Friday, May 7, 2010

Reflections on Teaching Translation

In the early 1980s, I had the honor of beginning my study of translation under Margaret Sayers Peden -- one of the most prolific literary translators of the twentieth century.

To give you an idea of what sort of intellectual acumen she brought to the table, in 1988 alone, while she was the second reader of my doctoral thesis on Baroque Spanish drama, she published twelve novels she had translated from Spanish to English. If you have read the novels of Isabel Allende after House of the Spirits, you have read her marvellous creative work. I believe Eva Luna was the first of Allende's novels she translated but by the time she began that she had an impressive trail of titles by names as famous as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. I had the joy of helping her do her edits of her translation of Paz's work, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or the Traps of Faith -- a monumental work that is at once a primer and an encyclopedia for anyone studying Baroque literature and culture. 

Dr. Peden, or "Petch" as her family and friends know her, designed her classes as a hybrid. On the one hand, to satisfy the bean counters of the accreditation world, she included an academic exploration of the subject, but her strong inclination was to say that for her, translation was something to do, not talk about. To satisfy the academic content, we read and reported on chapters from books by translators about translation, one of which was George Steiner's weighty After Babel.

However, most of the class time was spent as a workshop in which students, divided into a blue team and a red team, would bring passages from their projects to get advice about problem words, phrases and so forth. The blue team and red team alternated class days to critique and to ask questions. The discussions which grew out of these questions and contributed to the academic side varied organically -- they simply depended on what popped up. In my translation classes, I follow her model, and have added a few other books to read, such as If This Be Treason -- the memoires of Gregory Rabassa.

In the thirty years since I studied with her, I can only claim the translation of one literary work: The Complete Poetry of St. Teresa de Avila (1996, soon to go through a second edition). On the other hand, I have spent years as a professional, certified technical translator, a field in which I have earned a living for at least three full years outside of academia. I've translated on subjects as arcane as Polynesian archeoastronomy on Rapa Nui or as scientifically useful as medical material, military applications of telecommunications technology and so forth.

I mention this variety of topics in technical work because Peden often said that if a person knows two languages -- and she meant really, really knows them -- translation in any particular technical area chiefly presents the challenge of learning specialized vocabularies and shop talk (also not easily acquired in many cases). Technical translation is less demanding grammatically than literary projects and makes fewer demands on stylistic or artistic intuition. On the other hand, it makes tremendous demands on terminology, which is why computer assisted or machine-assisted translation (MAT/CAT) is so often employed as a tool, despite its weaknesses with syntax.

On the other hand, she observed that literary translation is the area that requires intellect and deep stylistic sensibilities, which result from reading far, wide and deeply. MAT/CAT is useless for literature. Just as a good chef must eat, a translator must read. Another caveat: Literary translation does not pay the bills. After all, it didn't pay hers (at least when I knew her) -- she was a professor!

While many professional, accredited translators are college professors, many, if not most professors who teach foreign language have not employed that skill in some way other than to teach it in the artificial, contrived environment of a classroom or in overseas programs where the problems of the traditional classroom usually remain, but are masked by the marketing allure of the illusion of immersion.

Few college professors of foreign language have run a business in that language, managed an office or run a newspaper that publishes in that language. In general, university professors of foreign language come in two flavors: They either specialize in literature or linguistics. Because they like teaching their specialities and they are aware of their lack of experience outside academia, professors of foreign language usually are not interested in teaching a skill they have not deliberately developed and  used.

A lot of students think they can become translators after majoring in a foreign language in college. Fortunately, whether they have real world experience or not, professors know quite well that translation is tough. It requires more than bilingualism. It is a special skill. Think of it this way: Just because you speak English doesn't mean you can instantly be a technical writer for a manufacturer. So, when professors advise students, they dissuade all but their most thoroughly bilingual students from even entertaining the notion of becoming either translators (written texts) or interpreters (oral, usually live, media).

In fact, in the interest of public safety (and to keep them from embarrassing themselves) I put a disclaimer in my translation syllabus to the effect that taking the class and even getting an "A" does not constitute a qualification as a translator. For that, there is a guild, The American Translators Association, that administers a very rigorous and long exam to would-be translators. 

So, if you are contemplating becoming a translator or teaching translation, visit the ATA website in the link above. They offer practice exams, advice about how to improve your skills and much more. In either case, credentialize yourself, read their literature and become active as a translator. Build up a professional translation CV.

Learn the business side of the profession. Become familiar with the tools and issues of the trade. If you're hoping to make a career of it, don't quit your day job since it takes sustained effort to build up a steady stream of clients and contacts.

If your goal is to add a credential and the experience that qualifies you to teach, after a couple of years on the inside, you'll be in a ideal position to make an informed proposal to teach a class in translation -- one that will be of real value to your students and one that you can feel confident about teaching.

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