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From the President

Why Translation?

Reprinted from the Fall 2009 MLA Newsletter

The response to the call for sessions on the Presidential Forum theme, "The Tasks of Translation in the Twenty-First Century," has been remarkable. In addition to the Presidential Forum and its two linked sessions, over fifty additional translation-related sessions are scheduled for the 2009 convention. Talks on topics from retranslation to self-translation, from translation in the medieval Persian context to translation in the early American context, and from inter-Asian translation to postcolonial translation will enrich the emerging field of translation studies and offer new insights to those of us in adjacent disciplines.

Lately, as a thought experiment, I've tried to imagine living in a world without translators. A preposterous notion, to be sure, although perhaps no more so than others we accept as premises for entertainment, for example, the notion that a certain Benjamin Button is born old and proceeds to grow younger. In any event, to anchor the exercise in a bit of science fiction, I'm positing that the human brain has evolved to permit the learning of just a single language; translation is thus out of the question. The resulting world, as I picture it, is radically and starkly diminished. Pursuing the experiment through the prism of my own tradition, which members of my generation typically encountered in curricular form as "ancient history" followed by "Western civilization," I see that the Arabs, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the Romans learned nothing from one another. There has been no New Testament, no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no scientific or industrial revolution. There is no American Constitution, no United Nations Charter, no European Union. Works of literature, philosophy, scholarship, and science that may have been produced in other linguistic contexts are forever inaccessible to speakers of English—and of course the English language itself has not developed in anything like its present form.

Fortunately for us, the human brain in its plasticity took a more propitious evolutionary path. Human beings can and do learn multiple languages; translators and interpreters have always been with us, and we need them as much as ever. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let me point to a handful of contemporary reasons.

Although increasingly competent machines are already taking over some routine translation tasks, human translators continue to be indispensable even in this context, to select input for the machines on the one hand and to evaluate and refine their output on the other. And it is far from given that machine translation will ever be able to handle the syntactic, stylistic, and cultural complexities of literary, philosophical, or scholarly texts. For these tasks we shall continue to require highly educated translators with strong backgrounds in the source and target languages and cultures.

Although English functions increasingly as an international lingua franca, monolingual English speakers are at a decided disadvantage in exchanges—whether diplomatic, commercial, or personal—with their multilingual counterparts. In addition, countless critical situations arise in which the use of English is not an option.

The combination of globalization and the knowledge explosion facilitated by digital media means that the sources of new knowledge will be increasingly diverse and translators will be in increasing demand. A whole new industry is growing up, for example, around the need for "localization" on the Internet: translation and contextualization of Web content for speakers of regional and local languages. Meanwhile, voices in our Anglophone culture are calling attention to the severe import-export imbalance: on average over the past several decades, only two percent to four percent of the books published in the United States have been translations.

The MLA itself, in its recent report "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World," notes that "[t]here is a great unmet demand for educated translators and interpreters, and translation is an ideal context for developing translingual and transcultural abilities as an organizing principle of the language curriculum" (243).

But there is a problem. In his excellent book The Translator's Invisibility, Lawrence Venuti documents the history of the Anglo-American tradition according to which good translations must be fluid and transparent and good translators must stay out of sight. The invisibility of the translator has become a cliché, but it is by no means a myth. Presses don't want to advertise books as translations. Newspapers sometimes publish translated texts without acknowledging the fact. Academics have been known to remove translations from their curriculum vitae to avoid jeopardizing their chances for promotion or tenure. And until recently, few universities in the English-speaking world have acknowledged translation as a legitimate area of study.

It is one thing to recognize a need for competent translators in the world and quite another to take responsibility for their nurturing and development. Yet no one is better positioned to take on this task than we are, as postsecondary language and literature professionals. Some of us already help students reach advanced levels in foreign language study. Others help students refine their writing and editing skills in English. Many of us also teach courses that expand our students' cultural knowledge. Almost all of us work at teaching our students to become more careful and critical readers. In short, our current disciplinary structures provide the basic frameworks that allow students to begin to acquire the skills and knowledge essential to translators. Attending to the development of future translators at the college and university level need not require significant structural changes or an infusion of new resources.

An increased presence of translation in the undergraduate curriculum ought to elicit an increased presence of translators as teachers and scholars. I have argued elsewhere that translation of literary and scholarly works should be acknowledged as evidence of scholarly activity and assessed as such in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure. Adopting this practice would be one way of implementing the recommendation of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, which argues that "[t]he profession as a whole should develop a more capacious conception of scholarship by rethinking the dominance of the monograph, promoting the scholarly essay, establishing multiple pathways to tenure, and using scholarly portfolios" (11). Not every course related to translation has to be taught by a professional translator; still, faculty members who are experienced in the field should be recognized as such for the value of their work and for the special contributions they can make in the translation classroom.

The theme of this year's Presidential Forum is intended to shine a spotlight on the vital contributions of translators and to increase awareness of translation as it relates to much of the teaching and scholarship we do. I see translation as a hitherto underutilized arena of collaborative work, a site of potential engagement and interchange with colleagues and students in our and adjacent disciplines. Come to the convention if you can, sit in on some translation sessions, and if all goes well you'll come away with some ideas for enhancing the position of translation on your campus and in your work.

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Works Cited


MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World." Profession (2007): 234–45. Print.

Porter, Catherine. "Translation as Scholarship." ADE-ADFL Summer Seminar East. Brown University, Providence. 11 June 2009. Address.

"Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion." Profession (2007): 9–71. Print.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator's Invisibility. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
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Catherine Porter
2009 MLA President Catherine Porter
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