Not Even Lost in Translation

by Scott McLemee on December 19, 2006

I’m still working my way through the report of the MLA task force on evaluating scholarship for tenure. It’s a hundred pages long, but takes a while to process. One thing does jump out as worrisome and discouraging, though: the status of translation.

The report draws on a recent survey of more than 650 departments at over 400 colleges and universities. It asked about what sorts of intellectual work counted in tenure decisions, and it included the option of ranking certain activities as “not important.” For all the lip service given to expanding the concept of scholarship to include non-monographic forms, it’s pretty clear that padding two journal articles out until they look like a book is still a winning strategy.

Of course, anything addressed to a general audience is really unimportant — whether that be articles (54.8%), radio or TV broadcasts (52.8%), or books (49.2%). It’s hardly even worth complaining about this. Hauteur has ways of punishing itself, indirectly. (I could link to FrontPage here, but it seems like that would be a bad thing.)

What’s both bad and surprising, somehow, is the indication that “translations [were] rated ‘not important’ by 30.4% of all responding departments and by 31.3% of foreign language departments.” One page later, an additional nuance: translation was scored as “not important” by 47.4% of foreign language departments at Carnegie Doctorate-granting institutions. (Responses better at institutions that only offered bachelor or master’s degrees.)

Of course the statistics could be worse. Give it time — and a little more indifference — and I’m sure they will be.

Actually my intent was to write a post pointing out that a (bootleg?) translation of Alain Badiou’s first book, The Concept of the Model, is now circulating in PDF. It’s just the sort of thing that would probably never find a publisher (the English-language audience for Althusserian philosophy of science being what it is), but is good to have available. Yay, internet!

Instead, a more dismal thought comes up: It’s tending to become a more rational decision (in the narrowest sense of rational) for someone to do a conference paper about Badiou than to translate one of his books. In this particular case maybe that’s not such a problem, maybe; enough Anglophone readers can read French. But for other languages, it’s much more serious.



Bob Violence 12.19.06 at 9:28 pm

Thank god for the internet, where we can circulate our samizdat translations away from the oppresive gaze of tenure committees.


john bragg 12.19.06 at 10:41 pm

The monolingual cynic says that since translation is hard work relative to writing conference papers, there is an institutional interest in denigrating translation and in inflating the importance of writing esoteric bullshit.*

* Not all conference papers are bs, of course, many are valuable contributions to the stock of human learning. However, if you’re going to evaluate someone for expertise, I’ll take the guy who can successfully and usefully translate Gramsci’s letters over the guy who can spin an argument about what the letters (in translation or in the original) signify about power relations, Freudian dynamics, splits within the global Marxist movement, etc.


Ken Wissoker 12.20.06 at 12:07 am

Scott, I don’t think the translation of Badiou is a problem. We have one book under contract, I’m sure that Minnesota has at least that many. The problem is the equally rewarding thinker that’s not the next likely theory star.

At Duke University Press we had a discussion about this at our editorial board last week. Alice Kaplan (author of French Lessons, The Interpreter, etc. and a frequent translator from the French for Nebraska and Chicago) talked about this as an ethical obligation in the profession and pointed out the huge imbalence between what is translated out of English versus what is translated in. Statistically the U.S. is pretty much at the bottom for translation in, and your main point, that academic credit might help, is certainly right.

From a press point of view the problem is that to have the rights to translate (as opposed to bootlegging for free) the press pays more to the French publisher than they would generally pay to an English language author writing the same book. Then to pay for translation adds about 6000-12,000 on top of that. There are small grants that might pay a third to a half of that but even so, the costs are very high. Then the only things that seem like smart decisions are the pre-assured sales, like the next big theory person. Badiou? Great! What happens to the Korean or Javanese intellectual’s equivalent book that doesn’t start with the same buzz? How do we learn about those?


Denison Chapin 12.20.06 at 4:06 am

There must be an academic translation. I would hate quoting a third person.


Doug 12.20.06 at 6:04 am

Naja, ist es nicht klar, dass in Zeiten der Globalisierung, Uebersetzung so gut wie ueberflussig ist?

Andererseits koennte akademische Anerkennung hilfreich sein. Die Bezahlung an dem Autor bzw. Verlag muss irgendwie geregelt sein, aber auf eine Papierversion koennte verzichtet werden. Das wuerde heissen das der Akademiker die Uebersetzung macht und laesst es zirkulieren im elektronischen Form; man muss dennoch fuer die Rechte bezahlen, aber der Rest ist gesehen als Teil der akademischen Arbeit, aehnlich wie Konferenzpapiere. Das Problem das Scott hervorhebt bleibt, aber die Probleme, die die Universitaetspressen betonen, sind nicht unbedingt wichtig.


John Emerson 12.20.06 at 8:37 am

Very little Portuguese literature is familiar in English translation. I have a very basic reading knowledge of Portuguese and have become fascinated by the strange and wonderful Renaissance fiction “Menina e Moca”. It’s unquestionably a great classic of Portuguese literature, and the strange aspects which made it unappealing a century ago (uncertain genre, traces of odd heresies, overt feminism, questions about the sanity of the narrator) would make it appealing now.

I have no idea why it hasn’t been translated. I even considered translating it myself, but that would be a lot of work, and my reward would presumably be an expert review saiyng soething like “Mr. Emerson is certainly to be commended for his effort at translation. His frequent mistranslations, however, make his work useless or misleading for the English-language audience. A competent translator should be found to provide the scholarly world with a usable version of this fine work”. And I’m not willing to spend months of my life motivating the enormous egos of the scholarly world to do something someone should have done centuries ago.

I frequently find English-language books about authors in languages I am able to read (often major authors previously pretty much unknown in English) provide no help for monolingual English readers — no translation, no appreciation. The foreign-language text is treated purely as the object of literary analysis. This problem is especially prominent in published PhD dissertations, but I know of one case of a scholar who was forced by his committee to translate the text he was working on, but who removed the translation when his work was finally published.

Just that much more evidence for my thesis that humanities graduate schools are bad places and that no one should ever go there.


ben wolfson 12.21.06 at 5:20 pm

No one gets paid to publish scholarly articles or give conference papers. If translations started carrying water with tenure committees, I bet publishers would be able to pay the translators significantly less.

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