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Translation and the Teaching of Literature

By Russell Scott Valentino

In my first post, I suggested that translators' efforts in the sphere of education might have a transformative effect on the understanding and appreciation of the work of translation. In my second, I focused on the domain of foreign language teaching as one place where such efforts might bear fruit. Several people commented and asked questions about these posts, and I promise to respond to their questions in a subsequent post. But first I would like to turn to another educational sphere in which the concerted and systematic effort of translator-teachers and the teaching of translation as a practice might serve a transformative—that is, fundamentally educational—role.

As I noted in post number two, where foreign language pedagogy has been dominated by proficiency as the end of education, translation has tended to be excluded from the classroom, and even, in some cases, denigrated. My sense is that the resulting marginalization of translation has not been thoroughly examined either by advocates of proficiency-based learning, or by translator-teachers; those who might want to incorporate translation in modern foreign language classrooms have done so rather unobtrusively, if not to say in secret. There are of course exceptions to this, especially as highlighted by the 1998 essay collection Translation and Language Teaching:. The book and its aims remain exceptional, however. Few SLA practitioners in the U.S. have paid much attention to this kind of research, let alone many literary translators. In the end, one quite natural place where students might learn to understand and feel more comfortable with, if not attracted by, literary translation remains off-limits to such activity.

The teaching of literature is the other key academic domain from which translation has been marginalized. In contrast to proficiency-oriented language teaching, here we are not one but two, or two and a half, generations removed from the great transformation, which was inaugurated by the New Critical and Formalist interventions in literary interpretation in the early twentieth century. Both New Critics and Formalists had a deep understanding of what it meant to engage translated literature because such literature had been an institutional norm of their own education. Writers like T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Vladimir Nabokov, and critics like I.A. Richards, Viktor Shklovsky, and Georg Lukacs were obviously comfortable in multiple languages. More to the point, however, through their education and training, they were comfortable with the translation-fed dynamic of literary crossings, pairings, and mixings that continue to make works from the Modernist period so exciting. But the degree to which their isolation of the text as an object of study unto itself and, more importantly, the manner in which their initial ideas became institutionalized, by their students and their students' students, in the teaching of literature in U.S. secondary and post-secondary education, tended to exclude from an ideal literary analysis virtually all the questions that translators would normally grapple with—how a work was perceived by its original audience, how one's own potential rendering of it might match or not match the literary conventions of a target audience, what might be the cultural, political, or social need to translate the work, and a host of other extra-textual considerations.

Translators sometimes like to say that translation is the closest form of reading, implying that it is a variety of close reading. It is not. Close reading is a New Critical method of analysis. Its particular bias does not lean, as in proficiency-based language instruction, toward expressivity, where performance is measured largely by how well one can get around words one does not know in order to say what one wants. Instead, close reading showcases invention, while the model of writing it favors is one that marshals a plethora of words, mostly external to a text, in order to launch them at that text in the service of the "original" idea or "discovery" that is being proposed by the interpreter. This is how one can get a 500-page dissertation out of a dozen lyric poems—choose your own examples. Apprentices to the method in Freshman "Intro to Interpretation" courses have long been routinely encouraged to quote from a work but then "do things" with the quoted material, shape it amid their own argument, control it as part of their critical explication. The analytic skills being taught have to do with unraveling the strands of the text under consideration (which students sometimes refer to as "dissecting") in order to show how they ultimately cohere in a meaningful whole. Moreover, the exploration of the text takes place by means of a critical reflective apparatus that should ideally maintain its distance, and not, for instance, engage in a naïve identification with characters, or any of the other typically unsophisticated reading practices of those who have not been properly schooled. The high Modernist bias in this approach should be evident. Such a lack of sophistication among his (American) students was a favorite target of Nabokov's irony. The point here is not about close reading per se but about the reliance on invention and critical distance by literary scholars and the manner in which these tend to push translation to one side—especially when it is practiced without additional words of explanation, without scholarly intervention. In this way of thinking, translation is not seen as scholarship because it does not perform its analysis in inventive and critically distanced forms.

I would like to contrast the above to a way of teaching literature that would incorporate translation fundamentally, not rote exercises as used to be employed by the generation of language and literature teachers I mentioned earlier. I have in mind serious literary translation, of a variety of genres, of works from a variety of historical periods, in the service of creating English-language literature that might in the end find its way to readers. In a previous post, I tried to sketch what students of such a method would need to learn and think about in order to practice it proficiently, from grammar and sound to genre and the creation of natural dialogue. The method would rely upon creativity but also upon knowledge of the source and target languages, the source text, aspects of literary culture, and so on. Of course what teachers emphasize would be different for different ages of students, and only at the very highest levels of instruction, at something like the translator apprentice stage, would one expect that students should have mastered all or most such knowledge and skills. I am thinking of a range of translation-based instruction from the kind of programs now being run for elementary and middle school students by The Center for the Art of Literary Translation in San Francisco to translation workshops for graduate students and professional writers.

As these examples and my earlier evocation should make clear, such a teaching method is based upon a radical fusing of the teaching of language and the teaching of literature (both reading it and writing it), rather than a separation of such activities into different teaching domains. Short of a thorough overhaul of the educational system, this method could be filtered into the existing one—through short, mix-and-match modules, language arts units, after school programs, college and university courses, workshops for professionals, reading questions for book clubs, and so on. In practical terms, this would be something like a large audience development initiative, fit for arts-in-the-schools funding, literacy and internationalization programs, and professional organizations like ALTA, PEN, and the MLA. It could help translators in their quest for proper recognition of their work (and sales of their books), not to mention foreign authors and their publishers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

On a different practical level, it seems to me that this kind of radical fusing would put translators squarely at the center of the literary process (I have returned to the Modernists here) and make them and their activity a nexus for the teaching of language and the teaching of literature both. This is exactly the right place for them, because translators—as some of the readers of these posts have already correctly pointed out—are not really language teachers after all, nor are they really literature teachers, not at least when they are wearing their translators' hats. As translators, they embody that something in between that links the two, and their work should not be subsumed into one or the other category, e.g., as "bad language teaching" or "unsophisticated analysis." The work of translation is its own thing, with its own standards and virtues. It is a practice unto itself. To borrow the formulation of Alastair MacIntyre, "To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement, and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I then confront and from which I have to learn." This view presupposes the subjection of understanding to standards of the practice rather than giving precedence, as the dominant strain in Anglo-American critical explication has tended to do, to one's own interpretive inventions. Surely this is a feature of the practice of literary translation, one of its principal virtues, and something that translators are ideally placed to teach.

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.

Published Jul 21, 2009   Copyright 2009 Russell Scott Valentino

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