On Three Cultures: Workshop, Review, Translation

by Russell Scott Valentino
The University of Iowa, Iowa Review
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Being called a name is disconcerting, as several commenters have noted. Tim Parks counted the number of times Lawrence Venuti called us (well, some of us) “belletristic” in his response to “Towards a Translation Culture,” and it is a telling total, certainly part of the rather persistent tone of Venuti’s essay. One response that hasn’t been voiced, though I know it is out there because people have told me, is the embracing one that not only acknowledges “belletrism” as the goal of a translation but even laments when it is not perceived in one’s work at all. One translator colleague said to me, “I wish someone would call me a belletrist!”

But Venuti’s critical term, for he uses it that way, disconcerting as that may be, arises out of a claim about workshop culture, some of its techniques at least, and an idea of its major mode of being. The picture he paints shows a workshop leader, Starr Poette, let’s say, who pronounces aesthetic judgment on the works brought to class by her budding poet MFA students with comments such as, “This isn’t working for me” and “Doesn’t that just take the top of your heads off, people?” These, Venuti claims, are the rather lazy tips of unexamined belletristic icebergs, the pronouncements of people who may not understand their own political engagements, their own biases of gender, race, class, and so on, people who are, most importantly, clearly unable to articulate, in anything but the most basic expressions of likes and dislikes, how such engagements influence their judgments. This “workshop culture” he sees reaching into the world of literary publishing, with editors who, if they have not emerged from the very same workshop-based MFA programs, at least mimic their lingo and, by extension, their major mode of being.

This picture, while somewhat caricatured (partly by me in my paraphrase), is accurate for only the weakest of teachers. Some workshop leaders use more modeling than others, requiring that their students read a lot. Others use only the material brought to class by their students. Either way, the method is based on peer evaluation supplemented by a “master teacher,” who is expected to guide, give tips, clues, strategies, and examples; and, if not say outright what is good and bad, then at least provide a general direction for how to figure that out for oneself. Who knows what kind of a teacher Starr Poette might turn out to be? She might be extremely knowledgeable about the history of poetic forms and ask her students to practice some of them. She might insist that her students read three books of poetry outside of class every week. She might recommend a range of poets that they are not likely to have heard of, from parts of the world they are not likely to think about. She might tie her students’ study of poetic composition to other forms of artistic creation, filmmaking for instance, or dance, or painting. Or she might very well have them read critical works of the sort that Venuti suggests would be helpful in enabling them to articulate their judgments effectively, Venuti’s own works perhaps. A principal virtue of the workshop method is its flexibility; but this can also turn into its main deficiency. As a result, what happens in such classes is variable, largely dependent on the teachers running them, but not only in the negative way Venuti suggests, where Starr says, “I like this, people; therefore, it is good.” Reducing the method to a recipe for “belletrism” depends upon painting an incomplete picture of the method in practice. The same is of course true of the translation workshop.

At the level of the aesthetic judgments exercised by literary editors, whom Venuti also targets in his piece, let me put on my editor’s hat to say that he is absolutely right, at least as a characterization of The Iowa Review: we only publish things that we like. On the other hand, we don’t publish everything that we like, because we can’t, so somehow we have to make judgments among the things we like, and that is usually the point at which the most interesting conversations take place. These are conversations about consistency and form, freshness, voice, politics, gender, age, style, color, reach, race, torque, place, bias, and business. And of course other stuff, too, like what else we’ve already got in the pipeline and for how long, how many other authors of X or Y kind we’ve published in recent issues, how vociferously or eloquently one reader or another might champion something, when in our submission period the work gets noticed, whether the author has a book coming out from a micro-press that we might nudge along by publishing an excerpt, whether we have artwork or an online feature or features to serve as accompaniment, or an upcoming event to serve as a platform. These discussions take place around a table, over email, over coffee, bagels, and cocktails (not in the office), among a diverse group of readers, students, editors, teachers, designers, scholars, writers, and translators. We try not to leave anyone out.

Venuti begins his essay by lamenting the inability or unwillingness of some editors to say exactly why they rejected some of his work. This, it seems to me, still with my editor’s hat on, shows a lack of understanding on his part of how publishing often works, the many parts, human and institutional, that need to be kept working, preferably together with a sense of shared purpose and enthusiasm. (Getting the institution enthusiastic is always a stretch.) If there is a big flaw in the system, and of course it is not perfect, it is likely at the very beginning, when the thousand-plus submissions come in and need to be fielded, sorted, mostly rejected. We publish about two percent of what we get. Sometimes excellent work—given the chance, I hope I would be able to articulate why it might be excellent—gets overlooked. That is inevitable given our volume and personnel. Ultimately, to quote my predecessor at TIR, David Hamilton, we take responsibility for the things we publish; we cannot take responsibility for the things we don’t. To articulate the myriad decision-making dynamics through which we publish particular works would probably be possible, though the document would be detailed, nuanced, and very long. It might be of interest to a scholar, but it would not be at all helpful to those planning to submit. To those whose work is rejected, it would be even less helpful. We often resort to the shortest of shorthand: we cannot “use” the work; it does not fit our current editorial “needs”; we did not find the voice compelling; or, as in the subtle former rejection note that now graces our aprons (which will be on sale at AWP, btw): “This is just to say / We have taken some plums / We found in our mailbox. / Delicious. Forgive us, / You were hoping….”

