Oct. 16, 2007
By Anita Martin
If you met him on the street, you wouldn't guess that Jordan Pleasant translates medieval Italian and modern Bengali poems for academic journals. Or that he also gets by in Hindi, Spanish, Romanian and Oriyya; reads Latin, Provencal and Egyptian hieroglyphics; and studies Arabic in his spare time.
Pleasant, an Honors Tutorial student majoring in philosophy, speaks and acts much like any typical undergraduate. He's a first-generation college student from Chattanooga, Tenn., and a social creature who would feel equally at home in a smoky truck stop diner or at the next American Literary Translators Association conference, which he has been invited to attend.
Pleasant spent his summer vacation in India -- on a scholarship from the local Friends of India Endowment -- translating the uncollected poems of modern Bengali nature poet Jibananda Das. (See related story on Friends of India Endowment.)
"I first discovered my love for learning languages when I advanced rapidly in a Latin course in high school and thereby received a scholarship to study classical languages in Italy," Pleasant says.
The following year, he attended the Liceo Artistico (Artistic High School) in Piacenza, Italy, where he picked up his first modern language. After graduating from high school, Pleasant moved to India, where he lived and studied Bengali for seven months.
Put simply, Pleasant rarely stops. When Molly Morrison, associate professor of Italian and herself a linguaphile, first met Pleasant, she felt energized by this natural, spirited curiosity.
"He's interested. I mean Jordan is interested," she says. "He's like a sponge. And though he's very knowledgeable, there's not an arrogant bone in his body. He sees value in taking advice and learning from people. As a professor, it makes you want to share more with him."
Under Morrison's guidance, Pleasant published his first translation in the Journal of Italian Translation (winter 2006): Dante Alighieri's "Tenzone," a poetry exchange between Dante and his friend Forese Donati.
Eight more of Pleasant's translations are scheduled to appear in the next two editions of Gravida Magazine. He is currently preparing manuscripts for submission to various journals, including Poetry, Circumference and The Paris Review.
According to Morrison, poetry translation requires an enormous sensitivity to language and cultures.
"My first love in life is poetry, and because I am only a mediocre poet myself, I have decided to dedicate my life to the literary translation of the works of true masters," says Pleasant, who won the Northern Kentucky Writers Alliance award for original poetry in 2004.
Pleasant has more down-to-earth goals for his linguistic ability as well. In addition to continuing his translation work, he hopes to study international law after graduation and believes his language skills, especially his budding knowledge of Arabic, will complement his practice.
For now, Pleasant carries minors in linguistics, Italian and English. As a philosophy major, he takes particular interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of language.
On the side, Pleasant has participated in Student Senate, Chess Club, Indian Students Association, Arabic Student Union, International Student Union, Ohio Program of Intensive English and the Philosophy Circle.
But scratch the surface, Pleasant claims, and he's just "like any other Tennessee trailer park-born tattooed madman."
This article may surprise some of Pleasant's friends, many of whom remain unaware of his literary successes. But for all his humilty, Pleasant commits completely to his bookish pursuits, with just enough of the poet's madness and a legislator's pragmatism to successfully translate both abstract prose and international law.