Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Crisis for foreign languages on US campuses

Inside Higher Education has a column by ALSCW member and MLA President Russell Berman has a column  in response to what we must fear is becoming a popular notion among bureaucrats and budget whittlers: that of demoting foreign language instruction to the status of merely instrumental education, with the entailment, as at SUNY Albany, of dismantling the degree programs.

Berman's provocation was a keynote address by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fixture of the foreign policy establishment, delivered to the 2010 convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Boston on November 19. In an email to ASLCW members, Susan Wolfson, immediate past president of the Association, writes: "[such] entailment is the dismantling of the professoriate, and using part-time, low-paid, benefit-impoverished, transient adjuncts to manage this merely instrumental instruction."

Wolfson urges us, as I urge you, to read the column, add a comment in support of foreign language education and scholarship, and to forward the link. Inside Higher Education is a highly visible venue for policy-makers and pundits, and a good opportunity for readers and writers from all areas to add their voices to this urgent public discussion.

So, please, read and respond | lirez et répondrez | читать и отвечать | leer y responder | lesen und beantwortenpročitati i odgovoriti | without delay.

[Cross-posted from The Wonder Reflex; many thanks to Susan Wolfson for sending out an alert about the Berman article.]

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Introducing Koro, an entirely new language like nothing you've seen!

As reported in an article about the discovery of a Tibeto-Burman language previously unknown to linguistics, researchers made two interestingly contrasting claims. The first involves the claim that this language, Koro, is somehow linguistically isolate:
"Their language is quite distinct on every level—the sound, the words, the sentence structure," said Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who directs the project's research. [...] Languages like Koro "construe reality in very different ways," Dr. Anderson said. "They uniquely code knowledge of the natural world in ways that cannot be translated into a major language."
This claim of Koro's unusual separateness would seem to conflict with the researchers' report that the speakers themselves don't see that they are so isolate:
Moreover, it was masked by the unusual language diversity of the area, where so many languages are spoken that they seem to intermingle effortlessly in streams of thought. Indeed, the local Koro speakers themselves didn't consider theirs a separate language, even though it is as distinct from those spoken by other villagers as English is from Russian, the researchers said.[emphasis added]
As distinct as English is from Russian, how... not orthographically, since Koro does not have a written form, but syntactically? Lexically? It is a shame that the article in The Wall Street Journal couldn't extract more specific information from the researchers. What we are left with is a tantalizing report, of quite generic content: something new has been found! And it is quite unusual, let us tell you! Linguistic relativism rears its head again, providing support to those advocating for the preservation of linguistic communities under threat of extinction, but furthering the unfortunate belief that languages create barriers between cultures that obstruct mutual understanding.

My optimism prompts me to wonder if the unique uniqueness of Koro isn't just a bit of hard work translators, rather than evidence of human linguistic fragmentation.


NB: Perhaps this discovery is not completely recent, though it sounds like the research team mentioned did the leg-work to analyze the language for publication in a forthcoming issue of Indian Linguistics. According to Wikipedia,
Koro was recognized as a separate language in 2008 by a linguistic team of David Harrison, Gregory Anderson, and Ganesh Murmu while documenting two Hruso languages (Aka and Miji) as part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project. It was reported to them as a dialect of Aka, but turned out to be highly divergent. However, it was apparently noticed by earlier researchers. Ethnologue reports that "A 2005 survey identified a group of Aka in East Kameng District called Koro Aka, distinct from Hruso Aka in West Kameng."

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Found in Translation

An Op-Ed piece by Michael Cunningham that was printed in the NY Times this weekend.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Lydia Davis on Translation's Economy

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Prof. X, head of the French Department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.
The above is from Lydia Davis' most recent note at The Paris Review, on the art and task of translation. I'd like to say that her characterization of publishers is unfair; that editors consider and deliberate, weigh advantage and quality, before making a decision — but, I can only speak for one unique small house with a mind for such matters of sums of money. And also because, she has the goods on Norton's edition of Madame Bovary. Tisk, tisk, Norton.

[cross-posted from Daniel Pritchard's blog The Wooden Spoon]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Call for Submissions: INVENTORY

Submission deadline for our next issue is June 15, 2011.

Seeking original translations of poetry and prose, as well as critical essays on translation for Inventory, an annual journal of literary translation based at Princeton University.

Inventory publishes thoughtful translations and focuses critical attention on translation theory and practice. The editors wish to highlight the craft and practice of literary translation, and to provide a forum for an artistic and critical conversation on the role of the contemporary literary translator. Based in Princeton University’s Department of Comparative Literature, Inventory finds and catalogues original translations of poetry and prose from any language into English, provides critical texts on the subject of translation, and offers suggestions by leaders in various fields of translation work left to be done.

