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Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 12 May 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC-7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC-5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC-4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC+1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC+2).

United States
Tuesday 12 May 2020

Translating the Future Week 1: From 1970 to 2020: Translation Transformations

Co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library

Tuesday 12 May 2020


Esther Allen: Hello and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a translator from Spanish and French and Professor at City University of New York. I'm here with Allison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature, works with the Pen America translation committee and has been a driving force behind the conference that we are launching today.

Allison Markin Powell: Thank you for joining us for the launch of our new weekly series for Translating the Future, which commemorates the first International Conference on Literary Translation, held in the United States, The World of Translation. Which was convened by the PEN American Center and the Translation Committee, and took place exactly 50 years ago this week in New York city, our beloved wounded New York.

Esther: We began planning this anniversary conference over two years ago. Never ever imagining that circumstances would force us to transform what was to be a landmark in-person gathering and celebration, and to reconceive it in the virtual space. Happily, the medium that we're all on now provides new opportunities unbound by location or time zone.

Allison: We’re excited to kick off with a conversation between two renowned translators and scholars, David Bellos and Karen Emmerich. David is the former and Karen the current director of Princeton University's Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. They'll be talking about what has changed and what hasn't in the world of literary translation over the past 50 years. David has written and translated a number of books including the bestselling "Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and The Meaning of Everything." Karen's most recent book is "Literary Translation and The Making of Originals." You can read their full bios on the Center for the Humanities website.

Esther: The series of weekly one hour conversations we're launching today will continue throughout the summer and into the fall. Still, Translating the Future will be anchored to its originally planned dates in late September, when several marquee events will take place, including the symposium, a flight of Tokarczuk's translators featuring several of Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk's translators into various languages, English, Japanese, and Hindi among others.

Allison: We’ll be here every Tuesday until then and perhaps even beyond, having some of the most engaging and compelling conversations about the past, present, and future of literary translation and its place in the world where we now find ourselves. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for Translating the Uncertain Present, a conversation between Madhu Kaza and Lina Mounzer who will be joining us from Beirut. And please keep coming back every week. Check the center for the humanities site for updated event listings.

Esther: Today’s conversation will be followed by a Q and A. Please email your questions for David Bellos and Karen Emmerich to [email protected]. If you know anyone who is unable to join us for the live stream, a recording will be uploaded soon to the HowlRound and center for the humanities sites.

Allison: Before we turn it over to David and Karen, we'd like to offer our sincere gratitude to our partners at the Center for The Humanities at the graduate center, CUNY, to Frank Hentschker, Director of the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, to the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers, at the New York Public library, and to PEN America. And now here are a few words from Chip Rolley. PEN America's senior director of literary programs and world voices festival.

Chip Rolley: Hello, thanks so much Allison, thanks so much Esther. It's an enormous privilege and honor to be asked to speak here today. Translation as you know, plays a huge role in the work of PEN. It was after all the translation prize that saw the beginning of the PEN Literary Awards over 50 years ago. Those are awards that have grown to include over 20 other categories and that bestow way over $300,000 a year. And of course, translation itself is in the DNA of the World Voices Festival. I remember very, very well, I can't remember the year, but I remember very, very well meeting Esther Allen so many years ago now. It must be over 10, maybe almost 15 years ago now. At International PEN meeting. It might've been in Bled, Slovenia or it was in some European Hamlet where we were having some meeting about something or other. It might've been a Congress where we gathered together and at the time I was with Sydney PEN in Australia and I remember very well hearing Esther talk about the really important work that PEN America was doing at that time. To try to address what we've all become familiar with, which is the low percentage of books that are published in the United States that are works that are translated from other languages. And one of the things that she mentioned that she was most proud of at the time was of course the World Voices Festival. And Esther was one of the founders of the World Voices Festival along with Solomon Rushdie, Mike Roberts and others at PEN America at the time. So it is quite literally the case that we would not have a World Voices Festival without the enthusiasm and support of people like Esther, without the translation committee, without the translators who translate all the words upon which the festival was predicated. And the works that the festival shares every year. Like the translation conference plans, our plans for the festival this year had the rug pulled out from under them by this very strange occurrence that we're all experiencing this coronavirus pandemic. We had to cancel, we were to have our festival this past week and we canceled it. Probably about, I think it was in Mid-March we had to make that decision to cancel it. And it meant about 150 writers who were due to appear in New York wouldn't be coming to see us. And so in its stead, we pivoted to launch a stream of content, which we launched last week during the week that the festival was supposed to take place and we'll be rolling out content from then until probably until the end of June. So we've got a whole lot of things lined up, including podcasts, interviews, videos, and we're most extraordinarily proud to be associated with this series of events that will be leading up to the 50th anniversary of the translation conference, which of course PEN was the organization that had hosted so many years ago today. So I wish you all a great first meeting of this conference. I believe it is 50 years to the day since that conference took place all those many years ago. I wish you great success with the Translating the Future programs. I'm looking forward to this discussion today with Karen and David, and I'm looking forward to all the discussions that continue weekly, way on into September or however long you want to keep going. It's just a fantastic effort that you're making and I'm enormously proud to be associated with it as we all are at PEN America. So Bon Voyage and onto Karen and David.

