Teaching Translation: lots of practice, not enough theory

Most of the syllabi dedicated to teaching and exploring translation, whether technical or literary, mention “theories and practices” in the title, which I believe reflects the course designers’ efforts to balance the two components in teaching. However, the “practice” and the workshop model  (students bringing in their work in progress for critique in class) often predominate. Four of the ten syllabi I consulted are weighted towards “doing,” even though theoretical texts and discussions take place side by side (or alternate) with workshops. This is hardly surprising, considering the “learning by doing” ethos of the field. Until relatively recently, translators were largely invisible, living in the shadownof the original work. They are “craftsmen” rather than “theorists.” Moreover, it seems to me that “theory” in literary translation (my focus in this blog) is often used interchangeably with “methodology,” one’s approach to picking a work to be translated and working through the process. Guest lecturers, whether translator scholars or practitioners, make common appearances but theory with a capital “T” is often limited to a few essays by Walter Benjamin and Derrida.

There are, of course, exceptions, to this rule. Dr. Michael Scott Doyle at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte eschews the workshop component and teaches a course dedicated entire to the History and Theory of Translation , although he does allow students to submit a translation (with critical introduction) in lieu of an academic paper for a final project. The scope of this course is rather ambitious:  to cover “representative texts on the history and theory of translation, from Horace and Cicero to the present.” Dr. Aleksandr Burak at the University of Florida has a narrower focus: he is interested more in the semantics, lexicography, and linguistic issues in the Russian-English translation. The emphasis is still on the practical aspects of translation, although it is implied that a firm grounding in theory is necessary for a productive practice. In addition to the historical and linguistic theoretical applications, cross-cultural and migration studies have a particular resonance in studying translation. This connection is stressed in  Dr. Tomislav Longinovic’s Translating Cultures in a Global Context course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He does not mention any specific assignments in his syllabus, but provides a detailed schedule of discussions of heterogeneity, chiasmus, cross-cultural discourse, nomadicism, and diaspora. Dr. Rainer Schulte, whose reader on the theories of translation is used widely in the field (co-authored with John Biguenet) also dedicates his seminar at the University of Texas at Dallas to “Translating Cultural Differences in a Global World.” However, this focus in not observable in the listed course assignments and discussions and the course appears to follow a practical workshop model.

The two syllabi that stood out for me the most (for different reasons) are Dr. Idra Novey‘s (NYU) and Shiloh Drake’s and Julie Townsend’s (available through Academia.edu). Novey does not even mention “theory” in her course description and highlights “innovation” and “technique” instead. Her intention is to study the craft and “the many ways it can help [students] become better writers” — one might say that she’s teaching writing as translation. In addition to discussion, she incorporates written responses to each others’ work, haikus, blogs, collaborative translation, book reviews, and reviews of reviews. Drake and Townsend do concentrate on theory. Their goal is to help students “develop a working theory of translation that will lead to good translations.” It is also a Johnston seminar, which means that students “write a course contract with their goals and plans for the course” and turn that into the registrar and one to their instructor. No grade is assigned. Instead, students write a self-evaluation at the end of the course and receive written feedback from their instructors. Who knows, perhaps giving the students a choice between theory and practice is more productive?

I am still unsure about the role that theory (lower or upper case) plays in the study of translation. It is indisputable that some study of theory must take place in a workshop, but perhaps stand-alone classes that teach translation at the intersection of cross-cultural studies, linguistics, history, second-language learning, and of course literary studies are in order. Similar to the study of writing, translation pedagogy does need a theoretical perspective — otherwise, there’s just too much to cover and things can get muddled very quickly. Translation does need practice, but perhaps it has had too much of it, and it’s now time to think about how it makes us better readers, writers, and thinkers?

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2 Responses to Teaching Translation: lots of practice, not enough theory

  1. Laurie Gries says:

    Interesting findings. Thanks. I am curious about your wondering that perhaps teaching translation doesn’t need a theoretical perspective just like teaching writing doesn’t. I wonder if any class is ever really theory free; even if we aren’t teaching theory via readings to our students, isn’t a theory guiding our choices of what, why, and how we read and write in the course… Let’s talk more about this….

  2. anastasiakozak says:

    Not at all. I meant to say that theoretical perspective is very important in the study of translation, but that the workshop model is not an ideal space to do this. There simply isn’t enough room to go in depth (after all, theory is not normally studied in creative writing seminars). I think a more productive approach would be to teach courses that specifically and primarily examine how translation concepts can be examined theoretically, and to broaden this across disciplines ( migration studies, linguistics, history, etc.).

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