I am at heart a Slavic, Baltic and East European studies generalist (let’s call it Slavic studies, for short), and I appear to have an inexhaustible fascination for the languages, cultures, histories and societies of that part of the world – all of them. In my graduate career I studied both linguistics and literature, but was faced with having to choose one or the other for my PhD and opted for Slavic linguistics.  My subsequent jobs teaching college Russian required me to retool as a literature specialist, which I came to appreciate as a more open-ended, extensible and personally rewarding epistemology, both for myself and for students. Refocusing on literature and finding a productive niche in it that ties into my primary job as a librarian here at UW has probably been the single most gratifying thing about my whole career.

In the library, I’m one of about eight librarians whose primary, full-time assignment is to curate collections of published materials from and about a particular region of the world to support faculty and students in the Jackson School’s programs, in UW’s departments of languages and literatures, history, anthropology, political science and just about any other discipline where a researcher or student might need or want to develop expert disciplinary knowledge about that part of the world.  For Slavic, Baltic and East European studies I’m responsible for collections from a region that accounts for roughly 20% of the earth’s land surface. What first time visitors to the library or to UW tend not to know is that our Slavic studies collection numbers about half a million bound volumes, plus a vast number of unique items in other formats – microfilm, sheet music, periodicals, posters, photographic collections, manuscripts – everything that would constitute recorded knowledge. As an international studies librarian, you are responsible for most aspects of what comes in the door from and about your world region: what subjects, publishers or authors to prioritize, how to get the material.  A surprising number of countries do not have efficiently functioning conduits for delivering published materials from there to here, so in many cases you have to explore, experiment with, sometimes even cultivate or invent your own conduit from whatever part of the world to Seattle. That can be a challenging, but also exciting part of the job, and very rewarding when it succeeds.

SH: Tell me about your translation work. Is that something you do on the side, or as part of your official duties?

MB: It’s something I do mostly on the side.  Appointments as a UW librarian require librarians to do a certain amount of professionally-related research or creative work, but stipulate that it should account for roughly 10% of our overall effort.  So I devote mostly off hours to translation, evenings and weekends, and regularly look forward to that.

SH: One of the interesting things about languages is when something doesn’t translate well – it might work in one language but not in another. How do you handle that in your work? And do you come across it often?

MB: Oh yes. That’s part of the joy of translating, trying to solve those seemingly intractable cross-cultural problems. If you treat it like a riddle or an enigma, devising creative solutions that work can be very gratifying. I’ve been co-teaching a class in translation together with a couple of colleagues; one is a professor in French and Italian, and the other in Asian languages and literature. For the past two years we’ve been leading the UW Translation Studies Hub Initiative, which has been funded by grants from the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities. Each of us individually had come to realize over the years that there are lots of faculty here on campus who deal with translation seriously in one way or another, not to mention students who want to learn about translation, but no organizational umbrella for them to meet under. So we’ve been trying to bring all these folks together, and we have some thirty faculty members affiliated with the Hub so far. And hopefully this will go on year after year, and evolve and be active and contribute to the life of campus, and provide an interdisciplinary crossroads for all these faculty members and students who deal with such similar issues.

We’ve also put together and offered an introductory workshop on translation, Slavic (also French, Asian, or Scandinavian) 590: Seminar in Translation Studies. It brings together 10-12 students from different departments, with competency in different languages, and is an intensive, one-quarter experience that’s a hybrid introduction, seminar and workshop on translation. We bring in a mix of six or so UW faculty members from different departments who are part of the Translation Studies Hub to present guest lectures during the quarter and engage the students with a variety of translation situations and problems for them to muse about and solve.

SH: So you just told me about some of your teaching, what are the other teaching capacities you hold at UW?

