As we wait for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in NYC (which I won’t write about again
), I’m taking advantage of the luxury of having electricity and internet access to catch up with some old business. Here’s a somewhat belated post on the ALTA conference
that was written by my friend and colleague Bill Martin, translator from both German
, who publishes under the name W. Martin and teaches at Colgate University. Bill writes:
It’s hardly news that the relationship between what translators do and what critics and scholars say about it (or not) is fraught. But while it has gained increasing attention recently in discussions of book reviews, how this particular drama of mistranslation plays out in academia is seldom a topic of public discourse. It was useful then to eavesdrop on two of the final panels at ALTA a few weeks back, where the conversations engaged exactly this problem.
A personal aside before I start: when I walked into the first panel, I was reeling from just having run into the Dutch translator Wanda Boeke near the book exhibit. Boeke had been the Translation Coordinator for the International Writing Program in Iowa City in the early nineties, when I was an office assistant there. She had completed her MFA in Translation under Danny Weissbort and was an especially encouraging voice to me then, as I was trying my hand at my first translations. I heard a familiar voice say my name and looked up and immediately had to laugh: the surprise incongruity of seeing someone so familiar after such a long time. There are denizens of ALTA who I suspect have met each other exactly once a year for the past two decades or more; as in many disciplines, there’s something timeless about the culture of the annual conference, the way the same constellation of friends, colleagues, and familiar strangers gets reproduced year after year in Philadelphia, Chicago, Pasadena, Boston, Philadelphia… But this was only the third ALTA conference I’ve attended, and this encounter was an unexpected sign of a continuity.
Taking Back “Translation Studies”
It was standing room only in the Lynne Lovejoy Parlor, with at least 60 people in the audience. At the front, the two moderators, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, first spoke about their co-edited book project, In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means, a collection of essays by translators about translation that is forthcoming with Columbia UP, then introduced the panelists: Peter Bush, who recently translated from Catalan Quim Monzo’s A Thousand Morons and formerly directed the British Center for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia; Sean Cotter, who teaches at UT Dallas and has published translations of Romanian poets Liliana Ursu and Nichita Stănescu; and Polish translator and Indiana University professor Bill Johnston, the winner of this year’s BTBA Award for Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.
Esther Allen opened the discussion with an anecdote about the limits of Translation Studies methodologies. One scholar in particular, who would remain unnamed, had subjected Harriet de Onis’s translation of Fernando Ortiz’s Tobacco and Sugar to a machine lexical analysis and denounced it as an example of imperialist translation because at one point de Onis rendered the comparative modifier “mas potente” — used to refer to white slave traders by contrast with the Africans they were trafficking — as “more advanced” rather than “more powerful.” Allen argued that the scholar’s method, which focused on discrete lexical choices, discounting de Onis’s overall approach to the text, led to an egregious misinterpretation of her work, and was symptomatic of the gap between Translation Studies and the practice of translation.
Recounting some of his own experience in finding a home for translation in British academia, Peter Bush took the critique of the theory/practice divide to the macro-level by describing attempts to establish Translation Studies as a discipline despite the absence of recognition, in government-sponsored Research Assessment Exercises, for published translations as evidence of faculty output. Like Allen, he was especially critical of prevailing, primitive approaches to translation criticism, giving examples of several established Oxbridge literature professors whose “scholarship” involves little more than attacking word choices. He ended with a reminder that translation theory is only one theory out of many, and that a translation, like any text, can and ought to be engaged from a variety of perspectives.
If both Allen and Bush addressed the problems that translators face, focusing on the fraught relationship between Translation Studies and translation practice, Sean Cotter and Bill Johnston proposed two somewhat different solutions. Cotter suggested that the divide between theory and praxis was largely a cultural one and that it might be abrogated by approaches associated with descriptive translation studies. Taking seriously the question implicit in the panel’s title, Cotter suggested ways for translators to “take back” theory for themselves. He made three points: 1) theory is diverse (here he mapped out rather efficiently a range of existing traditions in translation studies); 2) theory is creative (here he pointed out that theorizing involves building not only objects of study, but arguments about them and new concepts as well); and 3) theory is useful (here he asked how one might bring the practice of translation closer to theory, and provided an example of how his own translation of Mircea Cartarescu had been informed by an awareness of specific theoretical concerns).
Drawing on his secret life as a professor of applied linguistics and foreign language acquisition education, Bill Johnston began his talk by suggesting that the respect teachers had gained in the past twenty years or so had resulted from their own attempts to reclaim the description and recognition of their work away from its theorization by education scholars. He pulled out a well-worn copy of Donald Schön’s 1983 book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, pointing to its influence in shaping this transformation, and briefly encapsulated Schön’s critique of the technical rationality model of education theory and the divide between the kinds of knowledge rewarded in universities and actual practice, and his proposal of a “reflection-in-action” model that would help teachers and other professionals develop their practice. Like Allen and Bush, Johnston affirmed a resistance to the concept of “application,” arguing that theory is most useful when it emerges out of praxis; and he cited as a strong example of a praxis-driven theory Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own translation of Beowulf.
What became clear during this panel was that “taking back” Translation Studies, however understood, depends squarely on translators themselves being heard, and this means translators need to write: whether it’s translator’s prefaces, book reviews of translations, criticism, or scholarship. One thing I wish had been addressed in greater depth, at least in the North American context (Peter Bush talked about it in his discussion of the limits of educational assessment in the UK), is the role of Translation Studies at universities, particularly in the fragile eco-systems of language departments. Translation Studies is for obvious reasons especially well placed to strengthen ties be