David Bellos: Well good afternoon everybody, and thank you so much Esther especially, and the vast team behind you for inspiring and organizing and getting this project going. You've done so many things like this in the past, so I'm not surprised, but I'm still immensely grateful for your energy and ability to get people to do things. We are here Karen and I, to talk about world translation over the last 50 years, starting with this extraordinary conference that took place on May the 12th, 1970. Now, in the world before the virus conferences where there were 10 a penny. I mean, we've all been to all sorts of conferences where we've made friends and networked and done various mildly useful things, but actually not learned very much. But I think the PEN World of Translation conference of 50 years ago was a real exception to that routine. It was a blessing without shadow, without blemish seems to have been a triumph and to have had long running and very beneficial consequences. Now that really isn't true of many such gatherings, so it was quite extraordinary. And I think just to measure the impact that it's had, I would like us to listen to Isaac Bashevis Singer who addressed the conference then, in his inimitable accent and said some things that actually, when you think about it are quite extraordinary. If we could hear that clip, Travis.

Isaac Bashevis Singer [recorded]: Translation must become not only an honorable profession, but an art. While I don't like the bloody revolutions, I would love to see a translators revolution. Translators are the ones who really should be liberated. In all of literature they have been the pariahs, suffering the scum of the critics, and seldom hearing a good word. When the book was good, the author got all the credit, and the translator nothing. When the book was bad, the blame was on the translator. Let this conference be the beginning of a rebellion, where ink instead of blood will be shed. Many a prophet has-

David: Thank you. Isn't that wonderful? A rebellion or revolt in which ink but not blood will be shed . To some considerable degree, that bloodless revolution has sort of happened. And I'm sure Karen is going to talk more about all that has changed. But to begin with I'd like to point out that, based on the papers and the recordings of that conference that we have had access to, an awful lot of things actually haven't changed, they're still the same. The conference drew together, writers talking about their translators, translators talking about their writers, people opinionating or actually doing more than opinionating, about the differences between translating into English and translating into other languages, notably Russian and Polish and French, in these papers. And then publishers talking about, well, why they are the way they are. And I think that's where least has changed. As the various publishers who contributed to the conference pointed out in 1970 and as I guess any publisher could point out today, an insolvent publisher is not much use to a translator or an author. They do have to somehow survive financially, and translations are not a very good way and not a reliable way, to put it mildly, of earning money. And so that financial pressures continue to weigh on the speed and quality and rates and range of what is brought from other languages into English, especially through the United States, but also through Britain. A number of things have changed, in 1970, there was still a kind of war of rights between Britain and America as to who got to commission the translators and claims are made that the British underpaid their translators. I'm sure they did actually. And also there were different arrangements for translators rights in the UK and the US. These have largely been overcome and the situation is very much more fluid between the two English language domains now, than it was then. And also publishers have slowly but actually genuinely given more recognition to translators on title pages and catalog credits and so forth. So some of those things have been achieved. But the general picture, that publishing translations is a pretty difficult business. And the translators mustn't expect too much from their publishers remains the same. Do you think that's true, Karen?

Karen Emmerich: I feel like I need to be the voice of revolution here. So one of the things that is so remarkable about the recordings we've been given access to for the entire week long conference was really amazing to hear some of those voices. And then the papers have been published collectively, including you know, I'm not saying this for you David, but for all of those who are listening who might not know, of course there's a manifesto on translation and that was written up at the same time that is published. And there is a phrase in fact that posits translators as the proletarians of literature with nothing to lose but their chains. And one of the things that's really remarkable to me about reading over this material is the sense of which I think many translators now might feel sort of hesitant to make these kinds of claims, for a translator's rights for themselves as opposed to sort of more an ethical turn, I guess, in recent years or in recent decades even to thinking about translation as a mode of representation in some sense, that you're fighting for your rights so that you're fighting for someone else as well in some sense. But I think when I was reading over the manifesto, there are all of these demands that are being made that are quite sort of explicit demands. We need an index of translation similar to the annual books in print. We have that now, we have the 3% translation database. Prizes, a call for regional prizes for translations from the literature of Asia, Latin America, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia. And it's amazing what gets left off of that list, first of all. But it's also amazing to see that almost every sort of demand in the manifesto has now been met. Contact with publishers, the rise of small presses who were publishing mostly or exclusively literature and translation. Professorships of translation was another manifesto point. "Although trans..." I'm gonna read a little chunk from this because it's really fascinating to me, and then we'll return to this issue of publishers. But "although translations have been made since the beginning of recorded history and many of the best minds have been engaged in this appallingly difficult task, no chair of translation has ever been established. This is a shocking state of affairs, which should be remedied as soon as possible. Such professorships should properly be established in all the major universities.: So that again to echo David your, "Well, everything is the same and nothing is the same." Has not happened. We do not have professorships at all the major universities, not by half or quarter though other parts of the world are doing a bit better I would say. But the real sticking point that I think you're pointing to is this issue of this notion that there's a pie, right? And that translators and authors and publishers are all either working together or working against one another for a sort of finite amount of stuff that has to be shared. And that's something that I find is not necessarily the tone of the conversation now that there can be... That for the proletarians of literature with nothing to lose but their chains to rise up as translators. There is a lot more flexibility and fluidity, between who is a writer and a translator and a publisher, and people who are all of those things and booksellers, right? There are so many people who are working together to write, to sort of raise the way that translation is thought about in the world. Not to mention readers and reviewers and professors as well. So I don't know that if that--