Advisory Board
  • Sandra Bermann
  • Susan Bernofsky
  • Peter Brooks
  • Eduardo Cadava
  • Paul Muldoon
  • Lawrence Venuti
  • Michael Wood

Guidelines for Submission
  • We consider translations of poetry and prose from any language – ancient or modern – into English. We welcome new translations of previously translated work, and we encourage our translators to engage imaginatively with the conventions and possibilities of literary translation. We regret that we are unable to accept translations into languages other than English.
  • Poetry submissions should include 3-6 poems (no more than five pages), and fiction submissions should not exceed 2000 words. We do accept excerpts, but request that you include a single-paragraph summary of the full work. Please attach a copy of all pieces in their first language.
  • We also consider critical work, submissions of which should not exceed 2000 words and should focus on the topic of translation. Writers are encouraged not to limit their focus to the work of a single writer, but rather to address themselves to a larger conversation on contemporary artistic translation.
  • Submissions should be directed to, indicating in the subject line the genre and first language of the submission, if applicable. We ask that you include in the body of your email a brief paragraph describing the piece's translation history, as well any relevant information about why you have chosen to translate the piece at this time.
  • Published writers retain copyright of their material and are free to publish again elsewhere.
  • We regret that we can accept unsolicited submissions by email only.
Thank you for your interest, and please contact the editors at with any questions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Summer Poetry Pairing

I thought this was interesting - part of a New York Times series that pairs a poem from the Poetry Foundation with an article from the Times that expands on its themes.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Translators needed to span glossal gaps as Globish grows

According to Burchfield, English was like Latin. Just as Latin broke up into mutually unintelligible languages like French, Spanish and Italian, so would global English similarly disintegrate into separate, mutually distinctive tongues. To the delight of leader-writers from Sydney to Saskatchewan, he pointed out that, historically speaking, languages have always had a tendency to break up, or to evolve. There were, he argued, some "powerful models of the severance of a language into two or more constituent parts, especially the emergence of the great Germanic languages of western Europe – English, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and so on – from the mutually intelligible dialects of the 5th century. The obvious objection to this model, which his critics were swift to deploy, was the contemporary vigour and interconnectedness of global English. In the age of mass media, the future of world English, said Burchfield's opponents, would never follow the Latin model. To which he replied that such objections overlooked one vital fact: "English, as the second language of many speakers in countries throughout the world, is no more likely to survive the inevitable political changes of the future than did Latin, once the second language of the governing classes or regions within the Roman Empire."
From an article in The Observer by Robert McCrum, author of Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language.

The manifest extension of English-language commerce and culture across much of the globe, and its subsequent fragmentation into varieties of regional patois, should keep literary translators busy--if they can recognize the opportunity to mediate communication across all the new gaps appearing in the world's linguistic landscape. "Builders needed," the sign reads, "of bridges in a variety of forms. Must work quick, and work must be strong." Hopefully the pay will be good.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Interview with Daína Chaviano

Lisa Carter has just posted an interview with Daína Chaviano, a discussion of the Cuban-American author's novel La isla de los amores infinítos from a translation perspective.

Chaviano is the award-winning author of several novels published in Spanish. She won the Azorín Award for Best Novel for El hombre, la hembra y el hambre (Man, Woman and Hunger). The Island of Eternal Love, which is her most recent work, was the recipient of the 2006 Florida Book Awards’ Gold Medal for Best Spanish-Language Book and has been translated into twenty-five languages. A Havana native, Chaviano has lived in Miami since 1991.

Chinglish Mishaps

Thought this might interest (and amuse) some folks:

Friday, April 30, 2010

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 30 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to

Kessler wins Harold Morton Landon Award

Stephen Kessler has been chosen by Edith Grossman to receive the 2010 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his translations of the poet Luis Cernuda collected in Desolation of the Chimera (White Pine Press, 2009). His previous translations include books by Vicente Aleixandre, Pablo Neruda, Raymond Queneau, César Vallejo, and many more. Read Cernuda's poems as translated by Stephen Kessler, at

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kirsch & Kaminsky on Poetry in Translation

At The Poetry Foundation website, poet / critic Adam Kirsch and poet / translator Ilya Kaminsky discuss the nature of, problems with, and possibilities for poetry in translation. They raise the common questions: how can one effectively translate formal techniques? is translation more re-imagining than transmogrification? what role does the personality of the translator play? These questions are fairly banal — they exist more for the critics to opine than as real practical problems for a translator. This is not to say that translators don't encounter them in their work. They do. But if a translator's approach is as programmatic as any answer, then they've almost certainly failed. As Kaminsky writes, ‘what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.’

Post Script
I agree with this aside whole-heartedly: ‘A side note about irony, which is a very popular device in American poetry today: I think when someone like Herbert used it in Poland in the time of martial law, when saying something straightforwardly meant being killed, it was a powerful thing. But when I see a thirty-something in Manhattan writing poems that are so overtly ironic they remind me of Seinfeld, I wonder if there is an overuse of this device in the work of our contemporaries.’

-- Daniel Pritchard, cross-posted from The Wooden Spoon