Teaching in Translation

By Russell Scott Valentino


The general membership meeting of the American Literary Translators Association's annual conference in October of this year went smoothly until the final item of business. The members present were sharply divided over the newly imposed rule stipulating that only books with the translator's name printed on the cover should be eligible for the National Translation Award, which is administered by that organization. The rationale for the new rule is clear enough—publishers should pay more attention, and encourage readers to pay more attention, to the fact of translation; and translators should be better recognized and acknowledged for their work. A familiar story. Requiring that only books with translators' names on their covers be eligible for the annual award was seen, by some ALTA members at least, as a form of slightly righteous pressure applied to the gatekeepers of publishing.

The problem was that the new rule had resulted in a marked decrease, by more than half from previous years, in the number of eligible applications. It appears that quite a few translations continue to be published without translators' names going on their covers. Members argued over whether to stick to the rule—and the principle behind it—or bow before the practical realities that (1) many publishers do not put translators' names on the outsides of books (and some make them almost un-traceable on the insides as well); (2) translators are not to blame for the fact that they have little or no power to force publishers to do so, which makes preventing them from entering their works for the award a rather unfair constraint; and (3) ALTA's prize is not prestigious or noteworthy enough to put appropriate pressure, righteous or otherwise, on publishers to change the way they do business.

Business presumably is the main reason that large, commercial publishers are reluctant to follow the desired path of at least some ALTA members. An assumption on the part of the publishers remains palpable; that readers will at least hesitate if not turn resolutely away when confronted by the fact of a translated work, especially one by a relatively unknown author, relatively unknown translator, or both. They tend to see the highlighting of translation as an unnecessary and potentially harmful gesture—harmful to their own business interests, yes, but also harmful to the book, the author, the translator, and, in some cases, serious literature in general. If the book doesn't get into people's hands, after all, it doesn't help anyone; and in the highly competitive book market, where each new title is thought of as pushing another title off the shelf, an obviously translated work is less likely to be successful. Better to slip in the translation part, they suggest, without overt notice, or at least without slapping the reader in the face with the information. Let it perform whatever cross-cultural or other magic it might be capable of performing, but quietly, unobtrusively. Otherwise, you risk turning readers off, or at least encouraging them to make other choices from among the many they have. This is an assumption based not, to my knowledge, on any empirical evidence, but rather on a combination of anecdote, publishers' lore, and gut feeling.

In opposition stand those translators, like some of the most vociferous at the ALTA general meeting, who say that literature and translation have always gone hand in hand and always will; and that Americans are too insular as it is without having publishers shield them from the fact that there are great works in English that weren't originally written in English; and that this kind of action on the part of publishers is motivated by sheer ignorance, the shameful monolingualism of editors, or the undue influence of obtuse marketers who've never set foot out of New York City, let alone the U.S. of A. Would we have American readers think like Ma Ferguson, a former governor of Texas, who, when faced with the specter of allowing Spanish to be taught in the public schools, supposedly once said, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the children of Texas?" These translators, then, insist that we should do something that's within our power, or close to it, and remind people of the fact of translation every chance we get, and of the considerable role that translators play in the creation of literature, openly acknowledging that work and the expertise, skill, and art that translators bring to it.

They are speaking at cross purposes in most of this, of course; the publishers nervous about sales and the potential effect of complicating the message, the translators angry and sensitive about not being taken seriously. It would help a lot to have some good survey data that might help answer the basic question behind the publishers' assumption: are readers really less likely to pick up a translated book in a bookstore when they can clearly see that it's been translated? No one really knows. I hope that some budding translation studies scholar will take on the very important work of providing an answer that's based on more than what I have to offer here.

This audience may not be pleased to hear it, but I tend to agree with the publishers in this instance at least, partly because the retail sales market is really no place to be teaching people in anything but the most subtle of ways. Mainly, though, I think this because of a look I've seen on people's faces, the faces of students, colleagues, and administrators in academic settings, and those of friends, neighbors, and family outside them. I understand the look as reflecting a slight insecurity with shades of bewilderment, a slow souring of expression that appears whenever I speak about the fact of translation, its invisible pervasiveness. There may be a little guilt in it too, for not having studied their Spanish or German lessons more diligently when they were in school, or something like that, I'm not sure. But I've seen the look many times and am no longer really surprised by it. My conclusion is that translations do tend to make many people nervous, and that publishers' lore has something to it on that score.