But Venuti’s essay is also about creating a culture. Despite its critical and somewhat provocative impetus, it has a hopeful underpinning. It looks towards a translation culture, and that makes me wonder what a translation culture might actually look like if we were to create one. Beyond being inhabited by super translators and editors able to articulate their aesthetic judgments effectively, and by readers with a sophisticated understanding of how to read translated works (this much is in the essay), what would having a “translation culture” actually mean? How would having a translation culture be better than not having one? There often seems to be a lot of hand waving when this comes up in translation circles, as if everyone knows why it would be better, though in the details there turns out to be plenty of disagreement about exactly what it would benefit and how. There is a slightly wooly ideology of the aesthetic undergirding much of the kind of argument one often hears in this regard, as if the Japanese and Germans did not have fairly well-developed translation cultures before the development of fascism in their countries, or the USSR did not develop in its midst one of the largest institutionally-based translation cultures in the world simultaneously with the Gulag.

Venuti does not, of course, make the argument that having more works in translation is good for a society on moral grounds. (Though I am genuinely curious why any reader of this forum might think it is a reasonable argument to make: Himmler just loved roses.) His point is more precise. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of EverythingBellos book cover, David Bellos suggests that we already do live in a translation culture, that it’s all around us, even if we don’t notice, and that we’re always translating somehow, often in relatively sophisticated ways. This is translation as a sub-category of communication, which makes the narrowly literary angle that Venuti takes in his piece seem rather, well, narrow. But that is unfair. Bellos has expanded the domain to such an extent that it’s no longer clear why languages have different words for different things. Try this experiment: pick up a book about translation theory and, everywhere the word “translation” appears, substitute the word “communication.” If it makes sense in over half the cases, it’s not what Venuti has in mind.

From a different angle, the call to create such a culture within the English-language world of today sounds rather pie-in-the-sky utopian. It seems to run contrary to the reality of large nation states historically, especially those with empire-style world-wide interests and designs. They don’t tend to be characterized as “translation cultures” at all, certainly not in the same way that small nations are, especially small nations caught between big ones. So would an English-language translation culture look like Latvia’s, with something like seventy percent of published works translated from other languages? This would surely have an impact on English (as it has had on Latvian) that would make it hard to say, “This doesn’t work for me,” in the way Venuti finds so unsatisfactory. With globally-oriented scientific texts, this is already the case, where the variety of Englishes has created one English that is often unrecognizable to “natives.”

We’ve left belles lettres far behind. (Why is the French still nice, I wonder, while the Anglicized “belletristic” seems so nasty?) But let me make one try at picturing a translation culture, utopian though it might seem. Given my obvious doubts about the implied moral good of having more translations in circulation and encouraging people to read them with a high degree of sophistication (instead of what? watching football?—the retail market is no place to compete on such an important matter: we would lose miserably!), I wonder if a better point of departure would be not at the  translator training stage, where Venuti’s comments point, but earlier in people’s lives, and not in foreign language education, either, because we barely do much of that (it is dominated by proficiency standards, where literary translation plays almost no role at all, and anyway, it comes very late). What I have in mind is integrating translation as a practice into teaching how to read and how to write.

How such integration worked would depend on teachers’ expertise and on the ages of students, and only at the very highest levels of instruction—at something like the translator apprentice stage—would you expect students to have mastered knowledge about the source text (the scary foreign language parts). I am thinking of a range of instruction techniques, from the kind of programs now being run for elementary and middle school students by The Center for the Art of Literary Translation in San Francisco to translation workshops for graduate students and professional writers. Such a teaching program would be based on a radical fusing—I said it might be utopian—of the teaching of writing and the teaching of reading. In a slightly less radical vein, short of a thorough overhaul of the entire educational system, these techniques could be filtered into the existing one—through short, mix-and-match modules, language arts units, after-school programs, college and university courses, workshops for professionals, and reading questions for book clubs. In practical terms, this would be something like a large audience development initiative, fit for arts-in-the-schools funding, literacy and internationalization programs, and professional organizations like ALTA, PEN, and the MLA. It could help translators in their quest for proper recognition of their work (and sales of their books), not to mention foreign authors and their publishers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

On a different practical level, it seems to me that this kind of fusing would put translators squarely in the midst of the literary process, rather than on the periphery, where they usually sit quietly, plying their trade, and make them and their activity a nexus for the teaching of writing and reading both. This is exactly the right place for them, because translators embody that something in between that links the two, and their work should not be subsumed into one or the other category, e.g., as “unoriginal writing” or “derivative reading.” Even if it helps some writers become better at their craft (it does), the work of translation is also its own thing, with its own standards and virtues. It is a practice unto itself. To borrow the formulation of Alastair MacIntyre, “To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement, and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I then confront and from which I have to learn.” This view presupposes the subjection of understanding to standards of the practice rather than giving precedence, as the dominant strain in Anglo-American critical explication has tended to do, to one’s own interpretive inventions. Surely this is a feature of the practice of literary translation, one of its principal virtues, and something that translators are ideally placed to promote.