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.


# 1.   

On twitter @translatedworld we have a campaign to #namethetranslator – we’d like to make it standard practice. The Financial Times manages to do this very concisely as standard practice eg “The Last Quarter of the Moon, by Chi Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 311 pages It’s a small step, but a crucial one.

Helen Wang, January 22, 2014, 12:41p.m.

# 2.   

Absolutely, Helen!

Lucas Klein, January 22, 2014, 2:38p.m.

# 3.   

I'm the Jeff from the previous thread.

I think we're probably more in agreement than disagreement on this issue. I still think institutional support is needed, as this would give more prestige to translators and translation. The translation-focused faculty would focus on translation, but also be able to produce other more "traditional academic work," and the traditional faculty would focus on the "traditional academic work" while perhaps doing a little translation themselves and benefiting from having a translator colleague.

Also, one point that I don't think has been addressed yet is that I don't see how any book review can successfully identify the book being reviewed without naming the translator. And identifying the book is necessary for any book review. Jeffrey Wasserstrom was talking about not wanting to confuse readers of a general interest publication, but as a general reader who wants to go out and find the book, I absolutely need to know who the translator is, as this tells me whether the book being reviewed was the English or Chinese version and which English version if there are multiple translations. There are tons of translations of the "classics" like War and Peace and the Yijing, so naming the translator is necessary, but we can't say we're drawing the line for contemporary literature just because there is just one translation at the moment.

Jeff K, January 22, 2014, 3:17p.m.

# 4.   

Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. I particularly like your phrasing of not being able to "see how any book review can successfully identify the book being reviewed without naming the translator," which was the oversight that began the discussion in the first place (although, when not dealing with classical literature, there is only rarely ever more than one translation to choose from).

As for academic credit for translations, I certainly think the most pressing issue is ensuring that those hired to teach translation (like me) can get credit for the translations they (we) publish! That doesn't seem too far off from your vision of "translation-focused faculty [who] would focus on translation, but also be able to produce other more 'traditional academic work,' [while] traditional faculty would focus on the 'traditional academic work' while perhaps doing a little translation themselves and benefiting from having a translator colleague."

But there aren't very many teachers of translation per se in colleges and universities in the US (there are more in Hongkong, where I live, and I'm not sure about Canada, the UK, Ireland, Jamaica, South Africa...). I think it's important that we not only work to ensure that professors in depts. of English, comp. lit., or national languages can get credit towards tenure and promotion for their published translations, but that historians, sociologists, political scientists, even biologists and physicists who publish translations relevant to growing knowledge in their fields, should also be able to receive appropriate credit for translating international research in their areas of expertise into English.

Ultimately, though, my sense is that university administrators such as my former provost are only borrowing the excuse that translation is secondary, or rhetoric that it's "peerless" (i.e., not peer-reviewed), to support their main aim, which is limiting our work as much as they can to push through their agenda of corporatizing the university. If you're opposed to that agenda--as I hope you are--then you should also support giving academics credit for translation, since it expands the possibilities of academic work, rather than contracts it.


Lucas Klein, January 22, 2014, 4:26p.m.

# 5.   

Perhaps the model recently created for practice-based research in the field of performance/theatre/film making/live art might be useful here. Certainly in some university performance and media departments, artistic output made in relation to a research question is considered part of the research output along with more traditional academic texts.

Rachel Henson, January 22, 2014, 8:38p.m.

# 6.   

Thanks, Rachel! Performance absolutely is a relevant consideration.

There's actually no shortage of guidelines for how university departments can and should acknowledge translation work for tenure and promotion--take a look at Evaluating Translations as Scholarship: Guidelines for Peer Review, which the MLA adopted in 2011--but getting universities to follow these recommendations is something else.


Lucas Klein, January 22, 2014, 11:55p.m.

# 7.   

I find the analogy in the final paragraph in pretty poor taste. How many translators have been arrested, beaten to death or denied legal rights? It's like a blogger invoking Martin Luther King's assassination in a call for greater appreciation of typesetting.

Steph, January 23, 2014, 2:20p.m.

# 8.   

I'm sorry you find the idea of translation as a social movement that can draw on the words of Harvey Milk in bad taste. That strikes me as a very narrow view.

How many translators have been arrested, beaten to death, or denied legal rights? I suppose it depends on how far back we go. William Tyndale, considered the first translator of the Bible into modern English, was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation 1536 (his body was then burnt at the stake); much of the King James version, published less than a century later, plagiarized from his translation. That was long ago, and certainly things like that don't happen anymore. Unless we're talking about translators of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, such as Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, stabbed to death in July, 1991; or Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, stabbed in Milan earlier the same month; or Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, intended target of what became the Sivas massacre in Sivas, Turkey, two years later, which killed 37.

As for legal rights, I'm sure the US proscription against translators discussing our wages belongs in that conversation somewhere, as does the practice of publishers paying translators flat fees rather than royalties for bestsellers.

Translators have been oppressed and denied equality. But I'm not suggesting that translators as individuals are as oppressed as gay people or ethnic or sexual minorities have been. Gay equality and the social movements that have brought feminism and racial civil rights issues to the attention of majority populations have been of benefit to more than those who identify as belonging to the groups immediately struggling for equality and liberation; I've benefited from movements led by figures such as Milk or King or Chavez or Anthony or Lewis without being a member of the immediate communities they fought for.

As I also laid out in that paragraph, I think talking about translation should be relevant to struggles for immigrants' rights (how can we accept immigrants if we do not hear their stories?). The basis of my presentation of translation as a social movement is one of solidarity. I'm sorry you don't understand that, and find it in bad taste.