It's not a reason to give up the fight, or accept an unreflective invisibility. On the contrary, I see it as a provocation to expand the battlefield. Some translation scholars see the question of placing or not placing translators' names on the covers of books as a sort of teaching moment for the general reading public, envisioned as myriad Ma Fergusons willfully ignoring the fact that Jesus didn't speak, nor Tolstoy nor Dante write, in English. It may be such a moment, but even so it is a terribly minor one, misplaced, I would argue, in the retail bookstore, and in any case unlikely to have much consequence when pursued in isolation. The relative neglect of translation in the educational system is the larger and much more fecund teaching territory I would like to focus on, by suggesting key domains in which engaging translations—reading them and writing them—can serve a fundamentally transformative role in people's reading practices in general, both inside and outside the classroom.

Russell Scott Valentino is professor of Slavic and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. He has published a monograph on nineteenth-century Russian literature and seven book-length literary translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. His essays, translated fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, Two Lines, POROI, Circumference, Asia, Modern Fiction Studies, Slavic Review, and 91st Meridian. He is the recipient of a 2002 NEA Literature Fellowship and a 2004 Howard Foundation fellowship, both for literary translation, as well as two Fulbright research awards to Croatia. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Autumn Hill Books and in fall 2009 will become Editor of The Iowa Review. He teaches in the Translation Workshop at the University of Iowa.



Recently I was reading a post on the blog, racialicious.com, about racism in Hollywood. The post was quoting a magazine article, and here’s the bit I found relevant for translation:


Anonymous Screenwriter íèLiberal Hollywood’ is an oxymoron. What do they fear? Revenge. Retaliation. The thing that they fail to realize is that if blacks were going to retaliate, it would have happened well before now. People are comfortable with their own stories. For example, I’m comfortable with a story about a black person, and a black hero, and a black family, and whites are comfortable with stories about themselves. Unfortunately, in their world, there’s not any room for stories about anyone else. They can read a good story about someone else and go, èThat’s wonderful! But is there an audience for it?’ Because it’s not about them. And that is where they sell the American public short. I do think that whites outside of our industry are curious about other people. They go to zoos. So wouldn’t they go to see a movie about somebody else? It’s cold, but is that not true? They’re not closing up zoos because they’re not about white people. Why wouldn’t we think that whites would go see a movie about a culture different than theirs? Why do you keep making the same movie about yourself over and over again? Your love angst, or whatever your feelings, and what’s happening to you this year, over and over again? ...’



(You can check out the full post at http://www.racialicious.com/2009/04/21/fade-in-magazine-talks-racism-in-hollywood/#more-2364 )



I’m sure the above analogy may not be palatable to some but there does seem an assumption on the part of publishers that a translation will repel readers/buyers because it’s made obvious that it’s one. Seems to me that several cultural products are marketed under the general garb of “experience the exotic” (think holidays, food, entertainment etc.; and for most of these you don’t have to leave your town/city). Perhaps translations can be added to that list - some already are. And before some of you begin shaking their heads in censure, hopefully the translation will dispel stereotypical ideas based on geography, culture, appearance and all that.



Russell talks of education’s role in developing this receptivity. I’ll add to that and say there aren’t enough folktales from different cultures translated for children, books that parents/older people have to read to kids. There are no rules at that age. Kids are as ready to believe about getting dressed to go on the moon as getting ready to east cross-legged with their fingers.



On a side note: my undergrad students are a tough lot to please. When I taught ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’, they were “weirded out” by both. Interestingly, they felt the Satrapi book spoke better to them than Alexie’s ‘Diary’ even though the former had veils and wars and fundamentalists (elements my students largely believe don’t exist in the American mindscape).



Second side note: It would be interesting to look at marketing strategies in multi-lingual literary cultures where readers are believed to be more ‘receptive”. Is selling a translation different/easier in Europe, India?
COMMENT: At first I wasn’t sure how the new eligibility guidelines related to the teaching of translation - but your discussion ties them together under the larger rubric of the problem of acknowledging translation generally. There are two notes I wanted to make here, one is that I was fortunate to have an undergraduate English department that allowed me to not only study works in translation, but study the art of translation itself and to complete my dissertation on translated texts while engaging with the problems of translation. This is rare, and clearly shouldn’t be.


When I continued on to a masters I was surprised to learn that, while nearly 2/3 of the theory we read was in translation, the discussion of translation was not part of the scope of the course. When brought up the issue was skirted with claims of ignorance or inability to address the questions that arose, in part because of a lack of familiarity with the original language. I think that a first step to opening engagement with translation as a critical area of inquiry is to disabuse students and their professors that fluency or even literacy in the source language is necessary. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this.



The second note is the demand for respect that translators (rightfully) make when wanting credit on the cover of a book. This demand may be at best a misguided attempt to educate a narrowly focused reading public, but it is also something more. As you say, it is a desire for “openly acknowledging that work and the expertise, skill, and art that translators bring to [literature].” It is a fundamental question of valuation, and so is more than just a desire to correct a lack of education in this field.
DATE: 05/03/2009 11:23:57 AM

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