Translation as political act

Shread’s expertise includes 20th-century and contemporary French and Francophone literature and culture, translation studies, and women and gender studies. Her 10 books in translation include four by contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou.

Translating a text from one language to another is more than just a word-for-word substitution. It requires an understanding of history, culture, politics and context. Who is doing the translation and which texts are being translated are also questions that have always been of critical relevance — never more so than today, as translation technology becomes more widespread.  

Translations studies is the primary lens through which Carolyn Shread, a lecturer in the French department at Mount Holyoke College, approaches French language and literature. She has published 10 books in translation and written numerous articles on the subject. 

Shread is also part of the larger translation community in the Pioneer Valley, which offers a wealth of scholarship and activity, including the Translation Center at nearby UMass Amherst. In 2017 she received a Five College Mellon Innovative Language Pedagogy grant, enabling her to teach a first-year seminar, The Work of Translation, for three years. 

This small, 16-student seminar has a curricular corollary in The Art of Translation, a lecture series based class she has taught for the past six years at Smith College as part of a faculty exchange. 

“I like being between spaces,” Shread said. “I go in search of where the discussions around translation are happening.” 

She spoke with Sasha Nyary from the Office of Communications and Marketing about teaching the translation process and the politics of translation — plus the significance of Emily Wilson’s new translation of “The Odyssey.” 

How does a translation class work in the classroom when you don’t assume competency in more than one language?

 As it happened — this being Mount Holyoke, where 27 percent of students are from other countries — the first class had 16 students and eight different languages: Korean, Albanian, Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, English and Spanish. The idea behind the class is to start thinking about — and even translating — in the first year, instead of seeing translation as a prize you are only ready for after four years of language study. The hypothesis for the grant is that if students, even monolinguals, start thinking about translation early, they will find it fascinating — and be encouraged to pursue advanced language learning. 

The first book we start with is Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” I pass 12 different versions around the table. Everybody is like, “Wait, what?” People have an idea about what translation is. They say, “Hang on a second. Isn’t there an ideal, perfect translation?” But as soon as you start to really engage and think about what translation is, you realize that there are as many translations and as many approaches as there are translators. 

In my Smith lecture course, The Art of Translation, I start the first class with a picture of a keyboard with a translate button, and I ask the students to discuss what it means for the future of language and translation. The point is that translation is being presented to us daily. If you open any webpage, you see “translate this page.” Everybody in the class acknowledged they had used Google Translate. Machine translation is here and we’re all using it. 

By contrast, what I call “artisanal” translating — old-fashioned human processing — is the closest form of reading of a text. It’s what brings you really, really close to a text. In the first-year seminar, students choose a text that they are interested in. Over the course of the semester, we look at the ways that one particular passage can be worked as a translation. 

In both classes, students learn that translation is far more than simply replication. Even within one language, we work through different language registers to produce a particular effect. You can’t walk into a job interview and start talking as you would with your best friend in their dorm room. We know that we have to translate ourselves. 

As an institution committed to engaging globally, translation exists across the Mount Holyoke curriculum. Once you start looking, translation is present everywhere. And it has effects, both good and bad. We need to study and be aware of those effects. 

How is translation destructive? 

In a way, it’s the translations that don’t happen that are perhaps most destructive. Who is being translated and who is not? Who is doing the translation? 

I worked for many years on a translation of “Les Rapaces,” the Haitian novel by Marie Vieux Chauvet. When I first started doing it in the context of a master’s degree, the important question that I came to was, by what right was I translating this book? This book that was written by a Haitian woman under the Duvalier dictatorship, and here I am, a white Anglo-American in the United States. What right did I have to do this work? 

I had to do a tremendous amount of groundwork in terms of becoming familiar with Haiti, visiting Haiti, working with people and friends in Haiti. And yet I still haven’t got an answer about my right to translate it — although the response of translation studies scholar Maria Tymoczko was, “Who else is translating it?” Given the dearth of translations, at some level, there’s a pragmatic point to be made that we need every translation we can get. 

That’s not to ignore that translations have been used in terrible ways, producing many destructive effects. We need to be wary of idealizing translations, treating them as if they’re all about bridge-building and peace-making. When they’re done without sufficient preparation, without sufficient engagement, they can be misguided and produce false representations. That was one of my main concerns in translating Chauvet. What type of representation would I produce through my work? 

Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” just out in paperback and audiobook, has received a lot of attention. This is the first time a woman has translated the epic poem into English. What is the significance of that? 

Emily Wilson is laying a claim on Homer. She’s saying that she has the right to read and engage with the text, and to draw attention to particular elements. She’s not going to say “handmaidens,” the word many English translations use, she’s going to say it straight: “slaves.” That’s important. It’s her positionality that allows her a particular take on something which has otherwise been elided. That’s valuable. To my mind, anything that puts translation in the news and that draws attention to it is useful. 

On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget that part of the reason this work is in the news is the cultural capital that comes with “The Odyssey.” This is yet another Homer translation, which is great, but there are other works that we also want to promote and recognize, such as a translation of a new author whose voice hasn’t been heard. 

Translation has the power to innovate. It’s a source of potential creativity. It has possibility. That’s why it’s threatening, that’s why there’s an obsession with keeping things so that they sound familiar. The innovative power of translation is critical if we are interested in making change.

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