The MLA conference starts today in Seattle, and I’ll be there all weekend manning the booth that Open Letter is sharing with Archipelago and Counterpath. If you happen to be attending, stop on by. I’ll have copies of a bunch of our books AND the brand-new uber-cool Spring/Summer 2012 catalog, which you have to see to believe. All that could fall under the “2012 IS FOR SUPERLATIVES” header, but seriously, Nate outdid himself with this catalog cover . . .
(Sidebar: I’ll be at the booth most all of the time, except when I’m attending The Material History of Spider-Man, which could well be the coolest MLA panel ever. And one that I might “dress up” for.)
Anyway, as I’ve done every year since Three Percent started, it’s time for our annual reposting of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 2004 article about attending the MLA. I know this is Gideon’s juvenilia (his first book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, comes out from Riverhead next May), but it’s just too damn choice to pass up. (And still remarkably on point.)
It makes sense, then, that the last really big event of the conference—#585, “Is Now the Time for Paul de Man?”—feels like a resounding celebration of that communal autonomy and collective idiosyncrasy. Paul de Man was a Yale professor from Belgium whose writings in the seventies and early eighties catapulted deconstruction to the top of the theoretical heap, and launched his reputation as a sort of Gene Simmons of the academy—a little controversial, a little over-the-top, definitely cheesy and overblown in a seventies-ish sort of way, but a quintessential rock star nonetheless. He died in 1983; a few years later, someone dug up some Nazi collaborationist writing he’d done for a Belgian newspaper during the war, and it became a big conflagration. The scandal was used as a way for critics of the academy to dishonor the professoriate. “See?” they sneered. “Being a deconstructionist is one tiny step removed from being a Nazi.” It was the perfect link between professor-as-political-menace and professor-as-hopeless-obfuscator. So it’s not surprising that even now, twenty years after his death and fifteen after the scandal, the MLA is still trying to come to grips with de Man.
The subdivided ballroom is as packed as, well, a rock concert. There are upwards of five hundred people here—easily the most at any single event—all dressed up in their ecru scarves and horn-rims, lined up three-deep along the walls, necks craned and heads nodding furiously; it occurs to me, to take this rock analogy one step further, that the constant nodding (“Oh, but of course, I am understanding you perfectly”) is like a restrained form of headbanging. Everyone looks healthier and more stylish than anyone I’ve seen all weekend. Even the panelists are sartorially impressive: Ian Grant Balfour of York University in Toronto looks as distinguished as his name sounds, with thick black rectangular auteur glasses and a charcoal blazer over a tight black turtleneck. Mark Hansen of Princeton is the tallest man I’ve seen at the whole conference, at least eight or eleven feet tall, and is wearing a neon yellow shirt. Gayatri Spivak is cloaked in a radiant red sari. Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, is sort of short and has neither cool glasses nor a red sari, but he’s a publisher, not an academic.
The actual papers delivered are so bizarre and freakish and sodden with jargon as to make them utterly incomprehensible. But it is a truly virtuosic incomprehensibility that makes sense only as a kind of poetic performance. It is an incomprehensibility that defies all notions of accessibility to outsiders, a gala event high up in the penthouse of the ivory tower. It’s an incomprehensibility that affirms the professors’ power to decide for themselves what counts and what is meaningful in their world, an incomprehensibility that reclaims de Man as someone important to them for their own private reasons. The de Man they remember was de Man the scholar, not de Man the Nazi, and they thus reinscribe in thick confident lines the boundaries of who they are. Those boundaries declare that de Man the scholar was not and will never be accountable as a scholar for what he said and did in the political sphere, just as de Man the citizen was not and will never be held accountable in politics for what he wrote in the scholarly sphere. To the general public, the panelists assert: you may hold us accountable when we write op-ed pieces, and you may obviously hold us accountable as teachers, but when we write for other scholars we answer only to other scholars. To the right-wing critics: you may hold us accountable for our political views as citizens and as educators, but our political views and our scholarly arts may not for your purposes be wedded.
