Translation Takes Center Stage

MLA's president, a scholar of French and a translator, discusses trends that will be explored at the association's annual meeting.
December 23, 2009

Translation is essential to allow most people to appreciate the literature that is produced in languages other than their own. But translation is rarely the focus of attention. This year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, which starts Sunday, will attempt to change that, with more than 50 sessions on translation. The topics vary widely, with some focusing on specific languages, others on translations of particular authors (Chaucer, Kafka and Borges, for example), others on the role of translation and translators (exploring questions of how visible translators should be, or when new translations should be done).

The association's focus reflects a longstanding interest of Catherine Porter, who is MLA president, a professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland, and the translator of nearly three dozen books. Porter responded via e-mail to questions about the state of translation and her hopes for the focus at the MLA meeting.

Q: Why is translation receiving such attention at the meeting?

A: While only a small number of MLA members regularly practice translation, all of us rely heavily on translations in our work. Yet translation is notorious for its invisibility. My hope in choosing the theme of translation for this year’s Presidential Forum and related sessions has been to raise awareness of the importance of translation not only as an indispensable tool -- without it, most of us would have no access to key texts in our tradition (of course, without translation many of those texts could not have been written in the first place!) -- but as a practice worthy of scholarly attention in its own right. I am delighted to see how many sessions on the art of translation are on the program this year, along with sessions focusing on the history, theory, pedagogy, sociology, and politics of translation -- and that’s just a start.

Q: The MLA is probably the largest gathering in the United States of people dedicated to reading and teaching non-English literature in the original. Does that make translation a potentially sensitive topic?

A: An interesting question, to which I think the answer is an unqualified "no." In our context, teachers and students reading non-English literatures in the original are almost by definition bilinguals or multilinguals who understand the advantages of reading a text in the language in which it was written but who also understand that even multilinguals need access to literatures in the languages they haven’t (yet) mastered. We admire those exceptional souls among us who can read 15 or 20 languages; still, there are some 6,000 languages out there! Except for instances in which the source text has been lost, translations do not replace original versions but exist alongside them, serving different audiences and meeting different needs at different periods of time. Or even at the same time: the companion volumes published in the MLA’s Texts and Translations series are designed so that students learning the original language can consult the English translation as needed, and teachers who know the original language can discuss both versions in class.

Q: How is the field of translation studies changing?

A: In its first phase, the field was anchored in the history and theory of translation and contributed to far-reaching changes in the understanding of translation’s value and significance, its capacity to enable translinguistic inquiry, its centrality to the comparison of cultures. Translation studies has imposed a significant rethinking of the translator’s status, especially in the academic world, where its importance as a scholarly practice is more likely to be recognized than it was as little as two decades ago. In its current phase, the field is expanding in scope, as the 56 translation session titles on the MLA program suggest. The curriculum it embraces -- already vast -- is being extended by programs that supplement history, theory, and linguistic analysis with courses introducing students with advanced competency in more than one language to the art and craft of translation as a practice and potential career path.

Q: Several of the sessions focus on the voice/identity of the translator. What are your thoughts on this area of interest?

A: This is a fascinating and somewhat controversial area. There are countless historical examples of translators who did not hide their own voices, who contracted, expanded, adapted or otherwise altered source texts to suit their own purposes or to satisfy a particular audience. In the Anglo-American tradition, as Lawrence Venuti and others have shown, translations are supposed to be "fluid" and "transparent"; they are deemed successful to the extent that they are not recognizable as translations. The translator is expected to leave no traces of voice or identity. Practicing translators and theorists understand that total self-effacement is as impossible as total “fidelity” to the source text; some argue that it is also undesirable, that the target language and culture can be enriched when the translator chooses formulations that highlight the tensions between two language systems rather than obscuring them.

Q: Within the field of translation, what are some of the trends that you find exciting or encouraging?

A: The sheer number of proposals in response to our call for papers related to the presidential theme was encouraging in itself. I find it exciting to see connections developing between the MLA and the translation community, between translation theorists and practicing translators, between teachers of literature and teachers of language around a common interest in translation pedagogy. Translations of literary and scholarly works are beginning to be recognized as evidence of scholarly activity in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure; I hope that this tendency will gain momentum in the wake of this year’s MLA.


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