Translators Struggle to Prove Their Academic Bona Fides

Todd Bigelow for The Chronicle

Academe needs to take translation more seriously, says Michael Henry Heim, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature at the U. of California at Los Angeles.
January 17, 2010

A long-held standard in the Anglo-American world expects translators of literary works to be seen and heard as little as possible. A translator should get reader and author set up and then fade into the background, like a discreet waiter who keeps the glasses filled while remaining practically unnoticed. That attitude has prevailed in the academic world, too, where translation has often been seen as a sideline or a waste of time, something to do in between stretches of "serious" scholarly work.

Now translation is gaining visibility inside academe. The three most recent presidents of the Modern Language Association—Michael Holquist, Marjorie Perloff, and Catherine Porter—are all scholars who make translation a central part of their academic work. Ms. Porter, a professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland, chose translation as the official theme of her presidential year and gave a passionate talk at the association's most recent annual gathering, in Philadelphia in December, about the need to make the United States a more plurilingual society.

More and more universities offer certificates or degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels with an emphasis on translation. Some institutions, like the University of Texas at Dallas, have well-established centers for translation studies, a field that can include hands-on training but often focuses on the theory (or theories) of translation.

In addition to some academic presses, a couple of university-affiliated publishing ventures, Dalkey Archive Press, at the University of Illinois, and Open Letter Books, at the University of Rochester, have created spaces where work in translation is not only tolerated but promoted and—the ultimate compliment—published.

So translation is having a moment, or a series of moments. But its champions say the fight is far from over to have translation—not the theory of it but the hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-out-your-lexicons variety—recognized as a legitimate scholarly activity. In the United States, it's nearly impossible to make a living as an independent literary translator. It's almost as hard to get an academic job as one.

"It's one of those crazy things where it's a tremendously important profession that isn't recognized either monetarily or in prestige," says Barbara S. Harshav, president of the American Literary Translators Association, whose 680 or so members include many with academic affiliations. Ms. Harshav, who works in French, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, has translated a number of well-known contemporary writers, including the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon. She teaches a workshop on translation at Yale University but has mostly worked outside the academic world, which she has not found hospitable to what she does. "Translation is not regarded as a serious academic enterprise," she says.

Cloaks of Invisibility

Part of the problem may be that the most successful translations read so fluently that they appear to be exactly what the writer intended—a paradox described by Lawrence Venuti, a professor of English at Temple University, in his 1994 book, The Translator's Invisibility (Routledge).

Mr. Venuti, widely known for his translations from the Italian and for his influential writings on translation theory, writes: "What is so remarkable here is that this illusory effect conceals the numerous conditions under which the translation is made, starting with the translator's crucial intervention in the foreign text."

Just as publishers have had an unfortunate tendency not to bother putting translators' names on book jackets—the idea being that translations are harder to sell—so hiring and tenure-and-promotion committees have preferred not to hear about the translation activities of the candidates whose dossiers they review. It's almost as though translation is a bad habit, like gambling, that candidates should conceal rather than advertise.

"It actively works against you, which is amazing if you consider that for 3,000 years translation has been at the heart of literary scholarship," says Esther Allen, an assistant professor in the department of modern languages and comparative literature at Baruch College of the City University of New York. In a literary market that downplays translators, Ms. Allen is one of a handful of well-known names. She has 18 books in translation to her credit, including works by Juan Bonilla, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alma Guillermoprieto, and a Penguin Classics anthology of the works of José Martí that she translated, edited, and annotated. This year she is a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, where she has in hand a project involving the work of Gustav Flaubert.

Ms. Allen is no slouch in the academic and publishing spheres. Even so, "it took me 16 years on the job market to get a job that I wanted to have tenure in," she says. At Baruch, with its many immigrant students, she has found what feels like a congenial, multilingual home for her focus on translation. But "in general, across the board, it's tough to encourage this passion in students," she says, "knowing very well it plays against them when they try to have a career."

The pressure among scientists and social scientists almost everywhere to write in English has exacerbated the problem, Ms. Allen thinks. "The mechanism that made all of the hard sciences work in English is at work in the social sciences and, I think, increasingly at work in literature," she says. "This mechanism in the American university essentially shuts out anything published in any other language."

Mark Anderson, who is on leave from the Germanic-languages department at Columbia University, has experienced the vicissitudes that beset academic translators. In graduate school, he did a translation of poetry by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. Princeton University Press published the book, which won a prize from the American Academy of Poets.

After Mr. Anderson, a Kafka scholar, got a job as an assistant professor at Columbia, he recalls in an e-mail message, "I was offered the chance to translate Kafka's The Trial and was about to submit a sample when my chair got word of it and advised me, rightly, I think, not to do this until I finished my book and got tenure. Which I did." He published a translation of Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser­ while still untenured—but under a pseudonym ("Jack Dawson," which according to Mr. Anderson is a pun on Kafka's Czech name and means "son of Kafka"). "We had a celebratory lunch after I got tenure at Columbia, and I told the story and got a good laugh," Mr. Anderson says. "But it's a real issue, and I think my chair gave me excellent advice."

He adds a qualifier that goes beyond institutional pragmatism: "Although I think translation is important and valid, it's worth noting that translation can take people away from criticism and theoretical thinking of an original sort. My chair was also telling me, Finish the book, don't lose sight of that." When you're translating, you already have a text to work with, "whereas writing your own book can often be more taxing, since you don't know where it needs to go."

