The literary translation community is buzzing with the most recent guidelines from the Modern Language Association. Entitled "Evaluating Translation as Scholarship: Guidelines for Peer Review," this document calls for giving translations serious consideration in hiring and/or tenure review. In general, scholars who engage in literary translation tend to leave their translations out of their cv. There are various reasons for this but the most prevalent is that translations are often considered to be "creative" work that does not involve (or constitute) serious and rigorous scholarship. Having done quite a bit of translation, I can tell you that this is bullshit, but I can acknowledge that translation-as-scholarship can be a murky designation. I applaud the MLA for trying to systematize the evaluation of translations but I'm also cautious any attempt to define what exactly qualifies as translation-as-scholarship. In the following paragraph, I'll focus briefly on the document's assertion that "translation is interpretation."
Few literary translators would argue that it helps to have an understanding of how one reads a text in order to translate it. Not only do I need to know what the words in the text mean, but I also need to know what the text means to me. But if translation is interpretation, does it need a critical apparatus to legitimize its status as scholarship? The guidelines MLA provides don't require it but "critical apparatus" is invoked in the first of the four "guidelines for reviewers," which raises concerns for me that it could lead to the unreasonable expectation that scholar-translators attach additional critical material to their work. My postdoctoral research involves completing a major translation and providing a "critical apparatus," but I've also spent a long time working on translations that have not been part of a dissertation and/or research project. I'd like to be able to include for review all of my translations the same way that I expect to include conference talks and articles that don't necessarily fall into my major research areas. That being said, all of this is a move in the right direction, I think.
Finally, I really don't understand why the guidelines mention fiction and non-fiction specifically but leave out poetry. This gives a different twist to the overused (and totally decontextualized) maxim "poetry is what's lost in translation."
The MLA guidelines draw from previous discussions on this issue, including the American Literary Translators Association's "Translation and Academic Promotion for Tenure." I prefer it to the MLA guidelines because it makes an actual case for the importance and relevance of translation in the humanities and avoids the MLA's very slippery language of evaluation. Here's a long passage from the ALTA document:
Those who translate works of imaginative literature are making no less of a contribution to humanistic knowledge than those who are doing technical or historical analyses of literary texts or investigating theoretical and critical issues around the texts. The process of literary translation and the process of literary criticism are inseparable. To wrestle with the challenge of finding the best English equivalent, phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence, is the most intense way to come to terms with the complexities of meaning and esthetic form of any literary text. The translator cannot stop at mere understanding of a literary work; he must move toward a complete reconstruction of the original source-language text in the new language, which requires a comprehensive critical understanding of the work as well.
Translation is the product of informed scholarly research, critical interpretation, and creative reconstruction. Frequently, the nature and amount of scholarship required to produce a literary translation is overlooked or underestimated. Like the scholar engaged in establishing the authoritative text of a work, the translator must examine the multiple contexts within which the author and text exist. The translator must engage in research that places the text in its cultural, historical, and esthetic context and also in the framework of an author’s oeuvre.
As a scholarly activity, translation integrates the multiple aspects of cultural, historical, anthropological, and esthetic developments, and the methodologies of the art and craft of translation can be profitably viewed as a revitalizing force in the field of literary criticism and scholarship.
The translator’s task is broad and complex. It is scholarly and creative. It bridges disciplines and cultures and makes an essential contribution to literature and language on an international scale. In profound and unique ways, translators expand the horizons of the humanistic endeavor.
ALTA doesn't ask that reviewers weigh in on matters of language, diction and style because literary translators know that these matters often rely on opinion and not objective evaluation. But reviewers can assess whether or not a scholar's translation activity constitutes a significant and integral part of their scholarship as a whole. Has the scholar-translator presented this work at conferences, written articles on the subject, contributed relevant book reviews, etc.?
My thinking on this matter continues to evolve and change so I'll be returning to this topic.
"On Reviewing Translations" by Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen and Edith Grossman