Though lost to history, we are working to bring you whatever we can from the May issue of The Blue & White. Here, Allie Curry explains how we are able to read things not written in English, even though we won’t pay for the convenience.
The headline of a 2003 New York Times piece on the matter states it best: “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction”. Statistics confirm this—Americans don’t buy literary works in translation and major publishing conglomerates don’t publish them. Nonetheless, academics at Columbia fight for new, liminal, and innovatively funded spaces to study and support literary translators.
The Core Curriculum at Columbia College and Nine Ways of Knowing at Barnard College are inheritors of a tradition that values fiction, poetry, and prose for its transnational and transhistorical influence rather than its “trendiness” or sales potential. Point of fact, English is a relatively new development in the history of the Western Canon, especially as Lit Hum conceives it. Including the Biblical and Masoretic texts, only three of the 23 works on the standard Lit Hum syllabus were authored in English and two of those three—Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse—are arguably the most hotly contested additions to the second semester of the course. This is similarly the case in many of Barnard’s First-Year Seminars where at least three Reinventing Literary History concentrations (which are focused on Classic and Great Books texts, “Women and Culture,” and pan-American literature) substantially incorporate translated works. Individual sections of these courses, however, vary wildly in terms of translation cognizance. Helene Foley, Professor of Classics, for one, believes that most students think “very little in general” of issues raised when reading literary works in translation.
Professor Peter Connor, Director of Barnard’s Center for Translation Studies and translator of French philosophy, agrees. Studying a translated work as if it were an untranslated one poses some problems for the literary translator. Connor argues that “the work of translation and translators often remains hidden or ‘invisible’: translated literature, for example, often hides the name of the translator inside the book, so as to appear to be an ‘original’ composition.” The outward appearance of books evidences what many identify as a fundamental problem in the way American universities disincentivize their faculties’ translation activities. A report published in October 2007 by the international writers association PEN in conjunction with the Catalan advocacy group the Ramon Llull Institute (IRL) describes the current climate as one in which “it’s a far safer career move for a US academic to write, in English, a monograph on an author whose work has never been translated into English than to translate that author’s work into English.” Foley takes issue with this, noting “a number of specific cases where translation work was treated as scholarly work in tenure and promotion cases.”
While the PEN/IRL assessment equivocates over whether many universities’ recent infatuation with translation studies—the criticism and theory of translation—supports and furthers the interests of translation and translators, Connor and Barnard’s Center for Translation Studies argue that “it’s vital to have some central, intellectually coherent administrative unit to support translation studies across the disciplines.” Founded in 2008 with the support of the nonprofit Mellon Foundation, the Center for Translation Studies is notable for being one of only a few undergraduate institutions of its kind. The Center hosts events, offers several courses in the discipline (the enrollment of the introductory course in particular has grown in recent years), and imagines future ways to study translation at Barnard and Columbia. According to Connor, The Center sponsored a con- ference this May for the express purpose of examining “the best way to integrate translation studies into the Barnard curriculum.” The Center continues to operate under the primary sponsorship of the Mellon Foundation, which imposes few funding or program- ming constraints on it.
At the graduate level, Columbia’s School of the Arts offers a joint MFA program in literary translation, Literary Translation at Columbia. Instead of a model by which individual language departments educate their graduate students in translations, LTAC works to produce translators in the mold of Lydia Davis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ezra Pound—translators who double as writers. “With LTAC, you have people who translate out of a passion for a particular writer or out of the desire to cross-pollinate and enrich their own work, says student of the program Hilary Dobel, SoA ’12, a poet, and a translator of Latin American fiction. “We’re sort of like ambassadors for literature, rather than ambassadors for languages.” The program is even newer than Barnard’s Center; in 2009, it rapidly metamorphosed from the Center for Literary Translation—an institution that LTAC director Indra Novey describes as being “focused on events for the public”—to its present form.
Taking a cue from the publishing industry, Columbia and countless other universities have little hope of interesting the American reading public in translation. Only a measly and stagnant three percent of all published works in the United States are works in translation; many specialists quibble that figure is closer to .01 percent if one limits the discussion to literary works. Columbia University Press, like many academic presses, boasts their “commitment to translation” with the fact that 19 percent their total output in 2011—15 books—were works of translation. If the value of translation is not sufficiently evident in a literary context, Connor encourages students to consider the value of translation as a mode of communication necessary to the existence of all disciplines and to understand it as an exercise most frequently practiced by his students in hospi-
tals, police stations, immigration offices, and courts of law before they discuss it in class. “When you talk to someone,” he says, “—a friend, your parents, a stranger—and this person does not grasp what it is you are trying to say and so asks you to explain, you are in fact translating, seeking some alternative formula- tion for what you have said while trying to maintain the original message.”
It may be that the Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy serve more as performatory symbols of erudition on many college-educated Americans’ bookshelves than as foundational documents of civilization. It may be that the American literary economy’s widespread failure to recognize translation as an important intercultural interaction suggests most damningly that Americans are limited in their shared global imagination. As PEN Translation Committee member Esther Allen says in that 2003 Times article, the greater state of English-language literary translation suggests that being global in our literature “breaks down to different ways of being American.” Surely, Barnard’s Center and LTAC both depart from the traditional model in which individual language departments support literary translators and therefore from the sense of institutional permanence associated with that model. For all its talk of being a global university in a global city, in the case of literary translation, Columbia may actually be the paradoxically local and transnational institution it professes itself to be.