31 March 08 | Chad W. Post

This past weekend Columbia University (and the Center for Literary Translation) hosted the Graduate Student Translation Conference. E.J. and I were lucky enough to be there, and with so many great translators attending and events taking place, it’s worth recapping some of the activities.

First off, in case you’re not familiar with the conference, this started a few years ago at UCLA at the urging of Michael Henry Heim. It’s a biennial conference, organized by grad students studying translation and takes place (on a rotating basis) in L.A., Iowa City, and New York. The conference consisted of a combination of morning workshops and afternoon panels (the panels were free and open the public) on topics like “Translation and Publication,” “Translation and Canon Formation,” “Translation and the Academy,” and “Translation and Theory.”

Before talking about anything else, I want to praise Idra Novey, Lytton Smith, Mary Kate Hurley, and Audrey Truschke (and anyone else involved) on the fantastic job they did putting this conference together. Everything was incredibly smooth, and panels even started and ended on time! There was a great turnout, especially for the opening reception, the keynote address with Charles Simic and Michael Scammell and the panels. Esther Allen also deserves special thanks for all that she’s done for the Center and for making the event possible. (And I want to thank Dedi Felman again for reading one of the Fonseca stories we’re publishing at the opening event.)

I was on the Translation and Publishing panel, so it’s hard for me to judge how successful this was, but I loved meeting all the people in the audience, and it was great to finally have a chance to meet Bob Weil from Norton and Jennifer Kronovet from Circumference. The conversation was pretty lively and fun. And I was personally thrilled to find out that the galley for the forthcoming Antonio Lobo Antunes book — What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? — will be available in the next few weeks . . .

The session on “Translation and the Academy” was pretty interesting, with the conversation circling around the problem of positioning translation work within the university setting. There are a multitude of issues related to this, the most crucial being the fact that translations generally don’t help one’s case for tenure.

The most shocking story I’ve heard about this is the case of Susan Bernofsky and Bard. She was on the panel and made passing reference to this situation, but basically she was denied tenure at Bard despite being one of the true “rock star translators” working today. She’s translated Robert Walser, won the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of a book by Jenny Erpenbeck, and is generally considered one of the best German translators working today. Quite frankly, among people interested in international lit, she’s almost a household name, and one would think that a university with an interest in translation would really want to hold on to her. . . .

I don’t know much about the tenure process, but I think this, as it relates to literary translators, is going to become a really hot issue over the next decade or so as more programs start up, graduates enter the workforce, etc., etc. ALTA has some info about this situation on their website, and in theory could become the national “lobbyists” for this issue.

There are a few other items that came up over the conference that are worth noting in bulleted fashion:

  • Last year, Yale University Press received a significant endowment (I’ve heard $3 million) to start a series of translations called The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters. Heard the plan was to do five books a year (which most people thought seemed a bit low), although the when and what of this is still a bit vague. I haven’t heard anything since reading this initial announcement (if anyone knows anything more—which books, when the first will be coming out—please e-mail me), but let’s hope that this doesn’t become one of those well-funded enterprises that gets zero attention and results in nice editions of a handful of books being published and read by a handful of readers.
  • Charles Simic and Michael Scammell had a great conversation on Saturday night that included two great bits. At one point Scammell suggested we could be entering a golden age of translation in America, similar to what happened in Britain when it was a true imperial power, Simic, half-joking, responded that that probably wouldn’t be the case because, “translation is un-American.” Aside from being a great sound bite, this does seem to have a kernel of truth in relation to the American view of its perfect Empire.
  • Scammell, when talking about the author/translator in the academy, related a great anecdote about Nabokov and Harvard. Supposedly, when Nabokov was being hired, Roman Jakobson was very opposed to a Russian writer being in the Slavic Department. Apparently, at one meeting he said, “If we were the Department of Zoology would we hire an elephant?”

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