Translation Gains New Ground in American Academia

“We want people to see translation as something instantly engrossing, with all kinds of ethical considerations.”

By Anna Clark

From Publishing Perspectives, November 16, 2012

The trouble with translation is getting it noticed. This seems at odds with the purpose of literary translators, whose textual invisibility is often equated with their abilities. Traditionally, as a discipline, translation has not significantly contributed to a scholar’s hiring, retention, promotion, or tenure. Thoughtful attention on campuses to the problems and marvels of translation has often been buried in comparative literature and language departments, which, with typically small enrollments, are on the defensive against university cost-cutting. The turmoil earlier this year at the University of Virginia featured criticism of President Teresa Sullivan for “lack(ing) the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.”

flags of the worldThat’s the old story, at least. But there’s been significant movement toward cultivating and celebrating the relationship between literary translation and academia. Just last year, the Modern Language Association put forward a statement on “Evaluating Translation as Scholarship,” which offers universities long overdue peer review guidelines for assessing translation work among professors. The American Literary Translators Association (based at the University of Texas-Dallas since 1978) hosted itsconference at the University of Rochester in October, building off UR’s translation studies department andOpen Letter Books, the campus’ publisher specializing in translation.

ALTA’s keynote speaker, David Bellos, directs Princeton’s innovative translation and intercultural communication program. The State University of New York-Binghamton offers the nation’s first Ph.D. program in translation studies. And the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is in the midst of its Translation Theme Semester: the comparative literature department is hosting an expansive interdisciplinary series of courses and programming that feature not only text-to-text translation, but multi-medium translation: film into dance, math into music, code into illustration. The theme semester is partially about curriculum development: one of its goals is to use this high-profile time to launch a new collaborative minor in translation studies and to cue the university’s emergence in the field.

University of Michigan’s Translation Theme Semester

“We want to announce presence of the University of Michigan in translation studies — critical translation studies in particular,” said Yopie Prins, chair of Michigan’s comparative literature department. “Making translation visible — that is the largest way of describing it,” she added. “We forget who brings text to us.”

So what does it look like when a campus moves translation studies out from the wings and into the spotlight? At Michigan, the theme semester comes three years after the Comp Lit department hosted a smaller scale “year of translation” that was successful enough to win support from the dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Administrative buy-in also comes out of making connections with the university’s broader ambitions. As Prins put it: “For a university thinking a lot about its international profile, translation is key.”

Prins also noted that Michigan is one of the few universities where less commonly taught languages continue to be taught, including Dutch, ancient and modern Greek, Korean, and dozens of others. (It’s worth noting that the academic provost that supported coursework for even small languages at this public university was Teresa Sullivan herself, who left the position when she accepted the presidency of UVA.) The language resources make Michigan a natural place for translation studies to emerge in an intentional and interesting way.

“We’re not filling a gap in our curriculum,” Prins said. “We’re showing what’s already there…This is a public university that really thinks about issues of diversity and multiculturalism. I think Michigan feels part of its responsibility is to represent a wide range of cultures and languages.”

Christi Merrill is an associate professor of comparative literature and, with Prins, co-director of the Theme Semester. She suggested that one of the most important dimensions to the Theme Semester is a physical one: it is unfolding in buildings all across the university. “Translation is not just something people in comparative literature. We want to hear how others do this.”

This helps push translation out of wholly literary trappings. Prins said she hopes the new translation studies emphasis at Michigan will “expand translational humanities. I want people in the sciences and social sciences to understand how translation is integral to their work as well.”

Programming and coursework this semester specializes in the multiplicities of translation. Classes connected to the theme semester study the Arab-Israeli conflict as rendered in Middle Eastern literature; persuasive politics; remix culture, literature in African history; and an astronomy mini-course on aliens. There’s also a faculty discussion group meeting throughout the semester to talk about translation and ways to teach it in both theoretical and practical ways.

One challenge, though, is the multiple texts that critical translation studies requires. Merrill notes that in the last few years Ann Arbor has lost its great independent bookstore, Shaman Drum, as well as the original Borders store. Students need to have particular and multiple texts available for comparisons, but it’s a challenge for instructors to connect students to particular versions of the text they are working with: many simply buy the cheapest version online, without regard to translation. Merrill believes this creates an opportunity to rethink how translation studies curriculums partner with booksellers and publishers.

Other Theme Semester events include a lecture on Buddhist medicine in China and “the body as cross-cultural translation,” as well as a day-long conference on translation human rights and a major performance featuring dancers and musicians translating on-stage the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Organizers at Michigan also commissioned a student to develop an IPad game called “That Translation Game Show!,” designed for student play, flexible classroom use, and a live theatrical event on campus this November.

“What is gained through translation is not about creating equivalencies or corrections,” Prins said. “It’s about creating new meanings. It’s also moving and adding to the original. Translation multiplies meaning.”

Students Leading the Way

But administrative buy-in is only part of the story of translation’s emergence from the backrooms. Its emerging vibrancy at Michigan is not coming only from the top-down: students are generating momentum themselves. Gabriella Martin, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Residential College, found a way to fuse her studies in Spanish and creative writing last year by creating the RC Translation Forum.

Forums are student-generated weekly discussions on topics that range from film to sex to sustainability, and RC students participate in forums for one college credit. Martin imagined the Translation Forum as “a space for language learners and writers to pursue translation in an informal, relaxed setting.” The group honed the noticeability of translation by discussing the idea of “untranslatability” and “what makes a bad translation,” writing exercises, translation comparisons, and watching foreign films. At one meeting, the group Skyped with a Spanish translator who writes subtitles for American television shows aired in Spain. Each member worked on their own translation project, usually working with poems, stories, and novel excerpts, working from four languages, and the forum often turned into a writing workshop.

“The very nature of translation to be a bit sneaky,” said Martin, who is now Translation Theme Semester’s student outreach coordinator. “Most of the time, it’s only when a translation is really ‘off” that it’s noticed.”

Martin, along with Merrill and Prins suggest that the multilingualism of Michigan’s students is another crucial way leverage a sort of grassroots profile-raising for translation studies. The Theme Semester is hosting a contest where students submit short videos that reveal everyday translations and students will get to vote for a winner among a set of finalists, a Monday translation series is held in the North Quad dorm, which will often feature special guests, including people with Words Without Borders who will make emerging translators aware of how they can contribute to the magazine. Merrill told me that Words Without Borders is working to collaborate more with different institutions to bring out more of an intentional focus on translation.

The Theme Semester is also going out of its way to cultivate opportunities to create their own events and programming, with funding available to help them succeed. Students are also invited to contribute freely to the theme semester’s blogwhere, for example, Korbin Felder, a junior, wrote about translating hip-hop into a tool for youth to create community change, and 9th Wonder’s translation of hip-hop into academia.

Michigan, then, is claiming a great number of “stages” to spotlight translation, counter to the tradition of translation’s quiet stature. “People have tended to hide (translation), to make that (invisibility) seem like a virtue,” Merrill said. “We want to slow down that process (of translation) and see what’s at stake.” She added that, “We want to make people see translation not as something straightforward and mechanical, but instantly engrossing, with all kinds of ethical considerations.”

DISCUSS: A Handy Database of Translations Published in the US