On Friday 30 September the British Library hosted International Translation Day, an annual celebration of the work of translators - especially literary translators - organised by Free Word Centre and English PEN. It was a great chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, but it left me wondering where academics fit in.
The day began with a plenary session highlighting how many stages a book goes through on its journey from one language market to another. Chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, the session featured: literary scout, Rebecca Servadio; editor of Hispabooks, Ana Pérez Galván; Kate Gunning, who organises sales to independent bookshops for Penguin Random House; Sarah Braybooke, publicist for Scribe UK; everyone's favourite bookseller, Gary Perry from Foyles; and Fiammetta Rocco, culture editor of The Economist. Each explained their role within the field of literary translation and reflected on how their own section could work better. The general consensus was that there is too much to read and too little time, leading to the conclusion that "We don't need to publish more, we need to publish better".
While I really enjoyed this session, I would love to see academics as an integral part of the chain, both at its early stages and at the very end. Those of us who work in modern languages and specialise in literature spend most of our lives reading books in other languages, often seeking out writers who haven't found success outside their country yet. If we didn't love these books, I doubt we would spend so much time painstakingly researching them and writing academic articles on them, so why aren't we more instrumental in pushing these books to publishers, or scouts, or even to translators? I know there are some academics who do just that, but there seems to be scope for this to become much more common practice. At the other end of the spectrum, I'd like to see translations recognised by academics as more than just an easy alternative for those students who can't be bothered to read the Spanish or French original. The translation market, the way books are selected for translation, reviewed and read by the public, tells us so much about the way that the English speaking world views or imagines other countries, other cultures, and yet this is something almost totally ignored in academic circles. In this respect, Dr Richard Mansell's work on the translation and reception of Catalan literature is pioneering and a real inspiration for my own fledgling research into the way books from across the Hispanic world make it into English translation. More generally, I believe academics in modern languages should be promoters of literature in translation, given that among our core values is understanding people from different places and different backgrounds. Although I teach in the Spanish department, I would like my students to be curious about Russia or Korea, to be open to new ways of seeing the world, and reading translations can help them to do that. I recently asked my final year class if they read translations and they said no, with the exception of one girl having read Ana Karenina. I'd like us to have a discussion, between translators, publishers, booksellers and academics about what we can do to promote translations to our students and better incorporate them into the syllabus.
In this respect, I was particularly looking forward to the panel on 'The Current State of Translation in Higher Education', but found that the panel was focused almost entirely on how we can better involve professional translators in university programmes in translation and improve the translation training offered at universities. I wholeheartedly agree that professional translators - like Ros Schwartz, who spoke very engagingly about her experiences of teaching translation in university contexts - should be hired as professors in literary translation, following the model I recently witnessed at King's Policy Institute, where the likes of Dave Willetts and Nicholas Macphearson have been given professorships based on their work in government and the treasury respectively. Their expertise and experience of translation as an industry - as opposed to abstract theory - is essential for training future generations of translators. But I also think we could make better use of them to understand the translation industry as a force in shaping the way people in one country view those in another. In one of my modules, I'm asking translators to tell us how and why the book they translated came to be chosen for translation instead of another, or the cultural background they needed to translate that text well.
Within this panel, successful literary translator Peter Bush spoke about his experience of the RAE/REF, the bureaucratic nightmare by which academic output is judged. Peter first submitted his translations from Spanish to English as a research output in modern languages. The feedback was that, although brilliant translations, for the purposes of the RAE they could go straight into the bin. The linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to write a good translation was not taken into account. At the next research exercise four years later, and renamed the REF by then, Peter submitted translations not in modern languages, but in creative writing, and the creative writing submission as a whole was judged world leading. While this approach works if you are only submitting translations, what about those of us who consider ourselves primarily members of modern languages, who want to submit a mixture of academic articles and translations? Peter mentioned Prof Nick Harrison's Translation as Research Manifesto, published on Modern Languages Open, which argues for translations to be accepted to the REF. Although translations are already acceptable, the problems come from many places, including managers who don't want to risk a low REF score with submissions they're unsure of, and other academics who don't feel confident assessing the research quality of translations. With the impact agenda and recognition that translations are a way for academics to reach a much wider audience, it seems attitudes are changing, but a lot more training and discussion will be necessary. What I would like to see more of, and what was not even mentioned at ITD, is exploration of how translating adds to our research, and our research adds to our translations. Working on contemporary Venezuelan literature, I've found that I've learnt an enormous amount about my subject from co-editing and contributing translations to an anthology of Venezuelan writing in translation. I'd love to hear more stories about academics who have had a similar experience, and to share ideas about how to bring what we've learnt through translation practice into cultural studies classes.
If any translators, editors, publishers, academics or readers of translations are reading this, I'd really love to know your ideas.