David: All that's very true. I mean, over the last 50 years of course, there has been a huge concentration in the major publishing houses. In 1970, there were still many modestly sized independent publishers who've almost all now been gobbled up by the big groups. And the proliferation of really small houses of nonprofits, often specializing in translation is like kind of the other side of that coin of the concentration. But those small houses that do a lot of translating now in the US and the UK are always on the very brink of financial viability. And interestingly one thing you didn't mention is that the manifesto and several of the papers call for government subsidies, for public money to support translation and that has been forthcoming over the last 50 years not from everywhere, but from a quite remarkable number of countries. The Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Germans. Now the Russians also, the Turks and the Koreans all have their own funding to foster literary translation and to help to get works written in those languages into the international circuit, or the international conversation of literature, primarily through subsidizing their translation initially into English, because English remains the the real stumbling block, the real limiting factor in that international circulation. One thing that's quite interesting in a couple of the publisher's contributions, and we're going to forget about the publishers in a minute, but I do just want to say this because, it is probably the measure of the distance we have traveled in 50 years, not just in translation but in history in the world, is how much the scouting for selection of commissioning of translations from other languages happened through specific individuals in publishing houses, people with international connections. And in 1970, people with international backgrounds. The great figures of commissioning editors in the major American and British houses in those days, were nearly all people who'd emigrated to the English speaking world from somewhere else because of the course of world history. The Russian revolution, the second world war and so forth. That generation has now disappeared. But it was their choices, of those individuals who tried to bring their cultures into English, who had a lasting and marked effect. Nowadays I think obviously there are still many people with international backgrounds in publishing, but it's not quite the same cohort of emigres that are key players in the selection of international literature that gets through to us. They're are people more like you and me just learn languages at school and if you were in their positions because of education and taste and passion and so forth. So I think there has been a big change there. But the giants of the publishing of the postwar era that speak in the conference in 1970, they really are almost mythical figures now. From Irving Howe, to Singer to Rabassa and so forth. It's quite a remarkable collection of people.

I mean, over the last 50 years of course, there has been a huge concentration in the major publishing houses. In 1970, there were still many modestly sized independent publishers who've almost all now been gobbled up by the big groups.

Karen: No, it really is. Again, the sort of magic of getting to hear some of those voices as well. And I wonder, maybe we should just play that Rabassa? I don't know if Travis can... We should just bring it in and at least we can hear, since you've just mentioned his name. Maybe we can fill that in as well.

Gregory Rabassa [recorded]: Ear is important in translation because it really lies at the base of all good writing. Writing is not truly a substitute for thought. It's a substitute for sound. We couch our thoughts in a language which is spoken or else we would have to resort to the formulas of mathematical science, which are the true substitutes for thought. With a beauty of their own and which offer little in the way of oral feeling except in rare cases, such as that of the remarkable Google. So that when a person writes he's speaking, and when a person reads, he is listening. Writing has drifted away from this idea of direct expression, because it has the advantage of being outside the inexorable flow of time. It's a flow which can be halted, reversed and amended. Nevertheless, what we appreciate in writing is much the same as what we look for in rhetoric. Although that poor word has suffered of late. First it meant freshman English and now it means intentionally hollow statements. Sound whether heard or imagined. Sound, which can either enhance or detract from the meaning. The translator with a tin ear is as deadly as a tone deaf musician.

