A Conference on Translation Studies

by Elin Diamond

On April 3 and 4, 2008, the Program in Comparative Literature presented TRANSLATION³, a conference on translation studies. The conference aimed to assess a field that, over the last three decades, has incorporated poststructuralist literary theory, postcolonial theory, and globalization theory, while still retaining the value of linguistic fidelity to an original text. Viewing translation in the broadest sense—as both a real world activity and a productive discipline in the academy—the conference’s speakers explored the three dimensions of translation: culture, institution, theory.

In the opening Culture panel, Lydia Liu and Bruce Robbins, both from Columbia University, considered MAT (machine-assisted translation), a technology that augurs the promise of universalism by replacing English as the mediating tongue between languages. In pointed contrast, Emily Apter (New York University) presented a paper exploring the “untranslatable” in what she has famously named the “translation zone.” Alamin Mazrui (Rutgers University) showed how translations of European texts into Swahili have become zones of political contestation; and Jebaroja Singh (William Patterson University) described Dalit women’s oral narratives and performances where translation acts as cultural resistance.

The untranslatable returned differently in the Theory panel. Brent Hayes Edwards (Columbia University) limned the horror of lynching in the Cole Porter tune, “Miss Otis Regrets”; and Michael Levine (Rutgers University) traced the trauma in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus. Eduardo Cadava (Princeton University) figured translation as an act of love and inevitable betrayal, and his meditation on philosopher Walter Benjamin set up the lively dialogue between Xudong Zhang and Richard Sieburth, both from New York University.

The Institution roundtable was, according to all who witnessed it, the most memorable part of TRANSLATION³. For here were practitioners in the translation trenches, a place where life-or-death outcomes can rest on the hair-trigger accuracy of a translator. Rosemary Arrojo (SUNY, Binghamton) described the beginnings of translation studies in the United States from the 1970s to 2003, the year she helped launch a doctoral program at Binghamton. Robert Joe Lee, from the New Jersey Judiciary, informed—and terrified—the audience with stories about the lack of trained court interpreters in the state’s court system. Julie Livingston (Rutgers University) gave a striking account of medical intervention in Botwana. Christopher Taylor (University of Triest) discussed the theory and practice of cinematic dubbing and subtitling.

Translations studies stages powerful encounters between languages, literatures, cultures, and traditions. With the dozens of languages spoken at Rutgers, we might imagine a new concentration in translation studies that combines our real-world lives and histories with our most adventurous academic perspectives.