Two Commonplaces: News from ALTA

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 and Polish, who publishes under the name W. Martin and teaches at Colgate University. Bill writes: 
W. Martin

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 between English and other modern and classical languages on campuses, particularly in institutions that don’t sustain a separate Comparative Literature program. But it can also facilitate communication between languages and the social sciences, and even the natural sciences. More important, however, is what translation and Translation Studies can offer students in the classroom. This was the topic of the panel that followed — and also of another one at this year’s ALTA, “To MFA or Not to MFA: The Translation Question,” which took place before I arrived, unfortunately, and featured educators, not the students themselves.

The Translation Workshop: A Student Perspective
Maddison Hamil, Micah McCrary, Matthew Cwiklinski, and Dauren Velez are four young graduate students in Columbia College’s Nonfiction Writing MFA Program who spoke about their experience in a translation workshop they took last spring and the ongoing importance of translation for their work. Columbia College does not have a translation workshop on its books, so their professor, Aviya Kushner (who was talking about translators’ prefaces in a room across the hall during the same time slot), designed it under the rubric of a “Form and Theory of Nonfiction” course; and it brought together students with a degree of either fluency or interest in a variety of languages, including French, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Gaelic, among others. The first part of the course involved extensive reading in the history and theory of translation, with special consideration given to the genre of translators’ prefaces. The second part was a writing workshop in which each student provided a “trot” from an original text in a language he or she had access to, and the others each produced a (typically very free) translation based on it, which they all then workshopped as a group. For the third part, the students each prepared a translation manuscript and a preface to it; these prefaces were then workshopped at least once by the group.

The level of insight, intelligence, and sophistication each of these beginning translators brought to the discussion was especially impressive. Maddison Hamil talked about the simultaneous commitment to English and the original language, in her case Italian, and the desire to really know it, to “get the translation right” and to “reproduce the heartbeat, or pulse, of the original text” — translating degree zero, the position every translator necessarily inhabits. Dauren Velez discussed the experience of producing something creative out of the encounter with a language “you don’t have such a complex relationship with” and about the value of translation in developing her own awareness of the capacity of English — this point in particular speaks volumes for the utility of translation workshops for students across disciplines. Micah McCrary anchored his discussion of the translator’s preface in the enjoyment of theory and the question of process, and offered insights into the malleability over time of one’s own theory of translation — an idea that seems quite new and original. And Matt Cwiklinski framed his experience of translation in terms of personal transformation and an increasing awareness of the dialogic nature of the process, with his discussion of translating two papyri of the Book of the Dead culminating in an implicit metaphor of the hermeneutic circle as a return trip to the underworld.

The presentation was exceptionally well constructed and anchored in robust reflective work by the participants (as if they had long before anticipated the suggestions about reflection in action and combining theory and practice from the previous panel). The fact that these were students of creative nonfiction and relative newcomers to the field points to the value of translation and translation workshops for other writing practices (particularly if one considers Dauren Velez’s insight about the capacity of English). And their presentation was especially fresh in a conference populated largely by old hands. One of the best things about the panel, however, was that some truly exceptional old hands were in the audience, including Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Sean Cotter, Elizabeth Harris, and Russell Valentino, who engaged the students in conversation during the Q&A. Moments like these show the real value of ALTA, that the conference provides a place for the exchange of thinking not only among translators who’ve known each other for years, but between established and emerging translators.

The students’ experiences in Aviya Kushner’s workshop, and Kushner’s introduction of her course into a creative nonfiction program, show not only the value of translation for other genres of writing but that another means of bridging the translation-criticism divide, at least in the academy, lies in curriculum. This is hardly news, of course: it goes almost without saying that the culture of translation is closely tied to education: to exposing readers to translated literature even at a very young age and to training future generations, and that perhaps the best way of taking back Translation Studies is by making sure it arrives in the first place.

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