„Mobility has opened up a new academic world to me“ – 5in10 with Juliane Braun
Juliane Braun is currently a Tandem Fellow in the History of Knowledge & Knowledge Cultures at the German Historical Institute Washington. Her first book, titled „Creole Drama: Theatre and Society in Antebellum New Orleans“, shows how New Orleans’s francophone population used the theatre to maintain their political, economic, and cultural sovereignty in the face of growing Anglo-American dominance. Her second book project combines her long-standing interests in multilingual and transnational literatures with a new focus in the environmental humanities and book history. She is also the co-editor of America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment (Winter, 2016) and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the journals Early American Literature, Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, and Cambridge University’s African American Literature in Transition Series.
How do you explain your current research project to your students?
When I explain to my students what I am working on, I tell them that I am interested in how translation influenced the circulation of ideas. In my current project on “Translating the Pacific” I look at descriptions of nature and natural resources in the Pacific and analyze how these descriptions were modified, revised, and manipulated through translation. A seventeenth-century Dutch writer, for example, described the breadfruit tree as “slimy” and barely edible while eighteenth-century British sources portrayed the same fruit as “delicious” and very nourishing. In my research, I try to tease out how and why such discrepancies occurred and in what way translation contributed to the emergence of these differences. Because I employ a comparative perspective and use sources from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, I am able to expose strategic mistranslations that often reveal larger political or economic issues. In the case of the breadfruit, for instance, the British government wanted to use the Pacific plant to feed the slaves in the British Caribbean colonies, and therefore depicted it as an eighteenth-century super-food. By pointing out such entanglements, I hope to inspire my students to think about the connections between unlikely places, such as the Caribbean and the Pacific, and to see how attention to detail and language can help us to see a larger, more complicated picture.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
I think the idea that national borders are shifting and arbitrarily drawn has probably inspired my work the most. The border between the United States and Mexico, for example, was re-drawn a few times, re-defining also what counted or did not count as American. Such re-definitions, in turn, influence what we study when we study “American literature” or “American history.” Too often, we associate “American” only with the geographical area of the present-day United States and assume that the historical documents and the literature this country produced were written in English only. In my research, I want to broaden conceptions of what it means to be “American” and include sources from other linguistic and cultural backgrounds, e.g. documents penned by French colonial officials in Louisiana, texts written by the Spanish in Florida and New Mexico, and sources emerging from indigenous communities.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
The most important aspect of my research is recovery. I use archives, both physical and digital, to find materials that have been overlooked or neglected, for example literary texts that were published in the United States, but in languages other than English. I then look at these texts to see what they can tell us about the time and the circumstances they were written in and analyze how the ideas expressed in these texts complement or complicate our understanding of American literature and culture.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
In 2014, I attended a roundtable discussion on the Pacific Ocean at the Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association (ASA) in Los Angeles. And although this does not seem very recent, this panel completely changed how I was thinking about the work I was doing. At the time, I was in the process of drawing up my second book project, which was going to be about nature and the environment in the Caribbean. I had never even considered doing a project that was related to the Pacific Ocean, but what the panelists said about the Pacific heritage of the Americas made me realize what a rich subject that could be. Through this discussion at the ASA Annual Meeting, I began to understand how much my work was shaped by my own position as a European American studies scholar. Europe and the Americas are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and many of the first settlers came to the Americas after crossing that ocean, so it always seemed natural to me to focus on transatlantic connections. This led me to forget, however, that the Americas had always also been influenced by transpacific connections, a subject that is still relatively unexplored in American studies scholarship.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
I think I can truly say that mobility has opened up a new academic world to me. When I was writing my dissertation, I had a research fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and, through the discussions with the American fellows there, I realized that American studies means something quite different in the United States and in Germany. In the United States, American studies has a much more political and activist agenda, whereas German scholars embrace the critical distance to their object of study. I am currently part of a bi-national research tandem at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C., and again I am inspired by the discussions with my American tandem partner and the other fellows there. Being a part of such multi-national communities of scholars has changed my perspective and led me to approach my research with questions I would never have been able think of before. Through the exchanges with other scholars in Worcester and in Washington D.C., I began to understand my own discipline much better, and the academic systems that I am participating in.
Citation: Juliane Braun, “Mobility has opened up a new academic world to me” – 5in10 with Juliane Braun, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.11.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8395.