I'm finally back from my post-MLA travels and visits in NYC and environs. I'm a bit jet-lagged, but I've got LCD Soundsystem playing on Spotify and I've just had an espresso, so I think I can do this!
"The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context" was the "Presidential Theme" at this year's meeting of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia. The MLA is the main American scholarly society for the study of modern languages and literatures, so although there were about 100 sessions which addressed translation in some way, the "issues" under debate all more or less boiled down to What is the position of translation in the academy? The answers depended on who was asking, and in what context.
The speakers on the panel "The Disciplinary Challenges of Translation Studies" suggested that translation has a central, even iconic role in the study of the (famously hard-to-define) liberal arts. Reading works in translation and considering the process and products of translation is a great way to lead students (and ourselves) to reconsider assumptions about cultural context and what we identify as the foreign. The catch is, as a process of (re-)creation translation fundamentally disrupts any comfortable notions of distance and disinterest: the act of translation inevitably intervenes in the global literary system, the very object we are attempting to study. But even awareness of that paradox won't necessarily help us resolve it in practical terms: as one panelist's cautionary tale demonstrated, the system works to preserve its existing conceptions of itself, and work that is marginalized in the source culture may be that much harder to bring into even a well-disposed central target language and culture. The same caution applies to interdisciplinary considerations: translation may allow an effective critique of cultural and knowledge structures, but those structures will keep it from making too many waves. So, yes, translation is a great match for liberal arts: salutary to study, as long as you don't succumb to the illusion that it represents any practical power to intervene in the world. (I exaggerate this conclusion for clarity.)
The morning panel on "The Translator's Visibility: Bridging the Gap between Translation and Translation Studies" invited a number of practicing literary translators to consider the relation between their practice and what they teach in translation classes at their institutions. David Bellos launched things with the assertion that there is no theory of translation, just centuries of anecdotes and analogies—and that, if it's a theory we want, we need to pay much more attention to linguistics, cognitive science, sociology, etc., and above all we need to study the huge corpus of existing translations to see what has actually happened: the more variety, both in examples and in exercises, the better. Bobbi Harshav, president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), skipped the critique of theory but described a wide range of practical exercises. Michael Henry Heim said that his translation courses function as a professional prospectus rather than practical training—for the rest, you have to put in the hours yourself—but suggested that everyone's habits of reading and study could benefit from an awareness of what translators do. Suzanne Jill Levine pointed out that many academics (and organizations like the MLA) are suspicious of translation as a creative act—it is that, but it is also the closest possible kind of reading. Good points all, but I didn't feel that any gaps were conclusively bridged; indeed, Bellos' talk suggested just what a huge undertaking that would be.
A panel on "World Literature in the Classroom" offered much more practical advice for those teaching: how to introduce translated work into syllabi, how to help students recognize the problematic situation of translation, how to find new works in translation to teach. The room was packed, suggesting that conference attendees were already sold on the pedagogical value (and/or uninterested in theoretical debates) and were looking for practical tips. Karen Emmerich—the only educator on the panel who was also a translator—introduced the idea that professors should consider how their choices intervene in the economics of translation and translation publishing (i.e., keep translators and publishers in business), but no one really picked up on that. Not surprising, since the respondent for the panel was Susan Harris, the editor of Words Without Borders, a fantastic non-profit which publishes a free monthly web magazine of new work in translation: using WWB is free to educators, and yet they do pay translators and authors for their work. (With the January issue, WWB launched a new site design which is much easier to navigate and more pleasant to read, and also added top-level features targeted to educators; this may well became the preferred forum for continuing the kinds of discussions featured at this panel.)
The panel on "Developing a New Generation of Translators" was fantastic, probably the best I attended, and its chair, Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive, has already written a thorough summary. One thing I took away that's a little buried in Martin's summary—not an absolute consensus, but something that came up a few times—is that the idea of teaching translation as some sort of freestanding skill, separable from literary and cultural contexts, is basically nonsense. Since that idea correlates with the "creative" approach which scholars disdain (sorry, MFA-ers), maybe we'll start to see some changes in the way the academy creates new translators. As other panels made clear, translators working outside the academy have just as much scholarly responsibility as those within, so there's no escaping this one.
Unfortunately... the next panel I went to, "Literary Translation and Literary Studies," was the closest thing at the MLA to an official ALTA panel, and it was disappointing. (Fortunately, it was also sparsely attended.) The chair was Gary Racz, the current VP (and next president) of ALTA, and Bobbi Harshav was one of the panelists; the others were all ALTA members. But the panel's topic wasn't clear (was it the creation or the study of translations?), some panelists seemed to be phoning it in (Bobbi repeated a lot of her talk from the morning session), and there was an anti-scholarly undercurrent that didn't seem like it would win many friends.
The last translation-related panel I went to was on using translation in teaching comparative literature—which, though it may seem like an obvious necessity, turns out to be somewhat controversial due to the historically constrained Western European origins of the discipline. (Those dead white European males didn't need translations to read their canon.) Well, three of the biggest names around—Sandra Bermann, Jonathan Culler, and Marjorie Perloff—blew that controversy away. Bermann focused on the central role of translation in the formation of canons and disciplines, Culler showed how translations are themselves readings of a text, and Perloff demonstrated how translation brings us closer to even the most seemingly unapproachable texts (such as Mayakovsky).
I went to a few other panels—on contemporary Latin American fiction, on cognitive approaches—and to good parties thrown by two of my favorite translation publishers (Dalkey Archive and Open Letter); I also had some great chats with friends on the book exhibit floor (hi, NYRB Classics!) and enjoyed wild conversation with Erica and Chad over lunch at a retro-hip lounge. The highlight of the conference, though, was probably something that wasn't even officially related: seeing the Pig Iron Theatre Company do a staged reading of Bill Johnston's new translation of the classic Polish play Balladina by Juliusz Słowacki, an amazing mishmash of pseudo-Shakespearean comedy, history, and tragedy, right up there with Max Beerbohm's in "'Savonarola' Brown" (included in Seven Men). The authentic Polish munchies were also great—as were the raspberries!
Overall, I was impressed with the attention paid to translation as a valid professional, creative, and scholarly task. I was disappointed, though, in the way ALTA presented itself—with no booth in the book exhibit, no official events either on or off the program, just scattered brochures and random mentions here and there. Many of the panelists who announced their affiliation with ALTA emphasized the creative aspects of their practice—precisely what wouldn't endear them to this professional scholarly audience. So while translation as an object of study probably got a great boost from all the exposure at MLA, I'm not sure the same can be said for translation as a profession or for the organization that represents that profession, ALTA.
Fortunately, we get a do-over: ALTA's own next conference will be held this October, in the very same Marriott in Philly that was HQ for the MLA conference.