The night before, I had spoken with one grad student who studies Hawthorne. When he tells people that, they say, “Oh, sure, I read The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade.” “It’s no wonder,” he said, “that deconstruction and other fashionable theories have caught on so hard in nineteenth-century American lit. It takes a subject that everyone thinks they know everything about and makes it sexier, gives a new and exciting way to read it.” In other words, it makes it their own again. It’s not as though they have some exclusive ecclesial privilege over the material, it’s just that they’ve spent years and years reading everything that’s ever been written about Hawthorne, so, yes, in some unmagical and undivine way, it is very much theirs. The fact that we all speak English doesn’t mean that they’re doing something any of us could pick up casually in our spare time.
So as much as I want to grab the panelists by their modish lapels and shake them and demand to know exactly what the hell they’re talking about, it is not my right to do so, for I am not there by invitation, I am not a member of their community, and I have no right to expect that their words should mean anything to me. I still think their tortured, overwrought sentences are for the most part patently absurd, and when Mark Hansen refers to the film Memento as an example of “retentional finitude in a particularly acute form”—which is immediately before he talks about “the breakdown of cinema as a temporal object”—I recoil. But I don’t recoil because I think they are maiming the English language or making a big deal out of stupid things. I recoil because their absurdities no longer seem sublime: I no longer think their argot is cool, their community Olympian, their idiosyncrasies magisterial. Their language isn’t jargon, it’s slang. Their pursuits are neither irrelevant nor transcendent, they’re peculiar—and fantastic, in the true sense of the word. The mood around me is triumphant.
Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)
Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)
In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)
This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:
On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.
Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)
It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:
Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.
Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.
This year’s MLA convention starts tomorrow, and for once, Open Letter will be exhibiting. (We’re sharing a booth with Counterpath. Number 237 in case you’re going to be there.)
MLA isn’t necessarily the most uplifting of conventions, although as with anything else that’s social, I love the opportunity to meet and talk with people, convince them to teach our books, etc. and etc. And if anything interesting happens, I’ll try and blog about it. (Unlike last year, this time our University of Rochester/Open Letter party won’t get busted by the hotel security. Yeah, we’re rock stars like that.)
Anyway, as I’ve done in the past, I feel compelled to post about this awesome piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus that he wrote for The Believer back in the day. It’s still relevant, and still effing hilarious. And gives anyone who hasn’t been to MLA (which mostly consists of a herd of very nervous grad students interviewing for a scarcity of jobs), a sense of what it’s like.
Mary Pratt, the current president of the MLA, introduces the panel: Masao Miyoshi of U.C. San Diego, Ferial Ghazoul of the American University of Cairo, and Gayatri Spivak of Columbia University; the latter, whom Pratt calls “our most conspicuous traveling theorist,” is a guru of what’s called “postcolonial theory” and current academic megastar and the only one I’ve heard of, although apparently—according to Charlie—all three panelists pack some serious scholarly credentials.
Miyoshi stands up to speak first, and from a distance it looks like he’s actually sporting elbow patches. He hadn’t been sure until that morning, he announces, where exactly he would be speaking, whom he would be addressing, or what he was supposed to be talking about, so please forgive him. He looks a little befuddled but also sure of himself, like a celebrity who has forgotten which clip he brought to show the audience on Letterman. With that caveat and apology, what follows is 95 percent unintelligible. What I get out of it is this: The university is veering toward a business style of management. Funds are being redirected away from the humanities and toward the applied sciences. There’s an increasingly corporate-tinged emphasis on the production of useful knowledge—physics, biochemistry—which leads us to ask this question: is humanistic study becoming “irrelevant, inconsequential, or just incomprehensible?” These pockets of sense-making sentences, however, are occluded deep within a whole lot of non-sense-making about the relation between the humanities and something called “environmental biojustice.”
I just can’t concentrate on the substance of his talk, however, because something about his delivery seems off-kilter; I decide it’s just me. After a few minutes, Charlie elbows me and whispers, “I think that his lips are out of sync with his words.” I laugh. Then I realize it’s true: his mouth is actually making the wrong shapes, as though he’s starring in a poorly dubbed kung fu movie. Charlie and I look at each other, struck dumb. Then, to add to the blazing surreality of the moment, Miyoshi refers to the twentieth century’s three world wars. “Did he just say three world wars?” Charlie asks. “Yes,” I say. Charlie is sweating. He really likes his job and his profession—in a heartrendingly noble and admirable way—and here, at event number one, is his profession at its most cartoonish. I really like Charlie and I have already noticed that most journalists are unnecessarily unkind to academics, so I start sweating, too.
