MLN Forum: Translators Reimagine Literary Citizenship in the Academy

Cover of MLN issue 138.5

When the PEN America Manifesto on Translation came out in April 2023, the Translation Circle, the graduate-student run group of translator-scholars at Johns Hopkins University was just wrapping up its inaugural year of workshops, events, and roundtables. The Translation Circle could not have started without the generous support of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute (AGHI) as well as several other departments at Hopkins within the Krieger School, and it certainly would not have endured without the continued presence and enthusiasm of its graduate student members. 

From the beginning, the Translation Circle was a collaborative endeavor borne out of a mutual passion for translation. That, and an earnest bewilderment as to why the study of translation did not yet occupy a regular place in our scholarly practice. Why is translation more often than not stamped as peripheral to academic interests when it regularly supplies scholars with vital literature as well as long-cemented literary theory? Why does academia resist recognizing translation as a form of scholarship equal and complementary to criticism? We channeled these sorts of questions in our bi-weekly meetings. We picked, pushed, and prodded at the assumptions behind them. We were happy to have opened this dialogue at our university and amongst our colleagues. It was a relief and a source of inspiration to address collectively what had been a matter of individual concern among us. 

One of the things that became clear during our discussions is that translation was never a neutral endeavor. Nor was its definition. 

According to one source, translation is the “provision of an expression in one language meaning the same as that of another.” In another definition, translation is understood as the “expression or rendering of a thing in another medium or form; the conversion or adaptation of a thing to another system, context, or use.” The first, narrower definition explicitly understands translation in the context of language and assumes, almost utopically, the achievement of equivalence. The second, broader definition is more schematic, viewing translation as a (systematic) organization of movements and relations across phenomena, overlapping perhaps with notions of adaptation, appropriation, reformation, mutation and so on.

These two definitions, requisitely rigid as they are, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are inexorably entangled. The movement of language across languages, of people between languages, of languages between and across people, are deeply embedded in cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which different structures of translation are employed, be it for better or for worse and never in isolation.

These were the kinds of things occupying our minds. So it goes without saying that the release of the PEN Translation Manifesto at the precise time when the Translation Circle was concluding its inaugural year of meetings struck a chord with us. Its collective call to action moved us—as the co-founders and (at the time) co-organizers of the Translation Circle—to heed its call. We recognized that we shared a common vision with the Manifesto: to give translation its rightful recognition as a cornerstone in the academic ecosystem. 

Though it seemed like an uphill battle, it was an important one to fight, especially given the rapid denigration of support for the humanities, foreign language and literature programs, a trend exemplified and exacerbated by the exponential expansion of AI. To borrow a phrase from the Manifesto that instantly resonated with us, we saw this endeavor as a core responsibility of our “literary citizenship” both as individuals and as part of a broader community. Unsurprisingly, this notion would end up becoming the guiding concept of this forum. 

As we detail in our introduction, we endeavored to take up the Manifesto and its demands on the American Academy. What resulted was a collection of eight essays by scholar-translators who occupy a range of ranks at an array of institutions, from a postdoctoral scholar to a department chair, from small liberal arts colleges to state universities and Ivy League institutions. Responding to and often problematizing the Manifesto, each essay folds in the author’s personal experience as a scholar-translator, presents a vital perspective, and offers applied knowledge in the pursuit of ensuring literary translation’s proper recognition as essential to the work that literary scholars do. 

Important in our mission to keep this discussion going is to share these essays widely. In this endeavor, we thank MLN and the Johns Hopkins University Press for allowing our forum, “Translators Reimagine Literary Citizenship in the Academy,” to be open access for everyone to read and partake in as an ongoing conversation.


Written by: Eleni Theodoropoulos and Bradley Harmon
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