Modern Languages and Translation: new partnerships and collaborations

In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos discusses the traditional antagonism between Modern Languages and translation—an antagonism arguably detected in the occasional questioning in language departments of the merits of ‘teaching in translation’ as well as in a (now past?) reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which translation itself may be seen to constitute ‘research’. These were issues that emerged in discussion at a workshop on ‘Translation and Reception‘ held at the French Institute in London on 12 April—but the event itself, a sequel to a 2011 workshop on ‘Constructing “Twenty-First Literature in French”‘, also co-organized by the Society for French Studies and the French Studies Library Group, provided an eloquent illustration of the ways in which these debates have moved on, and of how a new relationship is rapidly developing between those committed to Modern Languages and those with an interest in the practice and theory of translation.

The day opened with a session on the contemporary context of publishing and criticism in France today, with Patrick Kéchichian and Claire Paulhan. They explored competition between publishers, especially larger and smaller companies, presented processes of selection of what is published, and also analysed the role of the critic. This was followed by an excellent panel (with, among others, Peter Bush and Ros Schwartz) on the practices, economics and sociology of translation, exploring in particular the relationship between translators and academic critics. The speakers highlighted the problems of translation in the Anglophone world, underlining in particular the inequalities of the flow in and out of English. Ros Schwartz outlined several PEN initiatives that have responded to this situation, and stressed the importance of high quality reports to publishers on what is worth translating, as well as of innovative marketing. The afternoon began with a useful overview of the mediathèque and culturethèque in the Institut Français, foregrounding the role of literary translation in the context of soft power. The emphasis was on the impact of digital technologies in the areas of dissemination, marketing, reading and professional criticism of French literature, in the original and in translation. This was followed by a case study panel on Fred Vargas, a rare bringing together of academic expert (David Platten), translator (Sian Reynolds) and publisher (Geoffrey Mulligan of Harvill). These different perspectives on the text as a central artefact were highly suggestive of the possibilities of a multidimensional approach to literature and translation. The day ended with presentations by Rachel Van Riel of Opening the Book on audience development models and innovative ways of generating new translations, and also by Marcella Frisani (CESSP-EHESS, Paris) on the social and economic conditions that shape literary production and translation, that at times impede them, but which remain central to the selection and delivery of translated texts. Marcella concluded by discussing some innovations among smaller publishers, which are allowing translation to thrive.

In the morning session on ‘Publishing translated fiction in the UK: selection, translation, reception’, Peter Bush alluded to the traditional tensions between Modern Languages and translation mentioned above. This historical antagonism is not surprising since it has always been one of the roles of the Modern Linguist to persuade people to study texts in their original form (although it is important of course to acknowledge that no-one is sufficiently multilingual to avoid translation: as a Modern Linguist with a specialism in French whose work focuses on travel writing, postcolonial fiction and world literature, I am constantly reliant on translation to allow me access to material in a range of different languages). Modern Languages was for a long time, however, monolingual, chronically extroverted, and mimetic of the disciplinary paradigms (Germanistik, Literaturwissenschaft, lettres modernes, etc.) dominant in the countries where the languages on which they concentrated were spoken.

Despite these earlier tendencies, the ‘translation turn’ evident across the Humanities and Social Sciences has played a major role in the renewal of Modern Languages, not only in terms of teaching (allowing us to reach new students, new audiences), but also in redefining the field more generally (as David Platten suggested in the session on Vargas, translation forms a key part of many new critical approaches). Translation is part of the enhanced visibility of Modern Languages and has become increasingly central to the raised visibility of the field. Increasingly, it is the role of areas such as French studies to translate French and Francophone cultures to audiences not familiar with them, and to contribute more generally to public understanding of the importance of languages. Such a process depends on new partnerships and collaborations, on innovative conversations and dialogues. The ‘Translation and Reception’ event—bringing together some of the most important agents in the mediation of French fiction: publishers, reviewers and critics, translators, editors, academics and librarians—was exemplary of such an approach.


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