Translations MFAs & Isolation

April 2, 2009

Andrea’s post below about the isolation of translators from each other – and her mention of how the relative lack of isolation from other translators is one of the nice things about being in a translation MFA – reminds me of something that poet-blogger Seth Abramson sometimes blogs about (here, I think… couldn’t find the other ones). Namely: one of the benefits of poetry MFAs is that, while the MFA programs don’t necessarily create better poets, they do create better readers of poetry, which is good for poets everywhere. What does this have to do with translators’ isolation?

I think the isolation of translators is characterized not just by distance from other translators, but also distance from people who have a sophisticated understanding of literary translation. I don’t think there are many readers who have really thought much about some very basic things about literary translation, like whether their expectations of reading translated literature should be different from reading lit originally in their own language, let alone in what ways their expectations should (or might) be different.

And this is partially why I think it’s a shame that there are so, so, so few MFAs in translation (Iowa, Arkansas… Anybody else?). It makes it harder for translation to get taken seriously as a category (genre?) of literature with its own artistic merits, traditions, ways of writing, ways of reading, etc. when there are so few people who receive training in reading translations. More importantly, the fact that so few translators get to experience an environment as supportive (in terms of money, time, maybe mentors, even just plain old curiosity from other writers) as an MFA program means, I think, that they are less likely to understand the benefits of solidarity with other translators, and that they are less likely to fully commit their artistic energies to translation…

All of which means not just fewer serious literary translators, but fewer serious readers of literary translation. Which of course means less interest from presses in publishing literary translation.

Now, I’m not of course saying that all or most translators should have MFAs (God forbid), or even that promoting a translation MFA is the best way to promote translation. There are obvious dangers to institutionalizing artistic practice (anarchist talking here). It’s just to note that, when a certain art form is extensively subsidized by universities, it can be and often is a boon to the vitality of that art form – ask any artist who’s had two or three years of funded artistic freedom if this has helped their work. Unfortunately literary translation is not an art form that has benefited much at all from the benevolent support of American universities.

Mike S


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