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Lost in Translation by Isaac Land

Published: December 16, 2014

My story, appropriately enough, begins with an unexpected meeting.  A historian based in Brittany crossed la Manche to present at a conference in Portsmouth.  He heard me speak, and at a pub afterwards, wrote down the name of one of his colleagues back home.  That handwritten note turned out to be a ticket to a path breaking article in my subfield by a historian who has published almost exclusively in French.  I have since devoted many hours to bringing his work to a larger English-speaking audience, laboriously working through his sentences (dictionary in hand), and blogging about why people need to pay attention to him.

If you would like the specific example, you can look at my blog postings here and here.  I would like to emphasize, though, that the issues I am raising apply equally well if the work in question had been published not in French, but in Bengali or Russian.

Most historians and other humanists passed a required language exam or two in the course of their path to the PhD.  Why aren’t more of us putting those skills to good use?  To answer that, we need to think more broadly about the incentives — or the lack thereof — for translation projects in academia.

Google Translate produces prose that too often resembles one of the forced monologues from Waiting for Godot.  Barring the advent of some earth-shaking new software, we can be certain that only a minority of peer-reviewed publications will get translated into English.  Which ones? Much of it will be driven by market forces.  For example, among French scholars, Alain Cabantous is a name to conjure with on anything connected with maritime or coastal matters.  None of that material has appeared in English, however.  Just one of Cabantous’ many books has been translated; not coincidentally, it is on the more colorful and marketable topic of blasphemy.

This month, the French novelist Patrick Modiano learned that he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.  A BBC profile noted that he remains largely untranslated into English.  This should serve to remind us of how much terrific writing — of all sorts — hasn’t yet won the support of a big publishing house in the English-speaking world.

It’s always easy to blame publishers, but translators themselves may bear part of the responsibility as well.  Rather than just asking “what gets translated,” we should be asking “who are our translators?”  If we assume that only a fully bilingual individual is a translator worthy of the name, then whatever escapes the attention of this elite cadre will be accessible only to readers of the original language. There is no guarantee that the most historiographically interesting scholarship will even appear on a superstar translator’s radar.

In an ideal scenario, experts in various subfields would each seek out the best work in their areas of expertise and devote substantial time to translating and summarizing.  Yet in the real world, we must ask: how would all that effort be recognized and rewarded?

It’s fair to say that for most of us, reading even a single article in a foreign language is a bit of a gamble.  We read it slowly.  We could spend that time on something else.  We may devote the time, only to conclude that this particular piece of scholarship is undistinguished.  It’s not surprising that most of us wouldn’t assume the risk of a serious translation project unless a publisher invited us to take it on.

There are intermediate solutions, though.  I’ve already mentioned that blogging about untranslated scholarship is one option.  For those with some reading fluency and a good reason to make the effort, I would say: “Go for it!” Historians are a plain-spoken lot.  Their sentence structures are grammatically simple.  About one quarter of the words I have to look up turn out to be everyday academic lingo.  For example, échantillon is a sample (in the statistical sense) and a sillage (wake or furrow) in a historiographical context refers to scholarship that follows up on earlier trailblazing work.  These sorts of terms will recur, so I advise making up a handy glossary for quick reference.

As a blogger, I’m not presenting myself as a fully qualified and proficient translator.  I know enough to summarize the highlights and encourage others to delve deeper.  I’ve not turned my blog over entirely to my translation work; I translate when I have the time and inclination.  So the commitment is manageable.

Not everyone has a blog, of course. Consider, though, if you are writing a review essay or delivering a keynote address, could you do more to include perspectives from scholars who are not yet translated, but should be? What about conference panels devoted to a roundup of important untranslated work in an area that would interest attendees?  In most subfields, we don’t even know what we are missing.


About the author

Isaac Land is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University. He is the author of War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and can be reached at Isaac.Land@indstate.edu or on Twitter @IsaacLand2


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