The trouble with translation is getting it noticed. This seems at odds with the purpose of literary translators, whose textual invisibility is often equated with their abilities. Traditionally, as a discipline, translation has not significantly contributed to a scholar’s hiring, retention, promotion, or tenure. Thoughtful attention on campuses to the problems and marvels of translation has often been buried in comparative literature and language departments, which, with typically small enrollments, are on the defensive against university cost-cutting.
The turmoil earlier this year at the University of Virginia featured criticism of President Teresa Sullivan for “lack(ing) the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.”
That’s the old story, at least. But there’s been significant movement toward cultivating and celebrating the relationship between literary translation and academia.
I write about the curious case of translation studies on college campuses over at Publishing Perspectives, with glances at Princeton’s innovative translation program, the American Literary Translators Association at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.
But I pay special attention to the University of Michigan, which in the midst of an expansive and interdisciplinary translation theme semester intended to "announce the presence" of the university as one that elevates the art, making visible translations not only from text-to-text, but medium-to-medium. (Its promotional posters are featured on the right.)
Some interesting vantages on how a campus moves translation into the spotlight from the dusty wings:
“'For a university thinking a lot about its international profile, translation is key.'”
"Michigan is one of the few universities where less commonly taught languages continue to be taught, including Dutch, ancient and modern Greek, Korean, and dozens of others. (It’s worth noting that the academic provost that supported coursework for even small languages at this public university was Teresa Sullivan herself, who left the position when she accepted the presidency of UVA.) The language resources make Michigan a natural place for translation studies to emerge in an intentional and interesting way."
"But administrative buy-in is only part of the story of translation’s emergence from the backrooms. Its emerging vibrancy at Michigan is not coming only from the top-down: students are generating momentum themselves."
"Programming and coursework this semester specializes in the multiplicities of translation. Classes connected to the theme semester study the Arab-Israeli conflict as rendered in Middle Eastern literature; persuasive politics; remix culture, literature in African history; and an astronomy mini-course on aliens."
"One challenge, though, is the multiple texts that critical translation studies requires. Merrill notes that in the last few years Ann Arbor has lost its great independent bookstore, Shaman Drum, as well as the original Borders store."
“'What is gained through translation is not about creating equivalencies or corrections ... It’s about creating new meanings. It’s also moving and adding to the original. Translation multiplies meaning.”