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January 5, 2004 :: No. 110

English Professor Awarded Fulbright Scholarship to Lithuania

As a child, Irena Praitis’ parents didn’t speak Lithuanian very frequently to their youngest daughter. As immigrants, they never expected to return to their native country, and they wanted to ensure that their children spoke English fluently. They believed that a firm grasp of the language was a key to success in America.

Today, Praitis, a Fullerton resident and an assistant professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, wishes her parents had spoken to her in their native tongue a little more often. As a Fulbright scholar, she will be departing Jan. 15 to spend a semester in Lithuania, teaching American literature to students at Vilnius Pedagogical University.

At Cal State Fullerton, Praitis teaches modern and contemporary poetry, 19th-century poetry, with a particular focus on Whitman and Dickinson, as well as a variety of other courses.

“Although many Lithuanians don’t speak English, like many Europeans, they are quite familiar with American culture through movies, music and books.

“I know enough Lithuanian to get around a bit, and I’m trying to learn more very quickly,” she said with a laugh. “I always wanted to live in Lithuania to better understand the culture and people. With this Fulbright, I will have the opportunity to observe and learn about their daily lives and their hopes.

“I’m also curious about how they interpret U.S. literature,” she said. “So often we learn about the world through numbers and statistics. I also want to learn about the world through emotion and understanding and telling stories. The Fulbright provides a wonderful opportunity for me to do that.”

Her parents, she notes, are amused at her interest in a country they left decades ago. “My parents never expected to return to Lithuania, and they certainly never expected that their children would go there,” she said.

Interestingly, her 72-year-old father will accompany her initially, visiting with relatives and helping his daughter get settled before he returns to America.

“I am a bit nervous,” she admits. “When I arrive, it will be winter, and it’s often dark and cold. There are many unknowns about how I will adapt, but overall, I think it will be an incredible experience.”

While in Lithuania, Praitis also hopes to translate Lithuanian poetry into English. She admits that may be a challenge.

“With poetry, there is often rhyme and meter and metaphor and sometimes those elements don’t always translate well,” she admitted. “You need to look at the tone of the language. Lithuanian is a very old language —an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit— and it hasn’t changed a lot. The challenge will be to translate the meaning while keeping the rhythm of the language.”

Praitis knows firsthand about the language of poetry. She recently had her first book of poems, “Touch,” published by Finishing Line Press.

“It’s been a fulfilling year,” she said. “With teaching, the publication of my first book and preparing to live abroad for five months, I can see how my life continues to change. It’s truly an exciting time.”

Praitis joined the university faculty in 2001 and earned her doctorate at Arizona State University.

Media Contacts: Irena Praitis, or 657-278-2453.
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, or 657-278-4540.