Translation & Translation Studies as a Social Movement
By Lucas Klein, published
In my letter to the MCLC list in support of Jonathan Stalling’s complaint that Xiao Jiwei’s LARB review of Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death didn’t mention translator Howard Goldblatt, I wrote,
the quantity and quality of translations from Chinese to English (by which I mean primarily, but not only, literary translations) cannot be separated from questions of how our societies approach translation in general. And a big part of that is how we treat translators: are translators acknowledged? Do translators get paid well for their work, get their names on the covers of their books, have their work credited when up for promotion or tenure? In short, are there incentives in our society for people to work as translators? And do our conversations about translation reflect a general understanding of the work translation involves, its importance, its difficulty, its shortcomings, its possibilities?
I concluded, “I do not agree that we can address or redress the general indifference to Mo Yan or Chinese literature, or that we can bridge contemporary Chinese literature and the world, without talking about translation … I hope we can combat that, for the benefit not only of Mo Yan or Howard Goldblatt, but for the benefit of our profession and fields of teaching and research.” In light of responses such as Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s, comparing translators to other figures who might get left out of reviews, such as book editors or cinematographers, I thought I’d delve a little deeper into my sense of why discussion of translation is an important part of the program for advocating for more and better translations.
Wasserstrom writes, “lack of attention to editing could be the choice of the reviewer, or a reviewer might have talked about it, then had his or her editor at the publication strike it out, due to feeling that for readers of the reviewer that wouldn't be of interest. Similarly, I'm sure cinematographers feel that a film review that talks about the director but not the practitioner of their craft is not taking everything important into account, but some who simply goes to films and is reading the review trying to decide whether to go or because they like the reviewer's style may no care at all.” His point, I think, is pretty clear: there are other figures who will be left out of book reviews, and while that may be frustrating for an individual, it doesn’t mean that the quality or quantity of that individual’s greater efforts will necessarily suffer because of lack of recognition.
As far as that goes, Wasserstrom isn’t wrong. And if we compare the treatment of translators in North America to the treatment of translators in other countries, we don’t necessarily see the same connections. China, for instance, publishes much, much more translated writing than the US does, without any significantly more intelligent discussion of translation defining reviews or conversations of international works of literature there. So it’s possible to imagine the US publishing many high quality translations of foreign writing without the work of activating the whole population of intelligent Americans towards deeper understanding of what I called “the work translation involves, its importance, its difficulty, its shortcomings, its possibilities.” And yet, I still see the connection, at least in the North American context, and continue to argue for promoting understanding of translation as a way to increasing and improving translation publishing.
A key difference between translators and the editors or cinematographers of Wasserstrom’s example is that while they all may go unnamed, and therefore suffer from a similar degree of invisibility, editors and cinematographers nevertheless enjoy relative empowerment in society, particularly as compared with translators. Book editing may not be a profession that can get you rich (especially if we’re talking about editors calling for and culling academic papers, which I believe is what Wasserstrom is referring to), but you have power over writing, argumentation, style, and most of all selection, and you have, in Wasserstrom’s context, your name—on the cover—associated with an academic debate or series of questions that will remain influential to the field for a significant period of time. As for cinematography, there’s an Academy Award for it, and Hollywood cinematographers are union members. Translators in the US are not only not allowed to form a union, because US law defines us as independent contractors, even discussing our rates constitutes price collusion, and is therefore a felony.
Of course, union membership in the US is troublingly low anyway, but the fact that discussing our rates is a felony cuts in two ways: first, it means that we are economically worse off, and two, it means that we are unable to host a broad public conversation that highlights understanding translation as based on the way translators are treated. In the first instance, more is at stake in the economic foundations to literary translation work than simply how much we get paid for our work as translators, or even whether we get royalties. Many translators also work as academics, and our work there is often overlooked or undervalued, as well. I used to work in the dept. of Chinese, Translation & Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong, and as I wrote in my interview with Intralingo, “each year our raise [would be] calculated based in part on our research output (teaching and service also count). And yet when we publish translations—whether it’s a poem, an article, a book, or whatever—it is not considered part of our output. Let me go over that one more time: I [taught] translation in a translation program in a department whose name contains the word translation, and yet when I translate[d], it [was] not considered part of my work. I [was] hired to teach students about translation, but they learn from people who have no incentive to publish or even perform translation. This is an insult to me and to people like me, and I think it should be an embarrassment to the managerial staff of my university.” I have bracketed corrections to the past tense because the main reason I looked for a job teaching elsewhere was that the provost of CityU refused to reconsider my published translations as part of my research output.
This may seem like a rather limited issue, but I don’t think it’s hard to see how our failure even to talk about this issue is linked to statements such as those by “Jeff,” commenting on a thread here at Paper Republic, that he doesn’t “think there needs to be more academic prestige given to translation, because if that happens, and we have academics who are only translators, then there might be the danger of no academic work getting done.” I agree with his following point that we need to credit “translators who make all introductory classes in foreign literature possible, and perhaps institutional support for something like a translation position in a foreign languages department,” but the idea that translation is somehow at odds with “real” academic work strikes me as completely out of touch with reality. Simply put, translation—by which I mean quality, publishable, literary translation—is not easier than writing a publishable article or book in an academic field. They are different skill sets, and are therefore not directly comparable, but it’s not like we have thousands of would-be translators kept from performing our dream jobs because tenure committees want to ensure that “real” academic work gets done.
As it turns out, I actually don’t think that even translators should only translate and not produce scholarly writing about translation—from translation theory to translation studies—but not because I’m afraid that there’s any danger of no academic work getting done. Rather, I think that insofar as academic work is valued within certain communities, we translators have to speak and increase our visibility within that language to gain the respect and understanding that we deserve. This links to the second instance, or my sense that we need a broader understanding of translation to support a push for more and better translations published in English: if we don’t explain our work and our mission to a broader population in a language that population can appreciate, we have few to blame but ourselves for the structural inequities’ failure to improve. Of course, translation itself entails saying something new, foreign, even startling, in the language of the target audience, so this is nothing but a further step in the process.
Without enacting translation this way upon the broader reaches of society as a whole, we fall short of our jobs as translators. While such extension of the role of translator may not be necessary everywhere, we have to deal with English-speaking societies. These are the societies in which the ideologies not only assume that people from all countries must learn our language, but also that, when it comes to book reviews, as Wasserstrom writes, naming the translator might “be more distracting than enlightening.” To combat the power these ideologies have over us requires, I think, more conspicuous discussion of translation toward the goal of promoting more literature in translation; to combat the power of these ideologies requires, I think, risking the distraction of naming the translator so that we can provide the reader with the enlightenment entailed in translated writing.
My view of translation is that it is, and should be conceived as, a broad-based social movement, one related to broad-based social movements for more internationalism and immigrants’ rights in otherwise xenophobic cultures. We translators and our supporters have already gained considerable victories in raising awareness of translation, particularly in book reviews—take a look at this piece praising How Translation Reviews Should Be Done, using as its example a review published in, of all places, the LARB—but we have further to go. Just as Harvey Milk is supposed to have inaugurated the fight for Gay Freedom (later called Gay Pride) by saying, “I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out,” I believe that we as translators and people who care about translation need to end the conspiracy of silence and talk about translation. Talk about how translation exists in our lives, how it affects us, what it can do, what it cannot do, and overall increase our own and each others’ understanding of translation.