Translation Has Its Moment at MLA

December 28, 2009

If there were required reading for the 125th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, which began here yesterday, it would be Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator." The German-Jewish critic, philosopher, and translator has emerged as the gray eminence of the gathering, his name invoked repeatedly at sessions on translation—this year's theme, thanks to the MLA's president, Catherine Porter.

Ms. Porter, a professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland, put the spotlight on translation because it's a longstanding interest of hers—she has translated nearly three dozen books—but in a conversation with The Chronicle she agreed that translation appears to be having a long-overdue moment.

"In the United States, some of us are rethinking our standing in the world, our ways of relating to others in the developed and developing worlds, learning more about what it means to be one among equals," she said.

That interest has affected academe, too. For instance, "more and more institutions are introducing courses in translation," she said. And while translators in academic settings still have to struggle to get their work weighed equally with other forms of scholarly endeavor, she observed, "that's a battle that's being fought more openly and more aggressively than in the past." One institution, SUNY-Albany, recently rewrote its personnel policies to include translations along with other tenure-and-promotion-worthy activities, according to Ms. Porter.

At a presidential forum on "The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context," Benjamin's name came up in a series of talks by senior scholars including Tom Clark Conley of Harvard University and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University.

Although a nonspecialist could have used a translator to fully grasp the presentations, which were heavy on words and phrases like "languaging" and "networks of idioms," the speakers described a world in which forced displacements and relocations mean that more and more writers (and critics) are working with or struggling against languages not their own.

Ms. Spivak made the striking point that in this country "multiculturalism goes deplorably in hand with monolingualism" and that globalization is no friend to linguistic diversity. "In the global context, the Tower of Babel can be a refuge," she said.

Translation seemed more accessible at a panel earlier in the day on "The Translator's Visibility: Bridging the Gap Between Translation and Translation Studies," which featured Michael Henry Heim of the University of California at Los Angeles and several other well-known scholar-translators.

Mr. Heim has taught a workshop on translation at UCLA for more than three decades. Whether or not students go on to become translators, he said, they benefit from having to wrestle with the questions translators struggle with.

"It's the best way of learning the closest kind of close reading," he said. Translation theories have an important place, Mr. Heim said, but "it's a good idea for students studying translation theory to get their hands dirty."

He urged the audience to get out there and make the case for translation. "Proselytize, proselytize, proselytize," he said. "You've got to remind your colleagues to assign works in translation." Publishers must be convinced there's a market for them, and in New York publishing circles "there's an unbelievable arrogance among people who control this situation."

Suzanne Jill Levine, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, talked about translation as a creative literary endeavor that does not deserve its second-class status within academe. She recently helped establish a translation-studies doctoral emphasis at UCSB. "It was a real challenge to make a translation-studies program come to life at my university," she said. "There's still a privileging of everything but the creative act."