Hofmann’s take is fairly critical, not of the ideas that Grossman puts forward, but certainly of the form she has chosen. He points out how a translator’s best thinking about translation will be in their translations, and how this kind of book too often ends up being aimed at no one in particular. It’s not for fellow translators, and it’s neither for “the enemies of translations” nor “the generality”.
Tricks from the lecturer’s bag let down the writer: rhetorical questions, bits of academic jargon and waffle, too many quotations from too many “authorities,” sterile listings of the attributes of words, the qualities of style, the glories of authors.
Hofmann is onto something, here. We, as translators, often long for people to be more aware of the importance of our craft, but there are too many cases of our attempts backfiring. Translators often venture into academic writing, but this makes it highly unlikely that the general public will even hear about their book and read it, let alone understand it. On the other hand, though, academia has mostly failed to treat translation seriously. A few months ago, a very interesting article on The Chronicle of Higher Education addressed this problem, while also giving good news about minor progress (last year’s Modern Language Association meeting focused on translation) :
Just as publishers have had an unfortunate tendency not to bother putting translators’ names on book jackets—the idea being that translations are harder to sell—so hiring and tenure-and-promotion committees have preferred not to hear about the translation activities of the candidates whose dossiers they review. It’s almost as though translation is a bad habit, like gambling, that candidates should conceal rather than advertise.
“It actively works against you, which is amazing if you consider that for 3,000 years translation has been at the heart of literary scholarship,” says Esther Allen, an assistant professor in the department of modern languages and comparative literature at Baruch College of the City University of New York
Similarly, Martin Riker wrote, around the same time, and also following the MLA’s meeting:
Although the vast majority of professional-grade translators make their living as university professors, such devotion has hardly been reciprocated by academia itself, which traditionally has failed to treat translation as serious professional work or literary translation as a serious intellectual-artistic discipline.
It seems like we’re caught in between, once again. It is yet another Translation Zone we find ourselves in. We fear that the average reader won’t understand our subtleties or just won’t be interested in knowing what’s behind a translation, as long as it reads well. So we turn to a very small group of people who could understand the minutiae of our process, but the great effort needed to get in and the way that world works won’t really serve us to increase awareness and get recognition.
I have felt this tension in this first couple of months of maintaining this blog. Like two opposing pulls, one towards a no-frills popularisation of why a translator’s work is important and should be better paid and valued, and the other towards a more refined, more authoritative, more elitist approach, somewhat mimicking academic writing. What’s interesting is that I can’t seem to surrender to either of them. I don’t want to just talk casually about case studies, and I certainly don’t want to sound obscure to the very public I am trying to reach and make aware.
But then again, I’m in between countries and in between cultures, in between languages and in between social classes. I might as well just stay in between popularising and philosophising.