Lucas Klein, January 23, 2014, 3:20p.m.

# 9.

From the article:

"By one estimate roughly 1000 interpreters so far have been killed in Iraq. Some 80 interpreters have died in battle in Afghanistan since 2007."

Jeff K, January 23, 2014, 4:15p.m.

# 10.   

Thank you Lucas for taking a strong and public stand on this issue and engaging in a good debate.

Deborah Hoffman, January 26, 2014, 7:30a.m.

# 11.   

Thank you!


Lucas Klein, January 26, 2014, 7:38a.m.

# 12.   

I felt sad and even shocked to hear that translation works are not taken as research output in some universities. I am wondering if it is the lack of knowledge about the differences between literary translation and translation of scientific works that accounts for the provost's underevaluation of translation. In scientific studies, innovation is highly valued, so it seems natural that translation works could not be counted as the translator's research output. But in literary translation, it is widely agreed that a translation is a new piece of work with its own identity and poetic features. It is not only the content which is transferred (as is the practice of translation in scientific field) but also the stylistic features that have to be taken care of. For any literature lover, it shouldn't be difficult to understand such differences. I guess the provost should be adviced to read more literary works and even try to translate a paragraph.

Ivy, January 28, 2014, 12:45p.m.

# 13.   

Thanks, Ivy. With this particular provost, I don't think having him read more literary works would do much good.


Lucas Klein, January 28, 2014, 2:28p.m.

# 14.   

Hi Lucas, You say "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."

I don't know about the injunction against forming a union, but translators can definitely discuss rates. We can post about them, compare them, set up a public database if we like.

The price-fixing happens when a professional organization like ATA, ALTA, or PEN endorses or posts guidelines as to rates.

Here's the history. ATA used to issues guidelines. In the late 80s a few translation agencies filed a complaint with the FCC and they investigated. At that point (probably out of fear of continued legal expenses, and not wanting to fight) ATA removed the guidelines.

It would not have been a felony. The recent price-fixing case involving Apple and the big publishers over ebook prices was a more recent example.

If you google "American Translators Association" "price-fixing" a few things will come up on the FCC case against the ATA.

Here's an article with a recap of the price-fixing issue as it relates to translators:

Margaret Carson, February 3, 2014, 5:13p.m.

# 15.   

Thanks for the clarification, Margaret. I think I was basing my statement on recollected details from articles such as this.

You say the ATA removed their guidelines "probably out of fear of continued legal expenses, and not wanting to fight"; this is an important detail. Laws change. If translators are considered independent contractors (the way FedEx classifies its drivers, I think), a successful unionization campaign would be in position to challenge such classification.

We shouldn't go around in fear of price-fixing stings landing us in federal prison whenever we mention rates. My point was that we should talk more to change, or create, the broader discussion surrounding translation.


Lucas Klein, February 4, 2014, 1:17a.m.

# 16.   

Hi Lucas,

Sorry I didn't see your response until now. I thought I would get an email alert to check here if something had been posted. My point is that translators as individuals can speak freely about the fees we charge or have received. We can crowd-source a google doc (anonymously, if people are nervous) listing the compensation we received for different projects, from different publisher. There's nothing stopping us, except maybe some anxiety about how the publishers will react to letting their fee structure be known.

No need to fear price-fixing charges. We're not setting prices, we're collecting historical data. The public can draw whatever conclusions it wants from it. I think you''re over-generalizing from the specific case of a professional organization that posted guidelines as to rates and had a few unhappy translation agencies take the step of contacting the FCC during the Reagan Administration (all those years ago).

On the question of unionization, I can't speak. What is the classification that you would like to challenge? That translators not be regarded as independent contractors?


Margaret Carson, February 19, 2014, 10:11p.m.

# 17.   

Thanks again for the correction, Margaret.

While it would be a dream of mine to be part of a large and well-organized union of literary translators, I'm having a hard time right now imagining how that would work, how we'd get there.

Also, as I noted in my Q & A with Asymptote, translators can indeed join UAW Local 1981, the National Writers Union (NWU). But the difficulty of imagining a powerful union of literary translators is one of the reasons I envision translation as a social movement, rather than as a labor movement (of course, I think labor movements should be social movements, too...). That is, I think we should be thinking in the broadest terms possible; unionization may become a component of that one day, but for now, the pressing issue is simply to draw attention to translation and to translators.

I'm glad you say we have "No need to fear price-fixing charges." I'm sure if things changed enough, that's one of the legal charges that could and would be used against us, and there'd have to be a fight about it. But for now, it's good to know that not even this should stand in the way of having a discussion about translation, its importance, and how our treatment of translators reflects our sense of that importance.


Lucas Klein, February 20, 2014, 3a.m.

# 18.   

I find the above discussion an important subject. Selection of Literary translation, from Chinese to English and vice versa, in my point of view, should always be treated seriously, almost like religious reformation. The greater the work in one culture, the more difficult it is to find an adequate translation in another 's world view. Most translators, if they truly appreciate the other cultural heritage, and also hold critical view on their own cultural make-ups, the more they will find polemic at following the traditional smooth-talking 'grammar' of either language to do justice for a transformation and reformation. Hence, an internal struggle, to be or not to be... innovative and daring so that the spirit of the original message be expressed as a universal truth or universal conflict in history, translating the almost un-translatable verse and judgement for one another's sake ?

Susan, February 6, 2016, 8:44p.m.


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