MB: For about a decade in the Slavic department, I was co-teaching advanced Russian language and Russian to English literary translation. And then I had students who would periodically come to me out of the blue and say, ‘I really want to learn Slovene – I want to weave it into my bigger academic picture.’ These students wanted to do some kind of comparative study combining Slovene with Russian, or German, or maybe Italian. And each time this resulted in a really interesting conversation, because these were serious students who somehow already knew or intuited that Slovenia posed some fascinating, untapped resource for whatever discipline they were working in. And I don’t know how many times, over how many years, I had that same or a very similar conversation and ended it with, that would really be great, but unfortunately, UW doesn’t teach Slovenian.

Finally, in 2008 or 2009, another student came in with basically the same proposal. And I was about to say, oh that’s really commendable but we don’t teach Slovene.  But this time I stopped myself and said, no, we’re going to make this happen, let’s see what we can do. And so ever since then, I’ve taught a two-year accelerated sequence in Slovenian language that covers the equivalent of about three years’ normally-paced instruction.

SH: I’ve also heard that there is an endowment for promoting Slovene studies at UW, is that correct?

MB: Yes, there is. It’s modest, it produces about $6,000 in expendable funds per year. We’d like it to produce a lot more, and down the road hopefully it will; we’re still open to contributions of any size. The revenue from this endowment is used to support Slovene studies at UW in a whole variety of ways, and it’s amazing what even a relatively modest amount of money can catalyze. For example, UW has a campus-wide faculty and PhD candidate short-term exchange program with the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia that has a nearly 40-year history now, and just the revenues from our endowment have kept that exchange running since 2017.

SH: You are also the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Slovenia for Washington State; can you tell me a little about that?

MB: Slovenia has 13 honorary consulates around the United States, and one consul general based in Cleveland, which at one time, believe it or not, was the largest Slovene city in the world.  The consul general is a career diplomat employed by the Slovene Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But honorary consuls are typically nationals of the host country, in our case the U.S., who already play some role as a cultural or commercial intermediary in their local community or state and have some personal or professional relationship with Slovenia that makes it possible for them to magnify Slovenia’s presence and impact here and introduce local people to resources of interest to them back in Slovenia.  Appointment as an honorary consul happens by invitation of the Slovenian ambassador or the Slovene Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is strictly pro bono and non-political, meaning that the HCs are bound by no ideology and beholden to no Slovenian or other political party or doctrine.

What it involves is very open-ended. If a Slovene citizen traveling in Washington loses their passport, I’m the go-between who verifies their identity and delivers their temporary travel documents to them. On special occasions and Slovenian national holidays we fly the Slovenian flag, we hold events and receptions, host official visitors and introduce them to local interest groups, and sponsor cultural events together with the local Slovene-American cultural and heritage group.  My secret wish, which I’ll gladly reveal here, is that the consulship will help us build up UW’s endowment for Slovene studies and make Slovene studies a permanent, thriving presence on campus.

SH: As a final question, which is more broad, what would you say is the importance of programs like REECAS, Euro Studies, Slavic Studies at UW, and particularly for our students right now?

MB: How am I going to phrase this in a way that will convey the magnitude of the impact and the urgency of this field of study? I’m challenged to come up with the best way to phrase this because it almost couldn’t be more important.

Well, give a student a language and suddenly they realize that this is for real: there’s a whole world out there that’s both fundamentally like us and in many extremely important particulars very, very different. These programs of study bring the country and region-specific context to students. Of course, you can study these places in terms of data and all kinds of quantifiable, empirical inputs, but unless you integrate the long historical and cultural context into that study, you’re not going to connect. You need that holistic connection to really understand these unquantifiable aspects of that other reality, that are essential, constitutive parts of every human being, and of every group that people belong to. Our local, national and especially linguistic identities reach very, very deep into who each of us is as a human being. These are part of us, they’re incredibly rich and anchored through time and in space and each of them has a lot to offer. The more we can open ourselves up to that distinctiveness in the world around us, the better off we are.

So I would say there is this value: learn languages, learn the cultural and historical and political context, and develop your understanding of what it’s like to be a human being in that other country or speaking that other language. You will double your ability to reach out to others and learn so much more about your own reality.

Top image: Lake Bled, Slovenia | David Mark