Karen: It’s really remarkable. So, Esther had sent us this snippet also to think about the first perhaps appearance of the word Google, historically speaking in this kind of context. But it's also amazing listening to this and reading that piece, made me think of again, how much has changed in terms of sensitivity to all kinds of things including like, is writing really a substitute for sound for people who don't have access to sound, for instance? And those access issues. And so many of the things that this 1970 collection doesn't touch on, issues of gender were ever present for me when I was reading and realizing how few women there were in the collection. I think it's about 20%, maybe. Issues of ethics again. Theory, this is a moment before Steiner, before Susan Bassnett, before Gideon Toury, before Larry Venuti who is one of the people who would have made this sort of call to action on the part of translators, turned it into something that is actually about about thinking of the translator, not exactly as a conduit for something from elsewhere, but thinking less in terms of aesthetics and more in terms of the responsibility to represent. And then also the responsibility or the right to not be representative is a thing that I've been thinking about a lot. David, you were there with the conversation with Josh Freeman who translates Uyghur poetry and making the claim that "Well, why should Uyghur poetry, "have to be heavily annotated and footnoted "and brought across as something anthropological "as opposed to having the right to stand "on the same aesthetic ground as other poetries?" And so that's, what you were talking about these sort of great figures of post-war publishing in the US and it's curious also to see both the really expansive Canon of works that they're talking about, but also the quite sort of exclusive nature of some of the conversations that are being had. And so that makes me feel really great about being here 50 years later when we have so many more things on the table I think.

David: Yes, we do have more on the table. And some of the things said in 1970 and some of the people saying them are not perhaps as crystal clear or as straightforward as they might seem. Clara Malraux, the former wife of the French minister of culture gives a paper in that conference and it's printed in the volume called Translation and Complicity in which she pushes the line very strongly that, "To be a good translator, "you must somehow be in cahoots "with your author." That there must be this close almost symbiotic relationship between source and target between author and translator. That is well from some points of view almost cloying and very excluding of translators who happen not to know the authors their text or indeed to be translating them not because they are in love with them, but actually interested in producing something worthwhile in English. I don't know how you felt about that issue of complicity because, it's always a great privilege to be able to work with a living author. But the idea of complicity somehow I feel a little uneasy about.

Karen: Yeah. And I mean it's also coded as Simpatico by some. There are many ways of thinking about that. And for me again, that sort of aesthetic focus also on great works of literature is another thing that goes throughout the conference. The assumption being that there are certain works that are worth translating and other other works that are not worth translating. And I think that, currently both the idea of complicity and the idea of perhaps foreign literature being something that's gonna make us better, smarter, brighter, more cultured cosmopolitan people isn't necessarily... Like you can think about literature translation being there for all kinds of reasons and to learn I translate things that I think are reprehensible sometimes to give to my students because I think that those are voices that we need to know are out there. And so that too, I think the idea of complicity feels like it's aligning itself with a certain kind of discussion of masterpiece in a way that... Yeah, I don't know.

David: From my marginal experience, well I think those publishers that still do publish translations are still very much in the masterwork frame of mind that they wanted to be reassured before they commission a translation. That what they are translating is really important and worth doing. And it derives from the same mentalities and mental framework as we see in the 1970 conference. Effectively, these are people who are making selections and wish to have prestige attributed to them for making that selection. And I think it will be a long time before we're out of that particular mindset. It's a very well entrenched one, and that's why I say not that much has changed, but lots of other things have changed, Especially just simply the way we talk. It's really interesting for people who are translators, writers, linguists to look back at this 1970 conference and see how people express themselves. Rabassa mentioned the word rhetoric, well there is a rhetoric of speechifying that we don't use anymore. I'm not sure we're any better, but rhetoric that's out view so it looks a little bit funny.

Karen: I would also, can I just insert also one... Because I feel like I've been saying things that may sound sort of critical, like, "Oh, well this wasn't happening, "that wasn't happening." And of course it wasn't happening. That 1970 conference had to happen so that other conversations could take... It's more a celebration of all of the things that we're now talking about and thinking about, and people who are being brought into the conversation and different kinds of voices and genres, and high and low and all the rest. And I think it's just good to know that a lot of the ensuing activism that has happened also is something that we rose to the call for action in a sense. All of the reading series and various ventures and all of the small publishers that resisted being... If big fish were eating the little fish, then we need more minnows to turn into little fish. Right? So that happened as well. And I think that this ongoing sort of proliferation... The reason we need the 50th anniversary conference is not just as a corrective or to say, "It wasn't it great that we did this when," but to celebrate just the wealth of stuff that's happening and has been happening for the past five decades.

David: I think maybe one of the most important ways in which we can both celebrate and reduplicate the 1970 conferences is this. I do believe that it was the first time a large number of people involved in translating got together to talk to each other. As we all know in translating is essentially a fairly solitary activity and translators have no special reason for meeting each other in the course of their business.

Karen: It’s a very pandemic proof thing to do, actually. Sorry.

David: But since that conference, there have been more conferences. There have been more organizations, there have been more get togethers and a real conversation or world of conversations between translators about translating have sprung up, flourished, multiplying, then created not only translation studies and academic discipline, but almost a translation culture of translators talking about translation. And that's a tremendous thing that's been enlightening to me and also immensely supportive.

