21 April 11 | Chad W. Post

Following on the 2009 Convention’s “Focus on Translation,” the MLA1 has just released an official statement on Evaluating Translations as Scholarship.

Overall, this is a pretty interesting document, both because it helps establish some guidelines for assessing translations in “personnel decisions related to hiring, retention, merit awards, promotion, and tenure.” Seeing that the general line for the past XX years has been that translation could hurt your chances at getting tenure, this is a pretty significant sea change.

Not that it’s my place to speak on such matters, but seriously, it’s about time. I would say more, but I feel like all comments coming to mind are inflammatory, so I’ll let the MLA take over and explain the reasons why translations “should count” as academic practice:

Translation has been an indispensable component of intellectual exchange and development throughout recorded history. Today, the ever-accelerating interaction among cultures and economies in our globalized world is exponentially increasing the need for translation. As more and more postsecondary institutions incorporate translation studies and translator training into their curricula, there is a growing need for faculty members who are scholars and practitioners of translation. Moreover, the translation of a work of literature or scholarship—indeed, of any major cultural document—can have a significant impact on the intellectual community, while the absence of translations impedes the circulation of ideas.

More and more academics are therefore undertaking translation as a component of their professional activity and as a natural extension of their teaching. Whether they translate literary or scholarly works or other cultural documents, they are engaging in an exacting practice, at once critical and creative, that demands lexical precision; detailed knowledge of historical, political, social, and literary contexts; and a nuanced sense of style in both the source language and the target language. It goes without saying that the machine-translation programs available online are woefully inadequate to cope with such demanding texts.

Every translation is an interpretation; each one begins with a critical reading, then expands and ultimately embodies that reading. Given the importance of the endeavor and the expertise required to do it justice, a translation of a literary or scholarly work or another cultural document should be judged as an integral part of the dossiers submitted by candidates for academic positions and by faculty members facing personnel decisions. Institutions thus need to ensure that translations are subject to peer review on the same basis as monographs and other recognized instances of scholarly activity.

Preach it!

What’s really interesting to me is the part “for reviewers.” This is a really complicated situation for most people: if they don’t know the source language, they freak out and believe that it’s impossible to judge the translation; and if they do know the source language, they tend to hone in on nitpicky word choices and freak out. I’m tempted to quote the whole section, but anyone who’s interested can read it for themselves, so instead, here’s the highlights:

All reviewers can to some extent assess the translation’s readability, stylistic qualities, scholarly value, and overall interest to its target audience. In principle (the qualifier is necessary because editors sometimes intervene), every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark represents a deliberate choice by the translator in the attempt to capture not only meaning but also structure, idiom, diction, rhythm, tone, voice, and nuance. A translation must occasionally violate the norms of Standard English in order to convey the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the source text. Reviewers who are not in a position to compare the translation with the source text can nevertheless consider questions such as the following:

Do the translator’s supporting materials and the introduction and critical apparatus accompanying the published work, if any, shed light on the translation challenges involved and on the solutions adopted?

In a work of fiction, does the discursive register correspond to the context? For example, in dialogue, does the tone shift to represent different characters’ voices?

In a work of nonfiction, is there evidence that the translator has appropriately adapted the work to the frame of reference of its new audience? Has the translator sought out and referred to existing English editions of foreign works cited in the source text?

If the work has been translated before, how does the new translation compare with the earlier one(s)? Does it offer new insights or emphases? [. . .]

Reviewers who read both the source language and the target language can address the complex question of the translation’s “faithfulness” to the source text. A good translation will contain few outright misreadings. Yet success or failure in translation ultimately depends not so much on the literal transposition of discrete meanings as on an interpretation of the myriad traits and dimensions of the source text. Reviewers need to recognize that readability and argumentative comparability at the level of large-scale discursive structures (paragraphs, chapters, entire books) are legitimate objectives that may create the appearance of a departure at the level of words and sentences. Translators use a wide variety of techniques to compensate for structural differences between languages and to minimize loss: expansion, condensation, displacement, borrowing, exegesis, generalizing, particularizing, transposition, and so on. An apparent error or deviation may turn out to be an apt rendering of a provocative or anomalous passage in the source text; just as significantly, it may be an artifact of the translator’s decision to rephrase, reorder, condense, or expand in order to convey meaning more clearly or more idiomatically in the target language.

Now hopefully universities across the country will adopt these guidelines and translation work will be integrated into more personnel evaluations . . .

1 “Acknowledgment. Sections of this document have been adapted with permission from the following sources: a statement prepared in February 2009 by Michael Heim and the academic working group of Salzburg Global Seminar 461; a statement by the American Literary Translators Association, titled “Translation and Academic Promotion and Tenure”; guidelines for book reviewers prepared by Michael Moore and the PEN American Center Translation Committee.”2

2 I was at the Salzburg Global Seminar when Michael Henry Heim presented this. Catherine Porter, the MLA President who decided that 2009 would be translation-centric and the person who e-mailed me about this statement, was also there. As always, he greatly impressed me with his professionalism and dedication to actually “getting something done.” Also very cool that the PEN Translation Committee is getting some props.


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