Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What if We Only Had One Language?

Catherine Porter, MLA President, has a wonderful entry on the Asian Languages blog. Here is an excerpt:

Lately, as a thought experiment, I’ve tried to imagine living in a world without translators. A preposterous notion, to be sure, although perhaps no more so than others we accept as premises for entertainment, for example, the notion that a certain Benjamin Button is born old and proceeds to grow younger. In any event, to anchor the exercise in a bit of science fiction, I’m positing that the human brain has evolved to permit the learning of just a single language; translation is thus out of the question. The resulting world, as I picture it, is radically and starkly diminished. Pursuing the experiment through the prism of my own tradition, which members of my generation typically encountered in curricular form as “ancient history” followed by “Western civilization,” I see that the Arabs, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the Romans learned nothing from one another. There has been no New Testament, no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no scientific or industrial revolution. There is no American Constitution, no United Nations Charter, no European Union. Works of literature, philosophy, scholarship, and science that may have been produced in other linguistic contexts are forever inaccessible to speakers of English—and of course the English language itself has not developed in anything like its present form.

Fortunately for us, the human brain in its plasticity took a more propitious evolutionary path. Human beings can and do learn multiple languages; translators and interpreters have always been with us, and we need them as much as ever.

Porter then gives reasons for the need:

(1) Despite the advances in Machine Translation, it is not clear when these software programs will be able to handle the syntactic, stylistic, and cultural complexities of literary, philosophical, or scholarly texts, if ever.

(2) English is not always an option, and multilingual people have a demonstrated advantage over only-English monolinguists.

(3) Globalization + knowledge explosion facilitated by digital media = increasingly diverse sources of new knowledge, and translators will be in increasing demand.

(4) Apparently, there is a great unmet demand for educated translators and interpreters, and translation is an ideal context for developing translingual and transcultural abilities as an organizing principle of the language curriculum.. (so why aren't they paid as much as brain surgeons??)

Now the painful truth:

"[in] the history of the Anglo-American tradition [a]good translations must be fluid and transparent and good translators must stay out of sight. The invisibility of the translator has become a cliché, but it is by no means a myth. Presses don’t want to advertise books as translations. Newspapers sometimes publish translated texts without acknowledging the fact. Academics have been known to remove translations from their curriculum vitae to avoid jeopardizing their chances for promotion or tenure. And until recently, few universities in the English-speaking world have acknowledged translation as a legitimate area of study."

Arrrrgh.. This is, of course, Venuti, trying to make a translator visible by using words such as 'swell"..

And Porter is right: no where else in the world would a sane academic remove the fact that they have translated serious work from their CVs. So when migrating to places such as UK, USA or Australia, translators from non-English speaking backgrounds quickly feel the frustration of becoming nobodies.

The Chronicle also published a recent article about literary translator visibility in recent years.

"Translation is having a moment, or a series of moments. But its champions say the fight is far from over to have translation—not the theory of it but the hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-out-your-lexicons variety—recognized as a legitimate scholarly activity. In the United States, it's nearly impossible to make a living as an independent literary translator. It's almost as hard to get an academic job as one." Scary! In Egypt, you wouldn't even dream of getting a publishing house to approach you with a book translation of you do not have a PhD in the discipline you are translating about.

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