MLA Embraces Translation as Scholarship

Here’s some exciting just-out news from the Modern Language Association (MLA), the main professional organization for North American college and university teachers of language and literature. The MLA has just adopted a new document entitled “Evaluating Translations as Scholarship: Guidelines for Peer Review.” Those of you who have been following the acceptance and non-acceptance of translators in the academy over the past few decades will understand what a revolutionary step this is. It wasn’t so long ago that tenure-track academics were routinely publishing their translations under pseudonyms out of fear that their interest in work of this sort might count as a strike against them in their tenure evaluations. But now the MLA’s new guidelines, co-authored by 2009 MLA President Catherine Porter and UCLA Professor Michael Henry Heim, translators both, not only enunciate a very sound rationale for evaluating translation work as scholarship but also offer practical guidelines for both the candidate under review and her/his evaluators. “Every translation is an interpretation,” the document eloquently states; “each one begins with a critical reading, then expands and ultimately embodies that reading.” The guidelines for reviewers draw attention to the different sorts of scenarios and objectives that might govern a specific translation project. Poems for a reading edition might be translated to preserve characteristic features of the source text (“rhyme, assonance, meter, imagery, and so on”), while a bilingual edition for language-learners might emphasize the semantic content at the expense of the poem’s poetic devices. Translators of lengthy scholarly works, on the other hand, are sometimes asked by publishers to decrease the total word count, requiring the addition of “bridging material and clarifying information” as well as judiciously applied cuts. Most importantly, the MLA statement proposes that a translation in the academic context be understood as a contribution both to the scholarly conversation in a field and to the cultural and intellectual life of a a community.

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