When Martin Riker, Dalkey Archive Press's associate director, told me he'd be moderating a panel on literary translation at this year's MLA, I asked if he'd write something here about the session. Kindly, he agreed. --Churm
“Training Translators” at the MLA
The announcement that the presidential focus of the 2009 MLA conference would be on translation was received with something like shock and awe in the literary translation community. Although the vast majority of professional-grade translators make their living as university professors, such devotion has hardly been reciprocated by academia itself, which traditionally has failed to treat translation as serious professional work or literary translation as a serious intellectual-artistic discipline. Thus MLA President Catherine Porter’s choice of translation as her focus seemed an unprecedented concession in a battle that until now had seemed more like a lost cause.
Part of it, no doubt, stems from the increased attention the translation “issue” has gotten over the past several years (in fact I would date this attention precisely to the aftermath of Sept 11, 2001), attention that has been brought into being by the combined efforts of translators and translation publishers and that has resulted in, among other things, the establishment of new programs for translation studies at several universities in the US, including the program at the University of Illinois to which Dalkey Archive Press is affiliated. And it was in this capacity—as associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, which alongside U of I’s Center for Translation Studies has been developing a variety of educational models for translation training—that I came to moderate “Developing a New Generation of Translators,” a roundtable discussion about the future of literary translation in the academy, and in particular about what role academia might best play in the training of future translators.
The session broke down into two parts: First were the thoughts of the panelists—Lawrence Venuti (Temple U), Suzanne Jill Levine (U of California, Santa Barbara), Bill Johnston (Indiana U), Emmanuelle Ertel (NYU), Edwin Gentzler (U Mass, Amherst), Benjamin Paloff (U Mich)—who were asked ahead of time to address “the best means for training translators and what changes need to occur within the academy for the discipline of literary translation to evolve”; and second were the ideas contributed by everybody else in the room, which was large and packed with leaders in the translation field such as Michael Henry Heim, David Bellos, Susan Bernofsky, and Elizabeth Lowe, as well as Catherine Porter herself. My goal in the rest of this write-up is just to record the salient points, sans commentary by myself, although I probably will not be able to resist one or two asides, for which I apologize in advance.
The panelists moved back and forth between very practical nuts-and-bolts suggestions and more widely conceived critiques, bordering on ontological reconceptualizations, of contemporary translation pedagogy.
Emmanuelle Ertel talked about the importance of balancing theory and practice in educating younger translators, and how crucial that balance is to a successful academic program. She made the interesting suggestion that programs might best focus on a single language (in NYU’s case, French); that among other things, this type of focus can make the “workshop” model more viable. I believe she meant also that such a program would therefore be housed within a foreign language department—a point I mention because not all panelists saw foreign language as the best place for translation to reside or thrive.
Bill Johnston, who heads the certificate program in literary translation at Indiana University, introduced the idea of competency-based education as a model for translation studies; that is, a focus on what students need to do, rather than what they need to know. He pointed out that translation work has feet in both scholarship and in creative writing; that as such it is a kind of perfect hybrid of reading and writing; and that this dual nature of translation work needs to be taken into account in figuring out how it can better work for and within the academic community.
Benjamin Paloff from U of Michigan took issue with some of the presumed assumptions surrounding the topic (translation studies in the academy), in numbered points that I will in turn number and paraphrase as such:
Assumptions: 1) “students don’t have sufficient command of a second language”; 2) “students lack necessary expertise in foreign cultures”; 3) “there are no places to publish translations”; 4) “there is a lack of institutional support for translation work.”
Responses: 1) actually the real problem is that students lack command of English, which is much more important to good translation work; 2) sort of the same as #1; 3) there are lot of publications dedicated to translation, but we lack a culture of translation that makes these apparent to students; and 4) well, this one is more tricky.
What was more tricky is that of course a number of US universities do have programs for translation studies, not least of all the programs represented by these panelists, even if (this is no longer Paloff speaking, this is me) somehow these pockets of interest and energy have never developed as a viable academic community so as to create a presence and a respect for the work of translation as a widely recognized and regarded field of professional academic endeavor. This is of course despite the fact that virtually every major period of advancement in human knowledge—and certainly in humanistic knowledge, and even more certainly in literary innovation—can be traced to a consequent increase in translation.
Paloff called for more interdisciplinarity in translation studies, a point that was taken up by others as well.
Edwin Gentzler described the translation MA program at U Mass, Amherst, and spoke in particular about the non-traditional (or “experimental”) forms of translation that he teaches in this program. He was concerned about the ways in which he has observed the marketplace exerting pressure on students not to pursue these types of translation, and he put forth a vision of an academic translation program as a place where the possibilities of translation should be explored, a point that Lawrence Venuti picked up on later on.
