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Notes from the Classroom: On Teaching Translation

By Jenny McPhee

I am old enough to remember when creative writing was something you “couldn’t teach” and was considered by the academy to be a less than legitimate area of study. (Journalism didn’t even merit a raised eyebrow.) In my youth, there were only a handful of MFAs in creative writing on offer throughout the US. Now creative writing departments and graduate degrees in writing and journalism are like porcini in a forest after a rainy spell. Although translation is certainly one of the world’s oldest professions, when I was an undergraduate at Williams College,  there were no classes in Italian language, much less in translation. Today, however, academic programs in translation, like the creative writing programs of yore, are on the cusp of mushrooming throughout the world of higher education in the US.

Translation was not something I set out to do, but rather fell into (I owe it all to Pope John Paul II, but that’s another story), and, given the lack of available formal training and the field’s invisibility, most seasoned translators will tell you something similar. And so it is that after a long apprenticeship in the art and craft, I now have the great honor and privilege of teaching translation. I did so this past spring in two contexts: to graduate students at NYU who are enrolled in an online, asynchronous master of science degree in professional translation and to undergraduates at Princeton.

The majority of the NYU students intend to have careers in specializations such as legal, patent, medical, commercial, financial, or government translation, and so on. Literary is not generally part of their wheelhouse for two main reasons: first, because there is little money in it; second, because many of the students find literary translation intimidating. But the tools and skills of literary translation—grammar, syntax, rhythm, word choice, revision, editing, and proofreading—are fundamental to a successful career in translation, no matter what the specialization.

The graduate students in my class quickly overcame their intimidation, and most were intrigued by the discovery that inherent to literary translation is the concept that there is no such thing as a “literal” translation, and that not only is such a thing impossible, it’s undesirable. A literary translator seeks to transcreate the source text into something new, something that is not only culturally and linguistically and rhythmically felicitous in relation to the spirit of the original, but something that is a work of art in its own right. This necessitates risk-taking and confidence in yourself as a writer, the prerequisite for which is a mastery of language and writing skills. In professional translation “faithfulness” to the source text is at a premium, but being “faithful” to the sense of the text can also mean having the courage to abandon “word for word” and to “recreate.”

The students also learned the importance of revising, editing, and proofreading to the success of a translation. These practices they immediately recognized as a real benefit to their translation practice in other areas, and with the rapid rise of machine and neural translation as well as artificial speech technologies, the demand for post-editing is booming. Post-editing is the process of taking machine-generated translations and making them sound grammatically, syntactically, historically, and culturally human in any given context. And extraordinary new humanitarian machine translation initiatives from organizations such as Translators Without Borders are enabling crisis-affected people from marginalized languages to have a voice and get much needed help. They, too, rely on post-editors.

Literary translation skills are essential to post-editing since this is precisely the work a literary translator does, machine or no machine, day in and day out. We are predominantly editors, ironing, sculpting, kneading texts until they sing and shine, surprise and amaze. To do so, we must have highly developed instincts for what sounds authentic as well as enough informed hubris to take leaps of faith in formulating language equivalencies. (In the fall, I will, in fact, be teaching a course at NYU entitled "Editing for Translators.")

Though certainly unripe, the Princeton undergraduates I taught weren’t, apparently, intimidated by anything, and their writing and literary preparation was remarkable. What came as a complete surprise to me, however, was to discover that only one of the students was an English major—the other majors ranged from economics and computer science to East Asian studies, history, and classics. Their languages included Korean, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Latin, and French, the majority having acquired their fluency through study. (Though I am fluent in only three languages, I feel equipped to teach in a polylingual classroom because I know that although deep knowledge of one’s source language and culture are paramount, an even more profound and nuanced knowledge of your target language, in this case English, is the crux of the matter.)

The Princeton students were taking the course because they were curious about the field of translation, since the discipline has now risen out of the shadows and into the sunny ranks of what is considered by the academy a legitimate area of study (Princeton has an impressive program and certificate in translation and intercultural communication). These students recognized their language skills and their experiences abroad as an asset to their overall development and were motivated to increase their global exposure and communication skills.

Both my Princeton and NYU classes were structured as workshops and the students translated selections from various genres—fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, poetry, and plays—texts they were tasked with finding from their source languages and which had to be either previously untranslated into English or not translated within the past twenty years. The students, in finding these texts, introduced themselves, each other, and me to a wide range of classic, modern, and contemporary literature from their source languages--for example an excerpt from a contemporary South Korean sci-fi satire that sold more than 400 million copies; the last speech of Salvador Allende; Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg’s frontline reporting during WW II; poems by Shuntaro Tanigawa describing the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan; a hilarious drunken scene taken from a comedy written by Plautus in the second century BC; a classic Puerto Rican tragedy set in the sugarcane fields of Aguadilla, to name just a few of the selections that came into our classroom. The students regularly read aloud from both the original and the translation (in the online class they made videos of themselves), a practice I insist upon, as translation is as much about sound as it is about language. 

Our discussions involved deep dives into questions of comparative syntax, use of pronouns, adverbs, idioms, the role of prosody, sound, and accent; we examined issues of language idiosyncrasies, as well as cultural and historical context, thus making each of the students an expert in their source language. Our deliberations dramatically revealed how language difference shapes cultural difference across time, texts, and geography. We became acutely aware that the rest of the world does not speak, think, and feel homogeneously, but in an infinite variety of ways. As Octavio Paz put it: “The sun praised in an Aztec poem is not the sun of the Egyptian hymn, although both speak of the same star.”

The study of translation is key to human understanding as it promotes genuine intercultural exchange, increases global literacy, and mines the gold of all existence: empathy. As these new crops of shiitake- and chanterelle-grade translation students traipse through the hallowed halls (virtual or otherwise) of higher ed, pursuing their particular field of study, and then on into their careers, they will each be ambassadors for translation spreading the idea that literature by its very nature is global literature, that translation empowers communication and connection as nothing else can.

Funghi, I read the other day, are an antidote to dementia, stimulators of increased cognitive function, and generally help improve quality of life. They also make a great risotto, enhance an escabèche, perfect a khao phat, and complement a doro wat. The same could be said of translation.


Published Jul 1, 2019   Copyright 2019 Jenny McPhee

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