Finally, Charlie’s face flushes and he turns to me. “_There’s a mike delay!_” he blurts out, maybe a little too loudly. It’s just a mike delay, and both of us are embarrassed that we thought it was something more uncanny or sinister. With that crisis of confidence safely behind us, we return to the largely fruitless attempt to parse Miyoshi’s sentences. Then, midthought, Miyoshi abandons a clause, thanks the audience, and takes his seat. Charlie apologizes for him. “I saw him speak on post-1945 Japanese art once, and he was brilliant. I think he was just a little flustered. He must have written that on the plane here this morning.”
“I’m pretty sure he teaches in San Diego,” I say, looking at the program. Charlie looks crestfallen, like he just watched his dad strike out at the family-reunion softball game. This opening experience has done nothing but confirm practically every negative stereotype about the MLA. I can see he’s trying to decide whether there’s a way to save face. He decides to admit that there isn’t. “Well, I guess you can safely ridicule _that._”
If Miyoshi nailed the English-prof-as-space-cadet caricature, the next speaker, Ferial Ghazoul, comes across as the stuffy, supercilious poseur. She speaks as though she has cultivated a robust head cold; exquisitely calibrated sinus pressure steamrolls her vowels, so she holds the middle syllable of “university” for a full two seconds. Her words sound extruded rather than spoken. She gives a fairly standard “tasks of the university” talk: to aid critical reflection, to add to global knowledge, to promote multicultural awareness and cross-pollination, and to be a “laboratory exploring the self and the Other in a humanist framework.” Humanities professors should help “oppose imperialist hegemony” with a “dynamic strategy of bringing subalterns into alliance.”
Then, after twenty minutes of talk about what a university is for, she comes to a melodramatic crescendo. There’s a very long pause. She looks out at the thinning crowd and says, “What we do not ask ourselves is: what for is a university?”
What for is a university? Aside from the fact that she has just asked that question literally two minutes before in the normal put-the-damn-preposition-at-the-end sort of way, what floors me is that this question and its chief syntactic variant—what is a university for?—are asked at the conference with astonishing frequency. If the MLA conference organizers made sloganed T-shirts, the front would read: “MLA Convention, San Diego: ‘What for are we in 2003?’” And the back: “What are we for in 2004?”
And this is the weird thing: they don’t even mean “what for is a university?”—they mean “what for are English professors?” There are tons of answers to the first question: to teach students, to examine political configurations and economic policies, to study earthquakes and tsunamis, and of course to help build fighter jets or antigravity rooms or more muscular bionic arms. But what are English professors for? They teach, of course, but they don’t help out with economic policy, they have little to say about natural disasters, and they can’t build futuristic prostheses. And the better the applied sciences get at answering these lurking purpose-questions—“Hey, check out this new laser-equipped invisibility frock we just made in the lab”—the more their colleagues over in the English building seem like starry-eyed, impractical romantics, or, less charitably, anachronistic buffoons. Despite her clotted jargon and fustian grammar, Ghazoul is making a serious point: more and more people are wondering what the hell English professors are doing and why they should be allowed to keep doing it, and they need to reformulate their answers.
Whole article available here. Thanks, Gideon. Thanks, Believer.
For the uninitiated, this article from an old issue of The Believer is a great description of MLA. Especially this bit about publishing and tenure:
The upshot: university presses, once institutions of gentlemanly loss in the service of niche scholarship, have been forced to reorient themselves toward the bottom line. Scholarly criteria—most notably the process of peer review, whereby potential titles are sent out to experts in the field for vetting purposes—have ceded to market criteria. So the whole affair, especially the spending of lavish amounts of money on corporate-funded science journals, underlines the general fear about the steady encroachment of commercial interests into the sanctum of the university.
