A Word from the President of MLA on Translation

If you’re in academia, you’re probably already aware that the Presidential Forum theme for this year’s Modern Language Association conference is “The Tasks of Translation in the Twenty-First Century.” To put the theme in context, MLA President Catherine Porter (whom I had the great fortune to meet at the Salzburg Global Seminar earlier this year) wrote a piece entitled Why Translation? that’s available in full on the “MLA site.

It’s important to have people like this supporting the art and practice of translation, not just to encourage the exchange of ideas and increase in publication of literature from other countries, but to also urge that the study of translation be more accepted and encouraged within academia:

In his excellent book The Translator’s Invisibility, Lawrence Venuti documents the history of the Anglo-American tradition according to which good translations must be fluid and transparent and good translators must stay out of sight. The invisibility of the translator has become a clich√©, but it is by no means a myth. Presses don’t want to advertise books as translations. Newspapers sometimes publish translated texts without acknowledging the fact. Academics have been known to remove translations from their curriculum vitae to avoid jeopardizing their chances for promotion or tenure. And until recently, few universities in the English-speaking world have acknowledged translation as a legitimate area of study.

It is one thing to recognize a need for competent translators in the world and quite another to take responsibility for their nurturing and development. Yet no one is better positioned to take on this task than we are, as postsecondary language and literature professionals. Some of us already help students reach advanced levels in foreign language study. Others help students refine their writing and editing skills in English. Many of us also teach courses that expand our students’ cultural knowledge. Almost all of us work at teaching our students to become more careful and critical readers. In short, our current disciplinary structures provide the basic frameworks that allow students to begin to acquire the skills and knowledge essential to translators. Attending to the development of future translators at the college and university level need not require significant structural changes or an infusion of new resources.

An increased presence of translation in the undergraduate curriculum ought to elicit an increased presence of translators as teachers and scholars. I have argued elsewhere that translation of literary and scholarly works should be acknowledged as evidence of scholarly activity and assessed as such in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure. Adopting this practice would be one way of implementing the recommendation of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, which argues that “[t]he profession as a whole should develop a more capacious conception of scholarship by rethinking the dominance of the monograph, promoting the scholarly essay, establishing multiple pathways to tenure, and using scholarly portfolios” (11). Not every course related to translation has to be taught by a professional translator; still, faculty members who are experienced in the field should be recognized as such for the value of their work and for the special contributions they can make in the translation classroom.

These are the same beliefs that prompted the University of Rochester to launch its Translation Program (and, well, this website and Open Letter Books), including the undergrad certificate and the newly launched Master of Arts for Literary Translation.

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