The Task of the Translator

While other forms of scholarship are more obvious—every critical act flagged or footnoted— translation, too, "is a serious intellectual enterprise," says Ms. Porter, who has just finished her year as the MLA's president. "A translator is the most intimate reader of a text, sort of the consummate interpreter, the ultimate comparatist."

Ms. Porter talked on the subject of "Translation as Scholarship" at a seminar organized at Brown University last summer by the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. In the talk, which will be published as an essay in a forthcoming ADFL Bulletin, she discussed the complex analyses and decisions that a serious translator must go through to bring a text from its native language into the target language. It sounds at least as rigorous as much of the critical work recognized as scholarship.

For instance, Ms. Porter notes, a translator must ask, "In what contexts—literary, rhetorical, social, historical, political, economic, religious, cultural—was the source text embedded, and what adjustments will have to be made to transmit those contexts or produce comparable ones in the translation?" Complicated questions of genre, literary tradition, and target audience must be dealt with. "Once these initial determinations are made—subject to revision and refinement as the translation progresses—the translator can begin to engage with the text itself: word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence."

In a forthcoming book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, to be released this March), Edith Grossman describes the process this way: "What we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism." The celebrated translator of Cervantes and many Latin American authors, she calls translation "a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be."

Short of handing out copies of Ms. Grossman's book, how can translators reassure deans, department chairs, and other scholarly gatekeepers that translation qualifies as intellectual labor? One of the world's leading translators, Michael Henry Heim, has been thinking about that for much of his career. A professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, Mr. Heim is one of the fortunate scholars whose translation work has been recognized and supported by his institution. Among the multitude of books Mr. Heim has translated are The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, and Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. His current translation projects include a Chinese novel and some stories by Anton Chekhov ("my favorite writer of all time," he says).

"It's not only the deans that need to have their consciousness raised," Mr. Heim says, remembering a call from a fellow professor who had to do a bit of translation and was surprised to discover how hard it was. "It is something that we're still battling with, not only on the administrative level but also on the level of our own colleagues."

He describes himself as a "silent partner" in a plan to put the official weight of the MLA behind translation as scholarship. He's working to help draft an MLA-approved letter, to be signed by Ms. Porter, Ms. Perloff, and Mr. Holquist, that could be sent to administrators and evaluators. "It's not a matter of a few translators speaking in their own interest, it's a matter of the MLA, a national organization, coming up with a position paper," Mr. Heim explains. "What we hope is that people—like deans who may be microbiologists, say, and have really little idea of what translation is—will accept what the MLA says."

The poor job market for humanities scholars has not done scholar-translators any favors. "But I always maintain with my graduate students that they should be doing what they feel passionate about, and if they feel passionate about translation, we will support them," Mr. Heim says. "I do feel it's something they can incorporate into their dossiers as a viable component." Translation should be viewed as a marketable skill, an asset rather than a hindrance, an enhancement of a candidate's pedagogical and literary abilities. After all, he says, "a translator is first and foremost a writer."

Getting Creative

One complicating factor is that scholar-translators do not agree about where their work fits best. Does it belong in language departments? Should there be more programs and degrees in translation per se? Translation studies has become an active scholarly field, and many translators, Mr. Heim and Ms. Porter included, say studying translation theory has made them better translators. But as Mr. Heim and others point out, translation studies tends to be more a home for theorists than for practitioners.

Creative-writing programs can give translators themselves an academic perch. Russell Scott Valentino is chairman of the cinema and comparative-literature department at the University of Iowa, editor of The Iowa Review, and founder and editor in chief of Autumn Hill Books, a small press that specializes in work in translation. He also supervises Iowa's M.F.A. program in literary translation, a spinoff of the Iowa Writers Workshop but housed in his department.

Mr. Valentino studied with Mr. Heim at UCLA and always knew he would do translation work, but in the early stages of his career he focused on more conventionally accepted forms of scholarship. "The essential thing is having a monograph," he says. Works in translation still tend not to count or to count less than peer-reviewed monographs and articles.

Mr. Valentino began his career at Iowa in the Russian department, then moved to his current department in part because of his interest in the M.F.A. program in translation. He went up for tenure with a portfolio that emphasized his translation credentials. "I was a guinea pig," he says. "If it hadn't worked, I would have argued that we didn't have any business offering an M.F.A. in translation. Now I feel we're in a position to hire someone based largely on a translation dossier."

Mr. Valentino thinks that a statement from the MLA would help translation's cause but argues that institutional and departmental personnel codes need to be rewritten to make translation work count. "Often there's just no language about it at all," he says. "It's just 'scholarly and creative work,' and because translation doesn't fit into those very neatly, it often falls between the cracks."

Stories have circulated lately about departments' changing those codes to make it clear that translation work may be counted toward tenure and promotion. One of Mr. Valentino's former students, Becka Mara McKay, was hired last year as an assistant professor of translation and creative writing in Florida Atlantic University's English department, which she says has added specific language about translation to its personnel code.

Ms. McKay describes herself as "a strange mix of scholar, translator, and poet," a combination that appears to have worked in her favor when she went after the job. "When I gave my job talk, the first thing I did was stand up there and congratulate them on having the guts to do that"—to advertise for applicants with proven translation skills, she says. Nobody else was looking for a writer who was also a translator. "I think it's pretty farsighted of them."