Karen: It’s also something that is called for in the manifesto. There's a section on, "We need a translators conferences." And the ALTA being founded in 1978 I believe, it's within a decade of this conference. And having yearly conferences, I think we're at number 43 now, as the upcoming one. And also I just wanted to know, it's an American, a US centric conversation that we're having, but there's this sort of parallel growth of translation studies as a discipline that happens also coming out of the conferences. The Lubin conference that happened in 1978 and parallel conversations that are much more, the sort of academic side is quite different in the UK than the US I think, and the connections between the two fields are not always as sort of seamless as we might like. But I think it's interesting to note the growth, the sort of simultaneous growth in different parts of the world. And again, that's only Anglo centric. And I think one of the things that we, if I can quote just for a second from Susan Bassinet and David Johnson who, are writing about the growth of the field in the UK and in the EU. There is something of a cultural contradiction here too. And that despite the comparatively low percentage of texts that are translated into English, there should be so much written in that recalcitrant language about translation as a practice. So that's another thing. One of the things that I'm really excited to see in the next stage of our journey as a community of translators, is more translation of texts about translation from all kinds of languages into English and into one another. But for us who are operating in this field and teaching in this field too. That's something that I really hope will become central.

David: What has been lost of course since 1970 and that lurks in the background mostly, but one occasion in the foreground of that 1970 conference is the USSR.

Karen: Yes.

David: Yeah. This is a huge change in the world for the people who were there. And the people who lived those years because the USSR amongst other things was a great translating place. It was a country, a state of over a hundred languages with lots of reciprocal translations between them, dominated of course by Russia, but with a huge culture of translation of its own. And the paper by Mirra Ginsburg. Is it Mirra? Yes, Ginsburg towards the end does mention where that began. It began in 1918 when Gorky persuaded Lenin to let him start this publishing house called world literature , to bring into Russia the great works of the universal canon through which he was able to employ a lot of translators who because of their Bushra backgrounds might otherwise have been shot. One of them was a woman who also appears in this volume. The Mata Hari of the East called Moura Budberg And she's there talking , but she was the Gorky secretary in the setting up of the world literature enterprise and the culture of translation into Russian that was launched with that publishing house and then carried on by people like Chukovsky. It's really rather different from the things that we normally talk about in English and Western European languages. And it still hasn't really been properly integrated. And I suppose it won't be because it's now pretty much dead and all that activity and all that cultivation of translation has disappeared. But just to put it in a nutshell, in the Soviet union, it was absolutely normal for a writer to be a translator and for a translator to be a writer. The movement back and forth was vastly more fluid. There was no real separation or distinction between who was a translator and who was a writer.

Karen: Or we could just think the translators are all writers working with various forms of constraints. That writing is this umbrella term, and we're doing a certain kind of--

David: For us that is still a slogan and an aspiration with which I agree entirely. In the Soviet it was actually a reality in the way people were paid and treated and stuff.

Karen: No, it really is amazing. This is something that we've been having back and forth about over email too. Just thinking about the thoroughly cold war setting of this conference that was taking place. And it's very difficult to think about our own historical moment now. I mean we need another 50 years to think about what our moment is, what we would call it. But just listening to some of the audio there were sit-ins at Columbia that were keeping people from being able to... Some things were moved from this location to that location, because people couldn't get into their offices or the spaces where they were supposed to be held. And then kind of sort of shutting out. I think what's happening, then the shutting in that's happening here. But it has been really amazing to think about the fact that we're doing this, live-streamed. Maybe there's someone in their living room watching, maybe not. And that's the difference between, how we can talk and connect and the kinds of communities that we can form in each of these moments. And then all of the effort that you put into forming the community that is then made irrelevant by the fall of the iron curtain or so.

David: Yup, yup.. Time passes and things change. One of the things that hasn't changed a great deal, and I don't know whether it ever will, is one of the questions that were circulated on the the flyer for this whole series for Esther's Translating the Future series of which genre get translated and which do not. But I mean, long fiction dominates. Dominated then in 1970, it dominates now, Don't you think?

Karen: I mean, you're asking someone who translates from Greek also where the primary, the things that have historically been translated even from modern Greek have been poetry because that's been the primary genre or was the primary genre for quite some time. And I guess I'm not... I would have to be a publisher. I would have to have a bigger publisher or a bookseller or a reviewer to have a better understanding. Or to have spent a lot more time with that translation database. It's probably true. It's probably true. But it does mean... I mean first of all, it has to be something that can be written and it has to be something that can be produced and sold. Right? I think that the proliferation of online places for people to be sharing work is changing this and making it... And also what we count when we think about the translations that are like is fan translations, subtitling, all of those things that are happening all the time and sort of arenas that we may not be paying attention to.

