by Miska Lewis
Earlier this semester, pink flyers popped up across Columbia’s buildings advertising “Mother Tongue’s Inaugural Picnic: Columbia’s first and only literary translation magazine.” Kiley Karlak Malloy (she/they), BC ’24, co-founded the publication in mid-spring 2022 with Madeleine Lerner, BC ’25. At their first meeting on a warm Friday afternoon, the multilingual magazine staff sat cross-legged on Philosophy lawn. My roommates and I attended the picnic, excited to hear about the submission process and meet other students eager to translate a slew of languages. Kiley, reminding us several times that her homemade cookies were peanut-free, invited us to take from the pile of snacks in the center of the circle. Together with her co-founder, the two explained their dreams for the magazine, avidly encouraging us to submit.
“We put out something last night,” Kiley tells me proudly over coffee in the 111th Street Community Garden a couple of weeks later, referencing a collection of poems translated into English from Russian. “It’s from a student who isn’t a native speaker,” she says, “there’s a lot of beauty there.” “Russian is really hard, and she translated them with a lot of grace.” Mother Tongue hopes to release more translated works, compiling them into a finished online product at the end of the semester.
At the age of twenty-one, Kiley is already en route to polyglottal status. Latin, German, and Polish make up three out of the four courses on her class schedule this semester. She’s also been learning French since high school. Growing up in a German-Polish family in Philadelphia, Kiley always knew she wanted to learn her family’s languages. Broaching the study of language in college, she is now the only living member of her family who speaks German. She is working to translate a letter that her grandmother wrote to her great-grandmother in German into English. Kiley hopes to turn her nostalgic curiosities into a larger archival project with her friend Clarissa Meléndez, BC ’24, who is translating family documents from Spanish to English.
Working with German, a language often stereotyped as angry or rough, Kiley finds joy in its simultaneous weirdness and beauty. She finds the language holds a kind of suspense that comes from verbs being placed at the end of sentences. The structure keeps you waiting for action. To push herself further, Kiley journals in German, hoping to get to a place where she is living in the language, not just translating. “I’m always trying to get there,” she tells me. “It’s an exciting place to be.”
While this is her first time working with family letters, Kiley is no stranger to the art of translation. During her sophomore spring at Barnard, she translated Vegan Africa, an African cookbook by French-Ivorian author Marie Kacouchia. Kiley describes that spring as the busiest time in her life: for one month, she balanced translating the entire cookbook, acting in Circus Hamlet, and her schoolwork. When she wasn’t going over Shakespeare lines, Kiley would sit in a corner of the rehearsal room, translating spices from French to English and finding the best words to explain cabbage salad preparation.
When she works on a longer piece, Kiley lives and breathes the text, interacting with each word intimately as she finds the complementary version in English. She describes getting “so close to the small intricacies of the language that you are kind of inside it.” Inhabiting German has made translating her grandmother’s letters bittersweet. On the one hand, there is so much joy in getting to know the years of her grandmother’s before her son, Kiley’s father, was born; on the other, this intimacy is only possible through a written record, since Kiley learned German after her grandmother passed away. While her yearning for a deeper relationship isn’t entirely fulfilled through translation, Kiley can share pieces of her grandmother with the rest of her family, creating relationships between her and newer generations using the written word. Years after the letters were originally postmarked, Kiley transcends linguistic and temporal boundaries, in turn becoming her grandmother’s mouthpiece. .
Polish, the newest language in Kiley’s linguistic repertoire, is particularly sentimental. Having grown up in an area of Philadelphia where pierogies were found on every street corner and with a mother of Slavic heritage, Polish is home. Since she began learning the language, Kiley awaits a new world of literature; she explains that Polish word order is flexible, and thus naturally lends itself to poetry. According to a professor of Kiley’s, poetry is practically woven into Polish DNA, and with each word she reads in Polish, Kiley imagines translating the similes, metaphors, and allusions into English. During her time at Barnard, she has had the opportunity to discover a world of German poetry, and is now excited to do the same with Polish, connecting with her heritage through the form.
I’m amazed at how seamless Kiley makes language learning appear. Despite the tedious hours involved in figuring out where one word ends and the other begins, Kiley speaks of the process with enthusiasm and love. Doubtless, she will soon be translating from Polish, bringing her work to the pages of Mother Tongue. After she graduates in the spring, Kiley hopes to open a chapter of the magazine at her next stop on the long road of graduate studies ahead, which will perhaps begin at Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland. She is drawn to Dublin’s slower pace, the area’s history, and the possibility of working with texts translated from the Irish language. When I asked if she wants to continue translating from French or German in the future, Kiley is eager to elaborate. “I would love to do both,” she confesses, “I mean, I just want to learn as many languages as I can.”
It’s a beautiful coincidence that the languages Kiley is most keen on learning are also the ones that are increasingly desired in the world of English translations. With Polish, German, and French under her belt, she is interested in making a space for herself in the over-saturated publishing industry by learning more unique languages, such as Romanian. Kiley is curious what similarities Romanian has with French, she says, as the “romance language that is the furthest East in Europe.” For now, as she enjoys a language-filled final year at Barnard, Kiley is working on translating Live Maria by Julia Kerninon, a story of a young girl moving from Brittany to Berlin who “has to advocate for herself in a language she doesn’t know.” Translating a novel opens Kiley to literary references which are fun “to play around with.” Kiley hopes to finish translating the French book soon and use it to draw publishers in, and say here’s my work, “you just have to edit it...”