Thursday, December 10, 2009

Literary Translation as Peripheral

So the theme of this year's MLA is translation, and it's going to be an embarrassment of riches for those of us who are both interested in the academy and in translation. The current president picked the theme because she is concerned with the place translation and translation studies have held in the academy (or rather, the places in which they are elided, I might say). And thank goodness someone is.

But it concerns me still that a behemoth like MLA might not be able to help but marginalize the work of literary translation and literary translation studies (from here on out, I'm going to just assume the 'literary). I differentiate between the two because I think it's in part this duality that makes translation a difficult subject to broach in the over-compartmentalized and departmentalized university system. Translation is, among other things, about half creative writing and half critical theory. So Translation Studies tends to get the theory - and that includes of course a range of other multi-disciplinary concerns outside of straight "translation theory" or even practitioner theory, including literary theory, linguistics, philosophy, the broad range of cultural studies and more narrowly cultural sociology, history, economics, etc. And Creative Writing, if they have the resources for it, can include the translation practice and the compositional creative elements. So where does that leave Translation? Split and scattered across the academy.

For example, where to people go to study or teach translation? There are very few departments, most translation studies programs are incorporated into other, larger departments like Comparative Literature, English or the relevant area studies program. Job listings for universities that support or are developing translation programs tend to require training or interest in translation as secondary to a primary "authorized" academic interest, again within one of those departments. In this sense, translation is always a subsidiary peripheral activity. It is secondary to the 'real' qualifications and the 'real' work of the department. Supplementary.

Those programs that exist explicitly for the study of translation tend to be broad programs that address the practical issues of interpretation, language acquisition, technical and business translation and perhaps, but briefly, literary translation. Literary translation is not a practical career, generally speaking, so these more technical programs rightly don't devote the same amount of attention to its practice and study.

And maybe this is the root of some of the difficulty. Literary translators into English very, very rarely make a living as a literary translator. Those that I know either teach (again, in another subject with some potential for crossover), or are freelance non-literary translators. Or like me, came from publishing. So when a field of cultural production, to steal a sociological framework, is not even undervalued but literally unvalued as an economic practice, what incentive is there for it's continued practice or study?

It seems similar, though I'm not familiar enough with the history, to the problem that creative writing faced in the middle of the last century. The solution then was the establishment of the workshop format, relying on the Universities to sponsor and support the creative activities that were being undertaken. And really, this is not such a new model. The patronage model has been in place for centuries, but only recently has it been institutionalized rather than individual patronages.

Of course, even if the workshop system was the solution, and I'm not sure that it is, it doesn't resolve that creative/critical divide that literary translation so simply ignores. Doing both is the obvious move, and some academics do, but eventually, it seems, by sacrificing the primacy of one for the other. And the one that is sacrificed is inevitably the undervalued practice of translation. Academics are happy to have translated texts to study, to teach, and to reference. But there is no system of reward that compensates for the work it takes to produce those texts, much less one to train qualified translators to become the producers of those texts. Those academics that attempt to include these elements when they can are often unable to.

All of this has been said before, more thoroughly I'm sure. I think, though, that until the discourse is developed into a valued and positive gain-driven vocabulary for literary translation, there is going to be no real change in how translation is incorporated as secondary (tercery, or at all) to the established disciplines of academic study and teaching.

1 comment:

  1. Erica, Just read an interesting post on /in lieu of a field guide/ and wanted to talk about some online and print publishing possibilities. Could you email me your contact information at david.shook AT



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