David: Yes. I suppose it just shows what an old faddy daddy I am. And obviously what can be counted are books. And so obviously when you count books, you find that most translations take the form of book length books. Statistics can be very misleading and it is very difficult to get a grip on all the other modes of transmission that now exists as you say. But it's true, some wonderful ventures unimaginable in 1970 really have done something marvelous, like words without borders and others like it make short fiction, which almost unpublishable as such, accessible to large communities of readers. And they're often the stepping stone to more substantial works and collections. I mean there used to be lots of newspapers and weekly magazines that would publish short stories, but they've almost disappeared. At least it's commercial ventures now. So the web based magazines of translation are wonderful. And also poetry gets translated not just from Greek, but also there are web locations where poetry translation happens and happens very happily. It also occurs to me that the proliferation of streaming services for TV series, TV dramas and theatre has had a most curious effect because you can get them subtitled into a whole slew of languages. Such that Norwegian detective series can be viewed in Slovakia and Argentina and Australia. That is translation, and it's a most effective form of the creation of communities that are no longer bound by geography and no longer subject to the marketing rights of individual publishers, or any particular TV station. So that obviously get a bit scared cause it seems to be all out of hand. How are you going to count it? How you're going to log it? How are you going to survey it?

Karen: How are you gonna sell it, right? We started out talking about money.

David: But it really is, things are happening now that involve language transfer and the movements of cultural production around the world to places where it wasn't intended for. Much more intense than it was in 1970.

Karen: At least we're now paying attention to it. I wonder I sort of put forward an idea for what I would like to have. One tiny little thing that I would like to have more of. Is there something that you would like to see more of, David?

David: To se more?

Karen: What do you want? What do you want the next 50 years to look like?

David: I want everybody to stop publishing books so I can catch up and read all those I haven't read yet.

Karen: I wonder if we... Because soon I think we're gonna be taking some questions. I thought we could end by reading the last few sentences of this manifesto that is published along with the papers for the conference. So I have it here. "Translators are faced with a choice. Either they can continue to do nothing to improve their lot or they can join together to ensure that at long last they will receive their due. The choice between apathy and active engagement in a struggle for recognition between silence and the living voice. The world of translation is still largely undiscovered and unexplored. And the time has come to set the projects in order and to learn what can be done, what can and what cannot be done." And that is the end.

One of the things that I'm really excited to see in the next stage of our journey as a community of translators, is more translation of texts about translation.

David: Pretty good.

[Esther and Allison return onscreen.]

Karen: It feels like it encapsulates this feeling of everything is the same and nothing is the same, in some sense to bring that back.

Allison: Thank you so much Karen and David for ending on that note. It's just really the perfect place I think to leap into our questions. That was a fascinating conversation. I think we could keep talking or keep listening to you for quite a while, but I wanna make sure we do have enough time for our questions. And one of the first questions that came in was, do we need an updated translators manifesto for 2020? And if so, what should be on it? And actually I can answer this one, because we have a group from the translation committee at PEN America. We have been working on updating the translators manifesto and it's a fascinating project. And if anybody who's watching is interested, we will be presenting a separate event on the manifesto in the coming weeks. So we will be addressing it in more detail. And if you're interested, you can contact the translation committee. If you go to pen.org, you can reach out to the translation committee and get involved because...

Karen: I hope at some point we get some back channel discussions of what it looks like to negotiate a manifesto. Because I was thinking about it the whole time reading this one and then I'm really curious about what that looks like. I wanna be a fly on the wall in that room or just a person in that room.

Allison: You can be.

Esther: I have a question that has come in on our Gmail link that people can send questions to, which is [email protected]. And it relates back to Rabassa use of the word googol at that really haunting clip where we hear him talking. That's been one of the most amazing things about this wonderful conversation between the two of you that we've also included. Gregory Rabassa and Isaac Bashevis Singer when you heard them speak. And I want to clarify that the word “googol” spelled G-O-O-G-O-L, had been in existence as a mathematical term that was actually coined by a small child, sort of a charming story, but the book "The World of Translation," that resulted from these audio tapes that by the way you can explore on The Center for The Humanities website. The entire audio archive of the conference for all those who are listening, can be explored and delved into on The Center for The Humanities website. So in the transcription in the book, Robassa's word is spelled G-O-O-G-L-E like the giant company and--

Allison: Without the capital.

Esther: Without the capital obviously, but it's the first time the word appears in that spelling, decades before the initial use of the term “google,” that shows up in the OED. So the question, the question David, the question is, Robassa's mentioning of the term “google” prompts the question of how you envision machine translation such as Google translate and others, playing a role in the future of translation. What opportunities and challenges does machine translation present as the technology improves?

David: You want me to answer that?

Esther: Yes.

David: My first point about Robassa is that Google exists quite independently of the software company. As a term from the English sport of cricket. To bowl a googly is to bowl a ball that bounces sideways. Okay. So googly is something very sly--

Karen: That feels like entirely in keeping with translation.

