Fired up about translation; Comparative Literature and translation

After the ALTA conference I’m all fired up about translation. In the next few days I’ll be writing up my notes from the panels, hallway conversations, lunch dates, and bilingual readings.

I bounced around the conference spreading lots of ideas. One thing I love about ALTA is that it’s not just for professional academics. Because it’s so hard to make a living being a literary translator in the U.S., everyone has a day job. There’s courtroom interpreters, surgeons, and high school foriegn-language teachers, heck, elementary school teachers. People’s jobs tend to be in teaching, publishing, editing, or – like me – housewifing. Those mavericks do great work, and they get a lot of respect from the academics, who also tend to be the red-headed stepchildren of their departments; foreign language, Comp Lit, English, Composition, Creative Writing – none of them are quite the right fit and your translation might not be quite respectable, might not count so much towards your tenure. Of course there are execptions, and some people are lucky enough to be in one of the rare universities with a Translation Studies program.

Comparative Literature is the logical home for translators in academia. It’s already cross-disciplinary. It’s theory-heavy right now, and could use a little course correction, a little practical connection with the world. Translation, at least of living languages and authors, maintains a direct connection with literary communities. Take a look at the book Comparative Literature in an Age of Multiculturalism. It’s a collection of short essays on Comp Lit, including a report on the state of the discipline from the 60s, 70s, and one from the 90s. (The 80s one is missing, because the Culture Wars were so intense.) If you look at the drafts of new American Comparative Literature Association essays available here: ACLA drafts that translation is being “noticed” more by Comp Lit. Maybe a shift in the discipline is happening, or should be happening. What does this mean for Comp Lit departments?

Comparative literature students and profs would benefit from learning more translation theory, and from doing translations. Translation theory and literary translators would benefit from thinking of their work as essentially comparative. What does that mean? As far as I understand it, it means keeping many factors in mind at the same time while doing your translation: your own subjectivity, the gaps in your knowledge, the depth or shallowness of your knowledge of other cultures and contexts. Seemingly unrelated areas of knowing can factor into a translation; though you’re translating an Argentinian short story from 1920, your knowledge of Icelandic history or the Tale of Genji, as a comparatist, is going to deepen the work. Putting translation into Comp Lit as a discipline would revitalize Comp Lit, and would acknowledge the way that translation is a creative, critical, literary, and political act.

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