25 January 10 | Chad W. Post

I know E.J. posted Jennifer Howard’s article on translation in the academy last Monday, but because it’s such an interesting—and charged—topic, and because it’s just one of a few cool translation-related articles that came out in the past week.

The recent MLA convention—where the focus was translation—is the starting point for Jen’s article, with the main thrust being about how translation is shunned in the academy. For people outside of academia, it seems to come as a surprise that translation doesn’t play well at tenure meetings. But seriously, I’ve heard some awful stories, especially from young professors.

One of the most famously shocking tenure denials is that of Susan Bernofsky. Granted, I don’t know all the details, and everyone knows how fraught university politics are, but for Susan not to be tenured somewhere? That’s effing unthinkable. Just for her translations of Walser . . . A university would gain so much in terms of expertise, knowledge, and nationwide attention. (Can’t find it now, but I believe there was even a feature on Susan in the New Yorker some time back.)

But there are other stories, such as this one:

Mark Anderson, who is on leave from the Germanic-languages department at Columbia University, has experienced the vicissitudes that beset academic translators. In graduate school, he did a translation of poetry by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. Princeton University Press published the book, which won a prize from the American Academy of Poets.

After Mr. Anderson, a Kafka scholar, got a job as an assistant professor at Columbia, he recalls in an e-mail message, “I was offered the chance to translate Kafka’s The Trial and was about to submit a sample when my chair got word of it and advised me, rightly, I think, not to do this until I finished my book and got tenure. Which I did.” He published a translation of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser­ while still untenured—but under a pseudonym (“Jack Dawson,” which according to Mr. Anderson is a pun on Kafka’s Czech name and means “son of Kafka”). “We had a celebratory lunch after I got tenure at Columbia, and I told the story and got a good laugh,” Mr. Anderson says. “But it’s a real issue, and I think my chair gave me excellent advice.”

So, just to get this straight, universities—which exist to educate and enlighten the world—are indirectly (or occasionally directly) for preventing certain great works of literature (Kafka! Bernhard!) from being accessible to the monolingual, English reader? That’s brilliant.

It seems that the main problem is in getting people to accept the idea of translation as scholarship. Which is weird to anyone actually involved in the production or promotion of literature in translation. (And by “weird” I mean “fucking incomprehensible.”) But I’ve heard from a number of people about how hard it is to justify this activity in a system that favors the production of slender monographs that are read by a couple hundred scholars. Not that readers of this blog need any justification, but here’s Catherine Porter’s explanation of the scholarly activity inherent in translation:

Ms. Porter talked on the subject of “Translation as Scholarship” at a seminar organized at Brown University last summer by the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. In the talk, which will be published as an essay in a forthcoming ADFL Bulletin, she discussed the complex analyses and decisions that a serious translator must go through to bring a text from its native language into the target language. It sounds at least as rigorous as much of the critical work recognized as scholarship.

For instance, Ms. Porter notes, a translator must ask, “In what contexts—literary, rhetorical, social, historical, political, economic, religious, cultural—was the source text embedded, and what adjustments will have to be made to transmit those contexts or produce comparable ones in the translation?” Complicated questions of genre, literary tradition, and target audience must be dealt with. “Once these initial determinations are made—subject to revision and refinement as the translation progresses—the translator can begin to engage with the text itself: word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.”

Or, as translation superstar Edith Grossman puts it:

In a forthcoming book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, to be released this March), Edith Grossman describes the process this way: “What we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism.” The celebrated translator of Cervantes and many Latin American authors, she calls translation “a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.”

I’m often overly optimistic when it comes to the possibility of world change, but I do get the sense that things are evolving . . . Just look at the number of translation and translation studies programs that are starting up (like, well, the one here at the University of Rochester) or becoming more and more prominent. Attitudes are changing . . . I hope. Nevertheless, I like Michael Henry Heim’s idea:

“It’s not only the deans that need to have their consciousness raised,” Mr. Heim says, remembering a call from a fellow professor who had to do a bit of translation and was surprised to discover how hard it was. “It is something that we’re still battling with, not only on the administrative level but also on the level of our own colleagues.”

He describes himself as a “silent partner” in a plan to put the official weight of the MLA behind translation as scholarship. He’s working to help draft an MLA-approved letter, to be signed by Ms. Porter, Ms. Perloff, and Mr. Holquist, that could be sent to administrators and evaluators. “It’s not a matter of a few translators speaking in their own interest, it’s a matter of the MLA, a national organization, coming up with a position paper,” Mr. Heim explains. “What we hope is that people—like deans who may be microbiologists, say, and have really little idea of what translation is—will accept what the MLA says.”

And although ALTA isn’t necessarily focused on the academic side of a life in translation, they could should probably help with this as well. If we’re going to have a vibrant book culture that incorporates works and voices from other cultures, we’re going to need a system by which all players—publishers and translators—can exist. And teaching at a university (or, yeah, having a press located at a university) is one fantastic option . . . Especially considering the normal terms of translation contracts and the general sales level of books in translation . . .


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