David: Yes. So translation is throwing googlies. What is MT going to do? Well what it already has done I think is make people much more aware of translation and translatability. I think it's provided a first taste of what cross language communication can be like to many millions of people. And I don't think it has deluded many of them into thinking that what they're getting is a proper translation. So I think that it will improve the technology. I think it's most interesting because it appears to solve what until not long ago were considered totally intractable philosophical linguistic and intellectual issues, like how you deduce meaning from an utterance. And it does that to some degree with remarkable solutions to quite deep problems. It's not in any way going to invade or involve the field of literary translation. It might speed up or perhaps even make redundant a small number of poor translators who spend their time translating repetitive and boring documents, such as guarantee slips and terms of conditions in service. But that's really no great shakes. I don't personally think that it is going to reduce the need for translation in the proper sense one bit. And I don't think that any of the engineers working on machine translation think that it will either. Yeah, I'm an optimist.

Allison: Thank you. I have another. Well, this is about technology, but it's going to reflect back on the history. From the starting point of this livestream itself, please comment on the impact of the internet on literary translation and in particular the role of social media in the increased visibility of the translator, especially translator as activist I.e. Name the translator, women in translation and more? I don't know if either of you have thoughts on that or if in your experience over these decades?

Karen: Do you want to take that or? I feel like my career as a translator spans the shifts like tectonic plate shift of being able to use the internet and not being able to use the internet for my translations. And boy, geez, I wish that I had always been the post because it's so much easier to do research. Right? I made mistakes in my first book that I am very ashamed of that I would not have made had there been an internet that was reliable in the place that I was living at the time. In terms of visibility, I think it's had a huge... Again, I didn't live in that world, so I don't know what it was like to circulate and try... I don't know what the communities were that were putting a conference like this together for instance, and trying to fight for visibility and making these sort of claims for things. But it seems to me that what I've witnessed in the past 20 years is the just proliferation of ability to make ones work and to comment on one's work in places that aren't... If you don't have a translator's note, you can write about it. You can write about it on social media, you can write about it in blogs, you can write about it in material that is then appearing in other kinds of ways. And women and translation, all of these things start as one person writes a thing and then it really takes on and it's good for booksellers and it's good for translators and it's good for women. And I think it's been an amazing force for good in that very specific kind of a way. I don't know if anybody else wants to speak to that.

David: Well, I'm just glad to hear all of that because I tend not to spend too much time on the web and places like that because it takes too much time, so much of it. And as it settles down into places to go. Yeah I agree, the web enables people both to create communities of interested partners and to express themselves in ways that really are not available in older and more established kinds of media. So it's great.

Esther: We have another question that has come in from our cherished colleague Susan Bernofsky of Columbia university. And it's an intriguing question. What's the difference between a migrant and an emigre? And how is this difference relevant to our thinking about translation communities in the United States?

Karen: : So this is a really long conversation, Susan, if you're still there, let's talk about this, because this is a really, really long and complicated. I mean, all of the answers that anybody would give to that question are political in nature. Right? So the answer that I give may not be the answer that David gives. I think that it's all a matter of terminology and semantics. And who is multi-lingual people, plural-lingual people and communities were translating all the time. Translators are people who translate, period. And one of the things... Another, if we can make a wishlist, I would like to see more recognition of the different kinds of translating that are happening. And I think that interpreting and translation are not... If we're thinking in terms of oral and written and whatever, like all of the different media that we're working in, we're all doing all of those things, right? And we have to give all of those activities the visibility and sort of respect that they deserve. And I think part of the impetus for activists in this field is to not separate the social and the political from the aesthetic in that way. And to try and join them all together. I don't know. That's like a very short answer, but.

Esther: David?

David: I concur with that entirely. I would just add that it's terribly complicated because there's also a historical dimension in languages. The vocabulary has changed over the century anyway. And the difference between immigrant and migrant, it depends when you're asking as to what the answer is. But of course the answer is always social as well as political. But there is this historical shifting dimension of it as well. And basically, there are more times than that there's at least a dozen terms that are very fluid in that applications, and as it were, it depends who's speaking, or when and in which country. But I would just note that, even Charlie Chaplin telling the story of a poor migrant to the United States on film in the 1930's calls the movie, not the immigrant but the emigrant. And there's a point of change in the English language, you wouldn't say that now to talk about migrants. So I'll stop there.

Esther: One interesting feature of this conversation, I think it's going to come up in a later program in the series is the issue of mother tongue. What is the translator's mother tongue? What is the concept of mother tongue? What about people who don't essentially have a mother tongue? Who grow up in these multilingual environments? And we are currently putting together a discussion about that. That will be in one of the later events in this series.

Allison: I’m getting so excited about all of these talks. Because even the ideology of the mother tongue, like what does that even mean? To think about that—

Esther: Yeah, exactly.

