Being Between

Russell Scott Valentino

Just back from the Pedogogies of Translation conference at Barnard College last weekend. While the title doesn't suggest that people were beating down the doors to get in, it was a full house, with plenty of lively debate and discussion. The event was sponsored by Barnard's Center for Translation Studies and co-organized by center director Peter Connor and translation studies scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti. TIR patrons may recall that Venuti's "Towards a Translation Culture" was the inaugural essay in its Forum on Literature and Translation last year.

The conference featured teachers of translation from an array of institutional domains, from applied linguistics to comparative literature and creative writing. Topics ranged from hands on intra-lingual writing exercises to computer-assisted, technology driven approaches, and a number of broad culture- and theory-based discussions that included post-coloniality, poetics, cultural studies, information technology, and more.

Mr. Venuti had asked three of us (David Johnston from Queens University, Belfast), Natalia Teplova (from Concordia University, Montreal, and me) not to prepare a formal presentation in advance but instead to listen to the various approaches and do some comparative work during the last panel on Saturday. As a result, I don't think I have worked so hard at a conference since I was in graduate school. A snippet from my notes are in the pic above. (David leaned over as I was preparing to give my comments and said, "Good luck reading that.")

Despite the effort, the work was no chore, and I learned myriad new things, both in terms of teaching techniques and facts. I was, for instance, struck by the considered classroom use of multiple musical performances of one and the same piece of instrumental music by Peter Filkins for his undergraduate creative writing seminars at Bard College; and, for another instance, Susan Bernofsky's formation of the reading list for her translation workshop based on the students who are in the class, which is only possible if (a) you know the field extremely well; and (b) you're paying close attention to the people in your class.

From a quite different angle, I was struck by some of the statistics cited by Francoise Massardier-Kenney, for instance, that translation is among the top ten fastest growing business sectors worldwide, that by conservative estimates 42% of that market is in the U.S. while the U.S. has a miniscule number of programs that actually teach translation; or by John Balcom, for instance, that 95% of translations currently being done into English from Chinese are being done by native speakers of Chinese, and that they are being taught to do this primarily by other native speakers of Chinese, and the comment of a Chinese government official, who said that "the Americans will never learn to translate Chinese works into English, so we will have to do it for them."

There was much more like this and not like this, and I wrote down a number of book titles, and had some really enjoyable and informative conversations with people during the breaks and over meals.

But I noticed something somewhere into the second day, and I assume I noticed it because I've been in Iowa's rather MFA-centric writing environment these past years, and editing a literary magazine that features translated poetry, fiction, and occasionally literary essays alongside non-translated work. TIR makes no real distinction between these categories when we read submissions. We do not treat translations as a "genre" of its own. If a poem is translated, it's a poem, not a translated poem. At least that's what we think is going on, but it's of course always more complicated, harder to see exactly, because, well, it is a translated poem after all, which means there is at least one other person involved in the process, and we need to know about that person, too. What has that person been taught about her or his work? How do we imagine that person in the process?

Teaching introduces a whole variety of concerns that begin with language acquisition, but that's probably the easiest part. As the eminent translator Michael Henry Heim once put it, learning the language is a technical detail, by which I think he meant that the real challenge is learning to write. But there's more.

For instance, how might the unarticulated often unexamined assumptions and biases of translators go hand in glove with abuses of power, or various kinds of cultural and political exploitation? How might a business model that privileges speed and efficiency, not to mention work for hire, conceal inequities and racism and a host of banalities of evil as one culture is imagined by another through translated works? How might an aestheticist model (I just like the work, it's just a good novel, poem, and so on) potentially serve the interests of major languages over minor ones, centralizing regimes, international media conglomerates, and so on? Are translators studying these things? Should they be?

It occurs to me that there is an enormous divide between the kind of making approach that is central to the professional world of the AWP and the kind of analysis approach that is central to the world of the MLA. These two organizations now rival each other in terms of their size, with 10,000 attendees for each of their national conventions. The participants at this conference were less familiar with the AWP, so I did my best to characterize it, not as Michael Martone once put it (your high school reunion without the jocks) but in comparative terms: the AWP is attended mostly by young people, and then older people doing their best to appear younger than they actually are. The MLA is the opposite. Another way to think of this, still comparatively: at the AWP people still think that primary texts are primary; at the MLA, secondary texts are now primary, a formulation that I have borrowed from David Hamilton.

Translation seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, with a number of new programs springing up in a variety of universities around the U.S. in the past eight years or so. It is nothing like the number of new creative writing programs that have been formed (about 150 since 2004 according to the AWP), but it is also not part of the crisis in language-and-literature education that has seen programs closing down.

I left the conference feeling hopeful that translation's in-between being, while always difficult from an institutional standpoint (because when you're in between you're neither this nor that, which makes it hard to say you're central) might serve as a bridge or nexus between the worlds of making and analysis, translating some of the best parts of each for the other.