Suzanne Jill Levine was at MLA in part to celebrate the new edition of her book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin-American Fiction (which Dalkey Archive publishes) and she briefly offered some of the relevant points from that book, pointing out, for instance, that translation is a form of literary criticism (inasmuch as any translation is inherently an interpretation of the text) and that in training translators we are above all training great readers. Levine picked up on the notion of inter-disciplinarity—her own newly founded program at UC Santa Barbara is a doctoral emphasis in translation, working across a number of departments.
The last panelist was Lawrence Venuti who began by suggesting we throw everything that currently exists out (from the kinds of translation taught to the sites of teaching to the pedagogy) because what we really need is a sustainable translation culture. Currently, Venuti said, echoing Gentzler, the most sophisticated forms of translation are neglected within translation studies; he came out strongly against the workshop model for emphasizing practice over theory and imposing its own aesthetics upon students, and said that such programs run the risk of shaping translation education to the market, whereas translators should be taught to question the market. He agreed with the need for translation as an interdepartmental collaboration (he would have such a program housed in the English department, but he is against a free-standing program, since everyone in the humanities should have a stake in translation practice), although he was quick to point out that becoming a great translator takes decades of work, and an undergraduate program does not even begin to scratch the surface.
I had invited Professor Venuti onto the panel assuming he would take a position seemingly in direct opposition to the types of applied translation programs Dalkey Archive has established with the U of Illinois (post-graduate fellowships, for instance, with an emphasis on practical experience), and I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to talk about how or whether such programs would fit within his vision of a sustainable translation culture. Overall, though, the panel seemed to be less divided on the issue of training versus theory than I had expected; what emerged was more a discussion of the relationship between these two aspects of education, where they should be located (in or outside of the academy? If inside, where inside? And who should be involved, and how?) as well as, fundamentally, how translation studies as a discipline should be conceived.
At this point I got up as moderator and announced that I had only one question prepared for the panel, which I hoped people in the audience would also feel welcome to respond to, and it was this: Here we are at the MLA and it’s potentially an important moment. The MLA’s president has made translation the special focus of the conference, and so the literary translation community seemingly has the academic floor in a way it hasn’t before. My question is, if you could have one thing result from all this, what would it be?
This write-up is already pretty long so I’m going to just list the responses I was able to write down. The first person to respond was MLA President Catherine Porter, from the seventh or eighth row. These are of course all paraphrased.
Catherine Porter: to encourage that translation become an ongoing focus of this conference and of other academic conferences so that it begins to take a greater place in the consciousness of those in the academic community.
Suzanne Jill Levine: more funding, whether it be from the schools, foundations, wherever.
Edwin Gentzler: to see students encouraged to bring their translations to publishers, including more experimental (his word) translation forms.
Benjamin Paloff: to encourage more widely knowledgeable translators stemming from greater interaction between departments.
Susan Bernofsky: that American universities all start to offer translation studies as a necessary component of a humanistic education.
Bill Johnston: that translation studies moves back toward the study of English and literature as the prerequisite knowledge for good translation.
Emmanuelle Ertel: that more programs are established seeking a balance of theory and practice.
Elizabeth Lowe: the integration of translation studies into other curriculum.
David Bellos: that of the 8,000 or so attendees at this year’s MLA, perhaps 2,000 of them go back to their universities with a greater interest in translation as a discipline.
Michael Henry Heim: that of the 8,000 or so attendees at this year’s MLA, all 8,000 of them go back to their universities with a greater interest in translation.
I’ve no doubt missed a lot in this write-up, for which I blame the difficulties of moderating and taking notes at the same time. A man from American University Paris suggested that there was too much control described in the panel, and said he would “preach some loss of control” in the study of translation. Other audience members chimed in with ideas. No doubt I’ll get emails from half the people I mentioned here, correcting my translation of their statements—that is a whole different translation issue—and I can only hope ours and the other MLA sessions dedicated to translation (Esther Allen moderated one focused specifically on the issue of tenure accreditation for translation work, which I was sorry to miss) will indeed lead to more forums in which everyone can set the record straight.
As for myself, I agree with Suzanne Jill Levine’s wish: increased funding! It seems that, more often than not, when anything radical happens within American culture, it’s because somebody threw a whole bunch of money at it.
E-mail Martin Riker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Painting shown is not of Mr. Riker; it's Saint Jerome, patron saint of translators, by Domenico Ghirlandaio.