Karen: —category of thought?

Allison: Well, let's save that. What does that even mean? Because I think that we want to spend a considerable amount of time and since we have three minutes left. This is a somewhat long question, from someone who has been translating the Senegalese journalist Annette Mbaye d'Erneville who essentially kick started the feminist movement in Senegal, she says. And she's been thinking a lot about... I'm sorry, I don't know who wrote this, but Spivaks theory on translation. "Unless the translator has earned the right "to become an intimate reader, "she cannot surrender to the text, "cannot respond to the special call of the text." So here's the question. What do you think of the quote in terms of earning the right to translate? So I think this kind of reflects back on what we were just discussing. What does it look like for someone to earn the right to translate? And this person asking the question, especially for students like me who have studied the French language but have little experience in translation.

Karen: I teach that text, we just read it a few months ago in my grad seminar. And I think one thing that I'm really excited by is how all the questions are from 2020 and not from 1970. Right? And are positioning us in a conversation that I think we really want to be having right now. And I think Spivak is really thinking about language learning there and about the need to... Language learning in its broadest sense. That you have to go in. And that there's a sort of element of surrender to something that is not yours necessarily. And I mean I have all kinds of very complicated feelings about thinking of translation as a right. Like who has the right to do it? And I can't. I mean, I can't easily parse those, I don't think. And I think it depends on who and what and where and you know, sensitivities to the positionality of all kinds of translator and author, and text and language. That's not a satisfactory answer I don't think, if somebody actually wants an answer to the question.

Esther: I think yeah.

Allison: I know that we could continue to have this conversation, but it seems like we are... Looking at the clock, it's 2:29. So I would just like to thank everyone who has participated in today's conversation and who made it happen. I'd like to thank David Bellos and Karen Emmerich and my partner and co-host, Esther Allen and Jamie banks, who is a fellow who was working with us, to help produce this, as well as the group from the translation committee who is actively working on developing this. We'd like to thank our partners PEN America, The Center of Humanities at the graduate center, CUNY, the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and the Martin E. Segal Theater Center. And also I'd like to add, that if you are a translator who has been financially impacted by this crisis, consider upon applying to PEN's writer's emergency fund. Information about this can be found on pen.org.

Esther: And one more thing. We did get a number of questions about the manifesto that we were citing and the volume that resulted from the conference. That volume is called "The World of Translation." It includes the manifesto. Yes, there it is. And it was edited by none other than Gregory Rabassa, whose voice we had a chance to hear earlier. And if you enjoyed this one hour session, but perhaps missed parts of it, or you had a howling child in the background, things like that can happen when you're in your home. Please know that it has been recorded and it will be posted. The recording will be posted on both the HowlRound page and The Center for The Humanities site. So you'll find it there in a couple of days and you can share it around amongst your friends and let people know to come next week for our next program. Same time, same station. And thank you everyone for being here, especially David and Karen for that wonderful conversation.

About Translating the Future

PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented Translating the Future Week 1: From 1970 to 2020: Translation Transformations: David Bellos in conversation with Karen Emmerich livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 12 May 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC-7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC-5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC-4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC+1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC+2).

From 1970 to 2020: Translation Transformations. David Bellos in conversation with Karen Emmerich (with snippets from the original archive audio from the World of Translation conference).

Translating the Future will launch with weekly hour-long conversations throughout the late spring and summer and culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.

The conference commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and featuring Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Muriel Rukeyser and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on U.S. literary culture.

The conversations will be hosted by Esther Allen & Allison Markin Powell.


David Bellos studied Modern Languages at Oxford and taught French in the UK before moving to Princeton in 1997, where he served as Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication for more than ten years. He stumbled into a second career as a translator when he became enthralled by Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. He has translated roughly a book a year ever since, in fields ranging from popular fiction to the history of anti-Semitism, and from the history of counting systems to masterpieces of modern Albanian literature. His teaching, experience and frustration with the state of translation studies led him to write Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation, which has itself been translated into French, German, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

Karen Emmerich is a translator of modern Greek literature and a professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, where she also directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. Her translation awards include the National Translation Award in 2019 for Ersi Sotiropoulos's What's Left of the Night (New Vessel), the Best Translated Book Award in 2017 for Eleni Vakalo's Beyond Lyricism (UDP), and the PEN Poetry in Translation Award in 2014 for Yannis Ritsos's Diaries of Exile (Archipelago).

About HowlRound TV

HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by the nonprofit HowlRound. HowlRound TV is a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world's performing arts and cultural fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Participate in a community of peer organizations revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field by becoming a producer and co-producing with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, email [email protected], or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.

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Livestreaming Translating the Future Week 1: From 1970 to 2020: Translation Transformations was a very interesting online meeting for international translators to stay updated. Thank you ! Prof Eng Carlos Alberto Garay.Buenos Aires. Argentina.