And there’s a flipside: university presses are simply putting out too many titles. The number of scholarly monographs (book-length treatments of one subject, as opposed to collections or anthologies) in MLA-related fields in the year 2000 was twice what it was in 1989, though by most accounts the achievements of scholarship in that time have probably not doubled. This is where the publishing crisis and the tenure crisis bleed together. Most schools require one book for tenure, which usually means one book within the first five or six years out of grad school—the same years that assistant professors have the biggest teaching loads and the smallest salaries (not to mention that they’re often new parents, as Charlie is). To fulfill this book requirement, most young professors go one of two routes: they either rewrite their dissertations for publication, or they puff up one substantial journal article with some bibliographical essays and call it a book. But a dissertation is a dissertation and an article is an article and neither is a book, so their publication waters down the whole field and leads right back to the publishing crisis outlined above.
“Vicious cycle” doesn’t even begin to describe it. First, it means that the presses have become the de facto site of tenure evaluation, because the people who work there are the ones who decide which books to publish. This is an unwelcome responsibility for institutions that are already overtaxed and underfunded and thus teetering on the brink of collapse, not to mention pressured into bottom-line considerations and thus less inclined to put out abstruse monographs in the first place. Second—and this is where the whole thing goes from merely unfortunate to genuinely catastrophic, and where audience members gag, actually gag—everyone knows that first books are either revised dissertations or fattened-up journal articles, so there’s talk at some universities about a second book for tenure. The second book was originally the basis for promotion to full professor, so now we’re talking about three books for the ultimate promotion—three books for increasingly market-driven presses in an increasingly hostile market. Which means not only three books, but three books that might sell, which is hard enough for people who are trying to write for a general audience.
And this small appreciation of the “purpose” of humanities scholars:
“So now I can defend you guys by saying you do some obscure niche-work and write for your own community and it’s not necessarily relevant and it’s not really useful, but there’s a kind of beauty to it anyway and we’re probably all better off that at least someone is living the life of the mind, even if it seems like outer space sometimes. But it’s punctured all kinds of mythologies I once had about academia as this sublime place.”
The game cuts to a commercial and Charlie turns to me. “Well, I don’t know, it’s like caring about PAC-10 basketball. They don’t really stack up with the rest of the country, they usually don’t do that well in March, it’s kind of its own universe, but it’s still awesome. You’re better off taking the shots you can make, you know?”
There have been a number of panels on translation at this year’s MLA, including ones featuring both Suzanne Jill Levine and Michael Henry Heim (unfortunately, I only made it to one, thanks to a 7-1/2 hour layover in Las Vegas, which may well be the antithesis of MLA), and next year’s “Presidential Forum” is on translation, which bodes well. (All of which is a great opportunity to spread the word about the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation Studies, which is in process of being approved by the State of New York.)
I have to admit though, aside from the wonderful conversations with publishers and booksellers (like Peggy Fox and Declan Spring from New Directions, Paul Yamazaki from City Light, Sara Kramer from NYRB, David Kipen from NEA), I’d rather be reading the 25 Best Translated Books longlist, and am really looking forward to having time to start writing about these again . . .
Catherine Porter, the new president of MLA, just announced that the theme for next year’s “Presidential Forum” at the MLA convention is “The Tasks of Translation in the Twenty-First Century.”
To recognize the importance of translation in the modern world, it suffices to reflect on the number of different languages we human beings speak and on the need for transmitting knowledge across linguistic boundaries. Moreover, the drive to translate extends well beyond the conventional understanding of rendering a message produced in one language by means of another language. As its Latin root translatio (transfer, carryover, displacement) suggests, translation’s basic function is to move meanings from one context (often but by no means exclusively linguistic) to another. In everyday usage, translation can denote such vital concepts as decoding, paraphrase, interpretation, and explanation; its purpose and scope are those of communication itself.
For the Modern Language Association, the issues raised by translation are more immediate, for they are focused by our institutional commitments to studying and teaching language and literature. The general question our organization constantly confronts in a largely monolingual environment is the relation of English to foreign languages.
Should make for a pretty interesting MLA . . .
Members of MLA might be interested in knowing that for the rest of June all books in the Approaches to Teaching World Literature series are 25% off.
Interesting series of books and a pretty good discount . . .
The show has been around since 1997, so I’m personally pretty late to the game. Unfortunately, the listing of programs ends in 2006, but still, there are some interesting sounding shows to download, such as the one on Beckett and the one on “Power and Politics in Latin America.”
MLA should put these on iTunes. There’s a surprising lack of arts/books podcasts available, which is just plain sad.
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